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Journal cover: Equal Opportunities International

Equal Opportunities International

ISSN: 0261-0159
Currently published as: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal

Online from: 1981

Subject Area: Human Resource Management

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Guest editorial

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Article citation: Birgit Blattel-Mink, Caroline Kramer, Anina Mischau, (2009) "Guest editorial", Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 28 Iss: 1, pp. -



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Article Type: Guest editorial From: Equal Opportunities International, Volume 28, Issue 1

About the Guest Editors
Birgit Blättel-Mink holds a PhD and a Diploma in Sociology. She is Professor for Sociology of Industry and Organization at the Goethe-University Frankfurt/Germany. Her research areas are innovation, sustainable development, transdisciplinarity, and gender in higher education, and gender and work. Birgit Blättel-Mink is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

Disciplinary cultures in higher education: looking behind the mirror of gender “neutrality”

Practices of “doing” – or rather “undoing” – gender vary greatly across academic disciplines. Structural, symbolic, interactive and cognitive factors (Acker, 1992) reproduce these processes. The number of female students and professors in engineering, for instance, is very low; the typical engineer is male. Female engineers are perceived as and mainly perceive themselves as deviant. Understanding each other in engineering implies sensual experiences with technology that women in general have not undergone during socialisation processes (Wajcman, 1991, 1998). A study in Western Germany showed that beginners (mainly women) in pedagogic roles are welcomed by male professors who present themselves as “the discipline”, whereas the students do not (yet) belong to it: vice versa in engineering, where male professors and assistants welcomed the students (mainly male) as part of the faculty (Engler, 1999). This means that women are disadvantaged, excluded, or simply “overlooked” at different points in their academic careers. For instance, while certain fields have seen an increase in the percentage of women, it is often these very fields that suffer a drop in prestige or significance. These processes can be described as segmentation – that is, the unequal development of different segments of the labour market in which a particular group is particularly well represented (such as teaching) – or as segregation – that is, the voluntary or involuntary separation of a group from the rest of the field.

Furthermore, these processes differ across countries, depending on their specific structural, institutional and cultural contexts. There are different starting conditions in different countries, national academic cultures are in some cases fundamentally different from each other, and both the status of higher education as well as access to it vary greatly across Europe.

The current restructuring of the European higher education landscape in the Bologna Process also has effects on the gender ratio. In some cases, transformed structures allow for increased access, while in others they give rise to new inequalities. Competition all across Europe for the labels of “excellence”, “elite”, and other ratings create a gulf between the various universities and also between the disciplines deemed the new “prestige” subjects and what is in some cases the marginalised rest. This particular competition seems in fact to be causing new inequalities in the gender ratio at universities and in the academic landscape as a whole.

If, as has already been suggested in European universities, a greater separation between research and teaching is to be introduced, there is cause for concern that this dividing line will lead to a new separation between the gender groups: the male research professor who is relieved of his teaching duties and the female professor who has up to 20 contact hours per week (the high percentage of female professors with a large teaching load should give us cause for concern indeed). The gender ratio will also be changed in fields whose professionals were trained in academic environments, as the thinking and working cultures bred there continue to have an effect far beyond the university. The current developments thus affect both the structures between the gender groups as well as those between and within the disciplines.

In this Special Issue, papers are presented that contain information on the role of disciplinary cultures in the context of doing or undoing gender in the disciplines of science, engineering and technology (SET)[1]. Interestingly enough, at first glance one gets the impression that women in SET do not experience discrimination, which we have labelled “gender neutrality”, but on further consideration diverse processes of discrimination are discovered.

This paper demonstrates that the persistent question of gender and science is never a simple question of sheer numbers. It is about representations, discourses, meanings, identity struggles and power struggles (Tsai, 2007).

With this citation Tsai returns to one of the crucial issues that are discussed in the papers below: the search for adequate qualitative indicators that can help explain the fact that disciplinary cultures do not become more equal just because more women participate in them. In particular, the observation that women (and men) in SET perceived their own discipline as a “neutral” one, one which makes no differences according to gender and needs in-depth interviews to reveal “otherness”, has shown up in quite a few of the projects presented here. A second aspect that will be discussed from different angles is the assumption that every discipline entails a specific relation to gender equality via its knowledge culture as “hidden organiser” (Kuhlmann, 2007). This idea has been somewhat further developed by Nicky Le Feuvre (France). Stating the commonality of ongoing gender inequality in higher education all over Europe on the one hand, Le Feuvre searched for reasons for the nevertheless existing differences according to the ways that countries and disciplines are dealing with this issue on the other hand:

In order to elaborate effective equal opportunity policies, or to improve the effectiveness of existing measures, I would suggest that it is necessary to more fully understand the precise mechanisms that underpin the feminisation process in specific national and professional contexts. It is also important to clearly define the model of feminisation that we want to promote in academia, since each of the ideal-typical processes (patriarchy, femininity, virility, de-gendering; BBM) outlined in this paper have contrasting effects on the degree to which the existing sex/gender system is reproduced, reconfigured or transformed (Le Feuvre, 2009).

Anne-Francoise Gilbert (Switzerland) compares disciplinary cultures in mechanical engineering and material sciences and their influences on de/gendering. She identifies different patterns of social life among the two disciplines: mechanical engineering appears more formalised and uniform, whereas representatives of materials science act more flexibly and operate on an informal level, which leaves space for “others” like women.

Andrea Wolffram, Wibke Derboven and Gabriele Winker (Germany) analyse reasons for female student dropouts in engineering. On one side the institution intends to recruit more women; on the other side women in engineering feel alone once they have started their studies. One precondition for success in this discipline is a stable learning group, but women are sometimes excluded from such groups. Another precondition is previous experiences with technology (“hands-on tinkering”) that women rarely acquire during their socialisation.

Gad Yair (Israel) compares PhD students (male and female) in science and in the humanities and the social sciences in relation to their academic productivity (number of publications). First of all he identifies no significant gender differences. The nevertheless lower publication productivity of women is explained by their higher participation in the humanities, where scientists tend to publish on their own. In science, however, scholars tend to publish together with their advisors due to their common laboratory work, and more often. Yair addresses some evidence for the assumption that at the PhD stage of a scientific career science is more egalitarian than humanities.

Anna Zalevski and Laura Swisczowski (UK) investigate the attitudes of PhD students in SET towards enterprise. Male students showed more interest in enterprise than women. Exploring the reasons for this, the authors detect that men are generally more confident of their own capabilities regarding the market and are more aware of entrepreneurial possibilities. This somewhat contradicts the findings that women believe that entrepreneurship could offer them a lot of advantages, for example higher flexibility.

Anne-Sophie Godfroy-Genin (France) presents results of the EU project PROMETEA. In this project the conditions of women’s careers in technology in different European countries are analysed. First, the differences between academe and industry are higher than the differences between the countries. Secondly, societal changes (e.g. changes in gender roles) on the one hand seem to offer better opportunities for female careers, but on the other hand changes in the environment of the labour market hinder women’s participation in management.

The “Professional Insights” offer the opportunity to get to know the main issues debated at the ICWES (International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists) 14 Conference “A Changing World: New Opportunities for Women Engineers and Scientists” in Lille in July 2008. Korula Kugele gives us a detailed report on it. Barbara Schwarze, coordinator of the most recent German initiative for bringing more women into SET (MINT), follows by answering the questions of the Guest Editors. She gives an overview of the objectives and strategies of this pact. The Special Issue ends with two book reviews, both of which deal with gender inequality in higher education.

The papers were selected among presentations at the 5th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education, Track B: Disciplinary Cultures (see


Acker, J. (1992), “Gendering organizational theory”, in Mills, A.J. and Tankred, P. (Eds), Gendering Organizational Analysis, Sage Publications, London, pp. 248–60

Engler, S. (1999), “Hochschullehrer und die Herstellung von Geschlechtergrenzen: der Empfang von Studentinnen und Studenten in Elektrotechnik und Erziehungswissenschaft”, in Neusel, A. and Wetterer, A. (Eds), Vielfältige Verschiedenheiten. Geschlechterverhältnisse in Studium, Hochschule und Beruf, Campus, Frankfurt am Main/New York, NY, pp. 107–32

Kuhlmann, E. (2007), “Towards performance approaches in the science system: professional knowledge cultures and equal opportunity policies”, paper presented at the 5th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education, Track B: Disciplinary Perspectives on Higher Education and Professionalisation, Berlin, available at:

Le Feuvre, N. (2009), “Exploring women’s academic careers in cross-national perspective”, Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 9–23

Tsai, L.L. (2007), “Preparing future physicist in a gendered culture: process of othering”, paper presented at the 5th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education, Track B: Disciplinary Perspectives on Higher Education and Professionalisation, Berlin, available at:

Wajcman, J. (1991), Feminism Confronts Technology, Polity Press, Cambridge

Wajcman, J. (1998), Managing Like a Man: Women and Men in Corporate Management, Polity Press, Cambridge

Birgit Blättel-Mink, Caroline Kramer, Anina Mischau
Guest Editors