Promoting gender balance

In just over two weeks’ time, many organisations, charities and individuals will be taking part in International Women’s Day, which this year takes as its theme “inspiring change”, encouraging “advocacy for women’s advancement everywhere and in every way”. We think now is a good time for the higher education sector to celebrate the progress that has been made in advancing gender equality, but also to ask what more can be done, and how.

“We” are a group of staff at the University of Cambridge who believe that more should be done to broaden how we judge and value success in UK higher education. Conventional success in academia, for example a promotion from reader to professor, can often seem as if it is framed by quite rigid outcomes – a paper published in a leading journal, or the size and frequency of research grants – at the expense of other skill sets and attributes. Those engaged in teaching, administration and public engagement, to name just three vital activities, can be pushed to the margins when specific, quantifiable outcomes take all.

Of course, assessment and ranking play an important role in the responsible and regulated pursuit of academic excellence. But problems arise if certain criteria for success benefit men more than they do women.

Our experience at Cambridge, where we recently surveyed 126 female academics and administrators on this subject, suggests that this is indeed the case. Women value a broader spectrum of work-based competencies that do not flourish easily under the current system. And a system that inhibits the progression of talented academics and administrators is one that limits universities’ ability to contribute positively to society.

We acknowledge that Cambridge, like other institutions up and down the country, must do more in this regard, and we are committed to making progress in addressing our own gender imbalances. But how else can we improve? First, we would like to stimulate debate on these issues so that gender progression remains a priority at the highest levels within the sector. Second, we think there are opportunities to build into assessment processes – for example, academic promotions – additional factors that reward contribution from a much wider range of personality and achievement types.

A broader definition of success within the sector will bring benefits not only to women – and indeed men – working in universities, but also to society as a whole.

Jeremy Sanders, pro-vice-chancellor for institutional affairs, University of Cambridge
Dame Athene Donald, University of Cambridge gender equality champion
Nicola Padfield, master, Fitzwilliam College
Richard Prager, head, School of Technology
Hannah Critchlow, department of pathology
Kusam Leal, School of the Physical Sciences
Madeleine Arnot, Faculty of Education
Nicky Athanassopoulou, Institute for Manufacturing
Shima Barakat, Cambridge Judge Business School
Claire Barlow, department of engineering
Catherine Barnard, Faculty of Law
John Bell, Faculty of Law
Dame Carol Black, principal, Newnham College
Brendan Burchell, head, department of sociology
Ann Cartwright, Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute
Joya Chatterji, Faculty of History
Jane Clarke, department of chemistry
Nicola S. Clayton, department of psychology
Tim Crane, Knightbridge professor of philosophy
Martin Daunton, head, School of the Humanities and Social Sciences and master, Trinity Hall
Judith Driscoll, department of materials science and metallurgy
Patricia Fara, senior tutor, Clare College
Rachel Fogg, department of engineering
Sarah Foreman, University of Cambridge estate management division
Jennifer C. French, division of archaeology
Laurie Friday, School of the Physical Sciences
Jane Goodall, department of medicine
Valerie Gibson, Cavendish Laboratory
Fiona Gilbert, head, department of radiology
Emma Gilby, department of French
Liz Hide, University of Cambridge Museums
Deborah Howard, department of history of art
Ann Louise Kinmonth CBE, emeritus professor of general practice
Judith Lieu, Faculty of Divinity
Theresa M. Marteau, Behaviour and Health Research Unit
Duncan Maskell, head, School of the Biological Sciences
Jessie Monck, University of Cambridge Personal and Professional Development
Rachel Oliver, department of materials science and metallurgy
Andy Parker, head, Cavendish Laboratory
Sharon Peacock, department of medicine
Karina Prasad, head, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs
Wendy Pullan, department of architecture
Margaret S. Robinson, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research
Ruchi Sinnatamby, School of Clinical Medicine
Rebecca Simmons, Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit
Alison Smith, department of plant sciences
Annabel Smith, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research
Koen Steemers, head, department of architecture
Philippa Steele, Faculty of Classics
Dame Barbara Stocking, president, Murray Edwards College
Suzy Stoodley, department of plant sciences
Abir Al-Tabbaa, department of engineering
Liba Taub, director and curator, Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Susie White, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Emma Wilson, department of French
Elizabeth Tilley, Faculty of English

 

The leading article “STEM the inertia on inequality” (6 February) highlighting concern about the progression of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects is clearly warranted. Addressing factors that diminish the number of women in leadership roles is vital.

We note that the general gender imbalance in science is mirrored by a disparity in the opposite direction in many of the social sciences and humanities. In psychology, a STEM subject, the proportion of female undergraduates is 80 per cent, and this looks set to rise (see The Future of Undergraduate Psychology in the United Kingdom by Trapp et al, a 2011 paper for the Higher Education Academy).

It is rare to hear of activities to encourage young men into fields in which they are under-represented. However, doing so provides a new perspective on the gender imbalance in STEM subjects. Although the total number of students is rising, the rate of increase is relatively slow. Hence the solution to the imbalance of women in STEM disciplines has to involve redistribution across disciplines. Encouraging men to take up subjects where they are under-represented may be just as important a tactic to address gender imbalance in STEM as encouraging women into STEM directly.

Neil Cooper, senior lecturer in psychology
Kenny R. Coventry, head, School of Psychology
University of East Anglia

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