Equal Bite: Gender equality in higher education

Pixabay CC0
Pixabay CC0

In the first blog post for the April issue, Judy Robertson and Andy Hancock whet our appetite with a preview of the new book, Equal Bite, a collaborative endeavour which promotes practical ‘recipes’ to ensure equality in the classroom…

Our students will change the world. They will remember not just the content of the curriculum we teach, but the ways in which they were taught, and whose voices were heard and valued in the classroom. Universities have a part to play in improving gender in equality in society, not just by filling in endless forms and winning shiny Athena Swan badges, but also by modelling and supporting inclusive interactions in our classrooms. In short, I’d rather we graduated teams of self-aware male allies rather than packs of alpha dinosaurs whose mission is to maintain the status quo.

This is why our new book Equal Bite: gender equality in higher education includes contributions from students about their experiences as well as advice from lecturers about promoting equality in the classroom. The book is a collection of recipes, photos, illustrations and articles from University of Edinburgh’s staff and students about the University’s work related to improving gender equality. In addition to teaching, it contains material on topics such as the gender pay gap, bias in the REF, career development and how to deal with the drip-drip-drip of everyday sexism in language. It is available to purchase from Sense Publishers, or it can be accessed as an Open Access Ebook.

EqualBITE book cover 2017
EqualBITE book cover 2017

Here is a sample from one of my favourite recipes from the book, written by my colleague Andy Hancock, which considers how we can tackle discussions about diversity with our students in the classroom:

Creating a safe space for classroom discussions


On the occasions when it is appropriate to discuss equality and diversity in the classroom, it is important to establish an atmosphere of trust. This recipe contains some of my thoughts about how to create a safe space for discussion in the classroom.


  • Ground rules. You may choose to develop these with the students. Section 12 of the University regulations might be a good starting point.
  • Recognition that your students have different world views and life experiences.
  • Commitment to teach all students with respect.
  • Desire to give all students a voice.
  • Empowerment.


  1. Choose the design of the lesson. It will probably be most effective to enable the students to discuss their opinions in small groups, at least initially. In this way, members of the minority groups have a voice in a smaller, safer space. The “think, pair, share” approach might be helpful: students think about their responses to a discussion question individually for a time, then pair up to exchange views, before the pairs join up to form small groups to share their thoughts. Lecture format is not ideal. The experience of listening to a single authoritative voice (of the lecturer) or the opinions of vocal classmates during question time might be uncomfortable or alienating for students in the minority groups under discussion. Being reminded of negative stereotypes of a group to which we belong makes people anxious and concerned that we don’t reinforce that stereotype by our behaviour. A woman electrical engineering undergraduate, for example, might avoid joining in a large lecture discussion about acceptable professional conduct precisely because she doesn’t want to confirm a societal stereotype about women “over-reacting” to sexist jokes.
  2. Plan how to include students who are in the minority. There is a tension in valuing the knowledge of a minority student without turning them into a cultural artefact. We want to give the student an opportunity to share their insight as a member of the minority group under discussion, but we don’t want to put them under the microscope because of it. If you’re not sure how a student in the minority group would react to the class, have a quiet word beforehand about what they would like their involvement to be and what they might find uncomfortable. It is also important not to make assumptions about students’ faith or cultural heritage as there is diversity within diversity.
  3. Establish ground rules. Spend some time establishing ground rules with the class (or reminding them). There needs to be a code of conduct for what is acceptable, starting from the basics of respectful listening and allowing others to be heard. Part of the lecturer’s job is to be aware of inappropriate behaviour and call students out on it. “Banter” and mild jokes may seem borderline offensive, but can escalate, so it is worth drawing attention to this. What one student finds funny might be offensive to another. Ideally, the students themselves will start to challenge unacceptable conduct.
  4. Deal with challenging conversations. In a situation where a student voices an opinion with which you disagree, take a moment to think about why they might have these views. You want to encourage each student to have a voice, but it is necessary to challenge them at times. Acknowledge their contribution and summarise their view: “I hear what you’re saying. You mean that…” If appropriate you can go on to say: “I disagree for these reasons” and then articulate them. There may be students who have strong views but have chosen not to express them so far. In this case, you can offer them the chance to join in – “What do you think? Do you agree?” or “You have been very quiet during this discussion. How do you feel? How would you like to be included?”
  5. Challenge prejudice. If you do encounter prejudice among students, then there are three levels of response. In the immediate term, you should make it clear that prejudice is not acceptable in class. This includes the nature of the context and any impact on a possible victim and students in general who are being exposed to it, and how you respond to all those involved. At the next level, consider whether the University’s code of conduct is clear on this matter, and whether it needs to be updated, clarified or challenged. Lastly, in the longer term, there is both a responsibility and an opportunity to think about how you can change these attitudes and behaviours through your teaching. Teaching can be a powerful force for social justice.

Judy Robertson
Professor Judy Robertson is Chair in Digital Learning and the Research Lead in Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership, Moray House School of Education. Having spent twenty years learning and then teaching in Computer Science departments, she knows what it is like to be the only woman in the room a wearying large proportion of the time. Judy has experimented with various permutations of flexible working arrangements to fit around family life, and is grateful to work in the university sector where this is possible. She is married (to a man) and spends considerable time teaching her son not to blindly collude with the patriarchy by dropping his socks on the floor.

Andy Hancock
Dr Andy Hancock is Director of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Primary Education in Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership, Moray House School of Education. He is Co-Director of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland (CERES). He has many years experience working as a teacher in multilingual classrooms in England, Scotland and Zimbabwe and as a Manager of a local authority Bilingual Support Service. His research interests include children’s biliteracy learning, language-in-education policy and student teachers’ understandings of diverse classrooms.

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