In the past, women were rarely able to attend university. It was only in the 20th century that the growing number of women undertaking university courses began to significantly impact the demographics of graduates of higher education. However, much like in the workplace, the acceptance of women in higher education was and continues to bear the mark of the structural inequalities of patriarchal society.
The first areas of study in which women were accepted into higher education were in education and healthcare; care-giving tasks that were more easily justified by their similarity to women's’ roles in society.
Although we, as women, now have access to all disciplines and professions, there remains a horizontal segregation when it comes to academic enrolment: we continue to “choose” to study for work as caregivers.
Moreover, when we enrol in male-dominated courses of study, we continue to more “feminised” specialisations. For example, women lawyers tend to specialise in family law rather than criminal law; similarly, women doctors are frequently paediatricians and rarely surgeons.
The few successful women in these fields have often only seen their abilities recognised after overcoming serious marginalisation, mistreatment and extraordinary demands.
What seems like merit is actually discrimination
On the other hand, even within the disciplines in which women make up over 50% of graduates, we still run up against a glass ceiling limiting our ability to access leadership positions within academic and professional fields, whether within institutions of higher education or not, within both the public and private sectors.
While a university degree may increase the chances of securing higher salaried employment with better working conditions, women still find themselves in a worse position than men who hold equal qualifications: the ever-persistent wage gap is incontestable proof of this inequality.
Within academic institutions, women tend to take lower-ranking positions in which the working conditions are more precarious, with relatively far fewer women holding university administrative positions or serving as directors of centres, laboratories, chairs or projects.
We ought to be struck by how, in an environment that purports itself to be based around criteria that seek to reward individual efforts and levels of capabilities equally with a view to fostering scientific creativity and critical thinking, there are so many powerful underlying mechanisms of exclusion, discrimination and violence.
Meritocracy is an ideology that helps legitimise inequalities. To the extent that it attributes individual responsibility to the outcomes it seeks to reward, it also serves to conceal the structural conditions that either facilitate or impede these achievements. By not considering personal circumstances and the inequality of material and resources at an individual’s disposal when it comes to accomplishing an activity, meritocracy inadvertently rewards those who can take advantage of these differences.
This observation, which also serves to help analyse the propagation of socio-economic inequalities in general, enables us to examine the question of gender in the academic world under a different light. It may, in fact, constitute the foundation for a powerful critique of institutions that, despite their liberal façade, both conceal and promote authoritarianism.
Gender equality, strong unionism
What happens to us as women in university? Firstly, domestic and care-giving responsibilities continue to be considered as women’s work. The decision to delegate, negotiate or postpone is considered a woman’s responsibility.
In this way, their ability (in terms of available time, energy or attention) to pursue demanding, competitive careers is limited in a way that men are completely unaffected. Secondly, mechanisms of discrimination are generally insidious, yet they also instil in women permanent doubts about their true capabilities.
Never free from the obligation to justify our own successes, we often have to prove how exactly we got to where we are through academic effort alone, and not through the dark powers of the threatening “witches” we are always on the verge of becoming.
The university becomes a space in which growing competition within the new forms of academic work are further exacerbated by a traditional hierarchical structure justified by meritocracy; these circumstances favour innumerable situations of abuse of power and sometimes even violence, with women being particularly affected.
Within this context, the incorporation of gender-based perspectives in union agendas is crucial in combating an inadmissible form of inequality best conceived of as unjust working conditions. This lays the foundation for a criticism of the current organisation of academic work that may contribute to the democratic transformation of higher education.
This requires implementing gender equality policies within unions themselves. Incorporating within their leadership and founding principles the comprehension of this problem, and developing union intervention strategies. This includes quotas or parity policies for the integration of colleges to university governments, differentiating criteria for academic evaluation, egalitarian licensing procedures, childcare facilities, institutional protocols for dealing with situations of gender-based violence, etc.
It is also necessary to foster women's leadership and eliminate the forms of violence and discrimination that silence the voices of women within organisations in order to make them stronger, more representative, more democratic and better equipped to continue the struggle.