Why men have no place in ‘women-only’ colleges

Illustration of Cambridge University
Lucy Cavendish College said it would start accepting men from 2021 Credit: Corbis

Graduates of one of Cambridge University's last women-only colleges are angry about the decision to accept men from 2021 – and rightly so. When Professor Dame Madeline Atkins, president of Lucy Cavendish College, announced the college would accept "excellent students from non-traditional backgrounds, regardless of gender", dozens of former students expressed outrage. 

One alum said they were "beyond grief", while another said Lucy Cavendish had "lost what made them special".  

To date, Lucy Cavendish's admissions pool has been limited to women over the age of 21, making it one of only three female-only colleges left in the UK. It was founded in 1956 for mature women who might not have had access to university education through other means.  

But now, "these are the voices that may be silenced," Catrin Darsely, a PhD student at the college, wrote on Twitter. 

The change is the result of more opportunities for women across Cambridge, according to Prof Atkins, and the need to broaden its outlook when it comes to diversity.

"Women of all ages now have access to all Cambridge colleges," said Prof Akins. "The demographics of participation in higher education have also changed, and there are now relatively fewer women unable to go to university at 18 or 19, regardless of their background."

She added: "It is now important for Lucy Cavendish College to offer opportunities to excellent students from non-traditional backgrounds, regardless of gender." 

Some complained that the college offered one of the few women-only spaces in higher education and that, in turn, this created a safe environment for female students to thrive. Leaving this discussion to one side, the numbers alone undermine Prof Atkins. 

Lucy Cavendish college was founded in 1965 for mature female students

The move was in part a response to a university-wide initiative to increase the profile of under-represented groups at Cambridge. For example, there are surprisingly low numbers of students from ethnic minority backgrounds and white students from deprived backgrounds. In 2017, black and ethnic minority students made up 22 per cent of admissions, while in 2016, poor white students made up 2 per cent. 

But the fight for equality for women at the university is by no means over – as such a move could suggest.

The proportion of women admitted to Cambridge fell for the first time in six years in 2017 to 47.8 per cent, down from 48.3 per cent in 2016, according to Varsity. Among international students, that number dropped further to 43.4 per cent. 

In some courses, the ratio plummets, with just 13 per cent of students accepted into Computer Science in 2016 being women and almost 18 per cent into Maths. 

The figures among staff are even worse. Although women make up 49.8 per cent of the total number of staff, they are under-represented in senior positions. Just 29 per cent of Cambridge's 7,913 academic staff members, including lecturers and professors, are women, compared with 62 per cent at the assistant level. This disparity contributed to a  gender pay gap of nearly 20 per cent in 2017. 

"The University's gender pay gap... is mainly due to the unequal representation of men and women at different points on the pay scale," it said on its website. "There are more men than women in senior positions."

Cambridge last year launched a gender equality initiative last year in order to improve the standing of women among its staff and student bodies. It also said it is committed to closing the pay gap. 

But the existence of such inequality flies in the face of Prof Atkins' assessment – and certainly gives her critics reason to be vocal.