At first glance, you might think that universities, as spaces for promoting critical thinking and (often) social justice, are more immune from sexism than, say, the film industry. You might expect them to less homophobic than professional football, and less racist than the Metropolitan Police, and so on. A hunch says that they might be, but sadly the truth is less positive in terms of our record and culture of gender in-/equality, for one.
Academia: The Big Hope?
There’s a long (right wing) tradition of criticising academia as dressing towards the political left, favouring politics and policies that promote social equality. Universities are, not coincidentally, significant (but not the only) places where the perspectives of marginalised groups are investigated and highlighted through feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory. This leftish orientation is unsurprising given that a great deal of university activity is geared around trying to understand the word we live in – and that we are, as a result, by and large Brexit Remoaners, too. We’re a veritable hotbed of Political Correctness Gone Mad (PCGM). To add to this, there are now more female students in UK universities than male – 57% to 43%, to be precise. This bodes well for higher education, right? The reality of the situation, though, is far from rosy.
Degree ‘Choice’ and Gender
In terms of study options, there are long-standing differences in the gender balance on degree courses. In spite of there being more women than men at university, there are far more men in engineering, computing, physics and chemistry, and maths. In computing and engineering, it’s about 85% men. Then there are more women in health sciences, biology, social sciences, languages, education, and creative arts. In education, the ratio of women to men is 9:1. The only subject with an equal balance is, interestingly, business. There are also far fewer women taking postgraduate research degrees than men across the UK (except Northern Ireland, for some reason).
We might casually discount these figures as representing students’ natural ability and free choice: some subjects are simply more ‘girly’ or ‘boyish. But the figures indicate that degree choice is anything but free, and sociology helps us to understand that what is or isn’t girly/boyish is socially dictated. There is no biological reason for gender differences on any degrees – i.e. no evidence to support any real differences in ability or preference by gender (or race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social background, for that matter). This means that people’s choices are being steered by culture – that people from either gender are subtly or even explicitly encouraged towards (or discouraged from) certain subjects. The knock-on effect then spills into the labour market around jobs that are supposedly appropriate (or inappropriate) to particular genders. The numbers themselves also play a role here: imagine walking into a lecture theatre, careers fair, meeting, or training event, where nearly 90% of the people there are the other gender to you.
University Jobs and Gender
The gender differences in postgraduate research students, often the ticket into academic posts, provide an inkling as to how things pan out in the academic life for men and women. Of all academic staff in the UK, 55% are men. This is ‘better’ than some of the figures above, but still strange when you consider that there are more female than male students. What stops women staying on beyond their Bachelor or Master’s degree? When it comes to part-time staff, the balance is the other way around – more female academics than male. Maybe they’ve got childcare responsibilities, so don’t want to work full time – but why shouldn’t the men be doing that? I’ve written before that the funding for students in higher education favours those that don’t have family commitments, and this is one reason why mature students essentially vanished the last time tuition fees went up in 2012.
What you see when you get to the top end of academia is that only a quarter of all senior academic posts are held by women. This comes about in part because men are more likely to want/be able to forgo family commitments to further their careers, women are more likely to act collegially (rather than selfishly in their work), There is even evidence of a clear gender bias towards men in student assessments of teaching. The deck is therefore stacked in men’s advantage. It’s worth remembering here the national pay gap figures – last week marked the point in the calendar when women effectively started working for free for the rest of the year.
We can see that the gender imbalances in society are also present in higher education; universities don’t operate in a social vacuum, and the problems you see in society therefore crop up there, too. This is in spite of their PCGM and socially critical credentials. Why is the overall picture so bad?
A useful window into understanding this has come in the aftermath of the Weinstein case, which seems to have marked a shocking but significant step in the battle towards gender equality. Among the discussions and revelations around sexual harassment and discrimination in the media and social media, two hashtags have been particularly powerful in bringing issues to light: #notallmen and #metoo. #notallmen refers to the common refrain, from both men and women, that not all men are Harvey Weinsteins in practice (or in waiting). They’re not, but the problem is that sexual (and other) discriminations are built into everyday life, and are so pervasive that people don’t even know they’re there (or doing them). #metoo was used by Twitter users who’ve been subject to some kind of sexual harassment. Basically, it’s every woman you know (and some men) and this means that you really can generalise – i.e. it’s all men.
For example, academics sometimes have relationships or ‘liaisons’ with their students. Is this adults making free choices? Actually it’s incredibly problematic as the power – and therefore consent – dimension is in the academic’s favour, and there is a real opportunity to abuse that power. It’s this same power that can help them (and the wider community) silence any complaints of inappropriate behaviour. At what might seem the more banal level, men are more likely to be considered authoritative and/or knowledgeable, to agitate for pay raises, to be assertive on grant and promotion applications, to have a stronger physical presence, and (be allowed to) dominate conversations. Once we realise and accept this, then beyond the sledgehammer cases that shock most people, it’s more often a case of harassment and discrimination by a thousand cuts for women everywhere.
I’m struck in all of this by something I read recently, which claimed that most white people are racist, most heterosexuals are homophobic, and most men are sexist. The initial reaction to this is to disagree (#notallmen, right?), but as painful as it is to admit it, it’s true. The problem is that even the most well-meaning of us – academics as much as anyone – often don’t realise that we’re being this way. We need to wake up.