Whose fault is it that this year’s honorary degrees list was dominated by men?

“Nowadays, in the UK at least, a lot of sexism is not caused by maliciousness but carelessness.”

Image: John Robinson

Nowadays, in the UK at least, a lot of sexism is not caused by maliciousness but carelessness. It is unthinkingly writing a film in which no female characters talk to each other, or the unquestioned acceptance of a topless girl in a newspaper; a tradition that is now outdated but no one has had the presence of mind to change it (looking at you, Daily Star). It is this kind of sexism that is hardest to tackle, as it leads to cries that protesters are ‘overreacting’ or that women in the UK have it easy, and if these are our biggest problems we should count our blessings and shut up.

A few weeks ago the university published the list of those who it’s giving honorary degrees to this year as graduates of 2015: seven male recipients, including Roy Hodgson, England football team manager, and Armando Iannucci, writer of the Thick of It. What connection they have with the university is beyond me (although I guess they fit into the vague requirement of ‘distinction in a field consistent with the general ethos of universities’, a criteria the university uses for nominations) No one can doubt their achievements nevertheless. But why so many men this year? Admittedly the uni’s track record has not been perfect, but the diversity of honorary degree recipients has been improving over the past 10 years. In 2008 there was only 1 female recipient out of 7, but this has slowly been increasing. 2/9 were female in 2009, 4/11 in 2011 and women equalled and then surpassed men in 2012 and 2013, with 2/4 and 3/5 recipients being female respectively. From 2008-2014 only 35% of recipients were female, however the gradual increase and the fact that last year 7/15 were women made it seem like the university had noticed it had a problem and was trying to make sure it was more equal. This year scuppers that assumption.

This is an example of inequality where complaints are often disregarded – when the university itself has a student body that’s 56% female, it’s easy to see where people are coming from when they say that it’s not a big deal – equality has been achieved, right? The problem is, however, that the university is implying that this year no women deserved the recognition it’s giving to these 7 men. Would it have been too hard to find one woman worthy of recognition? Of course, we’ve got to take into account that due to the nature of society at the moment, men do hold more positions of power and there are fewer female professors, writers, scientists, businesswomen and artists, and so perhaps the honours list reflects this. Maybe this year nobody nominated any women for the degrees, and so the nominations committee is not to blame. But the likely explanation is carelessness: it just did not occur to the nominations committee that the list lacked female representation. There’s no secret patriarchal agenda here, just more unthinking, casual sexism that women are weary of trying to combat. I hope that this year the committee simply dropped the ball, and there will be more of an effort to ensure women are represented next year.

Leave a comment