The demands are inherently gendered; it’s time that we recognised them as such

This post is about women and the gendered nature of Defend Education’s demands. We intend for a broader call-out for analysis and action relating to all marginalised groups, including BME people, LGBTQ* people, disabled people, to be written with the help of those with relevant knowledge and experience,

The tendency amongst most left-wing political organisations and groups is to make women and the needs of women invisible in their campaigns. This happens even in groups that on the surface show a strong commitment to gender equality by imposing quotas, strong chairing in meetings, division of social reproductive tasks within groups and so on. They do this simply by failing to recognise the inherently gendered nature of the inequalities and oppressions that they organise against.

This post isn’t a chastisement of Defend Education. We have been participating in the campaigns and actions of Defend Education up to this point with the aim of building a sufficient platform from which the campaigns of students and staff can be launched; and we believe that the simple demands and clear messages have helped to achieve that. Over last term we saw the growth of an incredible amount of support, and the absorption of vast numbers of students into the campaign. If we’re going to strengthen and broaden our campaign from here on, however, then we need to start recognising that the people we are organising for are largely women, because it is women, compared to men, at this university who disproportionately feel the impact of the university’s austerity-based, neoliberal agenda.

We are letting the University of Birmingham of the hook. It is about time that they were properly challenged for their systemic inequality; their role in the oppression and poverty of women at the University of Birmingham.

This is not to say that campaigns by students and workers up to this point have always failed to account for the marginalised groups in their campaigns: Birmingham UCU is currently taking action over a set of demands including a closure of the gender pay gap, for example. Nevertheless, it is time for women inside and outside of Defend Education to step up.

Let’s look closer, then, at the demands put forward by Defend Education:

We demand:

  • That David Eastwood and the University of Birmingham publicly take back their position that fees should be increased and that bursaries should be cut. Instead, they should lobby the government for fees to be reduced, and bursaries to be increased.
  • That the University of Birmingham make a public statement against the privatisation of student loans…
  • That the University’s total income per student place from halls should be frozen next year, and that the cheapest fifth of halls should have their prices decreased.

These demands relate to the economic well-being of students during their studies and after they leave university. While it goes without saying that if implemented they would benefit both women and men, and that economic inequality is a problem that we should be fighting against for the benefit of all (no one deserves tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt, with changeable terms), to declare these demands genderless is to obscure the very real reality of poverty felt by women, because they are women.

The gender pay gap is still a critical problem. In 2012, comparing all work, women earned 18.6% less per hour than men. ‘Women’s work’1 tends to be devalued and low paid: almost two-thirds of those earning £7 per hour or less are women. This is less than the Living Wage meaning they exist on levels of pay deemed too low to offer a healthy and happy lifestyle. Women also tend to take on part-time roles due to caring responsibilities; Roles that offer lower pay, fewer opportunities for promotion, and typically comprising more precarious contracts. Discrimination is definitely still present in the labour market, especially with respect to women of child-bearing age.2 All this means that when women leave university they are faced with a hugely inhospitable job market. Our prospects are particularly bad at present, with government policy leading to mass migration of women out of the workforce and back into the home; the Fawcett Society reported in 2013 that unemployment had reached a 25 year high, and that – strikingly – the increase in women’s unemployment had more than offset the fall in men’s unemployment since the coalition government took power, meaning that 100 per cent of the increase in unemployment comprised women. Put simply, women are faced with a set of obstacles that make is far more likely they will end up living in poverty3. The labour market is even more inhospitable to women of colour, disabled women, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans* women. This means that our debts will be paid off slower. If the terms on our loans are changeable, we face a life-time of debt; paying off an education that far from promises us prosperity and security.

Living costs at University are also a gendered issue. Women take on the brunt of caring roles – to children and/or elderly or disabled relatives. During the 2010/11 academic year, 1,500 (5.5% of total student population) declared themselves as having caring responsibilities, with the majority having dependent children4; the majority of these, as in wider society, are women5. These responsibilities necessarily carry with them financial burdens which will only be made worse by the expensive living costs already imposed on them by the University, who rake in vast profits and enjoys multi-million pound yearly surpluses. For example, the NUS found that the second largest barrier to lone parents (92% of lone parents are women) entering higher education was financial problems relating to childcare costs and fees. Thus any demands relating to living costs are intertwined with these aspects of the real lives of many women at the University of Birmingham; raising the number and generosity of bursaries could really offset the financial problems facing students, and dissuading women from entering higher education.

There are many other aspects of women’s lives that should be noted; although this list is not exhaustive. Lesbian, bisexual, queer or trans* women are far more likely to be estranged from their parents, offering numerous financial pressures. Women of colour tend to come from lower-income backgrounds, compared to white women, meaning that parents are less able to offer financial support, and that many of them live in poverty, or would do if they chose to enter higher education. The numerous and varied disabilities that many women at this university live with also often mean that those students have higher living costs than non-disabled students. Now let’s imagine how these different identities might intersect. You can see that a much more complex image emerges, giving us a more accurate idea of what real life comprises for many women students at the University of Birmingham.

We demand:

  • That all staff working for the University of Birmingham – including those employed in house, by external contractors, and the Guild of Students – should be paid a living wage.
  • That the pay ratio between the lowest paid and the highest paid staff in the university should be reduced to 10:1.

These demands relate to non-management staff at the university, and once against women would disproportionately benefit from these demands being implemented, compared to men, because the University of Birmingham suffers an abysmal gender pay gap6.

According to the University of Birmingham’s Equality Scheme only 37.5% of all academic staff are women, 55.5% of academic related staff are women, and 66.5% of support staff are women7. If support staff are removed from the total staff population, 44% of all staff are female compared to 28% of senior staff. Thus as you descend down the pay spine, women are more highly represented; whilst the highest paid staff at the university are male. This has resulted in an overall pay gap of 17.9%.

It should be noted that of the thirteen members of the University of Birmingham Executive Board, comprising the highest paid in the university, only two are women.

By implementing a Living Wage for all staff, the University would be going some way to making the lives of women staff the University of Birmingham better; bringing them to subsistence-level salaries. Equally, reducing the gap between the highest and lowest paid, would be reducing the overall gender pay gap: if this is achieved by topping up the incomes of the lowest paid using the savings shaved off of the highest paid we would witness a net shift vastly in favour of women.

We demand:

  • That a body should be set up made up of elected students, academic staff, and support staff. This should have ultimate oversight over the restructuring of departments, the University’s investment decisions, and its lobbying positions.
  • That financial statements of the University’s academic departments, and non-academic services should be published so that they can be scrutinised and the University’s decisions be properly held to account by the community.

These demands relate to the democratic structures of the university, and yet they too also can be seen to have benefits specific to women. In terms of having greater decision-making power when deciding lobbying positions: the above positions and decisions could be called for, in the name of moving towards gender equality and a fairer university. More specifically, if we look at the history of departmental restructuring, then we can see that young female academics are always first to go; see for example the restructuring of the IAA last year. As is the case with the majority of departments, young women tended to disproportionately occupy lower ranks, and were first in line for redundancy. UCU wrote of how staff were excluded from any decision-making during the process of restructuring, and laments the poor outcome with respect to equalities.

Birmingham UCU have written a gendered analysis of University of Birmingham governance structures, comparing it will all the other 23 Russell Group universities, and found them decidedly lacking. Birmingham was ranked last out of the 24 institutions in terms of the percentage of women members of Senates (or equivalent); only 19 percent of Senate members are women, compared to a Russell Group average of 31% (still too low considering that student bodies tend to comprise a female majority, and staff bodies are usually balance, overall). Notably, the percentage was lower than would be expected given the number of women academics at Birmingham. The University of Birmingham was also ranked last with respect to the percentage of women members of Councils (or equivalent); only 17 per cent of members were women. As previously mentioned there is an astonishingly low number of women in the University Executive Board, and Birmingham ranked 18th out of 24 institutions for female representation on these boards.8

When it comes to the creation of democratic structures, as outlined in our demands, it’s especially important that we recognise the various implications for women and other marginalised groups, otherwise these groups may remain invisible even in the case of democratic reforms taking place. It is necessary that democratic forms incorporate means of engaging women and platforming women’s voices to cater for the overwhelming silencing of women that takes place in universities and workplaces day-to-day.


The analysis above only scratches the surface – especially with regard to the intersecting identities and oppressions that women at this university embody and experience. Yet even this limited, initial analysis makes it clear that the demands being put forward by Defend Education are certainly not genderless. In organising for them, we organise predominantly for women – though many students in the campaign may not have realised it. As long a we continue to take a gender-blind approach to the problems at the university we are failing women, and all other marginalised groups at the University of Birmingham. Our senior management need to be held to account and challenged, and we need to ensure that our campaigns get to heart of gender inequality.

It is for this reason that we, the women of Defend Education, call on women to get involved with the campaign, as women.

1By which I mean work than women typically do – women are disproportionately employed in carework, and other social reproductive roles such as cleaning.
3Economic independence is incredibly important for women in particular who continue to remain trapped in abusive relationships and households in their thousands, simply because they and their children have nowhere else to go.
5The NUS found that 87% of student parents were women.
6As mentioned before Birmingham UCU branch are currently struggling against the gender pay gap; it is listed amongst their grievances which they are taking strike action over in this and coming weeks. Find more information here. Defend Education is thrilled to see the efforts of BUCU to improving the lives of women at the University of Birmingham, and offers its full support in organising towards its goals.
8At the end of this report BUCU outlines a set of its own demands that it will be campaigning for, with respect to working towards gender equality at our University. This demands are excellent, and Defend Education, again, offers its full support.
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