This is a guest post by Sarah
Recently PhD supervisors at my university were sent a brief notice of funding opportunities offered to female graduate students by the BFWG. This led to a discussion about whether there was anything problematic in an organisation which only offered assistance to women. Even if there might have been reasons for offering special support to female research students in the past it could be argued that there is no rationale for continuing to do so. Although only 18% of professors are female almost 50% of lecturers are women. I could certainly sympathise with a (hypothetical) male student who was unable to apply for one of these grants but who was aware that this funding opportunity was open to his female friends.
Similar arguments can be made against all-female Oxbridge colleges. Obviously these date back to the days when all colleges were single sex and women faced genuinely overwhelming barriers to academic recognition. But now that over half of the UK’s undergraduates are female it’s harder to find a rationale for keeping all-women colleges. In fact it could be argued that having three colleges in Cambridge which will only take female students is a factor behind women’s lower performance at degree level – i.e. if you are only in competition with half your peer group your chances of getting a place may be higher.
But there is some evidence that a women-only environment may be beneficial for female students and offer a corrective to institutional biases. The women’s colleges tend to score well on ‘value added’ tables, indicating that that they do an excellent job at helping students fulfil their potential. This fits in with the findings of a fascinating (unpublished) study which demonstrated that women students tend to perform less well if they are being taught in a male dominated environment and benefit greatly from having a good number of female teachers and role models. And here you can read about another report which is also relevant to the case for women-only colleges.
Is it similarly possible to identify arguments in favour of the BFWG and the help it offers to women students? I’m – not sure. There *are* some non trivial problems relating to women in academia but it’s difficult to tell whether these are the result of direct discrimination or more subtle cultural pressures (women may be more likely to scale down their ambitions if they have a family for example). And if it’s the latter – what kind of intervention is appropriate and how do we deal with concerns that in supporting women we may be discriminating against men? With reference to the BFWG grants – if nearly half of lecturers are women that might suggest that the problem isn’t located at the PhD level. Inequalities seem to emerge at a slightly later stage of an academic’s career.
As well as arguing about whether or not women are disadvantaged I think it is also important to turn the question round and ask whether there are any other groups more urgently in need of assistance than women in HE. Social class is an obvious place to start, particularly as academia is such a conspicuously middle class profession. One reason for this perhaps lies in the difficulty of securing a first job. If you have family support (from parents or a spouse) you may be able to stick in there for a few years without an income. If you don’t have to work full time you are more likely to be able to boost your CV with good publications and thus (if you are lucky) secure a job. (Compare the issue of unpaid internships) But if you come from a less privileged background you are more likely to be forced to give up on academia and find full time work in another sector. People tend to be alert to social class issues at the level of undergraduate entrance but perhaps lose sight of the possible further knock on effects at postgraduate and lecturer stages.
I still don’t have fixed views about the issues I’ve raised here but I’d like to hear what others think.