There is clearly a problem with career progression in Scottish universities when only on in five holders of professorships is female.

The universities themselves understand the need for gender balance at senior levels, having committed to achieving at least 40% female and 40% male membership of governing bodies by 2018. However the opportunity for female academics to reach the very top still appears to be limited in practice.

The promotional structures of higher education are geared in a way which appears to be preventing many women from achieving all that they might. Career breaks to raise a family, as well as a long hours culture and constant pressure to publish may be inadvertently ensuring men - traditionally less restricted by caring roles - are best placed to secure jobs as professors.

The education minister Angela Constance has now written to ask Universities Scotland what plans it has to address the problem. Universities have certainly made attempts to do so, including the Athena SWAN initiative which aims to support the careers of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. But the reality is while women make up approximately half of all university staff, professors are 80 per cent male.

The pace of change is glacial and Mrs Constance is right to call for accelerated action. Progressing to the top of academia, as the University and Colleges Union points out, cannot be incompatible with having children and managing family and caring commitments.

Changes in society would help - changing social attitudes so women are not criticised for balancing family and career, and men are no longer viewed as unusual or ground-breaking if they, rather than a child's mother, take time off to parent. As in many other workplaces, good quality, flexible childcare is also key to ensuring that women are not held back unnecessarily when they do attempt to balance careers with child-rearing.

But the minister's implication is that universities can specifically improve the position of female academics, perhaps by eliminating barriers which by design or accident mitigate against women's progress. A more open-minded flexible attitude to career paths in the sector, would undoubtedly help.

Privately, universities may wonder why the minister is drawing attention to this problem now. It comes at a time when there is high tension over the issue of university governance, and amid warnings from the sector that Government plans could cost higher education £450m in income.

It would not be appropriate for the government to micromanage Scottish higher education, which is an international success story. Many would say the relative autonomy of universities has been an important part of that success.

That has its limits, though, and the protests over the closure of Stirling University's religion course arguably highlight a tendency towards unaccountable decision making and a lack of consultation.

As with the issue of widening access, where government pressure has led to important improvements, there is a place for leaning on universities to modernise more urgently and thoroughly.

Many universities are proud of their long histories, and rightly so. But while government is asking partners to commit to having a 50:50 split on their boards by 2020, the lack of representation of women at senior levels in academia makes them look sadly archaic.