Researching gender inequality denial in educational settings: getting beyond stereotypes and the ‘gender is just ideology’ claim

Researching gender inequality denial in educational settings: getting beyond stereotypes and the ‘gender is just ideology’ claim

Rosemary Deem

Because the study of gender inequality in educational settings is so well established and has not only produced a mass of academic articles and books but also many research projects and organisational plans seeking to overcome gender inequality and the many other forms of inequality which intersect with it, people tend to assume that gender inequality is something that is largely  ‘sorted’ (Deem and Morley 2006). In addition, it may also be assumed that researching gender inequality in organisations is easy, or that gender identity and inequality simply reflect life style choices, with no further tale to tell.  However, I want to argue that the ground which underpins the study of gender inequality is still shifting, partly because of greater emphasis on the fluidity of gender identities and experiences of transgender people (Goldberg et al. 2019 ) but also resulting from the context of a right-wing beliefs that gender inequality is not a legitimate area of study or a bona fide academic subject but rather a form of ideology which is easily dismissed and which does not belong either in  university courses or in wider society (Kovats 2018).  This means that in addition to claims from feminists that many attempts at improving gender equality are at best moderate and at worst part of neo- liberalism (Bhophal and Henderson 2019 ), those  who are asked about gender equality in organisations may deny that there is any problem.

For those trying to research gender and other forms of inequality in educational or other organisational setting, finding a way round denial or ideological shaming of gender studies can be challenging.  What kind of methods and techniques might be used?  Rivers of experience is a well-established technique (though not in the field of inequality) for exploring critical incidences in people’s life histories (Denicolo et al. 2016 )derived from constructivist theory.  Participants are asked to illustrate their life stories in the form of a river, which may be any shape from largely straight to having many meanders.  It can be a very good way of finding out about someone’s career history as it uses no pre-conceptions or leading questions and control over the account remains firmly in the hands of the storyteller, not the interviewer.  Whilst gender may not necessarily arise from some men’s accounts, the vast majority of women are likely to refer to it somewhere. To address the latter, asking after the rivers of experience technique whether if the respondent had been a different gender (which is not specified) their career story might have been different may yield some interesting responses.  Another possible approach is to use short extracts from national or international data sets (European Commission 2018)) on gender inequality as something which participants can reflect upon.

Vignettes are plausible short ‘stories’ which pose a dilemma of some kind (Sampson and Johannessen 2019), in this instance related to inequality , which you then ask an interviewee or focus group participants to discuss and say how they would deal with the situation if it arose in their own context (in this case a higher education institution).  This approach de-personalises the question and also does not require the participant to use an example of their own.  Care needs to be taken in writing and piloting vignettes and in thinking what kind of data might be produced as a result (Budd and Kandemir 2018).

This is an example of a semi-structured interview approach for senior and middle level managers and leaders in a university, using some of these approaches:

  1. Ask respondent to describe their academic career to date – what, where, when, including any career breaks, parental leave etc. This could make use of the rivers of experience approach as could point 2.
  2. Ask them to explain how they came to occupy the particular role they have at present e.g. Vice Rector, member of Scientific Council etc. and what it involves/ is about;
  3. Briefly, discuss in relation to the mini gender in HE national data set sent in advance, what they think the national/governmental position is on higher education gender equality (staff and students) in relation to, for example, the rest of the continent in which the country being researched sits;
  4. Enquire whether they can identify any gender issues in their institution (e.g. treatment of transgender people, lack of men in some programmes of study such as psychology and lack of women in others such as computing or physics; behaviour of student fraternities, gender balance of appointments to full Professorships;
  5. Explore their own personal views on gender equality in society as well as in higher education. This might include considering whether gender is something that mainly applies to women, men, trans gender etc.;
  6. Do they think their university has a predominance of organisational (staff and student) cultures that are inclusive to everyone? If not, how do these cultures fit with the notion of equality?
  7. Use one or two appropriate vignettes to explore their response to gender dilemmas
  8. Ask if they have anything else to add that might be relevant

In addition, multi-site organisational case studies which aim to engage a wide range of organisational members, can also be helpful as they can be multi-method and also provide in depth and well contextualised data about organisational beliefs, values and practices.  They can be comparative or one-off illustrations of different organisational settings.  Some of the techniques referred to already for interviewing senior and middle managers/leaders could be utilised and maybe adapted for lay members of higher education institutions’ governing councils too.   However, if the all-important student voice is to be incorporated, then techniques which interest and engage them and do not focus just on the past and present but also the future are important.  Specially arranged interviews and focus groups can be difficult to arrange as students may be busy and not really that motivated to engage in something they regard as not very interested or rewarding for them.  Those things traditionally used in a kind of action research approach in such contexts, include role-playing (acting out different gender roles and identities for example, drawing and scenario development.  But newer approaches such as audio commentaries on photos, digital story telling (using video and photos), graphic storyboarding (a graphic visual plan for a video but used in its own right), on line gaming and digital exhibits are more attractive to many students than interviews or focus groups, allow future oriented as well as past and present narratives and ideas to be explored and could also be adopted to help envisage non-violent and gender-free or gender-neutral organisational regimes.  The EU project Lights for Violence, which is trying to eliminate dating violence amongst young people ( has already used somewhat similar approaches. In any context, if we are to get beyond bland statements about gender inequality being already ‘solved’ or views that gender studies are ideological, illegitimate or not relevant to modern higher education, we need to harness digital tools as well as some more traditional techniques of social science.

Bhophal, K., and Henderson, H. (2019 ). Advancing Equality in Higher Education: An Exploratory Study of the Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charters:Report to the British Academy University of Birmingham Birmingham.
Budd, R., and Kandemir, A. (2018). “Using Vignettes to Explore Reality and Values With Young People.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19(2).
Deem, R., and Morley, L. (2006). “Diversity in the academy? Staff and senior manager perceptions of equality policies in six contemporary UK higher education institutions.” Policy Futures, 4(2), 185-202.
Denicolo, P., Long, T., and Bradley Cole, K. (2016 ). Constructivist Approaches and Research Methods: A Practical Guide to Personal  Meanings, London Sage.
European Commission. (2018). SHE figures: Gender in Research and innovation. European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Brussels.
Goldberg, A., Kuvalanka, K., and Dickey, L. (2019 ). “Transgender graduate students’ experiences in higher education: A mixed-methods exploratory study.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 12(1), 38-51.
Kovats, E. (2018). “Questioning Consensuses: Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Populism, and the Threat of ‘Gender Ideology’.” Socioogical Research on Line 23(2).
Sampson, H., and Johannessen, I. A. (2019). “Turning on the tap: the benefits of using ‘real-life’ vignettes in qualitative research interviews.” Qualitative Research.


Rosemary Deem is Director of Enhancement, Quality & Inclusion for the Doctoral School &Professor of Higher Education Management at Royal Holloway, UK. Rosemary is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences and was appointed OBE in June 2013 for services to higher education and social science. She was a member of the Economic and Social Research Council Grants Board 1999-2003 and is a member of the European Science Foundation’s Peer Review Panel. Since 2013 she has been a co-editor of Higher Education (Springer). 2015-18 she was Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education.