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.