Shocking statistics released this week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that at the end of 2010, women made up less than 20% of professors at UK universities. Many media outlets have made much of the fact that the figures represent a 4% increase on the previous year, but that only serves to show the dire severity of the situation.

Interestingly, this enormous gender gap does not extend to the whole field of university recruitment, with the figures showing that women make up 44.2% of academic staff as a whole. However this in itself highlights the fact that whilst a female workforce nearly equal to the number of men is present and available in higher education, male staff are nonetheless being chosen to fill the most prestigious academic roles in the overwhelming majority of cases.

There is quite clearly a problem of tradition, with the Oxford women’s colleges only officially recognised by the university as late as 1958 and many Cambridge colleges not admitting women until the 1970s. But now that the number of women in academic jobs at universities in the UK almost equals that of men, the excuse of tradition and women taking a long time to catch up in numbers simply does not explain the division at the top of the academic ladder. The problem clearly exists within the administration as well as the academic staff, with Oxford University currently employing only 9 women as Heads of House across its 38 colleges. Perhaps this controlling boys club at the top end of university administration and the extremely skewed numbers of men already holding professorships plays a large part in creating the atmosphere that is preventing women from being awarded the highest positions. Certainly it must not be easy for the women who have already achieved the rank of Professor to effect change from within, outnumbered as they are by an astounding 13,994 to 3,455.

Men have long defended the lack of advancement of their female colleagues in many top professions by citing reluctance on the part of the women themselves to neglect family responsibilities – effectively suggesting that women restrict their own career prospects out of choice, through a desire for work-life balance. Yet not only does this not go nearly far enough to explain such a wide gender divide as that revealed in professorships in higher education, it also does not take into account the social, political and legal aspects in the UK that give women little choice but to take those decisions. There is far from adequate legislation and social support in place to allow women to pursue both career and family in an atmosphere that prevents this from disadvantaging them at work. Not to mention the paltry provisions for paternity duties, which often ultimately force even forward-thinking couples to take antiquated decisions when it comes to childcare.

On top of all this, sexism leaves its ugly mark yet deeper in the highest echelons of academia, with the shocking lack of female professors only representing the tip of the iceberg. The American Association of University Women recently published a study called “Why So Few?” which highlighted and questioned the dearth of women in higher education, specifically in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Amongst their observations were tragic proof of negative gender stereotyping, a higher education environment that is inhospitable towards women, and implicit bias deeply ingrained in our beliefs about what we define as “male” and “female” fields and roles. This bias is so deeply rooted in our cultural makeup that the study reports that “implicit bias is common, even in individuals who actively reject these stereotypes.” It goes on: “Not only are people more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, people often hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, like scientists or engineers.” This implicit bias could logically be extended to opinions of women in traditionally ‘masculine’ positions of leadership, or, in this case, professorship.

It seems sensible to conclude that the shocking gender divide revealed by the HESA figures is a product of a complex mixture of influences, including problems with the academic environment, the decision-making process of those electing academics to the role and also gender bias at a much more universal level within our society. The question is, how will universities react? Will they play the usual card of avoiding responsibility at all costs, citing influences far beyond university control and denying any capacity to act within their remit to resolve the problem? Or will they have the courage to accept the problem and take the necessary steps towards resolving it as quickly as possible?

Nearly four years ago, when Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union commented on this problem in the Guardian Newspaper, she demanded that universities must “act to ensure equality of opportunity at every point,” in order for women to “face fewer obstacles in getting to the top”. She went on “there is no reason why more women should not be in the top jobs in our universities and being properly paid for their work.” The demand implied that in view of the embarrassingly male-heavy academic statistics, action should be taken on these issues immediately. Four years on, these new figures reveal that we are, evidently, still waiting.