Women - Universities and Zombies

Do we really need to talk about women in Universities? The answer is YES. Pay gaps, and the marginalisation of women, are visible symptoms of a bigger set of ongoing problems.
Heather Savigny
14 July 2011

Image: Rodolpho Reis

The higher education system is under attack; this much we know. Scratch beneath the surface and the story is even more apocalyptic, especially if you are a woman, or friends with one, or just someone who believes in equal rights. The year is 2011! Do we really need to talk about women in Universities? The answer is YES. Pay gaps, and the marginalisation of women, are visible symptoms of a bigger set of ongoing problems. Combine overt discrimination with subtle forms of daily sexism, and we see the continued existence of a chilly climate for women in academia. Talking about the way in which gender inequality is institutionalised is profoundly linked to conversations about what higher education is for. Having this conversation is liberating – it also means we can re-frame higher education as a social, rather than economic, phenomenon.

The present government view of higher education is that we need it to make us more productive and richer. But viewing it in this way has important consequences. The shift in subjects to be funded for teaching (read: viewed by government as important) has made gender divisions even more apparent. Arts and humanities will no longer receive any government money. At the same time traditional ‘boys’ subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) – will. As such, this becomes yet another attack on women in academia, where the interlinkage of sexism and capitalism is played out. The effect of prioritising and privileging the subjects dominated by men is a double blow for women: their further marginalisation and exclusion from higher education; and, so it follows, from the jobs and roles in society that access to HE can bring.

At school girls outperform boys at GCSE. In 2011 57% of undergraduate applications were from women. Yet within academia the situation is reversed. A recent report by the Equality Challenge Unit shows that 56.6% of academic staff are men. (In STEM subject the figure rises to 61%). Over 81% of professors are male (in STEM – this rises to 85.5%). This report also highlights that out of 14,265 professors, only 3,270 are women, with only 10 black and ethnic minority women. The Equal Pay Act was introduced over 40 years ago, yet there is still a pay gap in academia of 13.5%. Women are fighting in tribunals to challenge these scandalous pay gaps. At the same time, women are fighting organisationally sexist cultures. (The following stories have been drawn from interviews with a wide range of academic women, their names have been changed.)

 ‘You do realise that you have destroyed your career by saying that’. This comment was made to Jane by her head of department, after speaking up publicly and describing the sexism that she had experienced during her career.

On a temporary contract, Angela described how her head of department had told her she had to make a choice between children and an academic career, making it clear that if she was choosing children, she would have no career in her current institution.

Recurrent interviews have uncovered that career progression, indeed its existence in the first place, is determined not by equal opportunities legislation, but subjective responses and judgements of senior staff. Alison questioned the composition of the power structures in her institution. This became a campaign, and she was supported by many in her institution. Yet she was also treated with hostility, isolated and marginalised, for what? The ‘radical act’ of asking why women were excluded from the ‘corridors of power’.

These inequalities are not just ‘wimmins’ issues. They matter to men too. Mark’s experience was common. He described how frustrated he felt, how disenfranchised he was, being positioned as unable to speak out in defence of his female colleagues (lest he be treated in the same way).

As Julian Baggini notes you don’t need to be a member of a group to speak for their interests. Men are also disempowered and disenfranchised by the marginalisation and silencing of women. Kat Banyard and Bell Hooks before her, argued that feminism is for everyone. It serves to liberate men and women from the roles that exploit all women (irrespective of ethnicity). Endless reports demonstrate that where women are involved in equal proportions at the top businesses will outperform their rivals. And societies have been shown to be happier if women are treated equally. So why aren’t we doing it in academia? Is it really so radical to ask that men and women are treated equally? The glass ceiling is kept in place culturally as well as economically, and the silencing of women becomes legitimised by compliance.

Questioning the composition of an all male event, Rachel was aggressively told by a senior man ‘the fact is that the main publications etc on this subject have been written by men, and the main researchers in the field are also men, both facts which [your senior colleagues] and I have not been in a position to change’. Rachel says these ‘facts’ are simply untrue. Yet that ‘facts’ are cited (and unquestioningly accepted) as a reason why women are written out, that their voices go unheard, and by implication will continued to go unheard, is deeply alarming.

Tough macho cultures are not just the preserve of Cambridge. We need to make these power structures and cultures visible and we need to change them. In the 1980s, Harry Enfield’s team satirised the way that women were viewed in societies. But ‘Women know your limits’ was intended as a spoof, not an instruction to the academy.

Present legislation has been amended to encourage positive action in promotion and recruitment. It states that where candidates are of equal merit, and are under-represented in the workforce, then positive action should be used to employ those who have been previously structurally disadvantaged. But it is not enough. Why? Because the problems lie in the way in which the rules are written. Who is defining what ‘equal merit’ means? (Studies have shown that in science, the achievements of women have had to be greater than men to reach the same professorial status). Who is defining what it means to be ‘good enough’ for promotion or for the job? This matters because it is in the definition of the rules where we see interests embedded. Gender equality needs to be written into all systems, structures, strategies, policies, projects, processes and cultures. It needs to be written in to the ‘rules of the game’. Inequalities need to be exposed, challenged and changed.

Instead of serving the interest of business let us make the primary aim of Higher Education to ‘advance the interests of structurally disadvantaged groups’. (These groups are defined around gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and class). Enshrined in legislation this would mean that the purpose of education was redefined; serving to empower not only those who engage in it, and those who deliver it, but society more widely. A very simple act, yet one that could have profound consequences for tackling inequality.

On a daily level, we also need to act, changing organisational structures and cultures. The Athena project set out a charter of principles to be embodied at an organisational level in respect of science, and these can be extended across academia. We need to challenge gendered cultural assumptions; those casual comments that are made in every day conversation. Do they work the other way round? Would we ever remark in surprise that ‘we had a male Vice Chancellor once’ or ask ‘can you be on our selection panel as we need a [token] man?’ Would it be said to a man ‘you need to make a choice between children and a career in research’. ‘He only got that job because he was sleeping with her’. And if not, then is to ok to assume these things about, and say these things to, women?

Challenging those who write the rules about and within Universities can be difficult. These zombie like attitudes are recurrent – they just won’t die. As all good zombie guides tell us, knowledge is central to survival strategy. Campaigns enable us to speak out. We also need to give voice to, and liberate the women who have to write their own survival guides. The assault on HE has taken many forms; but the most pernicious effect is that which is imposed upon women (from legislation and within the sector). To reassert the value of education in society, as a way to empower us as citizens, to liberate us, give us autonomy and self-fulfilment, we need a 21st century University, where diversity is valued, and women are treated equally. This could be created in legislation, as well as in conversation. We could re-write the legislative and cultural rules to embody a commitment to ‘advance the interests of previously structurally disadvantaged groups’. To do this would be to promote an equal higher education system for everyone.

And that really isn’t very radical at all.

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