Opening up women-only scholarships undermines the fight for equality

Comment University/Local Issues

Image Description: four female students from Lady Margaret Hall.

Last year, the Joanna Randall MacIver junior research fellowship, which was established in the 1930s exclusively for women specialising in the humanities, was opened up to all genders. This decision was made by the senior committee of the university – the Oxford Council – in response to accusations that the award was discriminatory on the grounds of gender. Retracting a fellowship for women in an institution which has historically left women by the wayside is a controversial move to say the least. However, this decision presents us with an opportunity to consider the place of women-only scholarships in our university and ask the question: Is it ever right to discriminate? 

Despite being one of the oldest universities in the world, women were only permitted to receive degrees from Oxford in 1920. Women were, quite literally, centuries behind men in academia, and this is essential context for considering scholarships like the Joanna Randall MacIver fellowship. It was only through the deliberate promotion and encouragement of women, sometimes at the expense of men, that women stood a chance of catching up. And while there is no doubt that there were talented women who were more than capable of outshining men on merit alone, this would have been incredibly difficult in an institution which was, at the time, completely male-dominated and intrinsically sexist. Without these scholarships, the academic world as it is today would look very different. 

Today, the need for these type of scholarships is less pressing, but there is still a place for them in Oxford. In 2018, for the first time in its history, Oxford admitted more women than men. However, this progress is not reflected higher up in the university ranks. The 2017 Equality Report, which examined diversity in senior academic roles, including heads of department and associate professors, revealed a worrying gender disparity. Only 30% of academics are women, and this shows no sign of improving; over the past five years, the number of women in these roles has fallen. To correct this, the report recommended that women receive sufficient support throughout their careers, particularly in preparing for senior roles. 

“The more diverse scholarships there are, the faster Oxford can escape the historical underrepresentation which continues to mar the institution.”

The decision to open up this fellowship to men seems inconsistent with the report’s findings. The Oxford Council should not allow the recent undergraduate statistics on gender representation to lull them into a false sense of security over the issue in the university as a whole. A pivotal way to sustain current intake levels is if the university promotes an environment which enables more and more women to reach the top, and gender-exclusive scholarships are a means to achieve this end. 

This move was justified under the Equality Act 2010, which expressly provides that employers are not permitted to open posts to only one gender. Yet, the very purpose of the Act was to challenge traditional sexism in male-dominated institutions, of which Oxford is a prime example. There are even provisions buried deep within the statute which specifically allow for positive discrimination. The Act exists as a vehicle to promote a fairer society for those with characteristics which have traditionally been underrepresented. Nowhere is this more appropriate than one of the most elite universities in the world. 

Nonetheless, the decision could have a positive impact. Extending the scholarship opens it up to those who identify as non-binary or BAME+ men. These minority groups face a disparity much greater than the one currently faced by women at the university, and every effort should be made to promote an environment where these groups of people are sufficiently represented at every level of the institution. 

The goal of true equality in representation, should not be sacrificed for a mere superficial sense of equality. The university must continue to offer scholarships to disadvantaged groups of people, being mindful that it is not just women who need further support. The more diverse scholarships there are, the faster Oxford can escape the historical underrepresentation which continues to mar the institution. 

Image Credit: LMH Archives, by kind permission of the Principal and Fellows’ of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.