Posted tagged ‘equality’

Gender in higher education: the contribution of governance

April 14, 2015

As a guest post on this blog recently explored, and as I’ve also noted previously, the higher education scene is not necessarily one of good practice in relation to gender equality. Women make up an increasingly large proportion of the academic community overall, but are still seriously under-represented in senior positions.

However it is not just employment practices in universities that deserve scrutiny, but also governance. In the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12, we found that women were not well represented on governing bodies, and as a result we made the following recommendation:

‘The panel therefore recommends that each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.’

This was picked up in the Code of Good Governance issued by the Committee of Scottish Chairs in July 2013, which included a wider principle of respect for equality and diversity, and a specific reference to equality goals for the independent membership of governing bodies:

‘The governing body, having due regard to applicable law, shall establish appropriate goals and policies in regard to the balance of its independent members in terms of equality and diversity.’

The chairs have now extended this commitment in a policy statement issued this month, with the following commitment:

‘[The chairs of governing bodies] will aim to achieve, on a timescale which may vary according to the circumstances of each Institution, a minimum of 40 percent of each gender among the independent members of the governing body; and will measure success by the extent to which this has been achieved for the sector by 2018.’

The commitment does not cover members elected by staff or students or nominated by external stakeholders, though these are encouraged to address the diversity commitment also.

How significant is this as an issue? I am pleased to say that since we assessed Scottish governing bodies in 2011 there has been some improvement. Most university governing bodies now have 30 per cent or more women members. The best in class is the University of Edinburgh, 51 per cent of whose Court members are women. A number of governing bodies (including my own) now have women chairs (of whom there were none previously). Scotland may be fact be out-performing other systems in these islands. A significant number of English universities score below 25 per cent, and most of the better performers are in the 30-35 per cent range. The same is true of Ireland, with Trinity College Dublin however managing 41 per cent (in what is largely an internal membership). The National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), which recently has been in the spotlight for gender equality reasons, has a governing body 36 per cent of whose members are women.

Of course gender (and indeed diversity more generally) is not the only criterion to apply, but it is important, if we want to say with any credibility that universities are representative of the wider population and its aspirations, that governing bodies reflect this understanding. There is still some way to go, but there has been progress.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the criticism that the university establishments have tended to direct at my governance review, it is gratifying to see that we have had a perceptible impact.


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’.

The political equality struggle: a PS

March 11, 2011

Yesterday I published a post here in which I suggested that gender quotas could make a useful contribution to greater equality in the political world. I mentioned this also on Twitter, and between the tweets and offline emails I received over the past 24 hours I can tell readers that the more vocal responses were overwhelmingly negative; some were in fact quite rude. One kind emailer even suggested that ‘Irishmen [sic] had not fought for freedom all those years ago to have it taken away by gender quotas’. Several tweeters suggested that people should be elected and appointed in politics ‘on merit alone’ rather than on the basis of their gender (which was more or less the point made by Lucinda Creighton that I referred to in my last post).

I won’t bother with the fighting Irishmen in this context. But the ‘merit’ argument is worth a brief response. It is based on the assumption that people make choices, whether in the polling booth or in the Taoiseach’s or Prime Minister’s office, based on objective criteria. From this it follows that, as a majority of the working population is now female, but only 20 per cent of senior management positions are held by women, women objectively and on merit are less well equipped to lead. It also follows that the four women Enda Kenny appointed to junior ministerial posts are all less qualified than the 13 men appointed to cabinet.

In fact, and with apologies for the blunt language, the merit argument is a lot of codswallop. When we make choices about whom we elect or appoint, we are all weighed down by the cultural inheritance and the conscious and subconscious prejudices we have acquired. Nobody is totally objective. Right now we are living in a society that is getting some really important things badly wrong. It is allowing young men to become disengaged, from education in particular, and thereby risking the development of a disoriented and dysfunctional male class; while at the same time holding back women from senior leadership roles. This particular cocktail of discrimination and neglect is one of the biggest dangers we now face as a society.

There are many things we need to do to address all this, but gender quotas may be one sensible, though temporary, measure to create a fairer and more viable society for future generations.

Oxbridge inequality

December 7, 2010

Somewhere amongst my possessions is a group photo taken when I began my postgraduate research in Cambridge University in 1978, of all new students in my then college. There were young people in the photo from all around the world There were Russians, Poles, Germans, French, South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Australians. It was a cosmopolitan lot, then? Yes, but with a twist: virtually everyone was white. I don’t now have the photo in front of me, but I believe there was one black face, and one Asian face.

I was reminded of this today when the Guardian newspaper reported that 20 colleges in Oxford and Cambridge did not offer a single place to any black student last year. But it gets worse:  not a single member of the academic staff of Cambridge University is black.

It is, to be honest, uninteresting to me whether this is the result of racism. At the very least, it is the result of indifference to the racial composition of the university and a tendency to be comfortable with a very white image.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities ask for and get more funding per student than is available to other UK universities, based in part on the idea that the taxpayer should support their more expensive infrastructure and buildings and allow them to play a leading role amongst the world’s top universities. Even if that is a correct is a correct approach (and it is a highly arguable one), the additional funding should compel the two universities to play a particularly visible role in attracting and integrating students from minorities and from lower socio-economic groups. The two universities fail spectacularly to do this.

No doubt the global role played by Oxford and Cambridge is significant. But the time has come to force the two universities to become much more inclusive. The failure to do this should be punished financially, not rewarded. But while we should rightly criticise Oxbridge, we should also remember that few universities have managed to get this completely right. It is time to focus strongly on ensuring that all have appropriate access to higher education, once they have the qualifications and talents.

The gender thing

August 11, 2010

So are we making progress, or are we going backwards? Do we even understand what is happening regarding gender equality?

Why am I asking these questions? Because over the past week or so a debate has been raging in political circles as to whether the obvious gender gap in politics can be closed a bit through quotas in candidate selection. Quotas have been toyed with as an idea in some circles, notably in Ireland by Fine Gale leader Enda Kenny (but without much support from within his own party). Now the Irish Times has conducted a survey of current female parliamentarians to ask them what they thought, and 14 out of 23 (yes, we only have 23, and that’s both Houses) were against introducing quotas. One even thought the idea was ‘insulting to women’.

Actually, the gender issue has become hugely complex. If we look at leading positions in politics (actually, not just leading positions), business, even education, women are scandalously under-represented. But when we look at the number of those with higher qualifications and degrees, the picture is reversed, and women are increasingly outperforming men. You would expect to see this reflected in gradual changes in the composition of what one might call the national leadership circle, but it is not the case, and if anything the trend is in the other direction.

So it seems to me that two (rather different) things need to be addressed. First, we need to be careful that young men do not disproportionately become educationally disenfranchised, not least because if we don’t address this we may be building up serious social problems. And secondly, we need to take far more radical steps to remove the glass ceiling for women. In politics, this could be tackled in a number of ways, with the crazy working practices perhaps being the first target. But I doubt that a proper balance can be attained any time soon without quotas of some sort or other. We live in a society that does not yet see women as natural political leaders, tho0ugh some (and in particular the current President and her predecessor) have perhaps been able to make some difference. RThis needs radical treatment, and I tend to believe that quotas are perfectly reasonable as an interim measure.

And just in case somebody in academic circles thinks that universities are so much better, think again – women make up the majority of lectureship positions, but only a small proportion of the holders of senior posts are women. And again, there is no significant trend visible right now that would indicate that things are improving. And there hasn’t even been one woman university president.

Rather than have all this as an issue that everyone discusses but that never really changes, we should accept that it is time for action. Real action. Quotas.

The race card

June 7, 2010

Much of the law and best practice that has been adopted in these islands relating to discrimination and diversity has its origins in the United States. American legislation, much of it adopted during the Lyndon B Johnson presidency, defined a fair amount of legal reform in this part of the world, and US pressure groups pushing for equal rights set the tone for others across the world. And yet, in some respects America also still has more people openly undermining equality and diversity than almost anywhere else.

The most recent example of this is to be found in political infighting in the US Republican party. In the developing election campaign for Governor of South Carolina, Republican candidate Nikki Haley – a woman of Sikh descent – has been criticised in extraordinary terms by a state senator from her own party, Jake Knotts. Here is what he has been reported as saying:

‘We already got one raghead in the White House; we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.’

What is amazing is that such overtly racist talk can be accepted as part of the rough and tumble of electoral politics, and that, apparently, no attempt is being made to prosecute Mr Knotts. For many people all over the world, the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency showed the growing political maturity of America and gave heart to the movement for equal rights. However, this is undermined to quite an extent by the extreme racist discourse of many of those on the right in US politics, in political debate and on the airwaves. There should be no tolerance for such talk. The last bit of growing up still remains to be completed.

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.

Parliamentary women

March 12, 2010

More than 90 years since Constance (Countess) Markievicz was first elected to the British House of Commons, and by virtue of the same election to the first Dáil, we are still far from having equal representation for men and women in our parliament. Out of 166 TDs (members of Dáil Eireann, the lower House of the Irish parliament) 22 are women. Party-wise these are distributed as follows: 8 are in Fianna Fáil, 7 are in the Labour Party, 5 in Fine Gael, 1 in the Greens, and 1 (Mary Harney) non-party.

Against this backdrop the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny TD, proposed a new party policy under which there would be minimum quotas for women candidates in elections to bring about an increase in the number of women representing the party. This proposal was rejected yesterday by the Fine Gael parliamentary party. According to an Irish Times report, the decisive argument against the proposal was advanced by one female TD, Lucinda Creighton. And this is how she explained her opposition:

‘It’s a very easy solution to a very complex problem. It’s not a fix for solving the factors that prevent women from getting into politics and the issues that prevent them from staying in politics. You really have to look at other things like the long hours, childcare and how [women] are treated in the political environment.’

I guess I have some sympathy with both positions. Quotas are, I believe, a start to correcting the imbalance. But I also agree that the problem will not be corrected unless and until the national parliament is reformed and working conditions are less insane than they currently are. The existing rules are built around notions of a gentlemen’s club, with on the one hand bizarre late evening sittings, and on the other amazingly long holidays. There are reasons other than female representation that should bring us to want to reform all this, but one way or another it is urgent that this should be done.

My guess is that in the event quotas will be off the agenda, as will reform. Going on as before is just that much easier and more comfortable. Shame on them.

Male teachers returning?

March 9, 2010

Every year in the autumn I have for the past decade been presiding at degree conferring ceremonies at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, which is a college of my university. The majority of the student who receive their parchments from me intend to become primary school teachers – and the overwhelming majority of them are women. I have not recently seen the gender breakdown of trainee teachers, but my guess is that typically over 80 per cent of these new graduates are female. I suspect that, for now, the majority of school principals are still men, but that will change over time.

One of the consequences of this is that primary school children often only experience women as educational role models. Is this good or bad, or does it matter? My guess is that it does, though not necessarily a much as some suggest. For example, a study has shown that female teachers are often nervous about mathematics, and convey this to their students, and to girls in particular. This then has onward implications for mathematics proficiency and the gender distribution in careers where this is important. Another issue is that boys are driven to a life of under-achievement because they see no male role models during these important formative years.

There may however be a slight change in the gender breakdown of students doing teacher training. According to a report, the recession and the resulting higher unemployment have pushed young men in Britain into considering the teaching profession. The number of men applying for teacher training courses rose by 52 per cent in 2008-09. We are still a good bit off an equal distribution between men and women, but it’s a start.

Generally in employment of all kinds there should be no male or female ghettos. But this is particularly true of teaching, where an unequal distribution may have a number of unpredictable effects. I don’t off-hand know what the trend is in Ireland, but I shall find out. And I hope that in Ireland, too, this unbalanced situation is being eroded.

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.