Oxford’s first female vice-chancellor won’t end gender inequality on her own

Women at the top of their game. Danny Lawson/PA

The appointment of Louise Richardson as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford is a watershed moment for British academia. Women occupying such strategic positions are important for symbolic and substantive reasons. They not only serve as role models for female students, but could facilitate institutional change by improving recruitment, retention, and the advancement of women within professorial ranks.

Currently in UK universities, men still outnumber women by a margin of four to one in senior academic positions, while women are over-represented in lower teaching grades and temporary research posts. The more prestigious the institution, the fewer women who reach top jobs in research or academic leadership. Yet women outperform men in almost every single aspect of higher education.

Trailblazer: Dorothy Garrod.

Oxford and Cambridge are particularly conservative. The first woman to ever hold a Chair at either Cambridge or Oxford was the accomplished Palaeolithic archaeologist, Dorothy Garrod, elected as Cambridge’s Professor of Archaeology in 1939. Until 1948 Oxford University did not have a single female professor and until 1978, only a few select colleges accepted female students. It has been only seven years since all the colleges opened their doors to both men and women.

The situation is not much different in the USA or Europe. Research by the American Association of University Professors reveals that in 1,445 colleges and universities, there are fewer tenured female staff. Women make up 60% of all PhDs, but only 24% of professors.

In all 28 countries of the European Union women make up only 20% of full, Grade A professors. In the words of the former EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, “This is regretful for women researchers and bad for Europe.” The gendered meritocracy strikes at the very heart of the academic enterprise. Women’s continuing marginalisation has profound implications on both how knowledge is reproduced and on what counts as knowledge.

While representation of women in higher professorial ranks, editorial board membership and research funding bodies is disappointing, there are even fewer women presidents, provosts and vice-chancellors in leading universities across the globe.

Women left behind

Gender bias in selection, evaluation, and promotion processes, the demands made by academic life on women if they are to be accepted and succeed, have all been used to explain the persistent discrimination of women in academia. This reflects men’s social power and widely shared cultural assumptions about women’s position in society.

Behavioural ethics research suggests that many such assumptions are due to unconscious bias that both women and men share. These concern feelings and knowledge (often unintended) about our social group membership (concerning race/ethnicity, gender, class).

The appointment of Louise Richardson, a renowned scholar on terrorism, a teacher with a formidable track record and experienced academic leader, helps breaking such preconceptions. But calls for women’s inclusion are often associated with tokenism and image-making rather than ensuring equal participation. The success of women in prominent positions can also stall the organisational efforts to improve the lot of the many. This often arises from the unspoken expectation that all women can navigate their way to seniority without implementing proactive policies to support them.

Halls of privilege. Diliff, CC BY

Yet for every woman at the peak of the academic ladder there are many others who have been left behind. We need more than just a few women at the top if we are to end gender discrimination in academia. Richardson acknowledged as much in her interview in The Guardian: “I look forward to the day when a woman being appointed isn’t in itself news.”

Much more is needed for this to happen. Nurturing and developing talented women through fast-track career and mentoring schemes are pivotal for increasing their numbers in leadership positions. Adopting family friendly policies is an essential measure for nurturing talented female researchers. There are also different strategies that women can use to overcome their predicament. These include finding a powerful champion in their own organisation, enlisting support of male and female mentors and joining peer support groups.

Improving access

None of these strategies is likely to be successful without improving the access to education for all who could benefit from it. As a child of the family of seven whose parents and most siblings did not go to the university, Louise Richardson readily acknowledges the role of education in her life. Without it she would not have become who she is. Most, if not all of it, would have been free or close to free.

Access to affordable education can help people from disadvantaged backgrounds move upwards but the social mobility is no longer an option for many students graduating with tens of thousands of debt in the UK and USA. Even fewer of children from disadvantaged backgrounds make it to Oxford: only 0.8% of students at Oxford and Cambridge received free school meals while 43 and 39% of them, respectively, were privately educated.

The first female vice-chancellor at the University of Oxford is well-qualified to address some of these issues.