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CUHK round-table event highlights the gender gap in higher education

At a round-table discussion hosted by The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) on female leadership in higher education, University of Liverpool vice-chancellor Professor Janet Beer opened her speech by saying: “Every morning when I wake up, my first words are ‘God bless Dame Sally Davies’”. 

For the uninitiated, Sally Davies is England’s chief medical officer, who decided in 2011 that the country’s National Institute for Health Research would only shortlist medical schools for funding if they held specific gender equality merits. 

Davies “made more difference by the intervention… than anything else in terms of moving things along rapidly in the UK,” continued Beer, who went on to describe in detail how British universities are reacting to a push for more “golden skirts” on their boards and in senior positions. 

These gender equality merits were the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN awards, which are given out to companies and institutions regarded as upholding and promoting gender equality, notably by hiring more women in senior roles. 

Beer said the awards “got a real charge” from Davies’ move. Those applying for the awards must adhere to a list of principles, such as:

● recognising that academia can never reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all,

 committing to advancing gender equality in academia,

 recognising the relative underrepresentation of women in senior roles in various academic fields,

 committing to tackling the gender pay gap and obstacles facing women in career development,

 fighting discrimination against transgender employees.

Holders of the bronze, silver or gold awards must provide evidence of their progress every three years. Gold holders are considered “beacons of achievement in gender equality and the career progression of women”, Beer said. 

She also mentioned the Aurora programme, which involves mentors helping women understand organisations, develop leadership behaviour, and boost their confidence. 

Beer dismissed criticism that the “positive action” she and others are taking tries to reverse the underrepresentation of women by discriminating against men. 

At the same time, she pointed out that there is a lot of “unintentional bias” that has become the norm. For example, joining some boards requires lengthy overseas experience, effectively ruling out many qualified women who have had to spend several years at home raising a family. 

Suzanne Choi, professor of sociology at CUHK, added some examples of accidental gender bias in Hong Kong, such as the government’s insistence on building same sized public toilets for men and women. 

She noted that, since women usually spend more time in them than men, queues are common in women’s toilets. The measure, which was intended to ensure equality, ironically limited equal access to public toilets.

The topic of gender quotas was discussed at length during the round-table discussion, and opinions were divided. Beer noted that the University of Liverpool used to have a policy of ensuring 10 per cent of employees are women. At other institutions, there appeared to be hidden quotas. 

Beer ended the round-table on a pessimistic note, admitting that, despite a lot of good will, the gender gap in higher education leadership remains wide. 

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Minding the gap.