Why are there so few women professors when the proportion of female students has risen so steeply?

Miriam E David

The Robbins Report on Higher Education was published 50 years ago, in October 1963, so this autumn there have been several  celebratory anniversary events – at the London School of Economics (LSE), where Sir Lionel Robbins was then a professor of economics, here at the Institute of Education, and most recently at the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research (CHEER) at the University of Sussex.

The topics of gender and equality in higher education were absent from the first two, but this lacuna was more than amply filled by the last. In a superb analysis of what she called “the genealogy of the woman student”, Professor Carole Leathwood, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (IPSE) at London Metropolitan University, examined the way women at the time were considered entirely in relation to men as sexual and social beings. She had undertaken a documentary study of Robbins, newspapers and Carol Dyhouse’s Students: A Gendered History (2005). Young women students were seen as ‘dolly birds’, available on ‘the marriage market’ rather than for the labour market.

Interestingly, the Robbins report never once considered women in the academic profession, as lecturers or researchers, nor the question of homosexuality. Carole Leathwood argued, though, that the report did raise the issue of the adult learner along with the mature woman student.

I talked about the position of female and male students then and now, contrasted with that of female academics, drawing on a pamphlet written for the anniversary by David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science. Willetts had had the figures re-analysed by government statisticians. These showed most clearly a changing gender balance from female students comprising 25% of the then student body of less than a quarter of a million, to about 55% of undergraduates today, when there are more than 10 times as many – well over 2 million in the UK.

Willetts acknowledges the changes but he does not comment on academia. Whilst these changing student figures mirror international studies, such as UNESCO’s Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (March 2012), they show that women in academia tend to disappear  the more they are educated. She Figures, statistics from the European Union, makes this point very strongly as do two contrasting reports of the now independent UK Equality Challenge Unit. It publishes annual statistics on staff and students in higher education across the UK in separate volumes. What I find most alarming is that gender inequality is rampant amongst staff in UK universities, with 80% of professors being white men, whilst gender equality is so normative amongst students, it is no longer worthy of comment.

Professors Valerie Hey and Louise Morley, both of CHEER, tried to imagine the university of the future, and the position of women academics in it. They envisaged an alternative to austerity, where ethical values, not economic value, are pre-eminent. But the immediate UK policy context remains constricted by an intransigent and intellectually vacuous government. The two key ministers for education – David Willetts for Higher Education and Michael Gove for Schools – vie with each other in presenting the stern and firm smack of ‘back to the future’ government, where ‘boys will be boys’ and girls don’t exist except as bystanders. David Willetts argued that ‘feminism had trumped egalitarianism’ (The Pinch 2011, p. 208) and that men should be encouraged into HE rather than middle class women, whilst Michael Gove ignores discussion of gender even with PISA and insists on a return to traditional selective education where girls and boys had separate provision and separate roles (as described in Robbins).

Professor David’s forthcoming book ‘Feminism, Gender & Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies’ is to be published by Ashgate

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education
One comment on “Why are there so few women professors when the proportion of female students has risen so steeply?

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