Do universities need to look at awareness days in a different light?

by Charlotte Hogg

A question for those that work in education: what day is it today folks? A few years ago, Wednesday would have been the right answer. However today, 8 March 2017, is National No Smoking Day and Budget Day…it’s also British Pie Week, Apprenticeships Week, Careers Week, Fairtrade Fortnight and National Bed Month. And yes it’s a Wednesday. Have I missed anything?

Of course, it’s International Women’s Day. How could you forget? You’d have to be in a cave not to notice this, the prototype ‘awareness day’, which has been marked for more than 100 years now. It is therefore just as old as Mother’s Day, but somehow it feels much newer, fresher and certainly more militant. IWD brings the bandanas and rolled-up sleeves to Mother’s Day’s floral garlands, spa days and cake.

The new This Girl Can advert – Phenomenal Women – knits the two concepts together, bringing a new visual language of clenched fists, gum shields and roundhouse kicks into counterpoint with more traditional markers of womanhood: red lipstick and babies, for example. The video plays in the right key; after all these are times when women of all generations are picking up placards, marching for their rights in solidarity against tyrants overseas. And it’s against this backdrop that universities enter International Women’s Day this year.

I’ve often wondered how it’s decided which ‘awareness days’ a university marks and how – from solemn and formal observance to full-blown week-long festivals. I imagine long meetings spent pouring over calendars to evaluate the opportunity-value of awareness days; maybe a matrix is made of how each day reflects university values, or helps to meet student recruitment targets. Winners are the days that are afforded significant resource – time, cash and people-power. For the others, a few posts scheduled by the social media team will be enough for solace internally, giving teams something to signpost to, should accusations of inaction rumble in distant corridors.

There is also an element of not wanting to underspend on big awareness days against competitors.  International Women’s Day is fast becoming something that you absolutely have to go to town on. Or else. Up and down the country today, glossy event brochures have been commissioned and designed, exhibitions have popped up across campuses, big-name speakers are booked to speak in lecture halls, empowering films are cued for screening. In many cases, there is just too much good content to fit into one day alone – IWD is then stretched out into a whole week of programming. All this work must come at significant cost to the university, but no doubt the expenditure is justified by soft-power gains, to be cashed in down the line.

It is of course quite right that this type of activity is championed both at board level and the university’s grass roots – universities should be shouting loudly about IWD, particularly given the severe under-representation of women in higher education’s upper echelons and of course in STEM. But what’s vitally important is that the frenzy over International Women’s Day does not become an exercise in virtue-signalling, to the detriment of the real issues at hand which IWD exists to address.

Just this week for example, a significant investigation into sexual harassment in UK universities was published by the Guardian. This revealed systemic issues in the way that instances of alleged sexual harassment and assault are reported, investigated and sanctioned against by universities. Experts suggest the problem is one of “epidemic” proportions, with many women feeling unable to disclose instances of sexual harassment or misconduct within the university setting, due to a lack of procedural clarity. While this remains the case, to what extent is it right to put the bells and whistles on for an unbridled celebration for International Women’s Day?

Moreover, it would be a sorry state of affairs if universities felt compelled to enter an awareness days arms race, pressured by the need to be seen to be to marking certain days with more fervour than ever before, all in the name of standing out from the competition.

Universities would do well to remember that the clamour to observe high profile awareness days should not come at the expense of innovation and creativity. How refreshing would it be to see a university decide not to mark IWD, instead choosing to stage a bonanza of activities on mother’s day in a couple of weeks’ time? Mature student numbers are falling and yet many universities offer outstanding support for those returning to education after having children. Using awareness days to highlight lesser-known services that would benefit an important proportion of the student population is a noble cause. Better this, than awareness days become a vehicle for generic marketing messaging alone.

Be Bold for Change, IWD tells us this year – but will this be advice that universities are brave enough to follow?