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Plotting course on a gender balance

Education Secretary Michael Russell believes the gender balance in Scotland's colleges and universities is a problem that needs fixed.

In a letter to Professor Alice Brown, the chairwoman of the Scottish Funding Council, he says too many courses are dominated by men or women and there are not enough women in senior positions on campuses. He now wants a renewed focus on addressing the issue, with universities leading from the front in appointing more women to their governing boards.

That a gender imbalance exists is undeniable, even though more than half of students are women and almost half of lecturers and researchers are also female. The problem lies in how those numbers break down across different subjects, with physics, maths and computer technology dominated by men, and teaching, care, and social science largely female-dominated.

The gender imbalance on campus also deepens the higher up you go: almost half of lecturers may be women but a much smaller proportion are professors: about 22%. The proportion of women principals is similar and is even lower on regional college boards.

In his letter to Professor Brown, Mr Russell says he wants these gender imbalances to be a priority for the university and college sector but finding a solution will not be easy. A lack of family-friendly policies for staff and an expectation that senior people work long, anti-social hours will play their part in discouraging women from applying for senior roles, and universities and colleges could certainly look at making changes in these areas.

However, in the absence of evidence that universities are deliberately excluding bright women who want to study science or maths (which seems improbable), there is a limit to how much changing their admissions policy will affect the wider cultural causes of the gender imbalance. As Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said recently, it is likely that girls are being put off studying science at school because their families still think subjects such as physics are more suited to boys.

Schools also play a part and while the situation has much improved since Dame Jocelyn's school days, when boys studied science while girls studied cooking, science is not always given the priority it deserves in schools. The Curriculum For Excellence has stimulated some change in how science is taught in primary schools, but greater efforts must be made to facilitate girls pursuing careers in the subject by inspiring them and encouraging them to become interested from an early age.

Mr Russell says he wants Scotland's universities and colleges to take action to help bring change about, but it can only be part of a solution to what is fundamentally a cultural problem. Not enough girls are studying science and going on to hold senior positions in the subject, but that will only change when fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, friends - all of us - encourage girls just as much as boys and start using the word "can" rather than "cannot".

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