Progress towards gender equality begins in universities

Encouraging the use of inclusive language and implementing policies against gender-based violence on campus can lead to wider societal change, say Amparo Galbis and Cristiana Oliveira 

February 9, 2019
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In Spain, only 17 of 81 university institutions are led by a woman (seven public and 10 private).

The Swedish city of Malmö will host the 6th Women Rectors Conference in May. It’s a magnificent occasion for reflection and analysis on higher education from the point of view of women who lead universities throughout Europe. Under the title Responding to evolving challenges: best practices for women leadership in academia”, the event will be a fantastic opportunity to continue to shine a spotlight on the role of women in higher education.

Because if there is one thing that those of us who head the academic management of a university agree on, it is the need to change certain outdated clichés and consolidate the idea that the contribution of women to higher education must be the same as that of men and vice versa; a reality which we must continue to work towards to create a new cultural norm. 

This new norm must be promoted and nurtured from primary and secondary education; this will help end stereotypes and allow for the incorporation of men into feminised degrees and women into degrees that are seen as more masculine (the so-called STEM gap).

The percentage of women studying STEM degrees remains very low. This reality forces us to ask ourselves about the cause, although there is probably a combination of reasons. The unquestionable fact, however, is that this lower percentage of women in STEM professions deprives society of part of their extraordinary human qualities, of their emotional intelligence and of their intellectual talent. 

There is no doubt that having more women in STEM professions, especially in positions of responsibility, would not only result in greater technological development but, as multiple studies have shown, it would improve the work environment and conflict resolution. 

It is important to remember that many women in the fields of technology, mathematics, and science have had their professional careers cut short by glass ceilings, which in theory are non-existent, but nevertheless many women have encountered. 

In addition, many women have been deprived of the fair professional recognition they deserved for their work. This reality is one of the main reasons why few women choose to study STEM degrees, probably along with the fact that education directs them from an early age towards other more "feminine" professions. 

Let's take this reality into account and focus on making a change, while bearing in mind that university culture is built with men and women, an idea that must permeate the entire university, from the rector's office to the classroom. In fact, as rectors we are aware that our roadmap begins by placing students at the centre of our concerns and offering an education that guarantees their personal and professional development. 

During this education, we must always remember that we are training the leaders of the future, people destined to establish the path that contributes to improving our society. As universities we must analyse our context and be sensitive to social transformations. 

For this reason, it is important for higher education institutions to take steps in the right direction, with initiatives such as creating a gender studies degree or department that can contribute to progress in reducing inequality and that is built around training, research, leadership and management. Such an initiative reflects the parts of society that are difficult to change, but emphasises that it is vital to keep moving forward. 

We should also strive to demand measures such as a requirement that universities draw up budgets with a gender perspective; that non-sexist and inclusive language be normalised; that work be done so that there is greater parity in all the university’s organisational structures; that there be an equality component in subjects; that leadership training programmes be promoted among women; and that there be a policy of intolerance of gender-based violence. 

We will continue to promote the necessary changes from within the university, with the strong conviction that the future of a country lies in its education.

Amparo Galbis is rector of Universidad Europea de Valencia and Cristiana Oliveira is rector of Universidad Europea de Canarias.

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