Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Equity Questions in Global Contexts

by Rebecca Ropers-Huilman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development

I begin writing this blog from a courtyard in Lund, Sweden, where I am attending a conference on gender equity in higher education. I traveled here from Vienna, where I am spending a semester learning about the ways in which gender equity policies are implemented and contested in Austrian universities. My conversations with European colleagues during the last several months as well as at this conference bring into greater clarity critical questions that are necessary for those of us around the world to engage in if we are interested in making real progress in equity.

Who is doing work toward gender equity and how is it valued?

I have learned that in Austria, the vast majority of people doing equity work are women. In fact, when I requested an interview with a senior university leader who had women’s advancement explicitly noted as one of his job responsibilities, I was referred by his (female) administrative assistant to one of his (female) colleagues. During the interview, it was clear that his colleague was the driving force for gender equity at the university. His name did not come up. Nor did anyone else refer me to any men when I asked for recommendations of people who could help me understand how gender equity policies were being implemented in Austrian universities. If gender equity is seen only as a “women’s problem,” I think our efforts will be stymied.

I have also learned that women often do work associated with gender equity without recognition or compensation. While there are exceptions to this lack of recognition, it is clear that equity work is not seen as an institutional good worth rewarding in tangible ways. I recall Ben Baez’s (2000) work exploring the benefits faculty of color experienced as they engaged in institutional service, though their capacity to do the research that the institution would value most highly was limited by time spent on service. Shelly Park’s (1996) work, which questioned “Why doesn’t women’s work count?”, also comes to mind. In both cases, these scholars urged that the institution take seriously service/leadership work by women and people of color given its importance to institutional functioning.

In Austria, even though policies are quite clear about what is expected in relation to gender equity, it strikes me that the question of who does the work and how is it rewarded is still an important one. The preponderance of women doing equity work is, of course, also true in the United States. In both contexts, I would ask why gender equity, if it is a priority, is not valued more explicitly within our reward structures and expected to be done by women and men.

How should educational leaders select and balance quantitative and qualitative measures of gender equity?

Many of the reports on gender equity around the world focus on numbers. For example, we know that women are the majority of undergraduates in most nations (UNESCO, 2012). We also know that the percentage of women decreases as the positional power increases, including at the levels of professor or rector/president. In the Nordic countries – arguably one of the best regions in the world in terms of gender equity – 87% of the research centers targeted for excellence funds are directed by men (Husu, 2014). These numbers are important, but they are enough to determine what our future strategies should be.

I suggest there are many qualitative questions that are also important if we want to make meaningful change toward equity. To what extent are academic staff and students free to pursue questions based on their expertise knowledge and experience of the world? How are scholars in both female-dominated and male-dominated disciplines valued and rewarded? What is the range of perspectives and epistemologies that are available to and incorporated by those at all levels of the academic hierarchy (from beginning student to most senior professor)? Do people across identity categories feel satisfied and supported in their work? Is fairness a principle that is widely understood to guide administrative and academic action? Are policies in place that acknowledge and respond to both differences and similarities of those throughout the university community? Who makes important decisions for the various levels of the university? Who is the university? Each of these questions deserves qualitative investigation.

What individual and institutional strategies are most effective, and in what ways?

In the Austrian context, a strong gender equity policy framework supports the work of scholars and leaders as they attempt to engage in work that changes both institutions and individual practices. Leaders and scholars point to quotas that require at least 40% of women and men in decision-making bodies. These quotas have led to women serving as approximately 50% of all Vice Rectors. They also point to the Working Group for Equal Opportunity, a group that exists in each university that has the power to stop hiring processes if they believe that inequitable practices have been used to come to a decision. While Austrian colleagues acknowledge problematic aspects of these policies, they assure me that they are the most effective tools that they have in moving from a strongly hierarchical and male-dominated system to one which is slightly less hierarchical and more equitable in gender representation across the institutions.

My United States-educated mind resists the idea of using a quota or any sort of numerical expectation to achieve equity. Yet, Austria (and other nations) have prioritized a type of fairness that insists on equity in specific ways over the hope that educating and trying very hard to be fair and kind will somehow yield equitable results. While their policies have not yet produced gender equity at the full professor levels, Austrian universities are experiencing substantial shifts in numerical representation. I am hopeful that both Austria and the United States will continue to examine policies, informal and formal practices, and gendered assumptions that make current inequities seem natural.

How will gender be understood and positioned in increasingly diverse societies? How/can/should intersectionality be institutionalized/advocated?

Gender equity in Austrian contexts seems primary and intentionally foregrounded. It is explicit in public documents and, arguably, institutionalized in significant ways. My observations of United States gender equity practices mirror those of Mary Ann Danowitz Sagaria and Lyndsay Agans (2007) when they suggest that gender equity is subsumed under a broader category of diversity. Our social institutions must move toward more intersectional approaches to understanding individual and collective experience and action. Equity achieved for “women” without taking into consideration the many different identities that inform their lives will be empty and will continue to replicate the hierarchical power structures we are attempting to deconstruct.

Yet, I am impressed with the ways in which gender equity remains on the radar in Austrian and European Union higher education in ways that seem to make it more explicit and, therefore, actionable. All of the students in my Austrian class had heard of the policy of gender mainstreaming and had some sense of what it was. I cannot think of any comparable policy framework that is as ubiquitous in the United States. How might we develop such a framework for action that is intersectional? How might we communicate it widely and develop buy-in across our communities or at least our institutions? We need to acknowledge that educational leaders and scholars who are multiply marginalized in our communities are necessary to inform our collective equity efforts.

Is equity a central measure of quality, or is it a secondary aspiration to be attempted once all other priorities (financial stability, internationalization, research prestige, global rankings, etc.) are achieved?

For me, this last question is critical to our choices and commitments to equity. Austria’s most recent University Act in 2002 outlines the principles of public universities in the country. Of a list of twelve principles, four relate to equity in a direct way. Number 3 insists on a “diversity of scientific and artistic theories, methods and doctrines.” Numbers 9 and 10 direct universities to be guided by “equality of the sexes” and “social opportunity.” And Number 12 articulates that universities should give “special attention to the needs of the handicapped.” The essential tasks of universities soon follow, with “gender equality, and the advancement of women” as number 9 of 11. Further direction in the document requires universities to have a plan for the advancement of women, to establish “an organizational unit responsible for the co-ordination of activities relating to equal opportunities, the advancement of women and gender research.” Performance contracts between universities and the Ministry include indicators related to gender equity.

There is some disagreement about whether or not the promise in each part of this Act is being fulfilled. However, I am impressed by the articulation of clear commitments and expectations. I am also impressed with the movement of Austria in the last decade. I am excited to see what comes, fully acknowledging that resistance, complexity, and redefinitions of equity and equity practice are sure to emerge.


Baez, Benjamin. (2000). Race-related service and faculty of color: Conceptualizing critical agency in academe. Higher Education, 39(3): pp. 363-391.

Danowitz Sagaria, Mary Ann, & Agans, Lyndsay (2007). Frames, changes, challenges, and strategies. In Mary Ann Danowitz Sagaria (ed.) Women, Universities and Change. Gender Equality in the European Union and the United States (pp. 215-222). New York: Palgrave.

Husu, Liisa. (May, 2014). Interrogating gender paradoxes in academia: Nordic and European perspectives. Conference on Gender Equity in Higher Education. Lund University.

Park, Shelley M. (1996). Research, teaching, and service: Why shouldn't women's work count? The Journal of Higher Education, 67(1): pp. 46-84.

UNESCO. (2012). World atlas of gender equality in education. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Paris, France.

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