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Ahead of International Women’s Day, Aleksandra Kanjuo Mrčela reflects on progress towards achieving gender equality in academia, yet unsolved issues such as the consequences of de-masculinising (certain parts) of academia, and what institutions can do to create a more equitable and inclusive environment for all.

International Women's Day provides an opportunity for universities to promote gender equality, diversity, and inclusion and to inspire and empower all its members to achieve their full potential.

Originally, International Women's Day was primarily dedicated to the struggle for women's economic, political and social equality. It is a day to draw attention to the various aspects of powerlessness, disrespect and injustice based on gender. Furthermore, the concept of gender has proven to be a powerful tool and a basis for mobilising social change. This has been especially true in recent decades, where there has been a growing understanding of the need for a radical change in the domination-based relations between people. Today, based on studies of masculinity and increasingly authentic use of the intersectional approach in feminist analyses, it is evident - even more than in the mid-twentieth century, when Simone de Beauvoir defined gender as a socialised rather than an inherent trait - that gender is a structural social issue.

Discussions on gender equality in the public sphere, and in science and education, typically address the long-standing and, in some areas, still unfinished struggle for women's equal access to scarce resources. Miriam E. David (2015) reflects on how, in the last fifty years, in the “numbers game” of the struggle to increase the number of women in higher education, we have lost sight of a more radical and important goal – “changing the rules of the game”. She points out that men and women, in spaces where there are more and more women, are not living by the new, better-for-everyone rules. Women are experiencing a "moving target." When they reach a scarce resource, it turns out that its scarcity has been redefined - that it is less desirable and valued than before. Thus, women "win" in "feminine" spaces and positions. It seems that the targets for men are also shifting. Indeed, men appear to be withdrawing from spaces and positions where the number of women is increasing. There is a need to rethink ways to ensure that universities remain attractive and accessible to both men and women, as well as strong institutions able to play an important role for a good society.

However, in the last few decades, universities have operated in a political and economic environment that has been marked by a neoliberal turn and many have been affected by the currents of commercialisation and bureaucratisation. The trend towards the growth of a “bureaucratic ethos”, already observed by C.W. Mills in the last century (i.e. the standardisation and rationalisation of research, dominance of principles of efficiency and utility, precarisation of academic work, and market and competition-oriented funding) could threaten academic autonomy, academic values and dedication to the creation of knowledge for the betterment of society and the emancipation of individuals.

The de-masculinisation of universities that is taking place in Europe, the US and Australia has been described by some as the “triumph of women over men”, the “threat to men”; or the “poisoning of the university with feminist logic”. Such simplistic and misogynistic explanations need to be replaced by a comprehensive analysis. A common consequence of the feminisation of certain fields is often the loss of status, power and monetary rewards in these fields. However, when men enter certain fields, they gain in importance. Computer science is an example of this. Although the first computer programmers were women, the field has masculinised over time and today, when it is seen as the “locomotive of development”, it is a field in which women are a distinct minority.

Analysis shows that women in the academic organisational hierarchy only exceptionally reach positions of the highest power (e.g. rectors, heads of research centres or laboratories). At the same time, we see that there are fewer and fewer men who perform managerial jobs (e.g. heads of department) that are becoming increasingly routinised and administrative. Men are also leaving certain fields (e.g. political science, sociology, arts) or not entering others (e.g. educational sciences, health care, social work). The fields men choose have excellent job prospects, high rewards and high status within and outside academia.

Despite progress in recent years, women still earn less than men in academia, even when factors such as rank, experience, and research productivity are considered. This suggests that gender bias and discrimination may still be present in academic institutions. Balancing career and family responsibilities is a challenge for many academics, but women often face additional obstacles due to societal expectations and gender roles. Gender inequality intersects with other forms of inequality, such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability. This can compound the challenges that women face in academia, making it even harder to achieve gender equality.

While progress has been made towards achieving gender equality in academia, there are still many unsolved issues that need to be addressed including the reasons for and consequences of de-masculinising (certain parts) of academia. It is important for academic institutions to create a more equitable and inclusive environment for all members of the academic community.

In the complicated times we live in, International Women’s Day is a symbol of resistance against violence and of the demand for an equal distribution of economic, political and social power. If "the goal of feminism is to end various forms of oppression and change lives," as the young Nigerian feminist June Eric Udorie recently wrote, on Women's Day we support the struggle for more people to have the opportunity to live together as human beings in dignity and freedom.


Aleksandra Kanjuo Mrčela
University of Ljubljana

Aleksandra Kanjuo Mrčela is Professor of Sociology at the University of Ljubljana, where she teaches sociology of work and economic sociology. She also currently chairs the Steering Committee of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE).

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