Writers' Blog Shelly Asquith

Published on March 3rd, 2014 | by Shelly Asquith

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UAL: A university of women run by men

Head shot of Shelly Asquith

Women make up 74 per cent of UAL’s student body. [Shelly Asquith]

 On my first day at UAL I remember thinking how few men there were around; on my course, at my college and in halls. I came to realise we women actually make up most of the student body here, and at most art schools and in the cultural industries in general. The arts is a woman’s world, I thought.

By contrast, on my first day as Students’ Union President, I realised just how much the university is run by men. I discovered I had been removed from an interview panel for the director of Student Recruitment because I was a woman. The university had (mistakenly, it later admitted) endeavoured to create ‘diversity’ on a panel by adding more men.

There is no need to actively ensure men’s representation at Director level. Looking through the reports from the top decision makers in UAL management, fellow SU officer Rosie asked me: “Are there any that are not white, middle aged men?”

Indeed – at a university where 74 per cent of students are women, the proportion on the Executive Board is reversed.

Proud

I am the first woman SUARTS President in a few years and part of a team in which out of eight officers, seven are women. I’m proud of our leadership and its reflection of our student body. Some of the campaigns we are taking on this year relate directly to women students. We are prioritising fighting for a university experience that is more financially accessible. That includes affordable housing options, help with materials fees, support for student carers and tackling cuts to the arts sector.

Despite us making up the majority of arts graduates, there is still a pay gap of 18 per cent between women and men artists. Women arts graduates are also more likely to be in an illegal unpaid internship. The art world is a structural patriarchy, valuing the art of men higher than that of women, and organisations, including UAL, are still more likely to have men than women doing the highest paid jobs.

Our officer team is used to sitting in committees and boards full of men – discounting the women taking minutes or bringing tea to those meetings, of course. Sometimes when we walk into a meeting we bring the only woman, the only non-white person, and sometimes even the only people with art practice backgrounds.

After I gave my first speech as SU President, on the future of access to art education, I was excited to see a lecturer at another university had written a review of it. But I was shocked when I saw it dismissed me as ‘a pretty girl with a nice pair of legs’. Sexism and objectification of women is not a problem that disappears when we move up the ranks in universities.

I raised the issue of sexism and the fact I had faced it at the last meeting of the Board of Governors I attended (the most senior committee in UAL), and was met with – perhaps nervous – laughter. This point was in relation to the fact that UAL receives lower satisfaction rates amongst women students than men. (Funnily enough, women rate their experience of the Students’ Union higher than men!) So it’s not something the university should be chuckling at if it wants to be an inclusive institution.

Dedicated

I am a feminist and I am dedicated to fighting sexism and inequality in the arts and in wider society, and I believe this is an integral part of the wider fight to make education free and accessible to all people, no matter what their background.

One issue UAL’s Feminist Society is currently looking at is the inclusion of women in the curriculum. After several students raised the fact that not a single woman artist/writer was featured in their reading list, ArtsFems launched an audit. I think this is a fantastic idea. Send your reading list to feministsociety@arts.ac.uk to help them calculate the proportion of women in our course contents.

Also, Arts Fems are hosting a ‘Women Behind Art’ panel discussion following International Women’s Day, details can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/339927089481406/

In solidarity & sisterhood,

Shelly

president@su.arts.ac.uk


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