On 23rd June 2010 UCU, the union which represents academic and academic-related staff in further and higher education in the UK, held a day seminar entitled ‘Education for Change: preparing an activist agenda to promote a new education for women’.
Joanna de Groot opened the seminar by taking us back to the 1980s, a theme that would recur through the day. She reported that in her college there were now fewer nursery places and fewer women‘s studies programmes than there had been in the 1980s. Also, they‘ve lost the women only courses in traditionally male dominated craft areas, although there‘s now women at all training in these areas. She hoped, that by bringing together our expertise in research and activism we would be able to come up with an agenda to begin to move forward.
The first speaker was Carole Leathwood from the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University. She questioned the popular idea that the university has been feminised by pointing out the global variability in women‘s higher education participation – they make up 80% of undergraduates in St Lucia but only 12% in Eritrea – and the way that women‘s increasing undergraduate participation often did not transfer to postgraduate levels or to employment where in 2006 the OECD found that there was an average gender pay gap of 18%. She then asked: Which women are at university and which are not? Which universities are they at? And, which subjects are they studying? She finished by analysing the images of women in the UK‘s main higher education newspaper: the Times Higher.
Meg Maguire from King‘s College spoke next, focusing on working-class women in higher education. She started by calling attention to the progress during her own lifetime – as she said: ‘50 years ago, I would not be in this room, some women would, but they would not be us’ – and in comparison to then we now know a great deal – although not enough – about class, gender and education. She reviewed the current state of research in order to take up the challenge to create an activist agenda. Among other things, she advocated the need to go back to primary schools and to do gender and class work there, to explore the possibilities of women‘s only colleges like Hillcroft and to ensure that our institutions and our government do equity audits to look at the consequences of the current drastic financial cuts that all universities are in the process of making.
Caroline Turner from JTL training spoke about her experiences of using positive action to promote the participation of women in the building engineering services industry. Despite her work women still make up less than 1% of technicians and electricians. She stressed the importance of making the business case for gender equity.
Uvanney Maylor from University of Bedfordshire spoke about her experiences as a Black woman working in higher education. She described how she had been positioned as someone not interested in promotion by her line manager and as someone who must be an administrator by a university manager. She recalled positive experiences of being a role model for Black children in schools and of support from colleagues that had enabled her to gain confidence.
Finally, Sandy Leaton-Gray from the University of East Anglia recalled how, as a Masters student at Cambridge university, she and other postgraduates had campaigned to get accommodation and nursery provision for student parents.