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Inequity in the Hallowed Portals of Education

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Who doesn't remember Labour's mantra 'education education education'? On International Women's Today, it is enlightening to see where women fare in the beacon of UK education that is Higher Education.

Last week, the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) published statistics offering a glimpse into the staffing of Higher Education in the UK in 2010-2011. These statistics show roughly equal proportions of men and women in the sector below Professor level (47% women and 53% men) but at Professor level, for every eight male professors, just two are female.

This is a hard hitting fact. Here, on International Women's day, it is fitting to consider the waste of female talent and the impact on the system. According to Professor Buckingham of Brunel University, women outperform their male colleagues, with 64% of women students achieving 1st and upper second degrees in 2008 - 2009, compared with 59% of men. Then, with almost half of PhD registrations in Europe going to women, and a goodly proportion of these working in Higher Education, one would expect that promotion went to those with the best academic credentials. What do we make a system that promotes one gender much more intently than the other?

The failure of the system to reward men and women equally hits in other ways too. For those women lower down the system, there will few female professors to act as role models, providing a source of inspiration for those considering the allure of academia versus industry. With female students in higher education now outnumbering men (women representing 59% of all students in 2008 - 2009), it is extraordinary to see such a poor gender balance at the top of academia.

The lack of senior women will hit in two other ways. Firstly, a battalion of male professors is likely to produce a male organisational culture rooted in command and control styles of leadership, a style which offers less support to those below than the Transformational leadership favoured by many women. This will acted as a further bar to women's advancement.

Then finally there is the thorny question as to the qualities and interests that men and women may bring to the job. Plentiful research attests to the divergence in men and women's areas of research interests and approaches to research. For instance, in medicine, it is often stated that Health research, when it addresses women's concerns, tends to emphasise and cater to their reproductive health needs at the expense of other needs. In theology, research has revealed that a feminist approach to the study of religion seeks 'nothing less than a critical transformation of existing theoretical perspectives' (Sue Morgan writing in approaches to the study of Religion, 2006).

In my own area of research, design and management, my research reveals systematic differences in the design paradigms exercised by men and women with the designs that men and women produce differing in systematic ways, and moreover men and women preferring the designs produced by those of their own gender. On 20 March, I will present a paper with my co-author Dr Gabor Horvath at the conference on 'Emerging Themes in Business 2012' sponsored by The Women in Society Research Centre at the University of Wales, Newport.

The paper will present striking evidence of own sex design preferences in a sample spanning the UK, France, Germany, Hungary and China. The extent of 'own-sex preference' is statistically highly significant and this on its own shows not only how difficult it will be for female designers to advance in marketing and design while this continues to be a male-dominated area, but also - building on the manifestation of 'own-sex preference and its demonstration of the homogeneity principle - how difficult it will be for design agencies to change and satisfy the needs of a largely female consumer body (a massive 83% of consumer products are bought by women).

Appointing others who share our ideas is a natural tendency but good organisations and good universities should find ways of countering the homogeneity principle. Otherwise, women who support ways of thinking that conflict with that of the male majority may see themselves marginalised and that will not be a blow for new thinking and for society as a whole.

So, the HESA figures have enormous significance and on this, International Women's Day, make us ponder on the long journey that still needs to be travelled before Britain can claim to be a nation that places equal value on the contributions of its men and women.

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