By Jen Evans & Adam Crymble
With thanks to a great group of participants from across the arts, social sciences, business, and humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, Addressing Gender in Academic Employment helped start some important conversations that we plan to take forward. The participants raised several key concerns related to gender in academic employment, ranging from the job search, to managing career development, to matters of identity and perception inside the classroom, at conferences and while researching.
Participants also discussed the challenges of measuring gender equality. Gathering meaningful data from across an institution as complex as a university can be difficult, and there are some aspects of gender in employment that are not accessible. It may be tempting to note the gender balance in a department as a sign of a problem or of a success story, but as was noted, this surface-level analysis can mask a deeper culture of discrimination. Instead, a ‘cultural audit’ that draws on qualitative as well as the quantitative metrics may provide new levels of nuance to our understanding of how gender affects someone’s experience. Recognising and attempting to understand issues is an important first step in seeking ways to address, and if necessary redress, particular problems. Indeed gathering information about gender in academic employment raises awareness and so begins the process of changing the culture of the university.
Cultures take time to change, and participants agreed that an effective way of addressing these issues was to ensure that those who are new to the field (PhD students and early career scholars) received the support they needed to launch a career founded on equitable principles. Currently the support these scholars receive tends to focus on how to conduct research and deliver teaching, but we believe that it should also encompass what it is like to work in an institution, how to pursue your ambitions while developing your career, and what to expect in different academic settings.
One part of this new level of support for early career scholars would involve building awareness of gender and sexuality issues in the classroom. Supporting staff and providing clear training on how to effectively manage students who, for example, speak over, trivialise, or silence female students, would both improve the student experience, and foster an environment of gender equality. With this in place, students will leave their studies with a positive attitude towards and experience with gender in an academic setting.
Gender inequality isn’t of course something only experienced by students. It is unfortunately all too common to see critiques and in some cases criticisms of the physical appearance of both male and female scholars. With regard to female staff this can be in the form of sexualising, or considering women frivolous and less authoritative because of their appearance. Male staff are of course not immune, with resent research into comments on RateMyProfessor.com noting that male academics in nearly every field were far more likely than their female counterparts to be described as ‘sexy’ by former students. Higher education tends not to have the clear dress codes that are common in other professions or in universities elsewhere. Providing support to researchers on how to present themselves in the classroom, at conferences, and in the media would promote a sense of professional identity that can foster self-confidence and address some of these issues.
Fostering confidence in pursuing ambitions and goals, whether related to career or home life, was an important part of the conversations that took place, and support for how to vocalise that ambition in a way that would allow the university to support it, would be particularly beneficial to colleagues at all levels. Providing role models and mentors who can help people find an effective voice for articulating their ambitions is an important step that universities can take to encourage their staff. This issue also requires that the academy works towards ‘transparency’ in the system so that everyone has equal access to information and is aware of opportunities for progression, thus creating a culture of equality in the institution.
These particular forms of support and guidance provide a clear path for making improvements to gender-related issues in higher education. However, equally important to encouraging a shift in gender culture at the university means hosting more open forums like the one provided by Addressing Gender in Academic Employment, to ensure that issues can be raised in a safe environment, and plans formulated for building a better academy for everyone.
Thanks to our participants for giving us so much to think about.