Gender equality in the bubble

The Saint speaks with several female members of the University's staff and student body to discuss the school's history with gender equality, and its continuous efforts fighting for an equal society.


In light of recent international affairs, the topic of equality for all has risen to the top of the list for discussion. And with International Women’s Day coming up on 8 March 2017, it is an appropriate time to look at how gender equality in St Andrews has changed over the years, if it has at all. To find out, The Saint spoke with representatives of several student societies that actively champion gender equality and women’s rights.

The University has often been at the forefront of women’s rights in higher education. In 1876, for example, the University Senate approved an education scheme called “Lady Literate in Arts examination” that required women to pass five subjects at ordinary level and one at honours. This was equivalent to the MA degree that men were able to take at that time, but it was only formally recognised as a university degree under the Universities (Scotland) Act in 1889. Compared to Oxford and Cambridge, which did not formally award women degrees until 1920 and 1947 respectively, St Andrews paved the way forward for women’s education.

Agnes Forbes Blackadder became the first woman to graduate from St Andrews, earning her MA in October 1894. She went on to receive an MD from the University of Glasgow and became an eminent dermatologist in London. Ms Blackadder started her course at the University in 1892, making St Andrews one of the first universities in Scotland to admit female undergraduates.

In response to the increasing number of female students at the University, the first women’s hall was built in 1896. Named University Hall, it was the first women’s university residence in Scotland. While University Hall is now a mixed hall, the Wardlaw wing continues to cater to female students only.

The University has always been active in the fight towards gender equality. Nevertheless, it only installed its first female principal, Louise Richardson, in 2009, 120 years after women were first admitted to the University.

Does St Andrews support gender equality and female rights today? At first glance, the answer is yes. Three of the four members of the University Council are female, and three out of five Students’ Association representatives are female. Looking at the student population in 2014, 57.8 per cent of students were female, up from 55.8 per cent the year before.

In a recent interview with The Saint, Catherine Stihler, rector of the University, said, “We’re very lucky actually because we’ve got not just the principal and the rector, but you’ve also got the president of the Students’ Association and also the senior governor of the University. So you’ve kind of got four women at the moment, and I think that’s just great. I think it’s great to have positive role models. It’s great to see that you can rise to the top in an organisation [and] you can work hard and achieve things.”

Principal and vice chancellor of the University Professor Sally Mapstone is also a vocal supporter of gender equality, and in her 2016 installation address she pointed out that “women have contributed a great deal to this university, but they are often obscured within our narratives.” Professor Mapstone has been actively involved in furthering gender equality, and during her time at Oxford, she launched a mentoring scheme for senior women and organised a major series of lectures by “Women of Achievement.”

Charlotte Andrew, president of the Students’ Association, believes that the University is strongly committed to gender equality.

In an official statement to The Saint, Ms Andrew said, “This is the first time in Scotland that there has been a University with a female principal, senior governor, rector, and Association president. It’s also the first year since there [have] been five sabbatical officers at the Students’ Association that it has been a majority female sabbatical team.”

The high number of women in senior University positions does not, however, show the full picture. There may be more female than male students overall at the University, but when the figures are broken down to undergraduates and postgraduates, the gender balance changes. In 2014, 60.2 per cent of the undergraduate student population was female. For PhD students in the same year, the percentage drops drastically to 41.7 per cent.

This is a general trend across the UK, and it suggests that women are failing to continue with postgraduate education. It also accounts for the gender imbalances within academia, where male professionals tend to dominate the most senior positions. That being said, this gender gap is not as pronounced at St Andrews, with 49.6 per cent of University staff identifying as female in 2013.

“There are many reasons to be hopeful when it comes to gender equality within the Students’ Association and the University, but that does not mean we can stand still,” Ms Andrew said.

“Outside of the principal’s office, those in senior positions are disproportionately male, especially in the sciences and medicine. Obviously, this is not unique to St Andrews, and I have seen a clear and strong commitment to gender equality within the University over my year so far as president.”

Danielle Golds, a student women’s rights activist at the University, agrees with Ms Andrew. Ms Golds believes that certain schools, such as the school of philosophy and the school of chemistry, are more likely to hire males in senior positions and females in support staff positions.

“In my experience with the English department in particular, it seems that they hire female staff at around the same rate as they hire male staff,” she said. “However, if you look at a department like philosophy, you will see that the majority of their lecturers are men and the majority of their support staff are women. The same is overwhelmingly true for the school of chemistry. For these issues, though, I do not blame the university. These are worldwide issues across many universities and often stem from a lack of opportunity and encouragement for women to pursue typically male-dominated areas of study.”

As Jo Boon, coordinator of the University of St Andrews Feminist Society and founder of Label, said, there also are clear gender pides when one looks at non-academic staff at the University. Cleaners, for example, are generally not paid very well, and the large majority tend to be women. Ms Boon is quick to add, however, that this is not just a “St Andrews problem.”

Marnie Adamson, president of Women for Women St Andrews, and Ms Boon both agree that while St Andrews is conscious of gender equality, there are still things the University could do to improve. Ms Adamson and Ms Boon believe it is difficult to see the inequalities here in St Andrews, but they began to notice them when their perceptions of gender roles and understanding of feminism changed in recent years.

Ms Boon added, “As I’ve grown, I’ve learnt more and become more aware, so I don’t think anything has necessarily gotten worse, but my awareness of the problems has increased.”

Anna Atwell of For Her Project St Andrews, an organisation that aims to provide better education for girls in countries suffering from extremism (including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan), says there are many “brilliant, empowered women who work to give opportunities that they’ve been given to other women” and believes that it is a “really exciting” time for St Andrews.

Chloe Basu, president of Women in Office, a society that focuses on removing gender barriers that exist in the workplace, wholeheartedly agrees with Ms Atwell, adding that during her time here she has felt supported in decisions by both students and staff.

In response to international affairs, particularly the US presidential election and the Brexit vote, Ms Basu, Ms Boon, Ms Adamson, and Ms Atwell agree that we should be turning our attention and focusing on the positives.

As Ms Atwell says, “the best ways to combat negativity in the world is through peaceful responses.” In the UK, we currently have a higher number of female members of Parliament than ever before, and our prime minister and Scotland’s first minister are both women. For Ms Basu, it is becoming “easier to find female role models now” than ever before, proving that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

But we cannot rest on our laurels just yet. The only way to continue moving forward as a society is for inpiduals in our generation to keep pushing the limits, to keep discussing

the issues and putting forward new ideas. Here in St Andrews, it is fairly easy to stay engaged in the fight for equality, as most societies involved host a number of events.

The St Andrews Feminist Society, for example, hosts a discussion group called Blue Stockings, as well as a number of conferences that will be held over the next few months. Women in Office will be hosting its first ever conference in April, bringing speakers in from all over the country and a number of different industries to discuss the challenges they have faced and how they overcame them.

As part of a special celebration for International Women’s Day on 8 March, all the female societies at the University are planning on joining forces and hosting one large event. Details for this are still being worked out, but this promises to be an enjoyable and empowering evening for all.

It is true that, as a society, we have come far in recent years. But that does not mean we cannot continue improving. All six ladies urge students at the University to continue fighting for an equal society.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.