Look again at International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is here again, themed this year as ‘press for progress’. Progress suggests at least a measure of distance travelled, so let’s start with the good news.

“Woman was a subordinate being, and…if she ceased to be subordinate, there would be no object for a man to marry….Hence the woman must develop in no way unpleasant to the man: rivalry in men’s pursuits was positively unpleasant”.

We wouldn’t expect many men in academia to make such comments as Cambridge economics don Alfred Marshall back in 1889, nor to unabashedly direct them at a young female scholar (one Beatrice Potter – later Webb). But the reality is that gender inequality can still thrive without consciously sexist attitudes.

Male readers of Wonkhe, I know that you can wholeheartedly believe in female talent, talk about role models, take action to prevent a “manel”, and yet still find yourselves in an institution and sector where something can still feel very wrong. When underrepresentation or disadvantage is systemic, it can be hard to know how to grapple with it – you’ve opened that cupboard under the stairs only to find it disgorging all sorts of buried, disordered and sharp items. There will always be pressure to shut it back up, just for a bit, so you can get on with other OfS-shaped things.

But let’s take a quick peek shall we?

“You’ve never had it so good”

A quick rundown of the facts. At first glance, it does look like women never had it so good. Slightly overrepresented in first-degree enrolments compared to the general population, they then progress on to take up to 58% of the postgraduate body. The warning bell starts as they drop down to 47% for postgraduate study. It’s also important to note that over four-fifths of those women still in the game at this point are white.

The ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor has its critics (particularly about the assumption of linear trajectories) but it still helps to convey the dangerous, creeping loss of talent (or dare one say, ‘poor value for money’?). There are wide variations by discipline, which should be particularly worrying: risking yet another generation of graduates entering a world of occupational segregation and all the stereotypes those perpetuate. Look at the breakdown of women in engineering or of men in nursing and it’s not hard to figure why a young child gets the message that men fix things, and women fix people.

Progress is happening, particularly with the encouraging rate of change at senior leadership and professorial levels, but it’s still pretty inconsistent. Some of that is the pace of higher education itself (where implementing change within an academic year still incites panic), but some is also about an unwillingness to take big risks in a time of regulatory and financial uncertainty.

The pincer movement

Generally, institutions are advised to take a two-pronged approach to gender equality.

There is the ‘raise up the women’ model which might include mentoring, leadership development programmes (local or national), or support networks. If not done well these risk exacerbating the ‘deficit’ model; implying that women are ill-equipped to make it good in a male-dominated sector and, Mulan-style, helping them ‘pass’ and play the game. The stronger interventions, however, will empower them to make changes as they go, and act as role models for others (a ripple effect). These mentoring schemes and programmes all have an important role in tackling isolation; many individuals will never have had the space to talk about their gendered professional experiences before.

The second strand requires greater honesty and investment from the institution. That is about committing to self-audit, identifying gaps, and taking action. Athena SWAN is one framework for this, but there may be other drivers and enablers, including policy or financial pressures from professional bodies or research funders, legal provisions around the gender pay gap, or national policies. In terms of that generational issue around the different academic disciplines, in Scotland the SFC Gender Action Plan has provided much-needed momentum. In England we have less of a plan, and more of a stick, in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 transparency clause to focus attention on the admissions selection process by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background. Hopefully, these should help tackle some of the greater gender under-representations at student level, whether that is men in nursing or veterinary science, or women in economics and engineering.

Combining these approaches well – with investment, commitment, and consistency can help to nudge change forward. A word of warning to the sector on measuring progress though. Improvements in gender equality – whether participation, engagement or success- must not be benchmarked solely against the successes of white, cis, non-disabled women.

It’s all a matter of perspective…

But why are these approaches even needed? Everything about the student and staff experience is connected and the way that an institution values half of the population sets the standard for how our students go out and interact with the world as employees, service providers, and future employers.

We need instead to progress to a place where we systemically embed a ‘gender lens’ into all our policy making. A ‘gender lens’ approach asks you to look at what you do and how you do it, and seek to understand how (and how much) this is affected by gendered experiences or gendered expectations (‘think leader, think man: think crisis, think woman’ etc). This could be about traditional norms of ‘femininity’, but also ‘masculinity’: and who is seen to transgress those.

Let’s look at student attainment, progression and employability. The TEF and other mechanisms help to highlight some differentials by ‘sex’ in its binary form (men/women). I cannot tell you at the moment if trans or non-binary students have a national attainment gap, but it’s becoming increasingly clear from local studies that there is a potentially huge non-continuation issue. We are failing these students. A gender lens should seek to understand the full diversity of gender identities, as well as acknowledging that for some these identities are fluid. As a sector, we should consider from the beginning of our processes how those experiences interact with how a programme is promoted, developed, how students are supported, how this impacts on their access and experiences to placements and internships and study abroad.

Confused by reference to gender diversity and non-binarism? Your students are way, way ahead on this. From my work with LGBT+ communities in and around HE I can confirm that the younger generation, in particular, is comfortable with social media providing them with 70 different gender identity descriptors, and indeed many find ‘LGBT’ quaint. They are forging a new understanding of gender and experiencing the world in a different way. If your institution wishes to stay relevant, and to be trusted by its student population, gender – let alone issues of ‘race’, sexuality and ableism – are things that you need to get up to speed on.

A failure of a strategic and consistent approach to gender as a sector has, of course, led to one of the biggest crises of the ‘epidemic’ of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The most recent survey suggests two-thirds of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence at university (rising to 70% amongst female respondents). Against the backdrop of #MeToo, there’s an important question to talk about in your institutions: who was surprised by this? Who was not? How could you have made sure that the latter were in a place of power to do something about it earlier, or that their voices were prioritised? This is one area where you can see most tragically how gendered experiences lead to different relationships between the individual and the institution: how aware staff are of loopholes in procedures, of keeping and learning from institutional memory, of the importance of transparency and of regularly asking if the physical space of the university is a place you feel safe.

The body politic

Why the lack of systemic consideration of gender in what we do? Some of it is, of course, a vicious circle of low representation: a lack of different genders in leadership leads to decisions which – entirely understandably – don’t default to consideration of the world through others’ eyes. Structures fail to prioritise others’ needs: but we need to focus more on a greater reliance on flexible working as default, parity on key committees, and non-masculinised environments for debate and networking.

I’ve spent my whole career in higher education. I’ve been a student, a manager, a parent, a mentor. Ultimately, I can’t help feeling that the sector is still just a little bit uncomfortable with women’s bodies. At it’s worse, there is an institutional enabling of cultures which objectify and abuse them. At best, there’s the general squeamishness or ignorance about those pesky things like pregnancy, breastfeeding, expressing, menstruation, menopause (at least a few words there new to the Wonkhe website). These things aren’t going to affect all women, but if early indications of recent research are anything to go by, failure to support and understand women’s experiences of these in higher education is a bigger issue than you might think. Inclusivity, after all, doesn’t mean relentlessly treating everyone the same: it means recognising different needs when they genuinely exist.

The irony is of course that we’re not just any sector. We are educators and researchers. We have huge collective knowledge on all aspects of gender: not just the biology, but the psychology, the history, the economics, management and business, language and social sciences. Let the humanities step forth into a few more executive meetings and let’s get learning. Let the students in to tell us about how they understand their gender in a university setting. Let us all take a bit of time to unpick the tricky issues, open that door unders the stairs, and look in again at the mess with new eyes.

Jess Moody is writing here in a personal capacity.

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3 responses to “Look again at International Women’s Day

  1. Agree one institution (not current) I worked at when I was part-time during restructuring excluded me from consideration for new role. As line manager assumed as I was part-time did not want to progress my career, therefore not necessary to give me the opportunity to take more responsibility build portfolio of leadership that would enable me to make a career move up as when opportunities arose. Essentially put my career back 5 years.

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