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Women and wonkery: marking International Women’s Day

It's International Women's Day tomorrow and we're marking it all week here on Wonkhe. Louisa Darian sets out what's in store over the coming few days and explains why we're refreshing our focus on women and wonkery.
This article is more than 8 years old

Louisa Darian was Deputy Director at Wonkhe, and is now an advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, which this year seeks to encourage us all to do more to accelerate gender parity. While there are many achievements by women to celebrate, both within and outside of higher education, there is still more work to be done.

More than four decades after the Equal Pay Act was introduced, there is still a 19 percent pay gap. In order to mark the occasion, we will be posting a series of blogs from women in the sector throughout the week to explore some of the issues and, more importantly, ways in which they might be addressed – including the role we can play at Wonkhe.

You do not have to look far to see that, like many other sectors, the higher education sector has some way to go before diversity and gender balance are achieved. Eight in ten professors in the UK are men, whereas the only academic category in which women are in the majority is part-time non-managerial roles; and research we did into governing bodies found that just 33 per cent of governors are women. For some women, other forms of inequality can result in them being doubly disadvantaged. Just three per cent of female black and minority ethnic academics are professors.

We at Wonkhe are all too aware of the implications of this imbalance. The site has had over 100 contributors, but only around one-fifth of these are women. And I am sure I am not alone in being unable to recount the number of times I have been at an event with an all-male panel.

It is a major problem for us as an organisation, given our mission to provide a platform for new or previously unheard voices and perspectives. But it’s also a problem for the sector more broadly, which is missing out on the ideas, and capabilities, of a significant pool of talent. The Women and Work Commission found that unleashing women’s full potential could be worth £23 billion a year to the Exchequer.

There are a number of theories as to why these patterns exist. Bad recruitment practices, whereby male leaders recruit in their own image, can be a problem; as can unfriendly work-life balance policies which, as primary carers, often affect more women than men. But there can also be a set of softer issues at play. For example, women often want to know that they meet 100 percent of the criteria for a job before applying, whereas men are more likely to look at it and say ‘yeah, I’ll give it a go’.

And there are a specific set of challenges in relation to blogging and social media, which we have explored before (see Debbie McVitty’s piece from 2014). For example, it may be that women are more reluctant to share untested ideas. The fear of personal criticism, or even harassment, may also be felt even more keenly by women. We try and prevent this at Wonkhe through a zero tolerance policy to this type of behaviour and thankfully, it is one we rarely have to enforce. We also encourage all authors to focus on ideas, rather then the people behind them. There’s absolutely no need for the HE policy debate to become personal, as it might in the mainstream press or even academia.

Another challenge, which applies to men and women wonks, can be an institutional reluctance to allow staff to blog. It is common across many types of organisation that want to control the corporate message. But such an approach can have a number of negative consequences for innovation and generation of new ideas (which is ironic given that this sits at the very heart of what higher education is about) as well as for staff development.

We will be exploring some of these issues in more depth over the coming week but, in the meantime, want to pose three things to all our wonkhe readers:

1. A pledge from us: to do more to try and support all new contributors – both men and women – to write for the site. We will be publishing some guidance on this later this week.

2. An invitation: to share your experience with us about barriers to blogging for us – either by commenting on the site, or directly to me at, as well as thoughts as to how we might better support you.

3. A call to action: for the sector to consider its own policies and practices regarding staff blogging and to do more to encourage staff, as well as students, to partake in discussion and debate.

We are running articles all week on women in HE – find them all under the #Women and Wonkery tag.

2 responses to “Women and wonkery: marking International Women’s Day

  1. Brilliant, thank you for sharing this intention and commitment to making blogging more diverse. There are many voices to be heard in higher education and I hope to read more of them (or even be one of them).

    HE should be in the vanguard of change and should reflect the changing nature of its own constituency.

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