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Mercedes Montero, Professor at School of Communication, University of Navarra, Spain.

University presidents and distant horizons

Thu, 06 Jun 2019 10:12:00 +0000 Published in The Economist

Elisa Pérez Vera, professor of International Public Law and private (1975), became the first president of a Spanish university. She was at the Uned, between 1982 and 1987. Since then, only 15 other women have reached this position and currently there are only eight female rectors in public universities and six in private universities. 

However, changes are accelerating and this year, for the first time, three candidacies headed by women have been presented for election to the Office of the Executive Council of the same university, La Laguna. There is no need to be shocked. Or should we. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, born in the 13th century, have never had a president. Only Oxford, in 2016, named the first Vice President. Both institutions were the last to admit in full equality women and men to their campus: Cambridge, in 1947, and Oxford, in 1927. And if we take an oceanic leap and move to Harvard University, we will observe that the coeducational Education began to operate in that temple of knowledge in 1943. 

Women's access to the public sphere has perhaps not been as difficult in any other social institution as in the University. In Spain, the first woman enrolled in Education was María Elena Maseras, who in 1872 began to study medicine on her own at the University of Barcelona. From that moment on, and during almost 40 years of erratic legal trajectory, between ministerial prohibitions, precautions, bureaucracy, paperwork and generally arbitrary decisions, a total of 77 women managed to gain access to the University. Of these, 53 brilliantly completed their programs of study and not a few went on to complete their doctoral thesis . Only in 1910 did the government allow girls to enroll freely and without hindrance. Since then, the percentage has been increasing little by little, until in the 1980s the figures were similar between men and women. 

However, the academic degree program (Chairs, deanships, rectorates) still resists women. In the 1940s, those who applied for Chairs, and there were some, were mistreated because of their feminine condition, as was the case of Pilar de la Cierva or Teresa Salazar. It took a decade for María Ángeles Galino to obtain the Chair degree in Pedagogy at the University of Madrid in 1953. Another decade followed in 1961 with Asunción Linares Rodríguez and in 1963 with Carmen Virgili Rondón. And, from then on, in dribs and drabs. Currently, according to data of the Ministry of Economics (2015), there are 21 percent of women professors, compared to 76 percent of men. Therein lies the funnel that prevents access to government positions. 

But what is it about knowledge that is so resistant to the female gender? Perhaps it gives the greatest power that exists, the only power that remains when all others have been abdicated. In 1922 a sociologist (Ramón Ezquerra, in the magazine Renovación Social) feared that women would replace men in guiding the social, intellectual, political and cultural life of the country. A century later, we are still a long way off. But perhaps this is still the crux of the matter.