International Women’s Day: embracing staff diversity

Yusra Mouzughi believes that ‘international’ women in universities should be celebrating their cultural differences

March 8, 2017
Wall of face moulds (diversity)

Another International Women’s Day is upon us, and while the successes of this initiative globally are admirable, the world of academia still has a long way to go for women in general and international women – those of a different ethnic, religious or cultural background to the “norm” in their institution – in particular. 

For example, it is well known that the senior leadership of universities tends to be dominated by men of a certain background, a certain age and wearing a certain colour suit. Of the small number of females who have made it to the top, a very small minority represent today’s “international” woman.

I don’t want to sound overly pessimistic. Female representation at senior levels is improving – something that should be applauded. However, although the challenges for women in academia have been discussed at length (and many measures have been introduced to support women trying to climb the slippery academic pole), international women still face challenges – and arguably too little support has been forthcoming to help them deal with these challenges.                                           

With an awareness of the importance of international exposure to enrich the student experience, it is interesting that even in today’s global world (where universities have dedicated many hours of strategy meetings to developing clearly articulated internationalisation agendas) women of different backgrounds still find themselves having to work harder to fit in and grow with their organisation. 

Not only do these women have to contend with the accepted challenges of career breaks, childcare issues, and parity and credibility with male colleagues, there are the added challenges of learning a new culture and political ecosystem, understanding language nuances and discipline-specific dos and don’ts. The simplest of staff room conversations around the morning bacon butty (or “bacon sandwich” for non-northern UK residents) to more academic discussions can leave any international academic truly baffled. 

This may be even more challenging for international women, as cultural backgrounds play a big role in shaping relationships between genders. What may be acceptable behaviour in one context may be considered wholly inappropriate in another. Bearing in mind the cultural differences, international women walk a fine balance between seeming (for example) career driven or pushy, being kind and being weak. Once labelled, it is difficult to shake that tag off.

And this is just when dealing with fellow academics. Students also pose a whole array of challenges for an international woman. 

Most prominent of these is stereotyping. Many female international academics are assumed to teach languages or linguistics. Not that there is anything wrong with teaching languages, of course, but when you are going into a class attempting to quickly establish your credibility as an engineer or a construction project manager (typically male-dominated professions), you not only have the gender stereotype to contend with but the international one as well. 

One way of overcoming these barriers is for international women to understand the value of their difference. Any respectable higher education institution will have some form of strategy on international partnership, and those which can align their expertise and understanding of international markets with those of people within the university are sure to yield positive returns both for individuals and the institution. 

From a student perspective, international female academics are role models for young women. They expand students’ horizons and show them the possibilities that can come from pursuing careers beyond their local area.    

Perhaps attempting to integrate and fit in may not, in fact, be the best way to fully realise the richness that international women bring to universities. The best way forward may be to embrace and highlight the differences, and focus on how individuals’ uniqueness can complement the character of the university. 

Yusra Mouzughi is deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs) at Muscat University, Oman. She was formerly a lecturer and programme leader at Liverpool John Moores University

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