Women in UK Higher Education: Visibility, Foremothers, and Role Models

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Edith Morley (pictured above) was the first woman to be appointed Professor in Britain in 1908, and yet more than a century later woman still have a visibility problem in UK Higher Education.

Although there is near gender parity at undergraduate level and a proportional dominance of women in postgraduate populations, women are subject to an impossible sliding scale: numbers diminish and visibility falls the higher the level of employment.

The proportion of professors who are women in UK universities has reached almost 25%, according to the latest statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). But the numbers of women professors is actually declining at some institutions.

This imbalance significantly increases amongst vice-chancellors or principals, where women constitute only around 18%. The exclusion of women from these prestigious and highly visible leadership roles makes it harder for women to follow. After all, if you can’t see it, how can you be it?

Women have been marginalised and omitted throughout history, and this trend extends to those pioneering women who were first to break through the ranks of universities as closely guarded male institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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Scholar and suffragette Edith Morley (1875–1964), who became Professor of English Language at University College, Reading, was labelled ‘difficult’, and suffered gender-based discrimination throughout her career. Millicent Mackenzie (1863-1942, pictured right), appointed Professor of Education at what is now Cardiff University in 1910, was subject to a significant gender pay gap.

Our own foremother at Bedford College, Dorothy Tarrant (1885-1973, pictured below), achieved first-class honours in Classics at the University of Cambridge, but like many women at the time was not awarded a degree (pictured below). Tarrant taught at Bedford College from 1909 to 1950, becoming Head of Department and the first woman Professor of Greek in 1936. She was also the first woman President of the Classical Association, and the first President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.

Victoria 3These women really were trailblazers, and yet our foremothers and their path-breaking achievements are nearly forgotten.

The importance of recognising the struggles and achievements of our foremothers and promoting positive role models is a central concern of the Women’s Classical Committee UK (WCC). Established in 2015, the WCC is an organisation dedicated to supporting women in Classics (broadly conceived), and promoting feminist and gender-informed perspectives within the discipline.

This type of women-centred promotion is essential on a gendered playing field that is far from level. All-male edited volumes, editorial boards, and conference panels are still common. A ‘manference’ held in March 2018 at Stanford University featuring thirty white men starkly demonstrates this imbalance.

But issues of visibility and representation can be more opaque. In Classics in the UK nearly twice as many men as women are employed as a professor. Nearly three times as many Classics Departments are led by a man rather than a woman. More than four times more men than women who are Head of Department are employed at professorial level.

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Our learned societies are not led by women. Since its inception in 1903, the Classical Association has had as many presidents named John as women (8). The Hellenic Society has had 38 presidents since 1879, three of whom have been women. Out of 93 Fellows of the British Academy for Classical Antiquity, 15 are women. This means that when we look up, we are not seeing women.

The WCC is dedicated to improving the visibility of our foremothers past and present, highlighting their struggles and successes for the benefit of successive women and men in higher education. We have achieved this through #WCCWiki, an initiative designed to reverse the gender bias on English-language Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the largest and most influential source of information in the world. It is the fifth most visited website in the world, and it is read by almost 500 million people every month.

But Wikipedia’s gender bias really bites: fewer than 15% of Wikipedia editors are women, and only one in six of its 1.5 million biographies are about women. That slant is even more apparent when it comes to Classics: an estimate in 2016 found that only 7% of biographies of Classicists featured women.

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#WCCWiki encourages people to come together to edit out Wikipedia’s gender skew. We’ve created or edited around 200 pages, including those for the pioneering American Classicist Grace Harriet Macurdy, Classical archaeologist Jocelyn Toynbee (pictured left), and more contemporary role models like Averil Cameron, Jennifer Ingleheart (below, left), and Donna Zuckerberg (below, right). #WCCWiki is an example of direct activism that is effective, instant, and accessible to everyone with an internet connection.

Rather than sitting on our hands and relying on the deceptive myth of progress, by remembering the struggles and achievements of our foremothers we can shine light on progress made so far, and areas that are yet to change.

Profile photo Olivette O (1) (1) (1) (1)History was made in 2018 when Olivette Otele (pictured left) was promoted to Professor at Bath Spa University; she is the first black woman Professor of History in a UK university. But equality in terms of race, gender and ethnicity in UK HE is far from being achieved.

By illuminating positive women role models that benefit everyone we can support the women following our foremothers, making higher education a fairer and more inclusive environment where women are allowed to succeed, and can be seen doing so.

By Dr Victoria Leonard

For Victoria’s research, see here and here. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @tigerlilyrocks. For more information about the Women’s Classical Committee (UK), see here, and follow @womeninclassics on Twitter.



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