Thursday, 19 November 2015

International Men’s Day

This post falls very much into the category of “things I am not an expert in”. So I tread somewhat wearily. The post reflects on the Athena SWAN process and it is inspired by my colleague Paul Cairney who wrote this excellent post reflecting on the process too.

So, today is International Men’s Day, which just loosely frames this post. And now to immediately go off on a slight tangent, my colleagues Vikki McCall, Jane Smithson and I are leading on an Athena SWAN application. Athena SWAN emerged from the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines as a process to encourage women into these subject and once they were in, to progress to the highest levels on a par with their male colleagues. This recognised the long-standing issue that far more men than women enter these subjects and women tended to drop out before reaching Professorial level. If you don’t think this should be an issue, I shall point you in the direction of new Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s comments on gender equality.

The ECU have broadened Athena SWAN to cover the ASSHBL (Arts, Social Science, Humanities, Business and Law [I prefer SSHABL myself]) subjects. This makes perfect sense to me – the world’s population is 51% women and 49% men, if we’re going to increase women’s representation in STEM to 51% we need to (possibly) increase men’s representation to 49% in the ASSHBL subjects.

Now, I’m not saying the social sciences are not sexist. I have heard many horribly stories of everyday sexism from women colleagues in the social sciences; I have seen horrifically sexist behaviour in seminar or conferences; I have seen the massive differential expectations on men and women academics in the social sciences; and I have blogged about the awful macho working hours culture that pervades the social sciences as much as any other area of academe. 

But – and here is where it gets tricky – one of the main challenges we have found in evidence gathering for our Athena SWAN plan is what I refer to as the “feminisation” of our subjects: sociology, social policy, criminology, social work and education, particularly at an undergraduate level. The term “feminisation” I’ve borrowed from colleagues in Biology where it is used to describe how their subject, fairly rapidly, changed from being one men would do to being one women would do. It seems to us that when people are choosing what subjects to study at university, they look at us and think "that's a woman's degree subject".

If we look nationally, 60% of graduates from Scottish universities are now women. Whereas around three-quarters of the students on our programmes are women. This is a particular problem in programmes like Primary Education and Social Work because in broader workforce terms there are long-standing recognised issues with a lack of men in these professions. Even more concerning for us, is that there is some evidence (with a million-and-one caveats attached to it) that these men might not do as well as the women on our programmes – again this reflects broader societal changes.

The question is, what can we do about this? It seems talking about it has been a brilliant start actually – there’s been really useful input from colleagues over the past few months as we’ve been discussing these issues. One of the better Tweets about International Men’s Day I saw was this one which links to broader debates about the “crisis of masculinity”. One of our own undergraduates, off their own back, responded to our data by asking what the gender breakdown of students accessing student support services was – it was overwhelmingly women. As touched on in those stats on men’s mental health and suicide, I ruminated whether we’re in this situation:

Little girls are taught at school to be super-bright, work really hard and always ask for help. Little boys are taught at school to be boisterous and self-reliant, and if they have a problem it’s their own. There might not even be a male role-model around for them to ask for help from. At university this means women get incredibly stressed and anxious about assessment, but then ask for help and support and ultimately do very well. Men, meanwhile, sit back and do nothing and just go with the flow.

There is also the role of assessment methods in here, although a quick search for this journal for the term “gender” didn’t inspire me with confidence that I’d find answers. So, there’s more research and work for my colleagues and I to get at here. But, if you can suggest things to help us on our way, I would welcome any comments.

I am to be an assessor for a number of Athena SWAN submissions from ASSHBL departments in the New Year and I'll be really interested to see how they tackle their issue, but also how they tackle the issue I tentatively mentioned above: I think in the ASSHBL subjects, and particularly social science, men very easily presume that because they're left-liberal and feminist they are not sexist, and there is not a greater reflection on culture and behaviour. If Athena SWAN is going to make an impact in the ASSHBL subjects then, as my colleague Prof. Cairney highlights, we will need buy-in from all academic staff and also probably greater culture change than seen in the STEM subjects. 

/edit: if you want to read something much better about International Men's Day, read First Dog on the Moon's amazing cartoon here.

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