This is a speech I gave at the Birmingham University and College Union branch event about gender and governance at this university on March 10th. You can find their report here.
First of all, I will focus on representation and attainment. As this report demonstrates, the percentage of women in the highest academic levels at the University of Birmingham is incredibly low, notably due to the lack of women being appointed or nominated to the categories which aren’t elected. In terms of visibility alone, University management positions appear extremely exclusive and barred from women – this is compounded further by ethnicity.
It reflects down, into very low percentages of female senior academics, a clear disparity in numbers of female lecturers, and a flip in the gender balance for postgraduate students (45% from 55%). To draw from my own experience, only two of 13 lecturers in my two years at University were women, and that’s in the Politics Department.
This sends an implicit message to all of us women studying at an undergraduate level: it’s still a male-dominated field, and the glass ceiling is still very much intact. It has a strong impact on our ability to see ourselves pursuing these careers or even further education: especially for many, the further gap for women of colour. It makes the curriculum inherently exclusive, with a lack of focus on diverse issues or relevant examples, it reinforces stereotypes, it impacts on women’s confidence to speak out in learning environments, leading them in turn to lower levels of attainment, and leaving them less likely to pursue academia.
Hence my second argument: that the current hyper-masculinity of the governance of our university affects the culture and management, and it won’t be fixed merely by changing numbers.
It means that the priorities are different. Having no female Pro-Vice-Chancellors, only 17% of University Council, 19% of Senate and 15% of University Executive Board being women, there is little inclination to cater to the needs of different groups or facilitate the learning of people facing structural barriers to education. There is little in terms of support for students taking maternity leave, or who have caring responsibilities traditionally undertaken by women. The provisions to aid students with mental health issues inside departments is relatively poor, and far from uniform across campus – the provisions for survivors of sexual harassment and assault are far worse. These are gendered issues, and a lack of representation limits the priorities, knowledge and attention of those making the highest level decisions.
Senior management decided that this year would be the ‘Year of Equality’, and when pushed about what this meant when I spoke to him at Fresher’s Fair in September, the Vice-Chancellor was unable to provide more of an explanation than “we’ll be thinking very hard about how to promote equality in employment”. Now first of all, this reinforced my belief that the so-called ‘Year of Equality’ is merely a marketing ploy, an attempt to convince people the University isn’t as rubbish at equal opportunities as UCU’s research suggests, but it also struck me that once again, management have neglected to mention or pay any interest to students.
Learning environments very much have an impact on the quality of education a person can receive or engage in. This University promotes a hyper-masculine, competitive, managerial environment, which detaches students from the content and the academics, making them consumers instead of intelligent people here to learn. This explains and reinforces the success of those who embody the typically and culturally masculine traits, and limits any scope for diversity, creativity or community.
The fact that the University Executive Board’s ‘Champion of Equality’ is a white man (I will make no assumptions about sexuality, gender identity or disability) shows us how much they lack diversity, on top of how much contempt they show for marginalised and minority groups. Equality can’t be imposed from the top by an all-white, majority-male board: it needs to be inclusive, and needs to empower those from the marginalised groups to affect change. The report shows that the areas in which women are least present are those which require appointment, meaning that the men in positions of power are nominating and selecting other men to move up in the hierarchy, or limiting the ability for women to apply through advertising internally.
This is cultural, and it won’t be changed by tokenistic labels, but through actual engagement with and empowerment of the people facing the barriers, including students.