Where are all the women?

It’s 2016, so how come women still aren’t being given the same amount of representation as men?

Gender imbalance within academia is something that is often discussed, but then put to one side. Often, people choose to focus on the merit of professors, students or staff, regarding someone’s intelligence as a superior attribute than their gender. Meritocracy should indeed play a part when considering whether someone is qualified for a job or for publication, but it doesn’t go far enough. If we use meritocracy to guide all of our decisions, academia becomes a sea of old, white, highly educated men.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started studying History at university. My preconception of all academia was that men were significantly more represented than women. For science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, there is indeed an underrepresentation of women, both in the number of women teaching those subjects, and in the number of women choosing to study them. But history, at least in my very narrow experience, hasn’t been like that.

The School of History at the University of Leeds boasts an almost 50/50 gender split, although like most universities, there is an ongoing dispute over the differing pay packets of men and women. Looking at the makeup of the department, you could be forgiven for seeing History as a subject that defies the notion of gender imbalance, but this is not necessarily the case.

The imbalance becomes more noticeable as we delve into the variety of subjects taught, and who is writing the books and articles that we have to read. Of the eighty or so modules that students can choose from for their three-year degree, only three modules focus specifically on the history of women. Albeit, many of the modules focus on long periods of time, or take a more thematic approach, but this by no means justifies the eradication of women from history.Since being at university, I’ve studied a whole variety of modules, but only one of them has focused on women. The module, called Race, Gender and Cultural Protest, has probably been the most refreshing and interesting one I’ve studied so far, and I believe that this is due to the fact that all of the readings were written by women.

Reading women talk about their own experiences offers an entirely new perspective to that of the mainstream. Learning about women’s movements and how they intersected with race and class was eye opening in that it showed just how central gender is in history.

The problem here is that women are only prominent academics when talking about their own history. In almost every other module that I’ve studied, from Mao’s China to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Cold War to the War on Terror, the reading lists have almost entirely been made up of men. These modules span as much as one hundred years of history, but the literature surrounding them would have us believe that women have played no part in the research, study or teachings of such topics.

At this point, the meritocracy argument makes its appearance. Some may argue that the best and most relevant research has always coincidently come from men. Others might suggest that there just aren’t enough women researching those fields. Even writing those sentences felt ridiculous. It cannot be possible that men are consistently providing us with the best research, and even if they were, how is ‘best research’ defined? As I mentioned earlier, the voices of women provide us with a completely new perspective on things, especially if they’re researching areas that are specifically focused on women.

We learn about the suffragettes in school but for many people, the study of women ends there. Unless people choose to specifically engage with women’s history, it rarely reaches the ‘mainstream’.
Aside from women’s history, it is unfathomable to suggest that female academics aren’t tackling the ‘big issues’ of history. As a modern historian, my course focuses solely on the twentieth century to the present day. Though my modules are mainly taught by men, the few women who have taught me are experts in their field, with real life published works and everything!

Sarcasm aside, those universities who do have a relatively equal gender balance demonstrate that it isn’t necessarily difficult to find women who are experts in a particular field. It’s no excuse to simply presume that the works you’re told to read are the best ones. For the meantime, women may continue to be excluded from university course materials, but perhaps actively searching for their work and using it in your studies could help women become more recognised and respected in their fields.

Lauren Davies

(Photo credit: http://richmondstandard.com/2015/07/press-democrat-richmonds-rosie-the-riveter-museum/)

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