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INSIDE TRACK: Glass ceiling persists in the groves of academe

FROM Prime Minister David Cameron's all-male front bench to Ukip leader Nigel Farage's thoughts on sex in the City, the inequality experienced by women in the workplace is ever present.

By way of a recap, Labour leader Ed Miliband has used the issue to attack the Conservative Party's record on gender equality, pointing out in a terse exchange in the Commons that there are as many men who went to Eton or Westminster in his Cabinet as there are women.

In January, Mr Farage provoked even greater uproar when he suggested mothers are worth less to employers in the City than men because they lose contact with their client base while on maternity leave and, therefore, struggle to succeed when they return to work.

The debate on discrimination is just as relevant in the world of academia. This week, more than 50 Cambridge University academics demanded a different way of making senior appointments to tackle the lack of female professors.

They argue that the step up to becoming a professor depends on too narrow a set of achievements, such as publications in academic journals and the number of research grants, rather than broader experiences from academics' working lives such as teaching and outreach work.

It is as much an issue in Scotland, with research conducted by The Herald showing fewer than one-quarter of professors at Scottish universities are female, despite the fact women account for nearly half of all academic staff. The situation has remained static since 2007, when legislation was introduced to improve gender equality.

At the time of the survey two years ago, Ailsa McKay, professor of economics at Glasgow Caledonian University, highlighted many of the same issues being raised by the Cambridge academics, such as the endemic long-hours culture that places those with family responsibilities at a clear disadvantage.

"Within the academic community, the research process, the teaching environment and the selection and appointment of new posts is dominated by men. It is hard for women to break into that environment," she said. But there is another factor that needs to be addressed before progress can be made. It relates to the way universities are funded for research. Under the Research Excellence Framework, the work of academics is graded and the funding councils that distribute public money on behalf of the Westminster and Scottish governments apportion money according to that assessment.

The exercise has been likened to the football transfer market as deadline day approaches, with major universities poaching the best academics from rival institutions with the offer of higher salaries and promotions to bolster their research ratings and secure a greater slice of the research funding pot.

As Mary Senior, Scottish official with the UCU lecturers' union, points out, the process does not serve those with childcare commitments at all well as it works only for staff who have flexibility to move around. Real change will only take place, she believes, when Scotland develops a funding system that is fairer to all.

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