Gender Imbalance in University Staff

Universities are known as liberal institutions. They are usually urban and their student populations are both highly educated and traditionally politically active. However, they are also places of privilege: attendance at university is more accessible to those from privileged socio-economic backgrounds, and there is a problem with gender imbalance among academic staff. I attend university in Ireland, and I can see how this lack of women in high-profile positions directly affects the education I receive.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) of Ireland released a report on the 2015-16 academic year, with a follow-up report due in 2019, examining women’s position in academia. It found that although women made up roughly half of lecturing staff in Ireland that year, only a shocking 19% occupied academic professor positions. (This was shocking to me when I first encountered the statistic, but is not unusual in Europe in general). In non-academic staff, women were 62% of the workforce but men held 72% of the highest paid positions. A woman has never been president of a university in the Republic of Ireland.
It can be clearly seen, therefore, that the issue is not just getting women jobs in universities, but also helping them to advance. The HEA report states that the limits to women’s advancement were not due to a lack of talent or drive, but due to factors “conscious and unconscious, cultural and structural” not experienced by men in the same position. It points out that international evidence has shown that progress towards equality is “not automatically linear or inevitable”, but that gender balance when achieved is beneficial to organisations and correlates positively with improved performance. I use Ireland as an example, but it is important to note this is an issue across the world: in 2014, for example, only 20.9% of senior academics and 20.1% of heads of higher education institutions in Europe were women. In the U.S., women held 48.9% of tenure-track positions in 2015 but only 38.4% of actual tenured positions.

The lack of women in senior positions in universities indicates a lack of diversity, reduces other women’s chances of career advancement within these institutions, and can give rise to a male-dominated, misogynistic culture which further hinders progression. It also sends a message to female students about what they can realistically achieve in the world, and to male students about what they are entitled to. (Students can avoid taking messages like this one on board, and this is where the tradition of student activism and political awareness is beneficial, but they exist all the same.) This is important because university degrees bestow all kinds of privilege and university students will most likely form a large part of the next generation of politicians and CEOs. If they consume discriminatory messages, they may carry that prejudice into later life and into the workplace. One of the significant points made in the HEA report is that “education plays a vital role in the socialisation of citizens into an expectation of certain roles as ‘women’s work’ or ‘men’s work’.” While there are barriers to the career progression of women in all kinds of industries, as young people in Europe we must be particularly aware of this issue with regard to universities, because it affects the education we are receiving right now.

I am in my second year of a joint History and English Literature degree. At the end of this academic year, in my English course I will have studied the literary works of 62 men and only 26 women. (My focus in this article is gender imbalance, but it is important to note that those contained within a single lecture on Afromodernism, a single module on post-colonial literature and two slave narratives) Furthermore, women’s work is sometimes included only to address so-called women’s issues – despite the overall lack of female representation, I have now studied Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman twice. Even in the arts, which have a higher proportion of female academics than STEM subjects, the voices and stories deemed worthy of study are predominantly male. Low numbers of female staff and low representation of female writers are both part of the cultural norm which makes it standard to see few high-profile women throughout academia. These are both symptoms of the same issue. Therefore I believe an improvement in one area (a greater number of female staff) would lead to improvement in the other.

I understand that there are some practical reasons for the disparity in authors studied: because female authors have traditionally received less attention, there is less secondary material focusing on their work, making it difficult for students to research them. I also understand that a course focusing on Victorian literature (for example) must include the heavyweights such as Charles Dickens, and I appreciate that when studying more recent literary movements, the gender balance of authors is often (but not always) more representative. But a lack of female writers can also perpetuate the harmful ideas of the period being studied. For example, in the Victorian period, women wrote huge amounts of literature that was highly popular, but these were looked down on as commercial rather than seen as art; they were seen as less worthy or less literary or less interesting. The works we now consider to be the greatest of the period are largely by men. The women whose work receives recognition today are, strikingly frequently, the ones who used male pseudonyms (the Brontë sisters, or Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot, for example). These ideas persist to this day, in that women are huge writers and consumers of fiction, but books by men or featuring male protagonists are statistically more likely to be recognised through modern literary awards.

This is not to say that this perpetuation of privilege has been done deliberately or maliciously, but to point out that we as students must think actively about the way we are being taught, or not being taught, or else our education in liberal universities may further reinforce ideas which lead to discrimination. If, as in this example, the number of women deemed worthy of study is so significantly less, we must be aware of the biases of the period being studied and also of the biases which persist today (such as the lack of high-profile female staff in universities) which make writing by men the status quo. We must be aware of the ways in which historical oppression reappears in our learning. Otherwise we risk taking its messages on board; in this example, we risk perceiving work by women as actually, inherently inferior.
In November 2014, Micheline Sheehy Skeffington won €70,000 from her former employer, NUI (National University of Ireland) Galway, because they were found to have discriminated against her for promotion on the basis of her gender. This was heralded as a landmark victory. Since 2014, there have been moves within Ireland to address the issue. The HEA’s comprehensive report in 2016 laid out a plan of action. The very existence of this report and plan is encouraging, but change has been slow. Sheehy Skeffington wrote in 2017 of her disappointment at the lack of meaningful improvement. It is clear there is much work still to be done.

While I hope for continued improvement in the future, it will take time; I doubt there will be significant change before I finish my degree. As young people in Europe, we must be aware of the issue of gender imbalance in our academic institutions, but we must also actively think about how it affects us right now and how it impacts the education we receive.

About the author:

Carol McGill (19) participated in the “My Europe” workshop in Dublin in 2014. She is a student of History and English Literature and loves to write in her free time. Carol also enjoys drama and reading. After completing her degree she would like to be involved in promoting human rights and preventing discrimination.




School Group Projects

Economic historians tell us that, in the beginning, people used the tools and consume the products they could produce. In due time, society evolved, and trade became the primary source of acquiring products for the daily life: the shepherd would exchange his wool for the farmer’s oil, so that they could both eat and keep warm. Up until the 19th century, this was the golden rule of the market and most companies would try to manufacture what it took to provide products or services to customers in-house. However, the 20th century brought massive changes that altered our ancestors’ perspective on outsourcing.
Outsourcing is what happens when a company buys their means of production from other companies. The consequence is economic and productive interdependence. Today more than ever, companies rely on a network system to provide goods and services to their customers. It is often stated that social media connects everybody everywhere; more and more, however, economic necessity brings us closer than anything else. However, what is the link with education?

Truth is, economic interdependence seems to have reflected upon it: more and more we need our colleagues’ help in performing tasks we do not excel at in order to ensure that our deliverable is the best possible. Team work is no longer a desirable quality on an employee: it’s a necessity. And the best known way to improve youngsters’ behaviour as a team is through group projects. The aim of this essay is not to argue whether group projects are beneficial for students, but trying to understand how these groups should be constructed in order to excel their performance.

In any school, the act of learning can be structured under three different goals: in a competitive learning structure, students compete against each other, their goal being to stand out when compared to everyone else; opposing to some extent, in an individual learning structure, students set out goals for themselves unrelated to those of their peers; contrasting both these structures, we find a cooperative one, where students work together to achieve common goals. Group projects fit into this last category. However the simple act of joining two (or more) students will not result in automatic successful group work (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2014). There are conditions that need to be filled in order to accomplish true cooperation. According to the authors, these conditions are positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, social skills, and group processing (Pennsylvania State University).

Positive interdependence means that all members share a sense of personal responsibility for the success of the group and realize that their individual success depends on the group’s success. Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (2014) argue that this type of cooperative learning tends to result in learners promoting each other’s success. One way to accomplish positive interdependence is to divide the work into small parts and assign each of them to a student so that every member of the group takes part in the final work. This is called the Jigsaw Method.
As to individual accountability, we can look at this requisite as a follow-up of the first. It means that each member of the group is assessed individually based on his share of the finished work. The goal of this feature is to impart responsibility in students by making them accountable for their actions. Once it is shouldered by all members of the group, individual accountability guaranties that every student commits to the team and the group does indeed become the sum of all its parts (Anderson, 2007).

In theory, this would ensure that everybody does their fair share of work. Instead, what we see happening in classes everyday are substantial gaps in group projects’ motivation caused by this division in tasks. More committed students present elaborated pieces of work while less motivated students show poor output. As a consequence, dedicated students feel less motivated to engage freely and open-mindedly in group projects, while less driven students feel even less motivated in face of their peer’s hostility. How to fix this raging problem?
According to an article by Yee (2013), a second-grade teacher explains that when she first started teaching, her classroom was a handful: her faster learning students would finish their assigned work very quickly, get bored of waiting for the other kids, and misbehave, while students who took longer to understand the subjects would feel frustrated for taking longer than the others, and act out. Trying to solve this problem, Mrs. Sears, the teacher, divided her class into smaller groups, according to each ones’ abilities. She would teach the same material using different approaches which, in her words, drastically decreased classroom problems.

Dividing a classroom in smaller groups according to individual abilities is one of the most controversial subjects that modern education has yet faced. During the ’80s and the ‘90s, a number of books, essays and studies were published ensuring that this division did more harm than good. This idea was based on the assumption that teachers would focus more on higher achieving students than on those thought of as less able, not providing them with positive enough learning environments (Oakes, 1985).
Nowadays, however, more and more published studies show that the opposite is also true. When divided in groups, less struggling students push each other into going further while not making their struggling peers feel inadequate. There are growing theories supporting this division, and most of them defend themselves against discrimination accusations by agreeing that these groups should be fluid and altered if need be.

And yet, mentality is, as history has taught us, the most difficult characteristic for a society to change. This means that, instead of dividing classes, most education theorists still stand for promotive interaction among the member of the group using their developing social skills and group processing, rather than their physical separation.
Promotive interaction is what happens when students share with the members of their group their knowledge, essentially through dialogue. According to Wong (2001), promotive interaction presents a number of opportunities for students to confront ideas, develop listening and understanding capacities and, most importantly, learn to accept criticism.
The fourth condition to successful cooperative learning are social skills, intimately connected to promotive interaction. Through debates, discussions and presentations, students will see their interpersonal relationships improve. According to Wong (2001), after being exposed to successful group projects, students registered positive growth in tolerance, ability to listen, respect for others, as well as in terms of decision-making. Communication and presentation skills have also been known to improve with resource to group projects.
Every once in a while, students should also objectively analyse their strengths and weaknesses inside the group and as a whole – group processing (Pennsylvania State University). This means that at some point in every group project some time must be taken to reflect upon what has been done, what has worked, what didn’t work and what can be improved. Through individual and collective feedback, students will then reflect upon their share of the work and set new goals, improved ones from which they will further develop their skills and abilities.
Once again, though, it all comes down to the co
mposition of the group. Conditions like promotive interaction, social skills and group processing weigh more personality-wise than positive interdependence or individual accountability. Children who are shy are less likely to actively engage in a peer discussion, even if they don’t agree with what is being said.

There are, of course, contradictory theories about extrovert versus introvert directed classes. In her book, Cain (2012) states that, as opposing to what happened in pre-20th century school, classes nowadays are structured as to prepare children for the competitive work world, forcing them into oral presentations and debates. While this may not be a problem to more extrovert children, she believes that this leads introverts to regard their personality as an obstacle to overcome, making them self-conscious and, therefore, even less open to class participation. The author then presents a solution to this problem based on the numerical composition of the group. Essentially, she suggests that instead of large groups, students should be paired. If there are just two people in a group, they will be forced to socialize, share ideas and communicate in such a way that they don’t feel pressured by their peers or their teachers (Cain, 2014).

Classrooms are not only a place where children learn but also their first sociologic secondary group. Nonetheless, it is primarily the place where children learn. According to the data gathered on the topics of positive interdependence and individual accountability, students should be grouped according to their abilities and achievements since, more often than not, disparities in abilities inside one same group can result in personal conflicts and demotivation of all involved.
As to the group’s composition, it results from the information that there is a link between the size of the group and the personalities of its members: if the groups are small in size (only two people, for example) then there should be a mix between extroverts and introverts, since they will both push each other into learning how to deal with different types of people; however, if the groups are bigger it would be best to separate extroverts and introverts, since, in big groups, introverts tend to shy away, and extroverts tend to forget about them.
Only through careful group organisation, commitment and effort from both teachers and students, will the latter enjoy taking part in school group projects and learn to appreciate team work, such a necessity in today’s highly technological and specialized world.

About the author

Leonor Frade
Leonor Frade (18) participated in the “My Europe” Workshop in Lisbon in 2014. She has since then been a member of the working group on Gender Equality and now writes for the Education group. She is a Law student and enjoys discussions about politics, education, employment, science and philosophy. She presents the result of those discussions in short essays and hopes you will enjoy them.

1. Anderson, D. (2007). Up your business!: 7 steps to fix, build, or stretch your organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.;
2. Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Crown Publishing Group;
3. Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2013). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3-4), 85-118;
4. Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press;
5. Pennsylvania State University. Five basic elements of cooperative learning. Retrieved from;
6. Teachnology. Does grouping students by ability work?. Retrieved from;
7. Wong, T. T. S. (2001). Group work in science learning – International scenarios and implications for teaching and learning in Hong Kong. Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, 2(2);
8. Yee, V. (2013, June 9). Grouping students by ability regains favour in classroom. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Religious Education

Religious education : something to be taught in the private family circles or something that belongs in the public classroom ? For some countries like France school and religion shouldn’t have anything to do together whereas in some states in Germany religion is handled as a mandatory subject at school.

Who is right ?

I spent my whole school time in a french school in Munich Germany. I so have been raised in a setting where religion and school were strictly separated. Religion is treated as a private thing which has no place in the public domain of school education. And I understand it. Religion is our outmost privacy: wether you are a christian, jew, muslim or atheist, it is what personally relates you to god and your beliefs. Also the separation of religion and State gives us the assurance that education doesn’t favor or discrminate any kind of religion

But we also have to take into consideration that religion is also a big part of culture. The Notre Dame in Paris, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest are all buildings that are culturally and religiously relevant. They are the result of centuries of beliefs that integrated themselves in our everyday culture and make for some of the most beautiful landmarks we have in Europe. It therefore seems all the more shocking that once I graduated from highschool I knew close to nothing about our constantly surrounding religions.

So is teaching religion in schools the right way to go?

We can take the example of Germany where religion classes are mandatory in most States. They teach the beliefs and traditions of one specific religion, most often christianism. However there are also classes teaching about Islam or Judaism so that people who do not affiliate to christianity still can pursue a religious upbringing. If the kid does not express himself as belonging to any religion or to none of the religion taught, the parents can also disengage their kid of religion classes by having an official meeting with the school’s headmaster. Every school is then responsible to offer a separate non-religious class in exchange.

This kind of religious education seems however to be a quite tunnel-visioned view as the classes stay limited to one religion and are designed in a religious setting rather than a purely educational one.

Which solution seems to be the right one then ?

I think neither of them. In a as religiously diverse social setting as we are in now in Europe, we have to acknowledge the importance of knowledge about these different religions. Therefore, I believe that there is a need for an impartial class on religion, so that the fundamentals of religion are acquainted by the time a student reaches his majority. Something like the Ethic classes in Germany. The goal is not to brainwash students into another religion or ensure a religious upbringing in any kind, it should rather be designed as a classic school teaching explaining the different religions by exposing the facts; much like a history class. It might be a step forward to build up tolerance towards different cohabiting religions and deconstruct false stereotypes about them. It might even be a step towards a more harmonial Europe.

About the author
Clara (20) took part in our “My Europe”workshop in Munich in 2013. She is one of the winners of the international writing contest from the workshop and has been actively representing the voice of young Europeans through the “Youth Council for the Future” (YCF). She is the Project Coordinator of the Working Group on Religion. Clara is currently studying at SciencesPo Paris Campus Nancy She likes to write and play basketball.