Exeposé recently uncovered the gender pay gap existing between employees of the University of Exeter, with women earning a whopping 21% less than their male colleagues. This story, quite rightly, made front page news, with academics and students alike reacting with outrage to the investigation. Whilst I am in no way validating this pay gap (I agree that it is absolutely disgraceful), the reactions to this story which I have encountered have brought to my attention the fact that whilst we place great emphasis on news of gender inequality within the student community, successful steps towards tackling these kind of prejudices are sometimes overlooked.
You may very well ask “what steps towards gender equality?”. That’s exactly my point. Take for example the silver Athena SWAN award which the Computer Science and Mathematics departments won last month of in recognition the University of Exeter’s commitment to equality of opportunity in STEMM subjects. Or the success of this year’s ‘Never OK’ campaign, which had a relatively high profile on campus this year thanks to the work of the all-male Sabb committee. Both of these successes enjoyed relatively little exposure amongst the student body.
You may very well ask “what steps towards gender equality?”.
Of course, these ‘successes’ do not even begin to compensate for the inequalities that do exist within the university community, and I’m
not claiming that they do. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a couple of ex-students deciding to make a video comparing sex to curly fries means that female academics missing out on pay is any less scandalous or problematic. But it is worth considering the attention these achievements – because they are achievements, however small – received. If we don’t sit up and take notice of the progress that members of the university community work hard to achieve, do we undermine their efforts? And if this is the case, are we ourselves somehow creating a sense of apathy that undermines gender equality itself?
Having said that, I would say that the thinking behind downplaying successful steps towards gender equality is equally justifiable. I understand that to celebrate them as high-profile achievements presents the danger of creating an illusion that sexism is not an issue at Exeter, as if in distancing us from the ‘adult world’, the university bubble omits the social problems and structures associated with it. Quite clearly this is not the case. However, I am proud to belong to a community where a conscious effort to combat sexism and empower women, and just as I think it is crucial to highlight existing issues, I believe it is also important to recognise these as progressive and worthwhile achievements.