Learning from other cultures to tackle inequality

Woman holding her fingers in a cross position over her mouthIn the lead up to International Women’s Day, Nicola Sayers reflects on the importance of cross-cultural perspectives for universities looking to better understand their own systemic inequalities and to make real changes. 

The idea of a ‘Women’s Day’ goes back to 1909, when the Socialist Party of America held a ‘National Women’s Day’ in New York. The international element soon followed, with Russia observing an ‘International Women’s Day’ in 1913; and by the 1970s International Women’s Day, 8th March, was an official fixture in the United Nations calendar. A longstanding history, then, but what, really, is the point of a ‘Women’s Day’?
One might with good reason to argue that, until genuine equality is achieved, every day should be a so-called ‘Women’s Day’, yet another day in which we should press for progress, and must remember the ongoing cultural, social and structural inequalities that women face. But if there is a point to singling out one day, it is surely as a chance to take stock, a chance both to celebrate progress that has been made (which, since 1909, is clearly substantive) and to call attention to the huge amount of work that still needs to be done.

Progress is not linear, of course. Some years chip away at the same old battles, others witness regression, and others yet prove that sizeable shifts can occur quite suddenly – like the coin pusher game in arcades, the pennies build up over time and then all drop quite suddenly. This last year, arguably, was one such year.

The many women’s marches, the viral spread of the #timesup and #metoo hashtags, not to mention race awareness movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #rhodesmustfall: this feels like a moment in which long-standing issues are being stirred up and, for the first time in some time, there is mass interest. None of these movements is without complexity, and around each, rightfully, important debates are being had. Does the visibility of Hollywood in #timesup helpfully raise awareness, or encourage progress only among the relatively privileged, detracting attention from the professions and classes in which harassment and barriers to opportunity are worst? Does #metoo shine a legitimate spotlight on predatory behaviours which might until now have been considered borderline acceptable, or does it risk judging in a media circus what is better judged in a court of law? And does #rhodesmustfall bring crucial awareness to the historical (and continuing) oppression that many of our institutions of higher education are founded on, or does it force surface action on matters that appease riled-up student bodies while glossing over the deeper, systemic discussions that need to take place?

But in all of this what is certain is that there is at present momentum around issues of gender and race that universities would do well to attend to. In this effort, in-depth research is an important correlate of media and social media interest in these issues, so that the push for progress is always backed up by real knowledge. The Leadership Foundation strives always to be conducting timely research on race and gender that will prove useful to leaders looking to make real change in higher education contexts.
One example of such research is a recent Leadership Insight report, Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership?

First and foremost, the report provides important information for anyone looking to make changes in the Hong Kong university system. It is fascinating, for instance, that there is an outright mismatch between what male leaders perceive as the barriers facing women (family issues and work-life balance) and what women academics themselves perceive as the primary barriers facing them (gender bias and lack of opportunity). It is relevant too, and worthy of further investigation, that while cultural factors – such as the widespread belief in East Asian culture that women should not be more successful than their husbands and should not stand out or be aggressive – did surface as significant, there was some disagreement as to just how significant these cultural factors really were.

But reports like this one are also of interest for UK universities as inter-cultural and global perspectives on women in higher education provide important food for comparative thought; in what ways and to what extent do women academics and higher education professionals face the same problems globally? What are the areas in which other contexts might serve as warnings to us? (For example, do leaders in the UK also over-emphasise the role of family and under-emphasise the role of gender bias in making sense of existing inequalities?). And are there yet other ways in which we might learn from other cultures?

Tackling gender inequality always requires a multi-pronged approach – capitalising on mass media interest, producing and acting on high-level research, and making active interventions both at local and systemic levels. One such intervention is the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme, a leadership programme, now in its fifth year, designed specifically for women. As well as being hugely helpful for participants, programmes like this help in turn to deepen understanding of the current realities as well as to bring to light areas for further research.

For example, results from the second year of the Aurora Longitudinal Study showed that many female academics and professionals feel that men taking on more domestic responsibility would gradually shift attitudes towards balancing work and family. An interesting avenue for further cross-cultural comparative research might therefore be to look to Sweden, where men and women generally share parental leave (parents only get all 480 days of available leave if one parent takes at least 60 of those days, thus encouraging fathers as well as mothers to take at least several months leave). How does this impact on gender imbalances in the workplace generally and in higher education contexts specifically?

More radically, one might even look at Sweden’s first ‘gender-neutral’ pre-school – where all mention of differences between the sexes (even in children’s books) are avoided, and where children are referred to using ‘hen’, a gender-neutral pronoun (‘hon’ is the Swedish for ‘she’, and ‘han’ is the Swedish for ‘he’) – as a way to reflect on how deeply gendered expectations are ingrained and what a world without such expectations might look like.

It sounds extreme, perhaps, but if 2017/18 has ushered in a new wave of interest in gender, race and inequality, universities are faced with a real opportunity to ride this wave, complementing it with research and practice that goes above and beyond tokenism and seeks to usher in deep and systemic change.

Dr Nicola Sayers is a former research manager at the Leadership Foundation. She is half-Swedish, half-British and has studied both in the UK and the US. Her recently completed doctorate explored the role of nostalgia in contemporary American literature and culture, but she also retains a strong interest in higher education research. She currently resides in Chicago.

Follow @LF4HE on Twitter and on International Women’s Day, March 8, join in with our #HeroinesinHE campaign to celebrate inspirational women in higher education.

LF Members can read the report: Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership? 

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