How can global higher education promote gender equality?

Gender equality in higher education is complex and not easy to implement. Most official policy approaches concern themselves with the mild notion of equity or statistical parity and gender justice.

This is a weak notion of fairness and refers to achieving gender parity among undergraduate students, or among students in general. It is not about the academics, teachers and administrators, nor the disciplines or subjects taught. It may be associated with other forms of social justice, around class, diversity, ethnicity and race.

Some feminist critics argue that this is either ‘the numbers game’ or ‘misogyny masquerading as metrics’. Claiming equity does nothing to alter the social, economic and cultural relations of higher education. It may indeed embed traditional structures that ignore the deeper systems of sexual oppression, harassment and abuse.

Examples of these are legion in higher education today, especially in the informal systems such as the ways student unions operate and disciplinary or subject cultures.

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Even in subjects where there are now a majority of women students, the culture remains impervious to transformation.

Indeed, in the 21st century the balance of women to men students has altered in the direction of far more women in social sciences and aspects of the sciences and humanities. This rebalancing of higher education has also led to increasing numbers of women and feminist academics, although there has been no claim that there is a rebalancing of gender among teachers and-or academics.

Over the generations, women have come to play a strong part in critiquing traditional subjects or developing new approaches or disciplines such as women’s or gender studies.

Transforming social relations

Nevertheless, the prominence of women and feminists in public and political leadership positions across the world, including in higher education institutions, has also led to debates about the political and social values espoused.

Does the transformation of gender balance mean an agreement amongst feminists about how to transform the social relations of higher education?

There are contested notions about how to deal with individual cases of discrimination or the treatment of individuals who have been harassed or abused. Is it purely a question of gender or do other forms of social and sexual identity come into play? How do these affect the changing forms of subject and disciplinary identity too?

These difficult questions of sexual harassment and abuse within higher education often therefore remain ignored and disparaged.

What follows is not to be seen as a criticism of the excellent feminist work on and in higher education, but rather to demonstrate the underlying misogynist structures that limit the possibilities of change, given the increasingly marketised and competitive forms of academic capitalism.

The pressures of the market

In January, I attended an exciting launch of a new Centre for Sociology of Education and Equity at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education. The centre is led by two feminist professors of sociology of education who have formidable reputations in the field.

One has extensive research on and in higher education – and the other leads the United Kingdom-based but international Gender and Education Association (GEA) and has developed excellent research on post-human material feminism. This was showcased recently at the GEA international conference held at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

A forerunner of this centre was one established almost 40 years ago now, called the Centre for Research on Education and Gender (CREG), which created many innovative feminist courses and critical systems but remained marginal to the mainstream of sociology of education. It also never established a strong foothold, given the competing subjects and disciplines in the UCL Institute of Education.

The inaugural seminar for the series on ‘Just Ideas’ was a debate between Professor Becky Francis, the first woman (and feminist) head of the UCL Institute of Education, and another woman sociologist of education. It was about collaborative research on schools rather than higher education.

Neither raised the question of gender directly although they referred to these issues tangentially. For example, more working class boys are low achievers in English and girls are wrongly allocated to lower sets in maths. Examples of the importance of feelings and emotions in relation to friendships and learning were also mentioned.

A panel of public educators debated the question of social rather than gender justice and gender was largely absent. Why? This was a major event and it was a first opportunity to celebrate the innovative research of new generations of women sociologists and feminist researchers in higher education.

Yet it felt as if to ask the question about the absence of an explicit concern with gender as a key in equity would be somehow improper and special pleading. It was a lost opportunity to showcase the excellent and innovative work by feminist sociologists of education and to demonstrate how to deal with the continuing and difficult cases of lack of gender equality in higher education.

Friendship patterns are obviously key and there is a huge amount of evidence to show that friendships vary along gender as well as class or ethnic lines. Indeed the origins of generations of feminism illustrate this point strongly.

Gender as an issue with respect to equality in higher education is not urgent because of the pressures of competition in the education market for students.

As Professor Jill Blackmore, the redoubtable feminist researcher argues, drawing on a four-year study of three Australian universities, higher education is undergoing a radical restructure globally to meet the needs of nation-states and private providers.

She shows how university leadership and change management practices have led to less diversity in and of leadership and academic disengagement of aspirants for university management. Universities struggle to survive as viable institutions in an increasingly competitive global higher education sector. Gender takes a low profile.

Miriam E David is professor emerita of sociology of education at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education, United Kingdom. Email: