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Women wonks: why it’s time to get writing

Women are in a minority of contributors to Wonkhe - Debbie McVitty looks at why that might be what barriers might hinder having the HE debate truly representative of the talent and leadership of women in the sector.
This article is more than 8 years old

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

As one of the few women who writes the occasional piece for Wonkhe, and a card-carrying feminist, I am keen to see more women step forward and share their views on higher education.

About a quarter of all contributors to Wonkhe are women. The men are not only more numerous, but more prolific – I estimate that around 20% of all posts to date have been written by women.

There is clearly no shortage of talented and opinionated women working in or engaged with higher education. In fact, HEFCE, HEA, UCAS and UUK are all led by women – on the executive side at least, not to mention all three mission groups.

So what is going on? Are women less interested in contributing to the debate? Do they have more pressing demands on them in their personal lives? Are they working the second shift while their male counterparts play with spreadsheets and re-read communiqués? Discussing higher education policy is admittedly the kind of nerdish pursuit that attracts a certain personality type frequently typecast as a bit speccy, obsessed with detail – and male.

Or perhaps the act of blogging is one of believing that one’s opinion is worth listening to, which is often considered to be a masculine trait.

But the beauty of Wonkhe is that higher education policy is definable as whatever the community considers worthy of discussion. It is a genuinely open forum for debate. If women’s voices are not heard, there is less diversity of perspective, the quality of the debate is lower and the limits of what is up for discussion are unnaturally narrow.

And one of the reasons it has taken me so long to write this piece is that taking refuge in gender stereotypes and truisms is a way of making peace with the status quo, not challenging it.

These days I find myself impatient with advice targeted at me as a woman, encouraging me to build my confidence, or be more assertive. But I am much more interested in getting better at what I do and building my knowledge. Confidence comes from knowing what I am doing, not in convincing myself that confidence is just what I am expected to be, regardless of the quality of my prose, or veracity of my ideas.

Insights of those working on addressing differential attainment among undergraduate students suggest that setting up deficit models between different social groups or targeting action at one group is both ineffective and patronizing, likely to reinforce the original cultural or structural barriers the intervention is designed to overcome. Conversely, interventions designed to improve everybody’s practice or make a process more accessible for all have a disproportionately positive effect on marginalised groups.

So the question becomes not, ‘How can we encourage more women to write for Wonkhe?’ but ‘What information or support can help anyone who is thinking about writing, but hasn’t got around to it, to take that step?’

I’m not sure I know the complete answer to that question but here are a few of the things I plan to do to encourage myself to write more:

  • Think about an article here as useful opportunity to work out ideas, not a major public performance. I’m always anxious when I post something that someone will spot an error and shout at me on Twitter, but it hasn’t happened yet, and even if it does I imagine I would get over it.
  • Keep up to date with the issues I care about, not just the things that I am working on. I work in higher education policy because I think education is a powerful catalyst for social change. But the more busy and distracted I become with the day-to-day work, the less time I have to keep up with things I’m passionate about, like access and social mobility policy. When I care, I’m more likely to have a view and a desire to share it.
  • Set short windows of time aside each week for writing, or having ideas about writing, or at the very least chatting to colleagues about the piece I might write. Despite some blogs taking an informal tone, they are crafted like any other piece of writing, and they take time time in gathering ideas, drafting and editing.
  • Get feedback on ideas, on drafts and on what you think is the final product. Despite sounding like a lot of work, it’s the quickest way to get to something that is publishable.

Now, if you are a person who is thinking about blogging about higher education these techniques may not help you personally. But this International Women’s Day, consider what might help you build up the habit, because I promise you, getting your work out there, read by people engaged in subject and who then talk about it, is one of the best feelings in the world.

This blog is an updated version of a similar piece which appeared here in 2014.

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

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