Statistics show that women are accessing higher education in greater numbers than ever before in many countries, often exceeding the numbers of male students. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women now outnumber men in higher education in Australia with numbers increasing year on year. Such patterns are similar in the UK and the USA, with claims often made that men are the new marginalised sex on the basis of the growing numbers of female students in higher education.

However, reducing gender equity to a battle of the sexes is simplistic, crude and ultimately dangerous for both women and men. A closer analysis shows a complex picture and highlights the urgent need for higher education to continue to actively engage in questions of gender equity, including by developing sophisticated strategies designed to combat institutional sexism and misogyny. Such strategies require an understanding that gender equity intersects with other inequalities, such as race, ethnicity and social class, often in insidious and subtle ways.

Many women have done very well in gaining access to higher education in recent years but this is after long and difficult struggles as well as concerted attention by institutions and policy-makers to develop appropriate equity measures. Yet, it is mainly white women from higher socio-economic backgrounds who have benefitted from equity policies and practices in higher education.

Women (and men) from lower socio-economic and minority ethnic backgrounds remain under-represented in higher education. Furthermore, it is important to take note of where women are located in higher education institutions. For example, women remain under-represented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects as well as postgraduate research programs. On the other hand, female students are over-represented in subjects such as Teaching, Social Work and Nursing. These subjects tend to be connected with those traits associated with femininity such as caring, and with professions that carry lower status and lower pay.

Gender equity is not only about students but also about staff and faculty. Women are under-represented in leadership positions, with only about 20% of professors being women. According to the Federation University Australia the numbers of female vice-chancellors has decreased from 28% in 2004 to only 18% in 2009. There has been much focus in recent years on encouraging more women into leadership positions both within and outside of the university sector. This is important and needs continued attention. However, change is also required at the cultural level of organisations.

Gender equity is about more than numbers of women occupying certain positions or roles. Women in leadership roles are often compelled to conform to dominant practices in order to be regarded as legitimate leaders. Thus, transformation requires attention to the cultural practices that dominate ‘leadership’. As long as we have leadership approaches that privilege those traits associated with (White Westernised) masculinity (such as being tough or hard, taking control and power and valuing individualism over collaboration and community) we risk excluding those traits associated with (minority ethnic and/or indigenous) femininity (such as being compassionate, caring, redistributing control and power and valuing collaboration and community over individualism).

The blame of under-representation is repeatedly laid at the feet of women, through a range of deficit discourses that explain women’s under-representation in terms of their assumed low aspirations and/or low confidence. On the other hand, the collective strength of women expressed through feminism is also seen as a problem, with continual innuendos about feminism leading to the ‘demasculinisation of men’. This pays no attention to the continuing structural power exercised by many men and the relation of patriarchy to ongoing inequalities of class, ethnicity and race.

The simplistic claim that men are now the disadvantaged sex, not only undermines the achievements made by women, but also implies that women’s success must be viewed as a direct threat to men’s social position and status. Universities have a responsibility to actively engage with the striking levels of gender inequality outside of higher education. Data released by The Workplace Gender Equality Agency reveals that women in the top levels of management are getting paid up to 45% less than their male colleagues. Violence against women is rampant with one woman a week killed by her current or former partner in Australia and double that figure in the United Kingdom. According to UN Women, some national violence studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner and in Australia the estimated cost of violence against women and children is AUD 13.6 billion per year.

What role does higher education have to play in challenging gender inequalities both within universities and outside of them?

Higher education must create spaces to challenge destructive assumptions that place men and women in competition with each other. Gender equity requires that men and women have the opportunity to think more deeply about what gender means both for individuals and for wider society. For example, creating spaces for students and faculty to examine masculinity might help to understand why the constant pressure on young men to demonstrate that they are ‘tough’, ‘strong’ and ‘in control’ often has long-term damaging consequences, including in multiple forms of male violence (against both women and men).

Gender is always deeply entwined with sexuality and there have been many reports across the globe in recent years about the prevalence of sexual violence on campus and its traumatising effects. Higher education strategies must include the provision of pedagogical spaces for students, staff and faculty to critique those forms of gender and sexuality that not only reinforce unequal power relations between men and women but also create the conditions ripe for sexual violence (in all its forms, including verbal, symbolic and physical). This requires not only continuing to monitor the numbers of women in higher education but also the transformation of higher education cultures and practices across multiple dimensions, including access and admissions, teaching and learning, curriculum development, assessment, professional development and leadership and management. It also requires attention to complex gendered relations across the informal spaces in universities, including peer groups, networks and clubs.

Men and women have the capacity to adopt feminine as well as masculine dispositions and practices. We need to stop thinking in terms of binaries and oppositions. It is important to consider the consequences of cultural practices that implicitly encourage heterosexual forms of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity; gendered extremism that leads to destructive relations and symbolic, physical and sexual violence. Valuing both femininity and masculinity, whilst also understanding the constant potential for gender oppression, is a vital step. The bottom line is that higher education as a social institution must take leadership in creating the conditions for gender equity on campus and beyond. Written by Professor Penny Jane Burke, Global Innovation Chair of Equity and Co-Director of the Centre of Excellence in Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle.