How can higher education lead on gender equality?

Earlier this week, a couple of the Mangoes attended a panel discussion, hosted by the University of East London (UEL), which looked at the UN’s HeForShe initiative for gender equality. The panel included human rights activists, university lecturers and pro-vice chancellors, as well as youth workers, and one of the topics that particularly resonated with me was the relationship between promoting gender equality within higher education.

The Equality Challenge Unit, a charity that works with universities and colleges to improve their equality and diversity, oversees the Athena SWAN Charter. The charter has almost 150 institutions pledging to break barriers and advance the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine employment in higher education and research, as well as other issues; in 2015 it expanded to recognise work in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law, as well as for trans staff and students and those in professional and support roles.

As well as the HeForShe initiative, the issues raised through the work that Athena SWAN does was a recurring theme throughout the evening. For example, the panel debated how far we really have come in terms of STEM and encouraging women into these research fields and careers, as the push seems to be focused on getting more women in coding. When only 11 per cent of the engineering workforce is female, there’s more to increasing women into STEM roles than just coding.

Building confidence is key, and this is something that needs to be addressed at school, as by the time they reach university, many societal norms have already influenced a young person’s life decisions. For those that we’ve reached through successful interventions, the panel argued that higher education leadership is still too homogenous, dominated still by older white men. The argument was made that although more white women have taken more senior roles within higher education, there is still a serious lack of diversity, because people of colour and the LGBT+ community are still underrepresented.

Dr Kate Williams, pro-vice chancellor of University of Leicester and Mandy Sanghera, human rights activist, spoke candidly about the need to be intersectional in our approach to equality; the definition itself being quite fluid and subjective. The room seemed to agree that the most progressive way forward is to see gender equality in broader terms, or that “before we are women or men, we are human”, so we need to look at all groups and support everyone in reaching their fullest potential.

So, to go back to my first question, how can higher education lead on gender equality? I think the answer is that it can’t, or at least not on its own. Although there are institutions that are leading by example, looking at the diversity of their senior leadership and academics and also asking how they can promote more equal opportunities for everyone, there is a long way to go. Ultimately, it needs to be working with all areas of the education system, promoting the discussion at school, at home and in our daily lives, to lead the way for gender equality in higher education.