Balancing the balance argument

The chief executive of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, recently made a really important point on gender ‘balance’, reported in the last issue of the Times Higher Education.  Speaking to the Association of University Administrators she observed that whilst it would take an additional 15000 female students to ‘balance out’ the current male dominance in engineering, it would take getting on for double that to do the same for the current female dominance of subjects allied to medicine, which includes nursing.   So, she argued, we should maybe be paying at least as much attention to getting more men into subjects where they are underrepresented as we do in respect of women.

I’ve put ‘balance out’ in inverted commas above because it’s used as synonymous with numerical equality, whereas I think it’s more sensible to give balance a broader sense, allowing some degree of numerical inequality.  There’s room for a good debate on what are the acceptable thresholds – i.e.  the level of female (or male) representation in any given subject, or profession, that means that we can reasonably relax about balance.    But apart from that I think Ms Curnock Cook is absolutely right to make this argument, and hope it gets taken up by those with responsibility in the respective subject areas.  Where are the equivalents to SWAN and WISE for nursing and teaching?

Here’s a slightly forced segue:  philosophy is one of those subjects where men still outnumber women.  I read recently an interesting lunch with the FT, where the lunchee was  the philosopher Mary Midgeley, on the occasion of her most recent book (at age of 94….).  This sent me off to read an earlier publication of hers, with Judith Hughes, on Women’s Choices.    It’s full of good sense – not always in plentiful supply in the 1980s – and finishes with this, which I think has major resonance today at all kinds of level:

“Unmitigated individualism is a death-wish.  Of course that may be one’s choice, and unquestionably death is always available.  but it is a decision which one ought to notice that one is taking.”

Talking recently to a few people about their experiences in the health service, and the choices they face about hospitals and treatments, gives this a real edge.  But on subjects and career choices, there’s still a lot we can do to give individuals a better range.

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