Gender and Equity in Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

Opportunity and equity within higher education relative gender is a wide-ranging topic that has long been a subject of discussion amongst education and gender scholars alike. The material in this bibliography provides a range of perspectives but several themes pervade across the material as it considers gender and higher education relative both to educators and students. While historically scholars have focused on the difficulties and disadvantages that women experience as a result of their gender only, studies have increasingly considered the intersectional complications and situations that contribute to the structural disenfranchisement of women in higher education. Drawing largely from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theorisation of intersectionality that approaches disenfranchisement from a variety of subordinated and excluded positionalities and which does not hold gender as a solitary social construct (“Women’s lives are structured by a range of identities and women are different from each other,” Crenshaw 1989, 41), scholars have understood intersectionality as “invaluable in its exhortation to move away from one-dimensional notions, towards ideas of a co-constitution of social categories, positions and encounters which produces important differences in subjectivity, experience and practice” (Phipps 2016, 817). The intersectional move also incorporates scholarship that considers the “affective turn” within higher education, where embodied emotions and feelings contribute pedagogical practices (Ahmed, Zembylas). Leathwood and Hey note that higher education is perceived as “an emotion-free zone” (2009, 429), characterised by dichotomies (“rational/emotional, mind/body, public/private, masculine/feminine”, [429]) and the so-called “affective turn” has thus led to concerns about the therapeutisation of higher education. Enactions and embodiments of emotions/affect have been pitted against rational behaviours long associated with masculinist tradition. This is inherently tied to aspects such as gender, social class etc. and play out in discourses/practices of employability, which often focus on paid work, rather than caring work (typically characterised as feminine) (Lynch, Lyons & Cantillon, 2007). Scholars call for awareness“of both the gendered constructions and symbolic capital of the performance of differentially embodied ‘people skills’, and recognise the ways in which the social and economic are invested in programmes of emotional management” (Lynch, Lyons & Cantillon in Leathwood & Hey). Critics of affective accounts of teaching and higher education pedagogy are wary of a reduction in “hard critical thinking” (Hayes, 2005), invoking further binaries (hard/soft; masculine/ feminine; pure/applied; careless/caring).

Related to normative notions of gendered educators and teaching practices, scholars have begun to focus on gendered perspectives and expectations in higher education from various masculine perspectives. Phipps examines “lad culture” in British higher education that moves beyond a focus on sexism and men’s violence against women to include considerations of social class, particularly realities and feelings of domination amongst lower and middle/elite classes. Phipps theorises “the similarities and differences between laddism in classroom and social/interpersonal contexts, and explores how such masculinities relate to other forms and are mediated by class, race, sexuality and other categories of difference [and] considers how some forms of contemporary laddism might be connected to sexual violence” (816). Burke considers what some understand to be a “crisis of masculinity” in higher education that sees the rising number of female enrollees as a direct threat to masculinity and by extension, the university itself. Burke also notes literature that argues that in order to avoid harassment and bullying from other male students, boys must feign or perform an avoidance or dislike of academic work, as diligence and commitment to study has been aligned with feminine practice. Burke argues that the development of widening participation strategies requires an understanding of changing identities and experiences such as these at discursive and cultural levels to further illuminate the ways that men dis/identify as students, and notes that “pedagogies do not simply reflect the gendered identities of academics and students; pedagogies themselves are gendered, intimately bound up with historical and masculinised ways of being and doing within higher education” (2013, 123).  

Neoliberal conceptions of higher education as a globalised commodity also intersects with gender/gendered expectations of educators and contribute to increased influence of individualising, competitive and marketised practices. Scholars recognise the common fallacy of postsecondary education as a sort of “great equaliser,” noting specific differences in experience and opportunity or result relative to gender, class, age, race, and physical ability. But as Naskali and Keskitalo-Foley note, feminist pedagogy can offer an alternative approach to learning that enables a critical analysis of the power of knowledge and an awareness of differences among students, and can “unsettle the assumptions of the neutrality of knowledge and to show how all knowledge is based on human values and processes of selection” (2017, 14). Often widening participation efforts are ignorant of various structural inequities and challenges that effect the success or failure of historically marginalised or excluded populations, which often intersect at a number of sociological and economic crossroads. Morley & Lugg (2009) and Herman (2015) focus specifically on women in STEM fields, considering the influence of age and normative family roles and expectations on “success” during and after university study. Of course, globalisation and historical colonialism factors in the desired outcomes and measures of success of the neoliberal university (Morley & Lugg, 2009; Villa Lever, 2018).

Broadly, researchers call for an increase in understanding of student and educator individual positionality and how structural forces within and outside of higher education affect them. Better understanding of the construction of expectations and assumptions about higher education as they relate to gender serve to help better aid institutions in offering various supports and pathways to success for their students and teachers. Though Burke (2013) and others warn: “WP is a contested terrain of struggle over gendered positioning, representation, voice and authority, as well as material resources” (123), generally, the development of widening participation strategies and other institutional retention and success schemes require an understanding of changing identities and experiences at discursive and cultural levels to further illuminate the ways that men and women dis/identify as students.

Summary written by Caitlyn McLoughlin

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.