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Closing the gender gap

Following SFC’s first national gender conference, Mike Cantlay looks at progress towards gender equality in further and higher education.

This week I attended my first conference as Chair of the Scottish Funding Council. The conference could have been about any one of the many issues on SFC’s current agenda but, as it happened, it was about gender.

Speaking at the podium felt like a picking up the baton moment. My predecessor, Professor Alice Brown, worked hard to ensure that tackling inequality was a strategic priority for SFC. More importantly, Alice made sure that everyone rolled up their sleeves and actually did something about it. At the conference I undertook to ensure that SFC will continue this commitment through my own term of office and beyond.

Closing the gender gapSo what have we done and what will we be doing over the next few years?

Well, we published our first Gender Action Plan in August last year. Since then we’ve been supporting colleges and universities to develop their own plans. We’re focussing on the twin goals that by 2030 the gap between male and female enrolments at university will be reduced to 5% and that no college or university subject will have a percentage gender imbalance greater than 75/25.

You might ask, why is this necessary? The answer runs much deeper than a public body wanting to do its bit for equality. Earlier this year, you may have watched the BBC programme No more boys and girls. Looking at a group of 7 and 8 year old boys and girls on the Isle of Wight, the programme makers attempted to even out the gaps in their respective achievements across a range of measures. In one memorable scene, a strength test showed the lack of self confidence amongst the girls and the difficulty in expressing emotion for boys. Also striking was the key role school teachers and other adults seemed to play in creating and reinforcing these stereotypes for children.

As the Chair of Scotland’s funding body for further and higher education I believe that colleges and universities have an important role to play alongside schools.

I believe that students need to receive the same, consistent messages throughout their whole education. There is little point in schools tackling gender issues if, at the next stage of education, learners receive a message that puts them off pursuing their subjects of choice. I also believe that, as employers, colleges and universities have a duty to tackle inequality for all protected groups.

On the same day that SFC held its national gender conference we published our first annual Progress Report on the Gender Action Plan. We’re only 15 months into our Gender Action Plan so what the report is really showing is where we’ve started out from. As you would expect, some of the report provides grounds for optimism and some parts point to areas where we need to work harder or revise earlier plans.

As I write this - and after meeting and hearing from so many energetic and determined people at our conference - I am optimistic about the progress that will be made and the positive effect of that progress on society. I urge you to lend your talents, expertise and ideas to the job we have in hand and to help us to reduce gender imbalances in further and higher education.  

Mike Cantlay, Chair of the Scottish Funding Council - 6 Dec 2017