Posted tagged ‘gender’

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.

Separating values?

December 17, 2013

There are times when, I suspect, we all regret initiating some discussion or other which goes off in an unexpected direction and causes us grief. This, I imagine, is how Universities UK (of which all British universities are members) feel about the advice they recently offered on gender segregation at meetings on university premises. This was contained in a larger document which was about handling external speakers. The document contained a case study, based on a hypothetical event at which the speakers are debating different approaches to religion, where one of the speakers has ‘made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender’. The Universities UK document then set out the legal and practical issues, focusing both on freedom of speech and religious rights, and concluded:

‘It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of [statutory duties], as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.’

While it might be suggested that this conclusion was somewhat opaque, it appeared to offer the advice that, in such circumstances, providing for gender-segregated audiences might be within the law, or indeed might be required by law.

Most documents issued by university umbrella bodies do not attract much public attention, but this one was an exception. A firestorm broke out, with newspapers and other media severely criticising Universities UK, and with student protests outside their offices. There were also reports alleging that segregated meetings has taken place on university campuses. The British Prime Minister also weighed in and, according to a news agency report, indicated that arranging gender-segregated audiences was not acceptable in the UK. A similar view was expressed by the Labour Party’s Shadow Business Secretary.

In the face of this onslaught, Universities UK decided to withdraw its advice pending a review of the issue with the help of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and senior lawyers.

So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how should universities handle the complexities of multi-cultural concerns? Gender equality is one of the most basic requirements of a modern liberal society; so can this be legitimately qualified if a particular religious group rejects it and insists on its right to treat men and women differently? Would we accept it if this religious group were a Christian church?

Not everyone has backed the criticism of the Universities UK document. Writing on the website Huffington Post, the journalist Alastair Sloan suggested:

‘It is not acceptable to demand that a group of consenting adults cannot organise themselves by gender, if they see fit. It is of no business to feminists to be threatening to break up Islamic meetings – unless they are happy to be labelled religious persecutors.’

It is of course clear that universities must be open to and welcome and support people from many different cultures and countries. So for example, universities need to get better at recognising that a bars-and-alcohol leisure culture will seem hostile to many coming here from overseas, and that alternatives should be available. But equally it seems right that universities should protect liberal values of equal rights and opportunities, and that compromises around these values are wrong. The idea of ‘separate but equal’, which in theory underpinned apartheid (in practice there was little equality), has been wholly rejected, and should not be allowed to make a come-back in the context of gender. In many ways, it is reassuring that this was the strong near-consensus reaction to the Universities UK document.

I have a lot of sympathy for Universities UK in all this, as their intention was simply to offer dispassionate legal advice; but sometimes the strict legal position is not helpful. This was one of those times.

Single sex education: good or bad?

September 28, 2011

About 15 years ago I attended a lecture by an educational psychologist who argued, strongly, that in order to maximize educational advantage and improve young people’s constructive contributions to society all boys should be educated in co-educational schools, and all girls in single sex institutions. Boys taught in all-male environments were, we were told, often not well adjusted and were educational under-performers, while girls attending all-female schools worked better, were less distracted and reached their full potential more quickly and securely. He concluded that the paradox had to be resolved in favour of single sex education, because the benefit for girls outweighed the risks for boys.

Single sex education at university level is more or less a thing of the past in western countries, but single sex secondary schools are still often seen as worthwhile. Even in liberal circles that would not countenance education segregated on any other grounds, single sex schools are often seen as good and educationally superior. But is this justified?

A recent report written by eight psychologists and neuroscientists and published in Science magazine (and reported on in the New York Times) dismisses the idea that single sex schooling has any advantages, arguing that there is no ‘valid scientific evidence’ to back it. Apart from having no pedagogical benefits, it produces and reinforces gender stereotypes in both girls and boys. The authors also stress that there is no evidence that boys and girls learn differently.

Perhaps we should apply the same liberal instinct to education that many of us would have in relation to all other areas of life: that treating people differently because of their gender is wrong, even where we think it is for their benefit. Perhaps it is time to conclude that single sex education, like single sex employment, is not justifiable.

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.

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.

Women in universities

April 7, 2010

In the UK a significant development has just been confirmed: more than half of women (51 per cent to be precise) between 17 and 30 are going or have gone to university. In Ireland that may not seem astounding, as the figure here is higher already. But what makes the British number interesting is that the proportion of men going to university stands at 40 per cent, so considerably lower than the percentage of women. Furthermore, while the proportion of men going to university has increased by 3 per cent over a decade, the increase for women over the same period is 10 per cent.

Of course none of this is reflected in the distribution of senior academic posts, a large majority of which are occupied by men. But the educational trend outlined above will have an impact eventually, both in academic employment and in senior posts all over the economy. I suspect many will not worry unduly about this, and will – justifiably – point out that this development balances centuries-long discrimination against women. Nevertheless, we may need to be somewhat concerned about the social impact of having a growing number of men who are, relatively speaking, educationally disadvantaged, not least because such men, arguably unlike women, drift easily into anti-social conduct and even crime.

Perhaps we also need to look more carefully at the impact more generally of having those without a higher education qualification as a minority, who may feel both disadvantaged and inferior. If higher education is, rightly, no longer seen as an entitlement only for the wealthy and privileged, then we need to have a clearer sense of what role in society we expect to be played by those who have not experienced it. These are all issues that, I fear, we are not so far really addressing with any kind of energy.

It’s in the male …

March 23, 2010

As you read this blog post, what you are experiencing is very typical. Or maybe I should say, stereotypical. A columnist for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente, has suggested that bloggers are mainly male. And according to her, this is because it’s a male thing: men need to voice their opinions, and they need to do so before they have taken the time to think it through and form a considered view. And for men this is much the same thing as the inclination we have, apparently, to ‘get a souped-up snowmobile and drive it straight up a mountain at 120 kilometres an hour into a well-known avalanche zone.’

This struck me as stereotyping gone berserk. A majority of the blogs I read with any regularity are written by women, nor do I detect a different style in these than in those written by men. Probably all bloggers are exhibitionists to some extent, present company not excluded. But I doubt there is much of a gender issue here. And in any case, if you want to see a lot of strong opinions delivered from the hip on a regular basis, you can do worse than read Margaret Wente’s column in her newspaper. I’m sure she should publish these on a blog. She certainly has no hesitation driving into an avalanche zone.

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.

The male blogger (well, just about)

January 10, 2009

Yesterday someone drew my attention to an interesting website, Genderanalyzer. This allows you to enter a URL of a blog site, and it will assess the text and tell you whether it was written by a man or a woman. So of course I let it have a go at this blog, and this is what it came up with: ‘We guess is written by a man (54%), however it’s quite gender neutral.’ Far from feeling this violates my masculinity, I am rather pleased with that verdict.

But then I wondered what else I might let it assess. How about Barack Obama’s famous Chicago victory speech, ‘yes we can’? Well, no doubt about that at all – though perhaps Obama’s fame is such that the software already knew him; at any rate, it concluded that ‘we have strong indicators that [the speech] is written by a man (98%).’ Hillary Clinton also is true to her gender, if not quite as definitively: her speech to the Democratic Convention last year was very likely ‘written by a woman (87%)’. Our own Taoiseach Brian Cowen, facing all his challenges, is much more borderline; when he introduced the paper on Building Ireland’s Smart Economy, his maleness was only 62%. But then again, when his predecessor Bertie Ahern addressed the National Forum on Europe a year ago, he was only 54% male, just like your current blogger.

Stereotypes come through fine: Sky Sports’ Andy Gray writing about Sam Allardyce’s appointment as manager of Blackburn Rovers is 99% male, bless him (though you’d have to wonder about the missing 1%). But then again, what’s this – the wonderful Nigella Lawson is, ahem, 74% male! Really?? Exactly the same result as for Margaret Thatcher’s resignation speech in 1990, but could you compare them?

What does any of this tell us? Interestingly, my 50 or so attempts to get Genderanalyzer to give a verdict on the gender of various writers and speakers was overwhelmingly accurate; the latter two are the only two it got ‘wrong’, though to be fair in Margaret Thatcher’s case I was expecting that. Some of the more borderline cases may actually be explained by the fact that I was assessing texts written for the speaker by someone else (whose gender we don’t know), or even by a team of people. But overall, it seems that gender differences as detected in speech are real enough, and on the whole that seems fine. Our task remains to ensure that this is not reflected in the way in which society creates advantages or imposes disadvantages or allows prejudices.

No future for men?

July 14, 2008

When I first started to take a professional interest in gender equality – back in the 1970s – the agenda was very clear indeed. We had only just left behind us the idea that it was lawful to pay men and women different rates of pay for the same job (outlawed only in 1974) and the notion that you could reserve posts for men or for women (outlawed in 1977). There were still large female ghettos and areas of male exclusivity: nurses and secretaries were all women, while engineers, senior managers, priests, architects – and frankly any other groups that had leadership status – were all men. The equality agenda was simple enough: get rid of all that disadvantage for women.

Thirty years on, some things have changed dramatically, others have not. The areas of apartheid are still there, though not necessarily the same areas, and while the glass ceiling has been broken for some women, it remains for others. But what has really changed is that we no longer have a clear consensus as to what the equality agenda now is. Alongside what I might call ‘traditional’ feminist concerns (with significant continuing validity) are now the male concerns – about loss of status and self-esteem, lack of parental rights, juvenile male under-achievement, anti-social conduct, and so forth. What is creeping in is the notion that women are on their way to being the privileged group, with men standing on the fringes hurling beer bottles at them on a Saturday night. Journalists and public commentators have made whole careers out of the call to soothe and caress these broken men so that they might feel respected again.

So what does it all mean? It certainly is not the case that women are now everywhere in key leadership positions. When I meet the other six Irish university Presidents there isn’t a woman in the room. If I look not just at those in leading positions in industry, the public service and education, but also at those one level below who will be the next generation of leaders, women are still wholly under-represented, and there isn’t even a trend in the opposite direction. On the other hand it is true that young men are woefully under-achieving in education, and in some professions – legal practice, for example – the next generation of superstars will be women.

An interesting analysis of all this was contained in yesterday’s Sunday Times, in an article by Sarah Carey (‘Safer jobs for ladies, higher risks and rewards for men‘). If I am summarising her position correctly, she states that the solution to our problems is not to make special provision for men (of a kind that we never made for women), but that we should relax and let nature take its course; we are unlikely to end up with a female-dominated society and a male underclass.

I agree with her assessment, by and large. I don’t believe we should allow law and policy to follow a half-though-out ‘male liberation’ agenda. However, if there is a problem the key to its solution lies in the environment we create for young people of either gender. There is the business about role models, and the difficulty in motivating young males when only women appear to be tackling their upbringing and education. There is the absence of a proper infrastructure for youth leisure; where are all the youth clubs and other meeting places today, that in the past would have taken juvenile males off streets corners and parks at night?

But in the end we cannot engineer equality for men any more than we succeeded in doing it for women. And more particularly, we should stop imagining that female equality of opportunity is no longer a priority subject because it has been achieved.


Sarah Carey also pursues some of these issues in her blog.