We opened the week on March 8 with International Women’s Day. A holiday originally founded to support the goals of the international feminist movement towards gender equality, today IWD is largely considered a celebration of success and optimism. However, for many, the observance of International Women’s Day in a University setting creates an opportunity to address the challenges that continue to face women in academia, most of whom come from the upper classes. Such discussions are ineffective without consideration of the gap in privilege between upper class women and those from less privileged backgrounds.
There can be no doubt that the presence of women in academia is drastically disproportionate to their male colleagues. Gender inequality is perhaps nowhere more obvious than at the highest levels of achievement and those women who succeed in gaining employment at Universities are frequently deprived of opportunity for advancement and feel they are held to a higher standard of performance than male academics.
Those who deserve a place in academia are those who are best qualified. To prevent a woman from entering into and advancing within a profession which she is equally as qualified to practice as any man is outrageous. The issue is only complicated by the fact that women from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds face incomparable professional obstacles to the privileged academic who is often at the helm of initiatives to conquer gender inequality on the behalf of all women.
University-run feminist initiatives and events like IWD are largely organised by privileged women who have not faced the challenges or lack of opportunity that women from the lower classes have experienced. In a recent article published in The Guardian, Natalya Din-Kariuki justly argues that upper class women’s lack of firsthand experience of the lower class’s oppression renders them unqualified to address the issue even if they wanted to, correctly calling for an intersectional representation of gender inequality in academia.
Any such response will require the increased participation of lower class women in academia in order to be effective. Those with firsthand experience of the effects of the discrimination and deprivation that the lower classes experience are the best reformers we could ask for and the only ones we should accept. However, considering that our society does not currently provide adequate opportunities for students from lower classes to succeed at an equal level to their privileged peers and enter into academia, those best qualified to address the class-based variations of gender inequality do not have the tools to make a difference. This is the foremost issue at hand.
Academia’s response to this problem must begin with efforts to increase opportunities for students of lower socio-economic status to achieve the required qualifications for entry into the field. The University of Edinburgh’s student population has historically included only a small percentage of students from working class families, with only 18.6 per cent in 2010 according to a survey by HESA. Those in charge of education policy must prepare and motivate lower class students to enter universities like Edinburgh in order to bring more lower class women into academia.
This effort will require not only adequate coverage of course material in secondary schools, but also an emphasis on the critical-thinking and study skills necessary to manage University life, and a shift from within the lower class community itself that will value high levels of academic qualification more equally to career paths that are seen as more ‘realistic’ or ‘practical’ than academia and which provide more reliable career prospects.In the campaign to end gender inequality, only an intersectional approach that empowers students will be effective.