The hard slog for university gender equality

In the late 1980s I addressed a session of the annual meeting of the Conference of University Personnel Administrators – as it was then called: it is now Universities Human Resources (UHR). At the time I was a Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, and one of my specialisms was equality and discrimination in employment. I was asked to reflect on the state of gender equality in universities. So I told the more or less all-male audience that universities, however progressive they liked to think they were, had an abysmal record as regards equality. The percentage of senior university academics or managers who were women was tiny, and many universities refused to do much about it because they were totally convinced that all their policies and actions were totally non-discriminatory. As one of the university managers suggested in the subsequent discussion (and I wrote this down), ‘if no competent women willing and able to do the job properly apply for senior posts, what can we do?’

Thirty years later, what would I be saying at the conference now? Well, in fairness, we have come on a little. But it has been slow going. About 12 years after my address I became President of Dublin City University. At the date of my appointment, it did not have a single woman professor. Not one. By the time I left this had somewhat improved, but gender equality in the academy had by then become a big issue in Ireland, with the discussion focusing rightly on how inadequate progress was.

Most recently, it has been reported that 23.7 per cent of professors in Scottish universities are women. This is an improvement on the last time that the figures were reported, but clearly there is still some way to go before women are represented in senior positions in accordance with their overall share of the university population. My own university, Robert Gordon University, performs well above the average, with women making up 50 per cent of the professoriate.

Maybe we have come at least some way, because no one would now, I suspect, ask ‘what can we do?’ We know that we can do things. One bundle of these things has been highlighted in the Antwerp Charter on Gender-Sensitive Communication in and by Academic Institutions, highlighting ‘academic institutional communication’ as a vital driver or inhibitor of equality. The Charter was developed as part of the EGERA Project (‘Effective Gender Equality in Research and Academia’), involving a consortium of eight continental European universities, and focusing on structural changes and processes for implementing greater equality as well as the actual equality objectives themselves.

In the United Kingdom the Equality Challenge Unit (shortly to be merged with the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation) is the key champion of ‘equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions’, and it has had some effect in raising awareness of the issues that still inhibit equality. It offers guidance to institutions in a number of different contexts.

Progress is being made, but there has not to date been complete success. The ultimate driver of success is a change of culture, which includes a greater focus on how we take decisions, how we communicate, how we interact with each other and offer support, how we expect people to structure their lives and working environment. The need to advance equality remains strong. And we could all still do better.

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8 Comments on “The hard slog for university gender equality”

  1. Vince Says:

    I tend to think equality has arrived to us in two ways, or rather sources from two groups, the match girls and the suffragettes.
    To solve this issue using the Match Girls we would have reasonably priced accommodation and free childcare that could be used immediately after the birth if needed, but certainly after the leave ended. And for all citizens. Using the Suffragettes who were never quite about equality as I’d want to see it but more an equality based upon wealth and education.
    You see I’d far prefer to see the universities had ample spaces in good childcare and a building policy for young academics. More organic than forced.

  2. Greg Foley Says:

    The fundamental problem with academia is that to become a professor you have to work ridiculously long hours. Women who still do the majority of the caring can’t possibly compete in such an environment – unless they’re exceptionally energetic and resilient. Neither, incidentally, can anyone who has any kind of physical or mental limitations, limitations that preclude them from working 60+ hours per week. The solution to all of this is to promote people on the basis of a much more holistic evaluation, an evaluation that is based on what can realistically be achieved in 35-40 hour week. One of the things that always amazes me, for example, is that in most institutions, promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer happens without any interview. It’s all based on a CV and rewards the CV-builder, not the person who is contributing in lots of small but important ways to the overall mission of the institution. (In DCU for example, research and teaching have double the value of service and engagement.) The result is that many academics who might have fantastic motivation, organisation or leadership skills fall through the cracks while the single-minded grant-getters rise through the organisation and sometimes end up in leadership roles for which they have no aptitude.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    I’ll be honest, I’ve never quite understood this issue. That’s not to say I don’t fully agree with the concept of equality and, of course, I absolutely agree that there are many issues all employers need to deal with in in terms of how they help women progress their careers.

    When I started my physics degree back in 1994, we had a class of about 45 students of whom 4 were female. About 10 of us went on to do post-graduate studies, 1 of whom was female. Even today, these sorts of figures are common in physics departments right across Europe. Back in the 1990s, women were under-represented in the first-year intake of many courses – electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, mathematics, and so on.

    Now, if we accept that STEM departments make up some not-insignificant fraction of the total academic staff of a university, why would we now ‘expect’ that roughly 50% of our senior academics should be female? How is that mathematically possible in a physics department based on the intake of students 20 odd years ago?

    The point I’m (slowly) making is that there seems to be an argument that because a ratio is not 50:50 therefore it represents some sort of systemic failure. A more interesting statistic would be what we’d expect that ratio to be based on intake and progression rates through third-level, and how that expected value differs from the reality. Then we’d really know the extent of the problem.

    • Wendymr Says:

      But a university is not made up solely of physics departments. When I worked in the system, I was in a HRM discipline, and approximately 70% of our students were female. For most of my time in my department, there were one or two women out of a staff of 10 (interestingly, all research assistants and teaching assistants hired were women), and both professors were male. The number of women students, and of junior faculty – temporary/part-time lecturers, RAs, etc – tends to be disproportionately high across the humanities and social sciences. So why do we still have such a disparity among the professoriate?

      From my perspective, the culture of academia was a significant barrier. Lack of collegiality – everyone is a rival and therefore the enemy; the lack of regard for administrative and student-focused tasks, which then got dumped on the women staff – myself included, though I happened to think that these are genuinely important tasks; a culture of bullying and exclusion, which I experienced myself and is the reason I am no longer in academia, and which I also saw happen to many other women, including women I represented through a grievance process in front of management who seemed to believe that anyone who couldn’t cope with ‘robust management techniques’ shouldn’t be in the workplace – and this attitude appeared to go all the way to the female VC; and of course a loudly-voiced attitude that work should be all there is in our lives; if we aren’t working around the clock, we’re worthless. Of course, my colleagues who followed this approach had stay-at-home wives who managed every aspect of their personal lives, including taking care of the kids.

      (Interestingly, two of the cases of bullying/harassment I was involved in as a union representative involved a male manager. One involved a woman. The woman was removed from her position and left the university. In the men’s cases, our accusations were declared unfounded, despite a mass of evidence and testimonies).

      In my working life since leaving academia, I have met other women who could have had good careers in the university system, but who have also opted to leave – or felt forced out – because of the culture of the academic. This experience has been in North America, not the UK or Ireland, which is a good indication that this culture isn’t confined to the British Isles – and this is supported by research into women in Canadian universities, here. See in particular the section on “Chilly Climates” from p.81.

      • James Fryar Says:

        Thanks for your reply … it certainly wasn’t my intention to be in some way dismissive of barriers faced by female academics, nor was I suggesting that a problem doesn’t exist. So I apologise if that’s the impression I gave.

        My argument was simply that there is way in which we can, in theory, actually quantify the problem. If we look at the current numbers of academics by School or Faculty, for example, and we look at the male:female ratio at undergraduate level in the past (i.e. at a time when current academics would have been first-year students) it should be possible to calculate roughly what male:female ratio would exist today in each university if men and women had equal probability of progression. What we then do is compare that to the *actual* male:female ratio. This then tells us pretty much the extent of the problem we need to solve.

        The quoting of some ratio (say 27.3% of professors in Scotland are female) doesn’t really tell us anything because there is no historical context in which to place that figure. Saying that we’d expect, based on first-year intake figures, equal progression probability, and current academic numbers that 58% of professors *should* be women (as an example) tells us something important.

        • Wendymr Says:

          Thank you for responding, and I understand your point. I was a student in the early 1980s, in a business/economics faculty. I don’t know the male/female student ratio, but my impression is that it would not have been far off 50:50. When I started my academic career post-PhD, in the late 1980s, I saw student ratios in social sciences and my own area of HR of well over 60% female. Fast-forward to present day, and I don’t believe we’re seeing similar ratios among senior academics in these fields – certainly not from what I can glean from a skim of data.

          • James Fryar Says:

            I agree entirely. But just to labour the point one final time … let’s suppose that in HR and social sciences we have a roughly 50:50 male:female intake of students and this has been the case for the last two or three decades. Clearly, if, say, 80% of academics in those fields today are male, then that’s not what we’d expect. Systemically, something has gone wrong.

            But let’s now suppose that same university has a nursing department. Based on the gender profile of undergraduates, we would be very surprised if the majority of academics in nursing departments were not female. Let’s say that breakdown is 80:20 female to male.

            The thing is, if we now combine these as an institutional female to male percentage the problem in HR / social sciences might be masked – the gender profile of nursing might actually drag that figure upwards. It might make the ratio appear better than it actually is.

            What annoys me is that this is pretty obvious stuff. Universities are one of the few institutions in which we might actually be able to really examine the statistics and really understand the true extent of the problem since most universities have records of students and hence can examine the gender profiles going back years. They might serve as a microcosm of wider society.

            But instead, all we’re doing is counting the number of men, counting the number of women, and working out a percentage, then we pat ourselves on the back if the female:male ratio goes a bit higher. It’s woefully inadequate.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    James, I wonder whether you have heard about the Athena SWAN Charter. The whole point of the Athena SWAN process is exactly, as you say ‘to examine the statistics and really understand the true extent of the problem’, going back at least 5 years. In this respect, it is not entirely accurate to say that “27.3% of professors in Scotland are female doesn’t really tell us anything because there is no historical context in which to place that figure”. By engaging with the Athena process and the relevant literature in this field there is plenty of opportunities to discover the “historical context”. I discussed similar topics in a previous guest blog post here “50 shades of sexism in the academy”

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