In Search of Equality

Women in academia, gender quotas and the need for transition

Men and Women make up each 50% of society, but there is a significant underrepresentation of women in academic positions. Rector Pauwels has announced a gender quota to balance out such inequalities at VUB. Many heated discussions arose on Facebook, showing that a large group of people is against such quotas. Why we do need quotas, an open discussion and need to listen to each other more carefully .

As a child I used to play outside every day. Everything was possible. We lived our dreams and everyone could be whoever and whatever they wanted to be: astronaut, dancer, parent, teacher, orphan, spy, horse, singer, doctor, adventurer and sometimes all of these at the same time. There were no limits to our thinking, no restrictions to our fantasies.

In our scenarios, being a grandparent was not about age, being a father or mother not about gender and being sister or brother not about blood.
I thought life would be exactly like that, same opportunities for everyone, no matter their starting point. The older I got, the more I started to see the inequalities around me. They became part of my life as a woman, as a human being, and as a part of society.
One of the many inequalities that shape the lives of more than half of the population on this earth everyday is gender inequality. A topic many do not want to talk about, they reject it or deny its existence and pretend it is an invention of modern day feminism. But it ìs something we need to talk about, as it is not some far-fetched idea of a lunatic, but the hard truth for women in every society, the VUB included.

VUB, above average in a world with low standards

According to VUB’s facts and figures, there are 54% female and 46% male students studying at the VUB. This trend, where women outnumber men in higher education, occurs worldwide. On the opposite, of all the academic staff members at VUB, women only represent about 38% of which 45% are employed in a research assistant position, 25% in a Post doctorate position, 40% in an assistant professor position, 22% in an associate professor positions, 20% in a professor positions and as little as 15% has a full professor position. There is only one female dean compared to seven male deans.
The higher the profession, the lower the percentage of women. This is not only seen at VUB, but also at other universities in Flanders. VUB is one of the most advanced universities when it comes to gender equality. Today, about 28% of academic positions are tenured by women. Even so, progress has been slow as this is only an increase of 10% since 1992. How come women are so underrepresented in higher positions while more women than men go to university, earn a master’s degree and go for a PhD? This is a question I asked myself over and over again, and to which I cannot find an answer that fully satisfies me. Therefore I changed the question for the time being to: what is done to prevent this inequality from occurring happening?

“Quality before Gender!”

The Rector of VUB, Caroline Pauwels, recently announced the implementation of a gender quota to fight against gender inequality. In the future she wants at least 33% of the professors to be female.
Although Pauwels feels uncomfortable with gender quotas, she recognises the necessity of such quotas to change the dynamics in society and make equality the standard, to then be able to not need quotas ever again.
On the VUB Facebook page, an article about Pauwels and the gender quota was shared in September this year. The reception differed among many people, around 500 people “liked” or “loved” the post and 50 pushed the “angry” button. This is also seen in the comments left below the article.
“Why choose based on gender? The university should choose the best!”, “Quality before Gender!” or “Gender Quotas are Sexism!” on the other hand there are people commenting about the positive side of gender quotas, giving affirmation to the goal of a one third quota.
The irony is that the 33% quota is going to be implemented in order to oppose selection based on gender. The gender gap can then slowly be closed and quotas will no longer be needed, as there will be a common acceptance among the genders. This is of course an ideal scenario, but as seen in other areas quotas can be very efficient and not a new tool to diminish gender inequality. The Belgian parliament for instance consists of over 40% women due to a certain quota system, being one of the leading examples in the world. Men and women each make up 50% of the population, so why is there not at least a 50/50 gender balance in leading positions if more women have a higher university degree? Should there be an even higher quota? For both men and women?  Stating that not more than 55% of leading positions can consist of one gender? Making it a gender-neutral quota, as it will ensure a fair selection?

Gender equality and quotas are not enforced to the disadvantages of men, but in order to achieve equality for a society

Equality in the race of life

When I was a child, playing outside, we used to race each other, long distance, short distance, running, cycling, on our scooter or skateboard. All the kids from my neighbourhood participated and it was a lot of fun. We differed in age and gender. We had different quality skateboards and bikes. A fair race was only possible after implementing some rules to the competition that everyone had to agree on.
One person was running, another on a bike and the third one with roller blades. The bike had to start from the starting point, the person with roller blades some meters in front of him and the runner some meters in front of the second one. Younger kids started in front of older and people training in a sports club gave you an extra second to be able to be fast enough. We tried to make sure, that no matter with what you started the race, you had the same chances of winning it. With gender quotas it is even more difficult than with the example of privilege. In the current society men and women would have an equal race against each other, only that women are not allowed to run at all or have the obligation to start metres behind the starting point, having to cover more than any man has to. It is an unequal race that can easily be balanced through allowing women to start at the same line as men have to. Implementing a gender quota of one third still makes the race unfair for many women, as some still have to cover a longer distance to reach the destination. Having a quota is a good beginning to cancel out the inequalities that arose throughout the years of patriarchy, even if there is a long way to go to make all individuals in society equals.

Actions taken to grant equality

Tackling gender inequality in universities is a topic which importance has always been there, but has only been reacted to in the recent years. The University of Antwerp has decided on some major guidelines to structure a plan of action. On their website they published a paper which they called “Specific Actions”, listing different ways and steps of how to make the university a more gender diverse place. Some ideas on the agenda are: fixing current gender balance, make gender and diversity a part of leadership training, conduct surveys, adjust policies, organise an event about gender and many more.
The other universities in Flanders such as KU Leuven, Ghent University already since the 1980s, have very similar plans of action, but are all struggling to fully implement their own policies.
VUB has its own gender committee, consisting of over 25 people, including deans, professors and other staff members. The gender action plan of VUB brought to life by the committee has very detailed descriptions of how to deal with certain problems and, how things have or have not changed in the past years . All this is supported by many different statistics about gender in areas of studies and by comparing VUB to other Flemish Universities. Some goals have been reached, others have not, some have deadlines in the future and many have not been updated, as the gender action plan on the VUB website is still from 2014. The idea of not only having gender quotas, but also changing the structures behind everything is a more sustainable way of approaching the affairs and will lead to a more stable society, after the quotas are abolished again. The VUB is trying to approach the issue in a more comprehensive way, making different plans of action for every single faculty and an area of administration, trying to slowly change the system as a whole.

Are quotas sufficient?

Would a change in the structures without gender quotas be enough and more just for both men and women? Or are gender quotas not even enough to make a big change after all? Many would probably like to have structure changes without gender quotas, but achieving those changes would take a long time, decades at least, if not another century. Women do not want to wait all their life to only see minor changes, but want justice and equality now. Quotas make the process of equality faster and make way for a new way of thinking and acting.
VUB starts to slowly change their gender image, through policies, events and courses such as Gender, Diversity and Politics or Gender Research Seminars. These changes are mostly of a structural nature, setting the framework for everything to come. What will be important from now on is, that people start to understand that gender equality and quotas are not enforced to the disadvantages of men, but in order to achieve equality for a society, where everyone is treated in a fair and just manner. The first step of changing the structures behind everything is successfully taken, when people start to understand the necessity of change. To grant people the help or support they need is very important not only when it comes to gender, but also race, disabilities, background, language and every aspect of life being a disadvantage for people. Boycotting and being angry about gender quotas only shows the problematic patriarchal structures we live in and highlights the importance of such quotas even more.

Collective responsibility and a more sustainable progression

As a child, thinking everything was possible I felt free. The future belonged to me and I did not know that there would be such big obstacles on my path to accomplish my dreams. Now, growing up I wish one day to be able to tell my children and grandchildren exactly what I thought as a child. No matter if you are a man or a woman, you can become a professor at university, a boss at a big firm, a police-man or woman, an adventurer, a parent and everything you wish to be, without having to struggle more than someone else belonging to a different gender.
VUB is on a slow but good path to making a change to a more gender equal community and to set a good example for other Universities in the region. The initiative of rector Pauwels shows once more, that VUB progresses and evolves to create a better academic environment. If people would speak more openly about such important topics and raised their voices to be heard, change would come faster and goals would be reached quicker. A serious discussion is always better than hate- comments beneath a Facebook post. If people started to listen to each other more, we would all start to understand each other’s fears and concerns about important topics such as gender and equality in society. Making a change for the better is the responsibility of the whole community, not only that of a small committee.

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