March 8th, and by extension the entire March, has become a global powerful month where women honour and render female and feminist struggles against all oppressions, persistent violence and precarity, and for all emancipations. March 8th – International Women’s Day- is a contested site for hegemonic masculine interests, privileged classes, and white supremacy. The days where mass media and markets’ male narratives of women’s day were infused by patronising and misrecognising attitudes such as giving flowers or chocolate to women as a celebratory gift for “their only day” are in the past for many. Yet, the global market is still full of catching happy flower deals for men to buy, though.
March is also a month where International Organisations’ (IOs) interests in women’s rights are at stake. These are powerful places where competing aspiring campaigns of what women’s day is about are worked out. Central themes for women’s equity are proposed and mobilised like #BreaktheBias – the World Economic Forum campaign calling out people to act against gender stereotyping and discriminatory situations-, or the United Nations’ proposed theme ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’ aiming at ‘recognizing the contribution of women and girls around the world, who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all’. Certainly, it is not for men to take part in these “definitions” nor in the market-masculine hands, or in the hands of IOs -although they take part in different manifestations towards gender equality- to define what they celebrate, what they commemorate, what they fight for. We want to support women in their fight for equality, justice and fair opportunities.
In all these themes and campaigns, including the market-male ones, it is hard to see the intersectional struggles as one of the founding histories supporting women’s day – that is, it is not emphasised women’s historical and actual struggles against simultaneous oppressions they face given their class and working conditions and status, their gender, and their racial/ethnic backgrounds; all of them working together reproducing women unlivable and unsustainable conditions. From its initial historical eruptions in 1857 and 1909 in New York -where working class, intellectuals, and migrant women risking and losing their lives conducted strikes demanding better labour conditions- women come together recognising different lines of oppression affecting their lives.
One of the struggles many women and feminists have decided to fight are gender inequalities in Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -STEM- fields. These inequalities cut across class, gender, racial, and ethnic lines, are pervaded by masculine hegemony, and can be tracked from the global big numbers to the cultural which is experienced in the everyday life. These inequalities are more complex than just less women studying and working in STEM.
In higher education, we see an as yet unfettered masculine hegemony in all stages. According to the International Association of Universities just one in six higher education institutions are led by women across the globe. Globally, just 28% of professors (the most distinguished position in the academic career) are women, an unequal distribution more pronounced in research intensive institutions- (U-Multirank Gender Monitor 2021). In STEM focus institutions, males dominate. Proportions of female undergraduates in STEM focus institutions are much lower than in non-STEM focus institutions (36% to 56%), worldwide (U-Multirank Gender Monitor 2021). Following UNESCO data we also see that just 29% of the total researchers in science are women. When it comes to engineering and related fields inequalities get wider. According to UNESCO 1 in 10 female students are enrolled in engineering, manufacturing, or construction. In Electrical and Mechanical engineering, across all the academic career path -from students to Master and PhD studies, to professorial positions-, no more than 30% are females and in most of the stages, no more than 20% are (U-Multirank Gender Monitor 2021). But these are not just problems in the poorest, colonial and postcolonial countries. National data gathered in the 2016 The Athena Survey of Science, Engineering and Technology (ASSET)as well as the 2018 SRUK Survey on Gender Equality in Research in Spain, show that most female researchers work in more precarious conditions than males. Less than 20% of professors are women, but they are more than 50% of the postdoctoral positions (one of the most precarious academic positions in higher education); and more women are in part-time positions than men. These translate into disparate gendered perceptions. These surveys show that women academics are more likely to perceive advantages towards men while men are more likely to misrecognise those situations having more “neutral perceptions”.
Covid-19 also exposed and deepened gender inequalities that intersect with postcolonial inequalities in higher education. U-multirank data shows that 60% of higher education institutions, in the beginning of the pandemic, were able to replace classroom teaching for online/distance teaching, most of them in the richest countries. For STEM subjects the data reveals that in Engineering and Sciences just 3% of the programmes (in more than 80 countries). This forces female students to deal with the gendered division of labour at home, demanding them care and domestic labour. Covid-19 also left females at risk of facing wider digital inequalities at home. While the Internet has expanded throughout the world population from 46% to 63%, especially during the Pandemic, around 3 billion do not have access to the internet, many more have poor connection and no computers, especially in ex colonial countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America (ITU, 2021). These digital inequalities are gendered, raced, and classed. Females from poorer countries are the most excluded. And yet, these inequalities are also shared by many women around the globe. A small survey carried out by STEM women in 2019, 2020 and 2021 in the UK give us a glimpse of the rising importance of diversity and equality measures during the Pandemic years. While in 2019 74% of female respondents thought these measures were very or extremely important, in 2021 this share increased to 89%. In the report we also see a loss of hope for positive changes in gender equity in IT and Engineering labour market.
There is also an increasing circulation of sexual violence and enduring language colonialism through platforms that has affected all students, including those in STEM. The former can be observed in the intensification of stalking and sexual harassments during the last years, affecting LGBT communities and women, principally (Pew Research Centre in 2020), while the latter has been indicated in the State of the Internet Language Report (2022) led by Dittus and Graham, showing dominance of English in programmes, learning platforms, and webpages widely used in higher education. They reported that the most excluded languages come from African countries, leaving more than 90% of their potential users compelled to deal with a colonial language if they want to be “included”.
And yet, what is often missing from these data are the complex misogynist environments female and non-gender conforming graduates navigate in higher education and STEM fields. They are part of the culture that sustain the data presented above. Research sensitive to this patriarchal culture points out how females as well as non-binary people are often represented in binary terms, like in positive/negative or superior/inferior style of thinking. For instance, men are believed and treated as having more capacities, attunement, or dispositions for STEM than females, and positive images link men with the use of technologies and technical skills, positioning females in the negative pole of these relationships, often associated them with devalued capacities for caring, as if caring was not at all needed nor part of the skills all people should apply in their STEM field.
These binaries reiterate norms that are detrimental to non-masculine genders and women because they arbitrarily reinforce values that vest superiority to men and relegate women and other groups to inferior status and positions controlled by those rules that allow men to govern and accrue prestige and respect. There is also what is known as tokenism. It refers to a superficial, cosmetic understanding of inclusion. We have seen this in higher education institutions focusing primarily on counting more women in, or in making women academics more visible because they need to fill in gender parity indicators, or when females are continuously summoned to participate in several events and roles, thus exploiting them and making them responsible for their own inclusion. All of these, without changing the assumed male dominance, cleverness, and leadership. This chilli environment is even more dense given the endless microaggressions. These are quotidian, unquestioned, and deemed subtle actions and situations such as sexist jokes, insults or stereotyping stories around females and gender that often circulate in higher education and STEM departments. Currently, higher education is pervaded by sexual aggressions and harassment, which are experiences difficult to speak out. This makes higher education plainly dangerous for female individuals around many parts of the world.
While research data is available on women’s representation in STEM fields. The gendered journeys of university STEM students and their progression into employment remains underexplored. Our project, Gendered Journeys, investigates the multidimensional and intersecting challenges that STEM students face in India and Rwanda with some comparative research in the UK. Gender equality is not limited to women’s participation in higher education or STEM areas; it includes examining and addressing institutional, societal and cultural barriers that restrict women’s advancement. For example, we need to consider how caring responsibilities and gendered sensemaking of technology shape women’s decisions to pursue STEM subjects and the material and cultural conditions available for them in those fields. Do work environments support career progression for women? Do women get supportive mentors in STEM areas? These questions and considerations do not stand alone, as they are linked to power structures in an organisation and societies. Finally, we believe that despite all of these impediments that women encounter in their daily lives, they have the aspirations, capabilities, and skills to pursue and sustain careers in higher education and STEM areas, alongside multiple collectives making important efforts for equality in STEM and other areas involved in these politics of knowledge.
Daniel Leyton and Preeti Dagar, Research Associates. School of Education. University of Glasgow