Last Saturday was International Women’s Day and March is Women’s History Month – time to see where women have got to over the many decades of demand and struggle for equal rights, including in the academia.

The numbers are well known – only 20% of professors in the UK are women in spite of the representation being almost equal when starting out at the lecturer level and more women than men students in universities both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. These numbers refer to the ‘leaky pipeline’, the concept that women disappear from the career ladder at some point.

The Equality Challenge Unit have produced a very helpful visual representation of this leaky pipeline –

ECU infographic

So, what’s the recipe for success for those who are among that minority of female professors? Coinciding with International Women’s Day, the University of Cambridge published a book by Jo Bostock – The Meaning of Success – documenting how senior women in Cambridge reached where they are today. In a series of interviews, various views emerge.

Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge, writes: “These women weren’t complaining about their lot in life, they weren’t whining, whingeing or moaning, terms of denigration so often thrown at women who speak out. They were celebrating what they loved about their jobs – building teams, seeing their students thrive and progress, working with people who sparked them off intellectually and seizing opportunities to try out new things and make new discoveries…But when we externally judge success, for instance at the promotion or recruitment stage, are these the metrics that are used? The answer too often is no.”

In the same vein, Cambridge academics wrote a letter to the Times Higher Education a few weeks ago arguing for changing the measures of success to make recruitment and promotion more inclusive. This is a fresh approach – one that turns the tables to make leaders in higher education responsible for changing cultures to address gender inequality and imbalance, prompting universities to evaluate their policies and procedures before giving up trying to determine why there aren’t enough women on the top.