Panellists in a debate hosted by the University of Edinburgh Ethics Forum discussed whether the university has eradicated gender inequality on Friday November 7.
One of the participants, Professor Jane Norman, University of Edinburgh Vice Principal Equality and Diversity, said: “University is a microcosm of society. As long as there is sexism in society, there is sexism at university.”
Today there are more female than male students at undergraduate level. Still, few women make it to the top levels and become professors. Elinor Mason, a lecturer in the University of Edinburgh philosophy department, said: “We always ask: What’s wrong with women? Why aren’t they promoted? The real question is: What’s wrong with the university?”
A central problem hindering women’s careers in academia are unconscious assumptions about the differences between men and women, the panellists agreed. Norman said: “I am still in meetings where a man makes a suggestion and everybody goes ‘That’s a great idea!’ and I think: Wait, I just said that a minute ago. Women often aren’t heard.”
She cited studies indicating that universities were more likely to hire a male than a female candidate, even if their CV’s were identical. Also maternity leave rules made it hard for women to pursue a career in academics, Mason said.
These problems affect men too, Norman argued: “Where women face a glass ceiling, men face a glass elevator. They get told: You can’t be a nurse; you can’t be a primary school teacher.”
Eve Livingston, Edinburgh University Students’ Association Vice President for Societies and Activities, pointed out that sexism did not only exist in the university organisation, but that many students faced sexist behaviour in their daily life, which“is too often hidden”.
She mentioned lad culture, internet phenomena like Spotted at the library, and the vet rugby team chanting rape jokes. Livingston said: “It is easy to say our students aren’t like that; we are a top level university, but that’s not the case.”
Education and information are crucial in fighting sexism, the panellists agreed.
They also demanded that feminism had to be incorporated into the curricula.
“I remember a sociology tutorial – when the tutor asked what we thought about feminism, a woman answered: ‘That’s just for lesbians.’” Livingston said.
Activities about sexism in freshers’ week could also be helpful, she said. However, Livingston does not want to introduce sexual consent classes such as the ones piloted at the University of Oxford and Cambridge in Edinburgh. She said: “I don’t think it’s effective when it’s compulsory.”
A more basic approach in fighting sexism would be to enforce the already existing rules, Mason demanded. She said: “We should be firmer: We should just ban societies like the rugby club. The university can’t tolerate this kind of behaviour.”
Norman also commented on the Speculative Society: “The Society should not be in any relationship to the university. The University has to be very clear that this cannot continue in this form.”