A fellowship previously exclusive to women was made to be availible to all genders after it was deemed illegally discrimanatory last term.
The Oxford Council, the university’s senior administrative committee asserted that the award was “discriminatory on the grounds of gender”. A spokesperson for the university cited “complying with legislation” as the primary motivation.
The Joanna Randall-MacIver junior research fellowship, established in the 1930s for women in the humanities, is worth £46,800 over two years. The amendment received approval on November 19 2018.
The move has provoked a backlash from former recipients. Elizabeth Cullingford, now Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, condemned the change: “There have been ‘men only’ stipulations on most Oxford emoluments for roughly the last thousand years,” she said. “Women, who only became full members of the university in 1920, still have a bit of catching up to do.”
But Professor Cullingford conceded that, although regrettable, she would accept the change if “the law requires it.”
Another previous recipient, who wished to remain anonymous, also opposed the change: “It’s sad to see the struggle against discrimination being invoked to justify such a move. Men have never been underrepresented among Oxford’s academic staff. Women still are.”
Louise Richardson, Oxford’s Vice Chancellor, announced the amendment on November 13 2018. Usually, revisions to university legislation require the backing of 20 academics. But
reforms billed as “administrative changes” can be fast-tracked by the Oxford Council. Proposals can then be opposed by the Oxford Congregation, made up of all Oxford academics, if two letters are sent to Gill Aitken, the university’s Registrar, which in this case were not received.
Oxford responded: “Under the 2010 Equality Act, employers are not normally permitted to advertise or recruit to posts open to one gender only. As a consequence, Oxford Uni- versity has changed the terms of a number of historically-created posts so they are no longer gender-specific. The Joanna Randall-MacIver Fellowship is the most recent example.”
“The University is very much aware of the lack of women in academic roles and is work- ing to end the imbalance as a priority. Several initiatives to promote equality, including pro- fessional development programmes for female academics, are now well-established and beginning to show an impact.”
Employment law regarding academic fellowships is ambiguous. Fellows are technically students, undertaking doctoral research, but receive a stipend and housing allowance of £23,400 per annum. The Equality Act 2010 deems it unlawful to discriminate against gender in posts of employment.
Partner at Winckworth Sherwood law firm, Bettina Bender, concluded that the fellowship did constitute a position of employment: “it would appear that the research fellow may at the very least qualify for worker status even if they do not in fact qualify as an employee,” she said. “The Equality Act 2010 and the prohibition on positive discrimination of female applicants would therefore apply.”
A study this year by the Equality Challenge Unit revealed that women make up 56.5% of undergraduate students but account for just 45.3% of UK academic staff. Many academics support positive action schemes to rebalance gender inequality.
Dr Xiaofan Amy Li, a former recipient, said: “I do not think that a women-only scheme is discriminatory towards men, precisely because existing gender bias in society already puts women at a disadvantage.”
She also added: “nevertheless, ethnicity bias is a much bigger problem than gender bias in academia and the percentage of BAME academic staff is very low. If the Randall-MacIver fellowship can be opened up to male BAME candidates, that will be a very welcome move.”
Women began studying at Oxford in 1870, but were not granted degrees until 1920.
The fellowship is funded by the estate of British-born archaeologist David Randall-MacIver. It’s named after his wife Joanna Randall- MacIver, who died in 1932, and was established for “women graduates only.” Notable recipients include archaeologist Georgina Herrman OBE and the Tate’s current Head of Art Historical Research Jennifer Mundy.