Do We Need International Women’s Day?

It’s International Women’s Day. Another year when many of us are thinking how amazing it would be if we didn’t need such a day any longer, specifically celebrating women, because people of whatever gender, colour, age, health status….. were celebrated according to what they’d actually done. That the day is still needed tells us how far we are from equality. One day – as somebody once wisely said – we’ll know we’ve reached equality when mediocre women get top jobs at the same rate as mediocre men. That will be the time when men are as likely to stay at home with the kids/meet them from school as women so that we no longer take note of which way round these things are done. When there is no gender pay gap and equal pay for equal work really means exactly what it says. When women are no longer encouraged not to report rape because it will merely prolong the pain and trauma without leading to an appropriate outcome. When the world of everyday sexism has vanished.

However, although I may dream on that my grandchildren will see such a day, it’s not coming anytime soon. So, let us celebrate International Women’s Day once more, and remember not only those outstanding women in every walk of life, but also the women who have no choice but just to get by, along with all those who support those women, day by day, around the globe.

The higher education sector is riddled with hurdles that are slowly being unmasked as just that much higher for women than for men. Be it double standards – a topic I wrote about previously, where the perceptions of identical performance from men and women are not treated equally – or a higher bar for women for publishing articles, as highlighted recently by the RSC’s analysis of its own publications. Or maybe it’s the way letters of reference are written, with so-called ‘stand-out’ adjectives significantly more likely to be used for men in letters written by women just as much as by men, a fact identified in a wide range of studies (e.g. here) across the disciplines. Or perhaps it’s how often their papers are cited – again there are numerous studies in different disciplines showing how men are less likely to cite papers with women as lead authors (e.g. here). All these are factors which will feed into promotion prospects and accompanying pay. All these systematically disadvantage the typical woman.

Fixing the women, getting the women to lean in as Sheryl Sandberg would have us do, simply isn’t going to transform the world around us. And until that world is transformed the numbers of women who rise through the ranks to senior positions will remain unrepresentative of the talent that starts out. Brains will be wasted and collectively our impact, solutions to the challenges of the world as well as pure intellectual output, will be diminished to everyone’s detriment. Finding (male) allies to speak up in appointment and promotion meetings, at editorial boards or as co-authors on papers, is – regrettably – still the best hope for eradicating the tilt of the playing field. I am pleased to note how many men in leadership positions do seem to have grasped the basic fact that the problem is not the women but the system.

I am quite sure when I was mid-career this was not the case; few of my male colleagues ‘got’ this. If I wasn’t persuasive I (like Maggie Thatcher before me) should apparently have been thinking about having voice coaching. If I was attacked in a committee meeting by someone whose pet candidate I was not sticking up for, it nevertheless seemed to be assumed I should have been the one doing the apologising afterwards. The sense of injustice those two events provoked in me still lurks, because the responses seemed so unreasonable and yet I had no defence. How could anyone feel an apology was due from me after I was the one verbally attacked? Nevertheless, for women who are ‘difficult’ – i.e. not fulfilling the role assigned to them by wider (predominantly male) society – that is not an uncommon position in which to find themselves.

Progress is slow towards the mythical utopia of equality, and nowhere more so than in coping with those who work, not just not 24/7, but not even ‘full time’, whatever that phrase may mean in academia. A visit to another university last week highlighted just how challenging working 60-80% (for instance) can be for some. Naturally the ‘some’ will be predominantly women. One thing is clear, you only get paid for the hours for which you are contracted (regardless of how many more you actually work). However, not all employers – or peers – recognize that all parts of the job should get cut back proportionately. If the teaching load you are expected to do is the same as for a full-timer, it inevitably means everything else gets hit. That, naturally, includes time for research – which is what is most likely to matter when it comes to progression. But a woman who says, hang on I don’t want to do more than my fair share of teaching in proportion to what I’m paid overall, is likely to be labelled – yet again – as difficult. She may even be accused of shirking her work. (Never mind those other members of the department who somehow seem to get out of teaching because they’ve managed to convince the leadership that their research is too important).

I remain convinced the only way to get near to parity is for more men to occupy the same spaces as women – by being the ones with caring responsibilities (and not just parental leave, but caring for teenagers and parents too) – and, in this case, working part-time so they know what it’s like at the sharp end and can spell it out to the senior leadership. So, by all means let us celebrate International Women’s Day, but please can we remember the women on every other day of the year too, and remember that it is the system that needs fixing if we are to progress beyond mealy-mouthed promises for change in the decades to come.

Here are some ideas of actions every single one of us can do to help, from several years ago, but just as relevant today.

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