For: Are gender quotas in higher education neccessary?

Credit: Megan Holly Burns

Credit: Megan Holly Burns

Hannah Donnelly

Hillary Clinton is battling it out to become president, seven million women in Poland won back the right to choose and students at the University of Glasgow are getting ready to lead a huge cultural shift for gender equality.

This of course will be achieved with gender quotas, the game changer for equality. The University will implement these gender ratios in a bid to level the playing fields of longstanding gender inequalities within higher education. The plan has potential to bring imperfect, but necessary change to systemic gender inequalities that are otherwise left unaddressed. Under the Scottish Government’s proposal, all university and college courses will be required to have ratios of no more than 75:25 of male and female students. The policy won’t be initiated until 2030, however the need for gender inequality is more immediate.

Gender inequality is an unavoidable, but often accepted, issue affecting incomes, graduate opportunities and political representation. Ironically this is most obvious in our lecture room halls, which are supposedly at the forefront of learning and change. If I were a nursing lecturer, the majority of students I’d address would be female, however if I were lecturing in technology or maths, I’d be overwhelmed by male students. This is found throughout higher education, with more women than men in undergraduate courses. But as a woman I am far less likely to be a professor, as men hold 86% of these positions.

It’s easier to shrug this off as being a natural bias from perceptions of traditional male and female roles, or accept it as a societal issue requiring unobtainable change. I’d argue that elements of both of these are true, but mostly the problem is a complete lack of action. Gender equality has been stuck in a discussion about awareness and the need for change without ever seeming to reach a conclusion: gender quotas are the essential tool that has thus far been missing.

To put it simply, quotas are valuable because they work. They can make changes to representation in classes, political cabinets and workplaces that could otherwise take a lifetime. Rapid change can seem like a drastic, short-term fix, but I’d ask whether having an engineering class where at least 25 out of the 100 students are female is that drastic? I think not.

The conversation around gender equality has undeniably made huge leaps: Canada’s parliament has an equally represented parliament, and the Scottish Social Attitudes survey recorded the lowest level of homophobia ever. As a student, I find it hard to comprehend that despite this progress, my classrooms, places of learning, are still conditioned to a gender bias from twenty years ago. This is why rapid change is needed. Discussions have taken us as far as they can, but now we need to take real action to catch up.

As it stands, gender quotas are the best tools we have for leveling the playing fields for students and their lecturers. The quotas set comparatively achievable goals that will be fulfilled in a number years, rather than decades, and will open up the impact that universities and students can have on equality throughout society. It’s a head on assault to gendered education that has been a long time coming.

Introducing gender quotas will inevitably have administrative tension, like any change. However, at this stage equality needs to move beyond the point of discussion, and in their position at the forefront of education, universities should, and can, bring momentum to a larger cultural shift.


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