Professor Louise Richardson, incoming vice chancellor of Oxford and former Trinity student, who was today awarded honorary membership of the Caledonian Society, said that the low number of female academics in higher education is based on negative stereotypes that college authorities have a responsibility to change.
“There is a whole mix of reasons” to explain gender ratios in academia, she said, ranging from “good timing, the biological clock and… individual women making the perfectly rational decision to say ‘I want a life.'” She expressed surprise only 14% of professorships in Trinity are held by women.
Richardson was the only woman in senior management when she began working in the University of St Andrews, where she currently serves as principal and vice chancellor. She said that St Andrews has received criticism in the past over its appointment of women to certain positions and that the university has been accused both of discrimination against men, and of not giving ample representation to women.
Asked by James Ware, chair of the Caledonian Society, about her stance on calls for universities to divest from fossil fuels, Richardson said that, although as a student she was president of Trinity’s Anti-Apartheid Society, which called for divestment from all goods from South Africa, her position has changed since then. She admitted a reluctance to restrict investors in fossil fuels, as the revenue they generate could be used to fund valuable university programmes such as scholarships.
The issue of colleges taking stances on political issues was raised. Richardson said that an elected student association could do so if they wished, as they have been chosen by the students to represent them. Neither the St Andrews leadership nor its students’ union took a stance in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, however, Richardson hinted that the university may take a stance in the debate on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. She said that an EU withdrawal would be a “nightmare” for UK universities.
Richardson also stressed the need for freedom of speech on campuses, not only to give equal rights of expression to all, but also to give would-be extremists an outlet to express their views without resorting to violence. According to Richardson, “universities are the best place to hear any objectionable speech,” with the exception of speech inciting violence or law breaking.