Embracing gender equality in academia

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By Dr Nur Gundogdu, Research Fellow
Centre for Responsible Business

Gender equality is a multi-layered and multifaceted issue prevelant in all sectors across the globe, despite national and international regulations and interventions. It is also one of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed to be achieved by 2030. However, despite prolonged global attention on this subject, gender studies and reports have highlighted that we still have a long way to go.

The world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030, and the pandemic has slowed, even reversed, progress in some areas. For instance, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal report (2022) shows that, at the current rate of progress, it would take another 40 years for women to be represented equally in national political leadership. The report highlights the importance of commitment and action to accelerate progress by focusing on laws, policies, budgets, institutions, and the availability of gender data.

Academia very much aligns with the global picture, showing an underrepresentation of women, particularly in leadership positions. In a globalised neoliberal academic environment, the nature and question of gender studies have adapted to focus on women’s career development and progression. But addressing root issues in a changing context requires a new systemic and holistic perspective. Higher Education (HE) institutions are encountering different perspectives and practices, helping them to understand the main obstacles, effective interventions, and how institutions embrace gender equality.

The European Union (EU) has been recommending – and actively supporting – the implementation of Gender Equality Plans (GEPs) in HE institutions as a tool for structural change since 2015. GEPs are used as a common tool and provide a practice-based framework to embrace equality, and work towards creating an inclusive, sustainable, transparent, and gender-balanced working environment in HE. GEPs aim to help these institutions address and remove organisational, institutional, structural and systemic barriers.

However, gender equality is a multi-level issue. The expected improvements will happen slowly, and sometimes it may feel like two steps forward and one step back. Although GEPs depend substantially on context and mainly focus on local barriers and enablers, Ozbilgin and Gundogdu’s report (2020) provides a comprehensive list of key areas that need to be addressed to achieve gender equality. These are necessarily wide ranging and include policy, structure and gender equality data, leadership, human resources practices and intersectionality.

The journey of each HE institution while developing and implementing its own GEP is unique, and each will have a different road map based on their own internal dynamics. However, cross-fertilisation provides different approaches, aims, practices, processes and implementation stories to HE institutions, and gives them a chance to adapt their processes based on best practice from other institutions.

Thomson et. al’s (2022) study takes cross-fertilisation a step further and explores the unique experiences of transnational and multi-institutional communities of practice (CoPs) in gender equality. The scholars revealed that the CoPs approach supported change agents to respond to the challenges in promoting gender equality initiatives through learning opportunities, sharing knowledge, practice, and political support from CoP stakeholders. To avoid GEP development and implementation processes becoming a box-ticking exercise, every step must be embraced, and fostered by all stakeholders.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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