Why We Need More Women Academics

2015-03-08 21:21

Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, receiving an honourary doctorate from the University of Fort Hare (CityPress)

The number of women academics in the United Kingdom paints a dreary picture. Recent media scrutiny reveals that despite an elaborate legislative regime aimed at rectifying this historical imbalance, women remain grossly underrepresented.

Underrepresentation is a serious problem. Women remain numerically weak, limiting their capacity to lobby and impact change. It also makes individual activism harder. The risks are disproportionately higher: glass ceiling-breakers are forced into being risk-averse, eschewing issues they believe in, as an act of self-preservation. Although institutions may do a lot to aid women joining the academy, many fail to understand this. They also fail to realise that the women who are part of the system are an exception; high-achievers who attain at great personal cost (making the invidious choice between family life or a career). Thus, even though the numbers of women may be increasing it masks the true cost of female participation. And the system, which is supposed to be neutral, is itself prejudiced against women. Starting salaries are a useful example. Women face particular social pressure to go into jobs that are either (a) high paying and/or (b) non-threatening to prospective (male) spouses. These contrasting notions reflect the contradictory view of women’s roles in society: on one hand, they are equal to men; on the other, they are subservient to them. Starting salaries, then, are an important signal. If it is high, it may attract women into applying. High-paying in a male-dominated environment, though, means women are less likely apply in the first place. And, bizzarely, society tells them that they either won’t get it, don’t deserve it, or if they do, they’ll never get a husband because of it. Other examples include career patterns and time spent in posts. ‘Male-centric’ mentality still determines the criteria for promotion. Even though there are statutory protections for maternity leave, the pervading culture still frowns on absence – even for child birth. Unlike their husbands, women do not bear the burden of their decision: (a) career drawbacks if they have children or (b) personal/relationship harm if they don’t. The lack of flexibility in how we conceive career paths demonstrates how seemingly gender-neutral promotion criteria may, in fact, not be. Equally, specialisation that falls outside the ‘degree of acceptability’ to male colleagues – notwithstanding academic merit – also presents difficulty. Women may have divergent interests for a variety of reasons. Where they do, they have to fight doubly hard in order to get their scholarship duly credit. Where they do not, they still have to fight doubly hard in order to prove that their work on ‘traditional’ subjects is as good as the men.

That is bad for all of us. Issues requiring change are not necessarily within the exclusive purview of women. But, as a marginalised group, they have often been at the forefront of change. Feminism, at its best, has proven to be an all-encompassing struggle for equality.

Natalya Din-Kariuki, commenting on a campaign for equality at the University of Oxford, put it at such in The Guardian:

‘‘… initiatives fail to … take into account the specific challenges faced by women … within and outside … the academy who are marginalised in multiple ways … There … is … a need for this sort of activity … these initiatives do little to inspire any sense of ownership or belonging in those of us who do not identify with the … dominant group … What is needed … is greater inclusivity and imagination … intersectional questions must be asked … Feminism does not have just one face, one body or one history. For real change to happen, for all women to ascend the staircase of scholarship, then university-based feminist initiatives must confront this truth.’’

The purpose of identifying these issues, and criticising male-dominated universities, is not to demonise men. The cooperation of politically and economically dominant men is vital for any change. Rather, it is necessary for us to understand privilege and intersectionality. Recognising this challenge – and that change isn’t about numbers only, replacing one kind of demographic dominance with another – is the first step in a long journey to liberation. And the case of women academics in the UK is only the beginning.

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