Academe still male bastion, assert female scholars

There may be more women on campus today, but a stark gender divide persists, says Melanie Newman

July 10, 2008

A female majority among undergraduates does not mean that the battle for a more feminist academe is won, delegates at a seminar on the impact of feminism on higher education have heard.

Carole Leathwood of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University, which hosted the conference, said feminism could take credit for female students' numerical superiority.

But despite headlines such as "Men go missing on campus" and "The takeover is complete" women are hardly storming the ivory tower, she said. They make up less than half the UK research student population and less than 40 per cent of research students globally. Predictable subject divisions remain, with females making up only 24 per cent of engineering, manufacturing and construction students worldwide.

Women made up 57.2 per cent of students in 2006-07, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. They make up only half the students in the top ten institutions in the 2008 Good University Guide, compared with 65 per cent of students in the bottom ten.

Among staff, a stark gender divide remains. Women accounted for only 17.5 per cent of chairs in 2006-07, but 93 per cent of admin support staff. "In the US, the gender pay gap among academics has not changed since the 1970s," Professor Leathwood said. Even when subject field, experience and publication numbers were controlled for, research by David Blackaby, Alison Booth and Jeff Frank on academic economists, published in The Economic Journal in 2005, showed that women earned 9 per cent less than men.

Professor Leathwood explained the headlines - and the concern expressed by governments worldwide about the "feminisation" of higher education - in terms of the fear of emasculation. "This is seen as a threat to masculinity. It is a moral panic."

Irene Gedalof, senior lecturer in women's studies at London Met, argued that, far from being secure, feminist scholarship is under threat even in subjects on which it has had the greatest impact, such as sociology. "The presence of a large number of women does not guarantee a large amount of feminist ideas," she said.

Wendy Stokes, senior lecturer in politics at the university, said her subject, which had encompassed the study of gender effects on politics, had "disappeared" under international relations - "a discipline that is one of the least affected by gendered critique". She is one of three female academics in a department of 30.

Courses encompassing gender studies are underattended and perceived by students as second rate, Dr Stokes said. "Are we feminising the academe or masculinising our female students?" she asked.

Angela McRobbie, professor of communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, spoke of a tension between the "vibrant feminist potentials" represented by the "tidal flows" of women entering universities and "the inexorable march through institutions of values weighted towards corporate culture".

"The knowledge economy requires these women - they are the future of the labour market," she said. Rather than unquestioningly celebrating the increase in women at university, academics should be asking what sort of education they are receiving, she suggested, pointing out that traditional routes of entry for women, such as adult education, are being undermined by cuts.

Professor McRobbie also attacked "gender mainstreaming" - the process of assessing the impact of policies and programmes on women, which is championed in the UK by Sylvia Walby of Lancaster University. One argument is that the state's adoption of this process and other feminist concerns such as domestic violence has rendered the old "rowdy" and antagonistic feminism obsolete. German feminists have argued that gender mainstreaming is about "optimising gender-specific human resources" and has little to do with promoting women's rights.

Meanwhile, feminism is the subject of "many dissertations" but remains a "private passion", Professor McRobbie said, as feminist principles cannot be expressed without provoking revulsion. "Academe has become the space where what cannot be discussed in the outside world can be obsessed about."


Barbara Read, senior research fellow in Roehampton University's School of Education, analysed "general visitor" web pages of 15 universities from the UK, the US, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Images of female students outnumbered those of male students by a ratio of 3:2, she found. The women were mainly white, young, slim and "conventionally attractive"; two thirds were shown smiling, compared with a third of male students.

The pictures played on perceptions of women as friendly, welcoming and "able to help in a way that doesn't threaten the male or female viewer", Dr Read said. Male students were often shown involved in physical activity, rather than in the role of "student guide". Twice as many male as female lecturers were pictured. Where male lecturers were shown with a student, the student was usually female, whereas female academics tended to appear with male and female students.

The sites were "riddled with the dominant discourse of the welcoming, unthreatening female student and the traditional, powerful, masculinised faculty", Dr Read concluded.

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