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Gender at the University of Bath

The University of Bath is well-known for academic excellence, being impressively sporty and having largely modern facilities. Something it is not, however, is representative.

A Freedom of information request put in by Bath Time confirmed the gender imbalance we suspected in certain courses as follows. Historically, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses have lacked an even split of sexes. University could be a little late to be looking at gender-based distribution, but, as it is one of the endpoints of education, we looked to see how Bath fares as well as the effects of an arguably gendered education. The best way to do this was to set out and speak to the women of influence on our very own campus.

Dr Alexia Urrutia, a Genomics specialist and senior academic in the Biology department, says being a female lecturer is a two-sided experience. She started as a student here then returned to teach 11 years ago. On one hand, she confesses she has many a times been the only woman in a meeting room and that Bath has 10% fewer women in the Biology Department than the national average. On the other, despite the aforementioned problem, she recognises the strong support network she has had being a Bath returner and says she never felt discriminated against. Working with the Athena SWAN University Group, “a scheme which recognises excellence in STEM employment in higher education”, has allowed Dr Urrutia to critique Bath both analytically as well as anecdotally. Interestingly, while around 70% of biology students are female, only roughly 20% of lecturers are female. The group have been working on this gap by pushing for more female lecturers on shortlists and in the interviewing processes. Dr Urrutia believes that the way forward is to implement policies based on data analyses.

A different perspective, however, comes from the Business department, where the Dean of the School of Management, Professor Veronica Hope Hailey has fervently written on the topic. According to her, in order to be a woman in a position of power in 2018, one needs to keep in mind that the companies we see today were built ‘by men for men’. Her way of dealing with this is maintaining a sense of self, which is also fundamental to ushering in a new era of more female representation along with leadership development opportunities. She believes that with this combination of pointers and hope, the future for her daughters will provide a more dynamic workplace intolerant towards biased and unwitting behaviour.   

Beth Stevenson, chair of Gender Equality Society, says the situation is tragic. “We preach that women are equal and have access to all these opportunities but it doesn’t translate to real life…jobs are never skills-based because there is still an inherent bias, like the maternity wall.” For her, part of the problem starts early in life, with society and the media referencing certain academic areas as ‘boy subjects’ and ‘girl subjects’.

Her vision for the future? “We’re at a stage where we feel like we can’t do anything right now, but we can do something for the next generation. Undergraduate gender levels in STEM are balancing out but postgrad and lectureship is still overwhelmingly male.” Her suggestions start in the SU: the creation of Women in Stem and Women in Business societies are good starting points because they’re giving voices to women in traditionally male spaces, but the university could encourage more women to go into research alongside.

Putting potential solutions aside, the question that arises is, how has the University already tried to accommodate women? It may sound simplistic, but only shortly after becoming a chartered institution, the University of Bath Childcare Services was established to cater for those affiliated with the University who have dependent children. The Westwood Nursery, for example, is a 48 place nursery which caters for children aged between 6 months to 4 years old, while the Welfare Room in Wessex House provides support for breastfeeding specifically. Overall, their objective is to enhance the attractiveness of the University of Bath as a place to study particularly for people with young children. This might have been enough in 1977, but there are far more students now, half of whom are women. It could be symbolically optimistic to have a childcare center on campus, but the demand has since risen (and that’s if women with children even feel inclined to come here at all).

Nationally, this issue has been reported on, but it’s not quite at the forefront of academic discussion. The NUS, for example, generally stands for equality and inclusion, but is currently focusing specifically on the impact of violence and objectification towards women students in terms of gender. Additionally, according to the Times’ latest university ranking, 7 out of 8 students gain graduate employment within six months of leaving Bath. Judging by this, it seems that even if Bath doesn’t seem to appeal to women for science, the university itself can and does provide for good careers. Going back to Dr Urrutia, she thinks that part of the reason she does not necessarily feel the brunt of being a ‘minority’ in her own department is because Bath is a relatively new university. Could this also apply to the issue of gender?

Another source of concern is a study the University conducted regarding female pessimism. According to research, after studying personal expectations of salaries it was discovered that women were far more likely to underestimate their abilities – and what they should be paid – compared to their male equivalents. This may not apply to university lecturers necessarily, but it is telling that across the UK, male lecturers dominate lecture halls (70:30). As the study inferred, could this be an issue we should be dealing with from a younger age?

After all, without women in the room for big decisions and important research, everyone loses out. For example, it was only discovered 25 years ago that heart disease manifests itself differently in women than it does in men. If this happened based on a loosely naive assumption, you have to wonder what other information we’re missing out on, both life-threatening and mundane. It is beneficial and uplifting to be taught by someone who looks like you, but it’s even more gratifying to know that your part of the community’s influence is having an impact in our day-to-day lives.

So, what’s to be done? Athena Swan Project works with interview processes, societies develop campaigns to encourage more women in STEM and we have a childcare centre to deal with the more practical elements of being a woman at university. But more importantly we have to actively recognise this Gender imbalance as well as its consequences, and work towards creating a more supportive environment that empathises with workplace challenges a woman might face. As Professor Hailey puts it, “A sense of the absurd, a sense of perspective and a sense of humour are important qualities for any senior manager.” If confidence is where the problem lies, is it time to re-evaluate how we educate our girls and women across the board?  

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