Comment: Why won’t universities recognise successful women?

By Frances Crook

They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and I am pretty cross. I was nominated for an honorary degree at my old university and was rejected. Whatever you think about honorary degrees, it is quite heart-warming to be recognised by your peers in one way or another. I would never claim to be a great academic, but I like to think that my life’s work has promoted research and original thinking about issues of some public concern.

So I asked a few universities how many men and how many women had been awarded honorary degrees as I had a suspicion that there might be a smidgeon of sexism lurking behind the decision. Even I was surprised at the results.

Liverpool University has awarded 121 honorary degrees in the last ten year and 100 of them were to men.

Cambridge University has awarded 80 honorary degrees in and 59 were to men.

Oxford University has awarded 96 and 65 were to men.

Birmingham University has awarded 210 and 168 were to men.

Manchester University has awarded 59 and 44 were to men.

This means that of the 566 honorary degrees given by a random selection of five of the top universities only 130 were given to women.

The decision making process is often opaque and appears to owe more to fundraising potential and celebrity than academic eminence or contribution to community.

This has some significance as the awards are presented amid much pomp at degree ceremonies when almost all the final year students and their families are present in order to graduate. The message being given by their own academic institution is that women are valued at less than a quarter the rate as men. The degrees may be a mere gesture but the symbolism is powerful to young people.

I don't suppose I will ever get one now.

Frances Crook is the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. She is writing in a personal capacity.

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