As a female leader in my 50s, it would be easy for me to be blasé about International Women’s Day. After all, I’ve done OK. But when I reflect on the reasons why this day still exists, I find there’s still so much work to be done to achieve true gender parity.
As a university, all of our staff and students can play an active role in changing culture, society and behaviours for the better. Here are 7 reasons why we must.
1. The UK still has actively sexist laws
On this 100th International Women’s Day, let’s take stock of where the world is in terms of gender parity. There’s no doubt this has been a century of progress. But when you look at the percentage of property owned and companies run by men, frankly it’s horrifying!
In researching this piece, I’ve found 150 countries with at least 1 actively sexist law. Take a look at inheritance law and you’ll see the UK is sadly among those nations – not to mention our country’s 60–75% earnings differential between men and women doing the same work. As a university, we should be calling these failings out and advocating ways to make change happen.
2. You don’t have to be sexist to impact a women negatively and unfairly
In my professional journey through 3 universities, I’ve been lucky enough never to experience active sexism. But I have experienced something that could easily be confused with sexism.
I once arranged an interview panel for a senior role with an external panel member from another university. In the informal discussion before we convened the interviews, I saw him instantly gravitate towards the eldest man on the panel, assuming he must be the Executive Dean. When I opened the meeting, I could see the puzzlement in his face. Eventually the penny finally dropped – and he spent the rest of the interview overcompensating by agreeing vigorously with everything I said.
Similarly, on arriving at a table at a formal black tie event, where most guests were already seated I started to look for the spare seat that must be mine. The people at the table indicated that I must have made a mistake. This wasn’t my table because the only seat left, according to the name tag, was for Professor Hoskins.
This wasn’t sexism. It was unconscious bias. Like all of us, raised in a certain society we have unconscious assumptions that we cannot help. When people realise their unconscious bias, they are shocked because it doesn’t align to their conscious values. We must all make the effort to be more aware of our unconscious biases, but they are hard to break. Gender will probably be one. The best way to ensure they do not impact people’s careers is to ensure we create a diversity of perspectives at networking events and interviews, for example.
3. Gender inequality is still baked into our social structures
I have experienced structural inequality as a mother. I had a very traditional marriage in which I raised the children and did my work, while my husband had the luxury of focusing on his career. At the time, I didn’t feel this was sexist because he had a very constrained work life in the military, without the luxury of balance.
But that meant I couldn’t do a lot of the external activities expected of an academic, such as conferences and evening events. I remember a PDR conversation with Paul Hayes when I was a Head and he was Dean. I told him, ‘I worry about my trajectory because I can’t get that externality in.’ He was fantastic and suggested we list how I could achieve this in other ways.
I was really heartened by his support. Sadly, the ways to compensate often require you to burn the candle at both ends. If we become more aware of the invisible inequalities that society accepts as normal, we can work towards a better normal for men and women alike.
4. We need female role models – but for the right reasons
Reflecting on my research, the message I want to give young women and parents is that we’ve got to take away the boundaries; the sense that we can predict people’s potential based on their gender (or any characteristic).
We have to set high expectations and showcase fantastic role models – but be very careful not to create ‘luck and talent myths’ around them. Most successful women are normal women who have worked hard and have found effective strategies to achieve despite structural inequality. If we assume and talk about success as happening only by luck or being born ‘special’ then young women won’t understand or believe that they can get there too. Worse, they won’t know what the real ingredient to success is – persevering through setbacks.
5. We must combat the threat posed by stereotypes
Parents and educators must support learners to adopt theories of self and ability that cut through what we call ‘stereotype threat’. When I saliently feel female, the stereotypes society has about females will impact my abilities. That’s stereotype threat. The impact comes from other people’s expectations and your own expectations of self.
For example, if I’m parallel parking, which stereotypically women are seen as not being able to do, and a bunch of males by the roadside shout comments about me being a woman trying to park, it makes me feel saliently female – and I won’t be able to park.
Now apply that idea to education – for example, the stereotype that ‘women can’t do maths’. There’s a fascinating research study on this. A group of men and women are put in a room and given a maths test. The results are analysed. Then they do an equivalent test, but this time the women are asked to wear bikinis. At this point, the women perform really badly.
You might think their performance was just affected by being cold or uncomfortable in a bikini. But at the same time, they did an English test and performed just as well in a bikini, because women are ‘good at English’. That’s the power of stereotype threat in education.
So, we have to educate young people to think about the nature of ability and their own capabilities. They can transcend stereotype threat by adopting what we call ‘growth mindset’, which is the idea that anybody can get better at anything by virtue of the effort they expend and strategies they adopt. If teachers and parents work on that, along with us in higher education, then stereotype threat won’t have the same impact.
I don’t think we can ever eradicate stereotypes. But we can create cultures in which stereotypes don’t threaten abilities and performance.
6. The pandemic has created both tragedy and opportunity
COVID-19 took us backwards so much as a society. Home schooling, because of home-life structures that tend to still exist in the UK, fell in many cases to women. That created difficulties in their work life that will cast a long shadow on their careers.
Women could not escape domestic abuse because they were confined to their homes. People who might have protected them didn’t see it, because of lockdowns and stretched services. That hidden abuse will also have a long shadow.
Home schooling will have increased educational inequality for all children regardless of gender, but it will have a big impact for females who live in unequal homes – for example, where young women are expected to take on more caring and household duties. The educational shadow of the pandemic will reduce social mobility in the UK massively.
But ironically, the pace of technological adoption that the pandemic forced can now escalate the journey to gender equality. Because it allows flexible, remote and home working. It widens access to a global job market that doesn’t require you to leave your living room. It gives us access to events, like a conference, that previously required a long trip away, or access to childcare. And it makes possible a nomadic way of working – and nomadic families are not usually structured so conventionally.
7. Our university can be a positive force for change
In higher education, we must take this year’s example of blended learning, learn as much as we can from it, and build on it to ensure unequal structures that exist outside our university do not impact women so much in their careers.
At the University of Portsmouth, as with other higher education institutions, we’re incredibly lucky to be a key route to social mobility, by developing and changing the thinking of both males and females, and fostering human confidence and self-belief. We have the power to create transformation – not just in the UK but also, because of our international students and research, globally.
Let’s see International Women’s Day 2022 as a provocation: to consider how we can help make the world a more equal place by 8 March 2023, both as individuals and as a university.