On creating an Advanced Master in Gender Studies, by Tania Van Hemelryck

Belgium can sometimes be criticised for being late to the party and being behind on certain movements, as was the case with gender studies education – but luckily that absence in our higher education sector has been corrected, with French-speaking Belgium’s first ever cross-regional, interdisciplinary gender studies programme finally set in stone. We speak to Tania Van Hemelryck (1972), a Doctor of Philosophy and Literature, and currently the coordinator for the francophone Advanced Master in Gender Studies as well as official advisor for Gender Policy to UCLouvain’s rector Vincent Blondel.

Visuals (c) RoSa ASBL

Belgium isn’t necessarily behind when it comes to gender studies, although it did definitely take us some time to figure out how to handle the “gender question” in general. Indeed, despite being a subject of interest ever since the early 70s, with a few local specialists already looking to join forces at the time, it wasn’t until 2005 that every francophone university in the country finally offered some optional courses dedicated to gender issues. The first impulse was launched by Joëlle Milquet – federal Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities at the time – between 2010 and 2011, sponsoring a feasibility study for a Master in Gender Studies in Belgium. And, even though the answer given by Sophia, the cross-regional non-profit research organisation in charge of carrying out the study, was a resounding yes, it still took some time before the universities actually acted upon its recommendation. Flanders took the lead in 2014 when every Flemish university came together to co-create the first Master in Gender and Diversity. Later on, French-speaking universities of Brussels and Wallonia finally gathered around the table to discuss how to build their own programme in this broad academic field. I was tasked with supervising the decision-making in developing the curriculum, as an official advisor for UCLouvain’s Gender Policy department – despite the fact that I myself am not a Gender Studies academic. This in turn led to the establishment of Belgium’s French-speaking Advanced Master in Gender Studies in September 2017, where I currently coordinate 67 students – quite a high number, if you consider that this isn’t a standard Master’s programme. Even though we wanted to make the course as open as possible, we also figured that it was essential for students to be mature enough to be able to engage with the subject in all its complexities and subtleties.

We need to keep in mind how universities are responsible for leading the change and evolution of everyday society.

Another goal of ours was to shape a flexible programme that the students could follow regardless of their private situations, making it easier for diverse profiles to join and participate – from graduates looking to further their gender studies specialisation, to mature students looking to get back into higher education. This also explains why most of the underlying curriculum – which was tailor-made – is taught in Brussels, with students then choosing from the pre-existing additional courses offered by their respective universities. We made the conscious decision, too, to focus the programme on gender and intersectionality, in order not to interfere with the Flemish equivalent programme which is more oriented towards the question of diversity. Overall, our Advanced Master aims to position our graduates as key specialists capable of monitoring developments in the eld of gender studies, and of understanding and analysing issues before taking action. It also seeks to meet the socioeconomic needs and expectations of any organisation or institution wishing to further its understanding of this field and to comply with European, federal, regional and Community policies on the topic. Through a multi- and interdisciplinary training, the course focuses on the development of gender relations and identities, and its incorporation into the various levels of society. More widely though, we need to keep in mind how universities are responsible for leading the change and evolution of everyday society. Its core business is and should always be to form students into eye-openers on the many challenges we face, both present and future. And, in this sense and with Belgium’s gender equality in mind, I like to think that our Advanced Master degree is spot on.