Birkbeck’s TRIGGER initiative explores gender inequality in Higher Education

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

Trigger logoOn the 28 June Birkbeck took further strides toward gender equality and equity, as the EU Project TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) invited an audience of professionals, academics and students to consider how best to inspire aspiring female professors and managers.

Indeed, gender inequality persists in higher education despite the many positive steps that have been made by the sector in recent years. The implementation and acceleration of Athena SWAN, as well as vocal support from leading academics and professionals, has raised the profile of gender inequality substantially. Yet a report published by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2015 and looking at statistical data gleaned from the sector elucidates the enduring prevalence of gender inequality. In 2015, 77.6% of all Professors were male, whilst in SET (Science, Economics and Technology) subjects the figure was even higher at 81.8% (ECU).

How barriers can be overcome

The event ‘Aspiring female Professors/Managers – What can aspiring female professors/managers learn from those already in these positions?’ exists within this milieu and looked to develop dialogue, networking and solidarity to consider how such barriers can be overcome. As one speaker, Simona Iammarino, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, remarked during the panel discussion:

“We need more than just small cogs; we need a holistic culture that lends and prides itself on both gender equality and equity.”

So, how to eradicate an inequality that is both historic and persistent? To those at the event the answer seemed to become clearer as experiences were shared among the audience and the panel. Many panel speakers discussed the necessity of having role models, with young and ambitious students, academics and professionals all attesting to the benefits of inspirational figures in the guise of mentors, line managers and colleagues.

As Birkbeck’s Professor of Entrepreneurship Helen Lawton Smith stated, “we need to understand that we’re all in this together and it is up to each of us create the support necessary for women to succeed in academia and professional roles”.

TRIGGER image

The TRIGGER event on 28 June 2016

Fostering organisational change

Birkbeck’s four year TRIGGER initiative was set up in January 2014 as an applied research project aiming to foster organisational change through promoting the role of women in research and academia. It complements several other initiatives introduced by Birkbeck to reduce gender inequality in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics) subjects and managerial roles, such as ASTREA (Networking for women in professional and support roles), AURORA (Developing leadership skills for women) and Athena SWAN.

It is through such exchanges that commitments are made, not only to fighting disparity among gender pay and seniority, but also to fully comprehend the myriad dimensions of the struggle at hand. Indeed, until the persisting mechanisms of gender inequality are fully understood, they are doomed to perpetuate themselves. Discussions at the event ranged from the issue of age and its gendered role in the life of academics and professionals (see Fields Medal), to the challenges of younger women eager to assert themselves in male dominated professions.

The event itself embodied this sense of solidarity and commitment to gender equality, with networks forming around shared aspirations, experiences and struggles. If indeed institutions are to instigate a culture equipped to overcome inequality, it will be through a sharing of information, a proliferation of networks and through the support of key decision makers.

You can see a video taken of the event online, for those wishing to read more you can catch a summary of the panel responses posted to LinkedIn. You can read more about TriggeR  and upcoming events on their website. Students interested in mentoring programmes run by the college can check out Mentoring Pathways.

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Academia’s gender inequality problem

This post was contributed by Professor Helen Lawton-Smith of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. Professor Lawton-Smith is organising Improving gender equality in work – what can we learn from London’s business and policy organisations? on Wednesday 18 March, 2pm-5pm.

laboratoryWomen are under-represented in senior positions in science, engineering, maths and medicine disciplines at UK universities. Initiatives including Athena SWAN and the Aurora Women’s leadership programme have been set up to address this problem, yet such initiatives by themselves are not enough to tackle the problem of the current gender bias. What is needed is institutional embedding, so that gender and other diversity issues are integrated into an equality framework of decision-making processes and structures within organisations, which cannot be side-stepped by those in positions of power.

The four-year Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) project at Birkbeck is championing the role of female academics in scientific subjects as part of a five-country European project. This initiative is testing a blueprint designed to raise the status of women in scientific and technological organisations such as universities. The nine action areas are designed to identify barriers to equality in the workplace, including the impact of research. The project builds on Birkbeck’s existing commitment to promoting female academics. Results and reactions have been very interesting.

Equality issues have been tackled in a variety of ways by companies and by policy making bodies such as local authorities and government agencies. According to the New York Times in October 2014, Silicon Valley also has a diversity problem – one which is being tackled head on by companies such as Google and Facebook.

Academia has a lot to learn from how other kinds of large organisation have identified the nature and causes of gender inequality. On Wednesday 18 March the TRIGGER project and the BEI School are hosting a networking event designed to explore which institutional changes work best in supporting gender equality in large organisations. The panel’s speakers will reflect on why changes were necessary, what changes have been introduced, the outcome of those changes, and what still needs to happen to improve gender equality. The diversity of speakers will ensure there are opportunities for learning for all.

Interested? Find out more

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