'We've had enough, we have to fight. The system is loaded against us': Oxford women dons are protesting over sexist promotions. Nick Cohen reports

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The Independent Online
Congregation, the usually somnolent 'parliament' of Oxford University is about to see the biggest grass roots revolt against the university authorities since academics turned out in their hundred to refuse to award an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher in 1985.

Women dons have finally woken up to the fact that only six of their 195 professors are female. Even though Oxford adopted an equal opportunities policy in the late 1980s, no new professorship has been given to a woman since funds for additional posts became available in 1990.

When Congregation gathers at Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre next week, dissidents plan to use the neglected powers of the normally poorly attended forum to block the appointment of 15 new professors- almost all of whom are likely to be men.

'We've just had enough, we have to fight now' said Gillian Morriss-Kay, an embryologist at the Department of Human Anatomy. 'The system is loaded against us. We're shocked that after years of promises nothing has been done.'

The women's resolution orders the university authorities to withdraw their plans to hire more professors. It says that money should be used instead to create more jobs for readers, the small class of middle-ranking dons, one step down from professor and one above lecturer.

Oxford women academics are overwhelmingly lecturers. They say they have a far higher chance of being made a reader than a professor and will find it all but impossible to advance their careers if the university does not provide stepping stones.

A degree of confusion and bitterness, unusual even by academic standards, is expected if the resolution is passed on 18 May.

Dons who thought they were on their way to being given the accolade of 'professor,' a salary of around pounds 30,000 and more time for research will find their promotions snatched away because the posts have been abolished.

'There is an awful lot at stake here,' said one don, who, like nearly all other academics involved, wished to remain anonymous. 'It's not just an issue of principle. When people are thinking about their careers they have a habit of forgetting theory and turning nasty.' Many dons predict tactical voting by younger male lecturers. Large numbers of men are genuinely sympathetic to the women's argument. But others may calculate that, although they have no chance of becoming a professor so early in their careers, they could back the motion and then apply for the extra readers' posts.

To win, the women and their male supporters, will need a majority of the votes cast and must ensure that at least 75 academics support their call. All full-time academic staff have the right to attend the meeting.

Seventy-seven dons publicly committed themselves to the women's cause during the Easter vacation - when backers were hard to find - and support has grown rapidly since.

In a late attempt at compromise, the university's general board, its leading administrative committee, promised last Friday that the authorities would respond to the dons' anger. It said it would either hire new readers next year or implement a long- term review of the whole promotion system.

Leaders of the protest called the concession 'ridiculous, contradictory and meaningless'.

Of the 1,247 academic staff at the university, 176 (14.1 per cent) are women. The vast majority are lecturers. Just 7.4 per cent of readers and 3.1 per cent of professors are women. Nationally, 4.4 per cent of professors are women but at some institutions, such as University College, London, which have taken a 'positive

approach', the figure rises to 9 per cent.

In 1990 when new merit money became available, 60 dons were promoted from lecturer to reader. Only three were women. Twenty seven professors were created last year. All were men. Women academics described the far smaller 1993 batch of promotions as the final straw.

The university has pounds 100,000 to spend. Most academics assumed it would be used to turn more lecturers into readers, a promotion which many female dons thought they had a chance of attaining.

Instead, the university decided to add to its cohort of professors.

If the authorities follow their previous principle of rewarding academic seniority they will pick candidates from the almost exclusively male pool of readers waiting for a professorship. They could promote a few women lecturers to professorships - particularly if they had been shamed by the protests.

The general board has emphasised that the new professorial jobs are 'open to all on merit' and said that it will take into account domestic factors (such as children) which lead to women's 'academic achievements appearing less than they would otherwise have been'.

But it costs pounds 18,000 to raise a lecturer's salary to professorial level. If professors are taken from the higher paid group of male readers, then just pounds 5,000 needs to be spent per head.

The university wants to promote as many people as possible, so most of the jobs are likely to go to male readers.

Oxford's equal opportunities committee - which includes leading academics such as Ruth Deech, principal of St Anne's College, and Dennis Trevelyan, principal of Mansfield College - has warned already that the decision to go for more professors 'will accentuate the under-representation of women at the most senior levels in the university'.

However, the authorities are anxious to get more professors because, as the general board said on Friday, the title confers 'national and international' distinction. In other words, dons explained, it impresses both foreign academics at conferences and government ministers, who, Oxford believes, are more likely to give research grants and places on committees to professors.

Several Oxford figures have been heard to mutter that the country has been awash with 'Mickey Mouse' professors since the Government turned the polytechnics into universities. Oxford had to create more posts to compete.

Behind all the manoeuvring and procedural arguments, a strong sense of anger drives the women dons and male liberals who have never before signed a resolution to Congregation, let alone been political activists.

One woman scientist said: 'Some men don't take the trouble to hide their hostility. Others find it difficult to accept that their successful women graduates could one day be a professor or mature scholar.'

A colleague added: 'I always assumed I had a good, comfortable job. But then I looked around at the men who were being promoted over me and realised I was certainly on a par with them if not better.'

A philosopher described being the only woman on an appointments committee. 'We had a late application from a 52-year-old woman and all the men started calling her a girl. I said 'This is ridiculous, she's middle-aged . . . you wouldn't call a 52-year-old man a boy'. I was treated with derision and gave up arguing in the end. She did not get the job.'

(Photograph omitted)