The Road to Gender Equality in Higher Education: Sexism, Standpoints, and Success

By Vaccaro, Annemarie | Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Road to Gender Equality in Higher Education: Sexism, Standpoints, and Success


Vaccaro, Annemarie, Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies


Abstract: This article shares the findings from a mixed-method study of women's groups at one mid-sized university. In many ways, women's groups at this institution epitomized women leading and succeeding in higher education. Long term, incremental, and partial success related to curricular, financial issues, family policies, and campus climate are described.

This paper shares the findings from a qualitative case study of women's groups at one mid-sized university. This particular higher education institution had six women's activist organizations. Formal groups offer women opportunities to forge interpersonal connections and engage in activism (Carlock & Martin, 1977; Walker, 1987). Yet, descriptions of campus activist groups have largely focused on women students (Cherniss, 1972; Farley, 1970; Vaccaro, 2009) with no attention paid to groups comprised of women faculty, staff, or administrators.

This article documents the activist groups' challenges and success in battling sexism (Risman, 2004). Women faculty, staff, and students experienced oppression in the curriculum, family policy, financial realm, and the overall university climate. However, findings demonstrate that even though women shared similar experiences with institutional sexism (i.e. curriculum, family policy), group activism produced differential results for women in various places in the university hierarchy. In short, despite the fact that all women experienced similar forms of interpersonal and institutional marginalization (Risman, 2004), they did not benefit equally from the "success" achieved by women's collective action. This paper reminds readers that the road to gender equality is filled with hurdles, failures, and partial successes. It also suggests that success is relative. For activist success to be comprehensive, differing standpoints between women at various levels of the organizational hierarchy must be considered.

Literature Review

Gender inequality is described in the higher education and social sciences literature in a variety of ways. Most often, gender inequality refers to differential access and unequal participation in higher education (David, 2009). Subrahmanian (2005) analyzes the notions of access and participation in a discussion of the differences between gender parity and gender equality. Gender parity refers to equal access and representation with respect to proportions of men and women in the population. In short, parity is about numbers. Unfortunately, while some women might have achieved parity with (or surpassed) men in certain realms of education such as graduation rates at public higher education institutions (NCES, 2010), their experiences throughout the educational system can be rife with inequities (Vaccaro, 2010). Thus, gender equality is more complicated than mere parity, as it encompasses experiences with educational processes, procedures, and outcomes. Risman (2004) acknowledges this complexity in her argument that gender is a social structure which perpetuates inequalities in individual, interactional, and institutional dimensions. Individual inequalities can manifest in women's socialization and subsequent identity work. Interpersonal inequalities stem from unequal status expectations, cultural biases, gender stereotypes, and the othering of women. Finally, institutional inequalities are inscribed in organizational practices, regulations, and resource distribution (Risman, p. 437).

In their model for evaluating gender equality in higher education, Miller and Miller (2002) document five areas where women face individual, interactional, and institutional inequities: access to institutions, campus climate, interactions with instructors, inclusive instruction, and employment. These five areas have been explored by scholars who focus specifically on inequities faced by women in particular higher education roles (Collins, Chrisler & Quina, 1998; Glazer-Raymo, 2008; Glazer-Raymo, Townsend, & Ropers- Huliman, 2000; Welch, 1990). …

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