Has Edinburgh University eradicated sexism?

Following a panel discussion I was part of for Edinburgh University’s Social Responsibility and Sustainability department on whether the university has eradicated sexism, I wrote this guest blog for them summarising my perspective.

I was delighted last month to be asked to contribute to the panel discussion ‘Has the University eradicated sexism?’ and it was a pleasure to share the panel with two women – Vice Principal Equality and Diversity Jane Norman, and Ellie Mason from the Philosophy department – who both agreed that the answer was a firm ‘no’ but also had insightful and interesting thoughts on the issue and how to target it.

There were also a number of really engaged audience members with a lot to contribute to the discussion and so the event was a huge success and an incredibly worthwhile discussion. It was touched upon more than once, however, that events like these may be at risk of ‘preaching to the converted’ which perhaps, I think, could be the root of the problem itself.

The fact is that our university reflects our society, and our society has a huge problem with sexism and, specifically, its substandard treatment of women. I raised the point at the discussion that often the very language of ‘equality and diversity’ can veil the fact that this is a women’s issue; at EUSA, our liberation groups are so-called because we recognise the need to address a current imbalance in treatment, and also that treating everyone equally will not solve that, but will only further advantage those who are already dominant.

Our University has done, and continues to do, some great work around improving application and offer rates for women students, and looking at maternity policies, workload modelling, and many, many other important issues for staff and students alike. But the truth is that we can win Athena SWANN accreditations – and these are a great achievement – yet still see incidents like the vet rugby team shouting rape jokes at passing women. We can draft up policies, but still there are students being sexually harassed at our own events. These issues cannot be separate – there is little point in doing great Equality and Diversity work if there remain those in our community who don’t even understand why it matters in the first place.

The relationship between EUSA and the University is a really valuable one in this sense, as a lot of issues facing women students aren’t immediately obvious to those not immersed in them. For example, while my final year dissertation work on ‘lad culture amongst undergraduate students’ shocked no undergraduate student I spoke to, all non-students from my supervisor through to my mum were horrified by the contents which covered everything from rape jokes to sports team initiations through to ‘Spotted in the Library’ – a national trend where people anonymously message a facebook page with a message for someone they’ve spotted in the library; inevitably a man messaging a woman and always in an overtly sexual way.

We’re uniquely placed in a University to be able to have productive conversations around these issues. We’re a microcosm of society, but we’re a microcosm that has control over how we deal with incidents when they arise, and a microcosm uniquely placed to interact with a whole generation of young people every year in what for many is the transition phase between adolescence and adulthood. Our University already does fantastic work on gender equality, and as long as we sustain the productive relationship we currently have between EUSA and the University, there will be nowhere to hide for lad culture and misogyny in all its forms.

As long as sexism is live and kicking in wider society, it will be pervasive in our university community. But as long as it is, we’ll continue challenging it – and in doing so, we have a very real chance of sending out educated and respectful citizens into the world for an impact far beyond our university walls.

Originally published on Edinburgh University Social Responsibility and Sustainability Department’s Blog 

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