Still second-class in words and pictures

Women are treated unfairly in sector's publications and websites, scholars say. Sarah Cunnane writes

Academics and students of the fairer sex are portrayed unfairly - even in the pages of Times Higher Education, it has been claimed.

The issue was hotly debated at a recent conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education after the presentation of a study on "textual and visual representations" of gender in the sector.

Carole Leathwood, professor of education at London Metropolitan University and the author of the study, said she was inspired to assess the pages of THE after images used alongside a cover feature on dumbing down in October 2008 caught her eye.

"The front cover had the word 'dumb' on it, and the illustrations that accompanied the article were three pictures of young women," she said. "This associates women with dumbing down."

Kelly Coate, lecturer in teaching and learning in higher education at the National University of Ireland, Galway, agreed that the "genderisation" of higher education through the use of pictures was a problem, though not one that was unique to THE.

"Where do you see images of women in authoritative positions?" she asked. "There is a diverse range of academics now, disrupting the traditional image of academia, and that is not reflected anywhere."

Professor Leathwood, speaking after the event last month, cited other examples of what she claimed were negative images of women in higher education.

The website of the now-defunct Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills contained "a series of images that were highly gendered", she said.

She also considered a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Male and Female Participation and Progression in Higher Education, to be an "unhelpful" example of how gender inequality in the sector is treated.

The report, published in June 2009, says female students are no longer the disadvantaged sex in higher education, with women outnumbering and outperforming men across the sector.

Professor Leathwood said: "By saying men are missing out, Hepi ignores the gender balance in courses. Men tend to have a higher concentration in courses with a higher pay packet waiting at the end of it." She added that the report ignores the "general culture of masculinity in the academy".

Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of Hepi, defended the study's treatment of the sexes.

"Hepi does not produce reports that are intended to be helpful to any point of view," he said. "We report on the evidence we find, and sometimes we have to conclude things that are a surprise even to us.

"I can imagine that some people would have found the nuances of our findings difficult, and perhaps unhelpful, but these were based on evidence, not assertion.

"Undoubtedly there are respects in which women are disadvantaged, but higher education participation is not one of them. It is silly to argue otherwise in the face of the evidence," he said.

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