Posted tagged ‘discrimination’

50 shades of sexism in the academy

March 5, 2015

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, University of Dundee

In a blog post entitled We have come a long way but…, Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University with an interest in matters of equality and diversity, while recognising the success of the Athena project launched back in 1999 and of the Athena Swan Charter, also acknowledges how too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’.

As a sign of how successful the Athena brand has become the Charter, originally limited to STEM subjects, will be expanding later this year to include arts, humanities, social science, business and law departments. Some pilot schemes in the humanities have already been carried out last year; of particular interest is the report just released by the Royal Historical Society, where concern is expressed ‘about a macho work culture of intense competition and peer pressure, with no interest in a good work/life balance, in the context of a sector-wide climate of continually raised expectations of achievement in research, publication and grant-winning.’

Ireland is following suit with the launch on February 5th of an Athena SWAN pilot open to all publicly funded universities and institutes of technology. NUI Galway is taking a lead on the issue of gender equality by setting up an independent taskforce; however as retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness writes in the Irish Times, the issue of gender discrimination ‘is not unique to traditional sectors such as higher education or even to Ireland.’ This is sadly true. In fact according to a recent World Economic Forum report not one country has fully closed the gender gap yet (the UK has dropped from 9th to 26th place since 2006), and it will take 81 years for the worldwide gap to close if progress continues at the current rate.

Back to academia. An analysis by Thomson Reuters in association with Times Higher Education in 2013 demonstrated startling levels of gender inequality in research-intensive universities across the world. In the UK the Equality Challenge Unit’s statistical report for 2014 on Equality in Higher Education showed a persistent pay gap median of 13.6% between male and female academics, a decline in uptake and duration of maternity leave, few opportunities for part-time working across the whole higher education sector and the continued dominance of men in senior roles. Specifically, only 14% Vice-Chancellors and Principals are female, only 20.5% of professors are female, and in 2013 only 15 professors were BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women.

On a positive note, one might celebrate the fact that more women are now reaching middle management and yet, as Tara Brabazon notes in her sobering piece Generation X Women and Higher Education:

‘These posts manage teaching staff, workload, timetabling and assessment: the ‘housework’ of universities…female academics into middle management is not the clean victory it appears. The structures have not changed. The assumptions about teaching ‘value’ have not altered.’

What is also troubling is that female academics remain very reluctant to bring cases over career progression or gender discrimination. This, according to Joan Donegan, deputy general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, is mostly due to isolation and lack of confidence.  In the UK I recall the case of Liz Schafer, a Professor at Royal Holloway who took legal action over her employer’s ‘scandalous’ professorial pay gaps.

Perhaps it is not so shocking that, as the author of a study on sexism in academia reveals, she had to find a way to tell women’s stories, without any hint of those women being identifiable, so afraid were they of negative repercussions. I think that there is enough evidence to attest that universities have a gender equality problem, one which is not ‘natural’ but – ironically, given the business universities are in – ‘cultural’. The question is how to solve it without waiting 81 years for the gender gap to close.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem, to talk about it in public fora like this one. Secondly, universities must not become complacent, they must be aware of the ever-present risk that policies and programmes (like the Athena Swan) aimed at addressing equality and diversity issues may become substitutes for action. Thirdly, conscious, structured, institutional efforts are needed to counteract unconscious and unintentional gender biases.

As judge Catherine McGuinness rightly put it in the opinion piece cited above, ‘systemic problems require systemic and not localised solutions’, hence corrections need to be built into our systems. Such corrections can include training, mentoring, leadership programmes, and as the Equality and Diversity in the REF: Final report advocates:

‘Funding bodies should consider more explicitly assessing measures to promote and support equality and diversity, as part of the research environment element of a future REF exercise.’

Lastly, quotas can be, even on a temporary basis, the corrections we need. Personally, I am persuaded by the research in this field, for example by the work of Curt Rice and Louise Davidson- Schmich. Significantly, one of the recommendations of the review of higher education governance in Scotland, chaired by the host of this blog in 2012  was that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim. A synergy between universities and governments can deliver results, as the Flemish gender action plan shows.

In conclusion, the reader may have noted of course that the title of this post echoes the one of a popular erotic romance novel. This is no cheeky choice: as the writings of generations of gender studies scholars like Andrea Dworkin or novelists like Angela Carter have argued, sexuality and power converge to create masterful societal narratives, hence old romantic fantasies of dominant men happen to coexist, in our sexually saturated culture, with highly successful examples of macho management and leadership. The risk is that the permanence of similar models will tie women down far more than any rope ever could, trapping them forever in universities’ ‘ivory basements’.

Time to worry about men?

February 4, 2014

UCAS, the UK’s agency for managing applications to higher education institutions, last week released the latest statistics on applications for the next academic year. One piece of information that rather stood out in the report was the following:

‘Over 87,000 more women than men have applied, a difference that has increased by 7,000 this year. Young women are a third more likely to apply to higher education than young men.’

This trend is not unique to Britain, nor is it absolutely new. Two years ago in Canada the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario noted:

‘University application rates of women increased from 41 per cent of the potential applicant pool in 1994 to 52 per cent in 2006, while application rates of men rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent in the same time period.’

It has become increasingly clear that a gender gap is opening up in higher education, in western industrialised countries at least, which has seen women not just entering universities in greater numbers than men, but also out-performing them when there.

Of course we are witnessing this trend in a society that, for generations, has under-valued women’s work and has seen (and still sees) men occupying most leadership roles in business and in society more generally. Is this trend about to be reversed? Will men become the disadvantaged sex? And is this an issue about which educators should feel concern? Will this trend prompt more crime and deviance by young men who feel marginalised?

It is probably a good idea not to over-state the significance of this trend, but it may nevertheless be time to consider ways in which boys and young men can be more effectively motivated to see educational goals as important for their  social status and personal fulfilment. A good bit of work has been done on this; but the key to combating male educational under-achievement lies in the early years of education. This in turn is another bit of evidence pointing to the importance of good pre-school education, particularly for disadvantaged children.

After centuries of discrimination against women it may not feel compelling to worry about men. But it is important to do so nonetheless.

Science not yet ready for women?

July 29, 2011

In early 2010 the Royal Institution, the body that raises awareness of science and promotes its research in the United Kingdom, decided to make its director redundant, almost without giving her any notice. The director in question was Susan Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield), and when the decision was announced the suspicion in many people’s minds was that the move may have been connected with her gender and the public profile she had (to the great benefit of science, it would have to be said) managed to acquire.

The general suspicion that science is not quite ready for women continues. Research undertaken by the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology (UKRC) has suggested that women are put off science, and that the image of those women who do make it there tends to be heavily influenced by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices.

A modern society cannot afford to harbour such views and prejudices. It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.

Is higher education (or should it be) a meritocracy?

May 19, 2011

Over recent months, whenever I have criticised the current final school examinations and have suggested a lottery as an alternative (most recently here), I have invariably received strong protests in the mail suggesting that a lottery is totally unfair because it doesn’t recognise and reward merit. For me, this raises some interesting questions. If the writers believe that school exams (A-levels, Irish Leaving Certificate, Scottish Highers) recognise merit, then they must be suggesting that the effective application of wealth in secondary education is meritorious.

So what exactly do we think ‘merit’ means in the higher education context? Recently the website Sociological Images published a lecture by Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown on the ‘Consequences of Privatizing Higher Education’. What was even more interesting though was the discussion on the site that her contribution provoked on the question of whether any particular system of higher education represents a meritocracy. Here’s what one contributor had to say:

‘We have quotas, diversity scholarships, Women in Engineering departments, and special programs for those who come from low economic background. You may think that these are all good things (and I don’t even mean to argue that they are not, on balance, good), but they are *not* meritocratic.’

So what, then, is a meritocracy? Is it where we close our eyes to background, income, ethnicity, race, gender, class, and take everyone’s journey through life and work at face value only? Do we assume that merit requires that someone having sat an examination in the Central African Republic be evaluated exactly the same way as the student at Harvard University? Do we assert that scholarships destroy concepts of merit because they provide access at least in part on the basis of considerations other than examinations and performance metrics? This discussion becomes even more loaded when we assume (as, I believe, many do) that ‘merit’ is imbued with ethics.

In reality, ‘merit’ is not a golden calf we need to stand around and worship; it is too difficult to pin down. We need to understand that higher education is in part about lifting social expectations, overcoming discrimination and ending deprivation. We need also to understand that it requires intellectual integrity, scholarship and external engagement. I can find almost no meaningful use for ‘merit’ as a higher education concept; in fact its main impact seems to be to breed complacency and to reinforce resistance to change. It may in the end not be a very useful concept for us today.

Why can’t we succeed in having equal pay?

April 20, 2010

Here’s a curiosity. If you are an American woman on average pay, and you wanted to get paid the same as an American man on average pay and started working alongside him in January 2009, you would have had to work until today to get what he got by December 31st.  For that reason, April 20th has been designated ‘Equal Pay Day‘ by some equal rights groups in the US. And don’t even think of feeling superior if you are European: we’re no better, except in isolated pockets, and in fact we’re generally worse. In Ireland, a woman on average earnings would still be working until early next month to catch up with her male colleague for 2009.

Why is the equal pay problem so intractable?  It is now 36 years since equal pay legislation was introduced in Ireland, in the form of the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act 1974. And yet, while overt pay discrimination has ceased (nobody advertises jobs now with lower rates for women, as they did then), the structural labour market issues that leave women with lower earnings have still not been overcome. And as we now have to face other social issues, including the disengagement of young males from high value education, it may well seem to some that equal pay is not so important: but it is. To overcome these problems, we need to ensure that we have a labour market without gender ghettos, and working practices that are not modelled on 19th century assumptions about family responsibilities.

It is time – high time – that we deal with this huge obstacle to a having a genuinely fair society.

Keeping women in the home

February 18, 2010

I came across something recently I had not heard for a very long time, and indeed had not expected to hear again, ever. I was having a cup of coffee in a Dublin city centre cafe, and at the table next to me were two middle aged ladies (you know, young compared with me these days). I don’t want to give the impression that I eavesdrop, but then again, maybe I do sometimes: I have to get material for my blog, after all. And here’s what they were saying.

Lady 1: ‘Do you remember Sarah [name changed], you know the red haired one that Jimmy was going out with?’
Lady 2:  ‘Yes. Too many opinions, if I remember rightly.’
Lady 1: ‘That’s the one. Well, she and Jimmy are getting married.’
Lady 2: ‘Really? I didn’t think Jimmy was, shall we say, the marrying kind.’
Lady 1: ‘Yes, I thought that. But they are. But do you know, Sarah is going to continue working in the travel agency, you know the one Louise was working in until they let her go.’
Lady 2: ‘I hate that. Another married woman taking up a job that could go to someone who needs it.’
Lady 1: ‘Yes, just thinking of herself instead of others at this time when good people are losing jobs.’

I suspect the two ladies themselves were not unduly burdened with jobs – they looked more like the shopping-and-lunching kind – but even then I was aghast at the conversation and was sorely tempted to interject. Such an exchange would not have been untypical in, say, the early 1960s, but in the new millennium?

Well, even if the spirit of the age is against them, the law is not. Because here is what the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) has to say on the matter, in article 41(2) (in the context of constitutional protection for the family).

‘1° In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’

Before we get too anguished at all this, it is worth remembering that the Constitution was adopted in 1937, and it is full of social and political commentary that is typical of the age in which it was written, which in Europe generally was the age of corporatism, fascism and conservative social values. It is a document of its time. All in all, it has been interpreted in case law in a more modern, liberal manner (the effect of that being that the Constitution does not mean what it says, but what the judges say it means). So I am not aware of any case in which article 41 has been used to restrict women’s rights in employment, or anything similar (though an attempt was made to use it in a case on the tax code).

But still it is there, and is capable of being quoted. More than that, the lead-in to article 41, in referring to the rights of the family, says that the family is ‘a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.’ This latter phrase could suggest that the ‘special’ status of women – what you and I might consider discrimination against women – cannot even be revoked by law, not even by constitutional law.

Anyway, Senator Ivana Bacik has now called for a referendum to remove article 41 and its provisions from the Constitution. I would go along with this proposal, as a method by which we as a country may secure closure to an age in which society victimised some of its members, including women, and in which inequality was the norm. It’s time to move on. I might merely suggest – and I’ll return to this – that we don’t restrict our discussions to article 41, but might look more broadly at the possibility of adopting a completely new constitution.

Getting the point

December 16, 2008

For the curious, this blog now comes to you from California, where I am attending an event this evening before returning to Ireland tomorrow.

At this morning’s event with President McAleese in Phoenix, Arizona, the President of Arizona State University, Dr Michael Crow, made an interesting point. He said that the best predictor of final school results (SATs in the US, Leaving Certificate in Ireland) was not the student’s talents, learning or skills, but his or her zip code (or post code). If,  his argument was, you determine university access through examination results, you may think you are applying an objective standard that is blind to class, race and background, but in reality you are doing the opposite. So the first step to tackling educational disadvantage at tertiary level is to accept that a points-based system is inherently discriminatory. What is worse, it is discrimination masquerading as even-handed objectivity.

I don’t know, in any scientific sense, whether this holds true for Ireland also. I suspect it does. We know that, nationally, over 50 per cent of an age cohort go to university or college. But we also know that in certain areas (some of them very close to DCU) a significant majority of young people will not achieve the points needed to go to college. Is this because people in those areas are inherently less intelligent? Of course not. So if we apply a points system we are saying that the perceived (but unachieved) objectivity of examination results should trump social exclusion concerns.

I have pointed out in the past that the points system has a number of undesirable effects, including its tendency to push students into subject areas which are not national priorities. I should now add what I would regard the clincher: that it is a framework that entrenches social exclusion.

We urgently need a national debate on this, and to move towards getting something that is better, in the national interest and in the interests of equity and non-discrimination. The time for that debate is now.