We Need to Talk About Sexism in Academia

Guest blog by Heather Savigny, Bournemouth University

‘Perhaps men are just naturally better at research than women’ said a senior male colleague during a discussion about why so few women were returned to a University’s REF submission. On one level, you almost have to laugh that people might actually say these things out loud. Sadly, however on another level, this comment is also illustrative of an attitude, a mentality, a cultural discourse which often positions women as inferior in academic environments. Unpacking and making visible women’s experiences is the purpose of my article recently published in Gender and Education and featured in the Independent on Sunday. It is also something that I (and other colleagues that I know of) have been warned not to discuss as it ‘will damage our academic careers’.   Maybe however, having been in this career for 10 years and in the fortunate position of being on a permanent contract, as well as being incredibly well supported by some wonderful colleagues, the time for me, has come to say – so what?

I thought academia would be different. I thought it would be a more enlightened environment, without the predatory and sexist thinking that characterises much of our mainstream advertising and popular culture and politics, and indeed many women’s daily lives (as highlighted by Laura Bates’ work on everyday sexism). And I was wrong.

In some ways this research has probably been years in gestation. As an undergraduate it was regularly suggested that the good marks I got were because I was sleeping with the lecturers. As a postgraduate at a conference I was invited back to someone’s room, because ‘come on love, that’s what you’re here for isn’t it. Everyone knows that is what conferences are for’. My experience was that to be an academic was to have my gender foregrounded in a way that did not happen to my male colleagues. As discussed in the paper, speaking to other women, at conferences, at different institutions, I started to realise that this wasn’t just me that this was happening to. There was a whole layer of undisclosed experiences that affected primarily women, and their opportunities to progress and develop academic careers, in a way that simply didn’t affect men.

I started keeping notes and doing interviews more than 6 years ago now, and I was encouraged by a friend to write this up. Yet the thing that was most striking, most shocking in this was the number of people who said they were afraid that they would be identifiable. Not only that, but that they feared repercussions. (And I had had a colleague who was advised that speaking up about the sexism she was witnessing would cost her the permanent contract she was after, so on one level I could understand that fear.) The number of women afraid to speak up was shocking. And so I looked for a way to tell those stories, without any hint of those women being identifiable (even though all my sources were anonymised). The fictionalised account in the paper is powerful to read out, and to have verbalised and to listen to. It encourages all of us to share the experience of being a female academic, and challenges those taken for granted ‘norms’ about what it means to be an academic.

‘You see the thing you don’t understand is that women don’t do [your discipline]’. I was told this by a senior male colleague while discussing the absence of women in the department that I was working at the time. Not only is this blatantly untrue but denies contributions of scholars such as Elinor Ostrom, Judith Butler, Joni Lovenduski, Rainbow Murray, Sarah Childs, Ros Gill, Rosie Campbell, Karin Wahl Jorgensen, Liesbet Van Zoonen, Sara Ahmed….to name but a few). This comment though also rendered me invisible. Invisible to my colleagues and in terms of my research, my teaching, my contribution to the department and the discipline, never mind my male colleagues’ ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions about promotion.

Promotion is an issue that affects female academics – how can we account for so few women at senior levels. With only 14% VCs being female, only 20.5% of professors are female and in 2013 only 15 Profs were BAME women. These figures are shocking. And not simply because ‘women naturally aren’t good enough’. I argue that there is something else going on, and that ‘something else’ is cultural. It generates a mindset, a set of ‘norms’ which we reinforce and react subconsciously often, in our working lives. Challenging them is essential to rethinking how women are positioned. (For example, to the senior colleague who wondered if men are ‘naturally better’ at research – would we say non-Jewish scholars are naturally better than Jews at research? And if we wouldn’t make those kind of racist statements, why is it ok to make those statements about women?)

It is too simplistic to say that all women suffer in the same way from sexism within academia, and it is also too essentialist to suggest that all men benefit from and perpetuate this system. However, it is fairly reasonable to say that many women do experience sexism in academia in one form or another. I have been asked ‘what about the men?’ and indeed it is true that I have spoken with men about their experiences – there is also some excellent academic work by colleagues such as Richard Collier, Jonathan Dean, for example. I know of many men who are concerned to tackle this issue managerially, from junior to very senior. I also know that male colleagues on temporary contracts have described their fear of speaking up about sexism they see their female colleagues subject to – precarity of contract is a powerful tool in the patriarchal arsenal!

The aim of my article is to get this issue ‘out there’ and talked about for two reasons. First, because in so doing we might add to the changes that are taking place to improve positions for women. My main argument is that the key source of change needs to be cultural – in the way that women are perceived, discussed and regarded. And second, I nearly left academia because of some of my experiences of sexism. I found comfort in sharing stories with other women, knowing that I wasn’t alone, that it wasn’t me, or my ‘fault’. And the article that I have written has support and solidarity with other academic women, as its primary aim.

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Guarded and sensible? The problem with UKIP and women

Originally posted on The Constitution Unit Blog:

rosie campbellchrysa_lamprinakoujennifer_van_heerde

In the wake of a second UKIP win in Rochester and Strood, Rosie Campbell, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson consider how the background of UKIP candidates selected so far compare with the other parties.

Mark Reckless’s win over Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst in the Rochester and Strood by-election doubled the number of UKIP MPs in Westminster and reignited speculation as to who will be next to defect.

The Tory defeat in Rochester was indeed a bad day for Cameron and the party, with many commentators highlighting what was seen to be an ineffective campaign, despite reports that MPs were required to campaign in the constituency three times in the run up to 20 November. Others, however, argued it was worse day for Labour with Emily Thornberry’s controversial tweet, subsequent resignation and the fact that UKIP continues to pull Labour party supporters into its ranks. It’s a day the Lib…

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Shattering the Highest Glass Ceiling in Scotland?

Originally posted on Gender Politics at Edinburgh:

Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay

scot gov

It has been a week of firsts: the election of Nicola Sturgeon as the first female First Minister of Scotland followed by the announcement that her first Cabinet – a ‘team of all talents’ – will be 50:50 women and men. These are historic breakthrough moments for women in politics, not only in Scotland but also globally.

Who’s in and who’s out? There are two major departures after the reshuffle: Kenny MacAskill at Justice and Mike Russell at Education. John Swinney was named Deputy First Minister and has retained his Finance brief. Shona Robison and Angela Constance – who were promoted to Cabinet in April 2014 – have now been given more powerful portfolios, with Robison sent to Health while Constance has been given charge of Education. There are three secretaries who are new to Cabinet: Roseanna Cunningham at Fair Work, Skills and Training…

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Researching Gender in Divided Societies: A conversation

With the kind support of the PSA Irish Politics and Women and Politics Specialist groups, on the 7th of November the University of Ulster hosted a conversation between three leading academics on the pitfalls and possibilities of researching gender issues in ethno-nationally divided societies.

Organised by Jennifer Thomson (Queen Mary, University of London) and Claire Pierson (University of Ulster), the event brought together two academics with broad experience in researching gender in ethno-national environments – Dr Fidelma Ashe (University of Ulster), whose research expertise centres around feminist theory and gender in Northern Ireland, and Gorana Mlinarevic (Goldsmiths, University of London), whose work focuses on women’s experiences in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia. A small audience of PhD students, academics and practitioners also brought much expertise and insight.

The aims in bringing this conversation about were two-fold. One, to think through some of the issues surrounding work on gender and methodology (does gender research require a specific type of methodology? What are the differences between doing gendered research and ‘mainstream’ research? What are the specific difficulties when conducting research into gender/women/marginalised gendered communities?) And two, to situate this thinking about gender and methodology in work on divided ethno-national contexts: how are these difficulties exacerbated or overcome in contexts where gendered identity is subordinate to national identities?

The conversation shone light on both the difficulties and insights that gendered work in ethno-national contexts can bring. The feminist belief that the ‘personal is political’ still rings true in feminist academic work, with personal experiences being cited as motivation for academic research. As a result of this, both participants and the wider audience stressed the obligations they felt in ensuring that their research was not part of a ‘smash and grab’ on the community in question, but rather that enduring, permanent links were established with the groups being studied. Furthermore, the importance of challenging dominant ethno-national narratives appears central for work on gender in these contexts. Gendered research in ethno-national situations provides a new way of looking at accepted dominant narratives of conflict, and provides ways of thinking more fully about what justice and peace might look like.

From L to R: Gorana Mlinarevic (Goldsmiths); Jennifer Thomson (QMUL); Claire Pierson (Ulster); Fidelma Ashe (Ulster)

From L to R: Gorana Mlinarevic (Goldsmiths); Jennifer Thomson (QMUL); Claire Pierson (Ulster); Fidelma Ashe (Ulster)


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Amy Mazur Seminar at Birkbeck – 2nd December 2014

‘Studying Women’s Movements in Comparative Perspective: A New Measurement from the Research Network on Gender and Politics (RNGS)

Professor Amy G. Mazur, Washington State University

(& visiting professor at Birkbeck during the fall of 2014)

Tuesday 2nd December 2014, 13.00 – 14.30

Paul Hirst Seminar Room, Department of Politics

Birkbeck, 10 Gower Street, WC1E 6DP

The Gender and British Politics group at Department of Politics at Birkbeck (http://www.csbppl.com/research/the-gender-and-british-politics-group/) is organizing a seminar with speaker Prof. Amy G Mazur (Washington State University) on the 2nd of December.

Summary: Scholars of women’s movements have thus far not had access to enough conceptual tools that permit systematic comparison across a variety of temporal, sectoral and cultural contexts in order to construct sound theory about movements themselves as well as their social and political impacts. This presentation will offer a way of comparing variations in women’s movement strength through conceptualization that builds from research on gender equality policy, state feminism, women’s movements, and social movements. This approach involves careful definition of movements and movement strength as well as the specification of their dimensions for empirical observation through description, comparison and assessment of change. Using data from the RNGS project about women’s movements from the 1970s to the early 2000s in 13 Western democracies, the talk will illustrate how this approach can advance the study of and theorizing about women’s movements both as drivers and outcomes.


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Call for Papers: UK General Election 2015 Conference


Citizens, parties and political action: Political participation and the UK General Election 2015

Wednesday 4 February 2015, 9.30 am – 5 pm

The Division of Politics and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University is pleased to invite participants to this conference which will run three panels:

*   Panel 1: Beyond the mainstream 1: The emergence of ‘new’ parties across Europe

*   Panel 2: Beyond the mainstream 2: The emergence of ‘new’ parties across the UK

*   Panel 3: Mobilising political action: The challenges of class, ethnicity, gender and age -based political participation inequalities.

The conference will culminate in a roundtable session, comprising national speakers as well as representatives from political parties, and will address a question of crucial significance for the future health of UK democracy, “Should 16 and 17 year olds be given the vote?”

In particular, we would very much welcome abstract submissions from PhD students and early-career researchers, as well as from more experienced academic researchers and citizenship and election professionals.

Full details about the conference can be found at the conference web-site at: www.ntu.ac.uk/Election2015Conference<http://www.ntu.ac.uk/Election2015Conference

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Call for Papers: The Causes and Consequences of Male Over-Representation

European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR)

Joint Sessions of Workshops

University of Warsaw, Warsaw

29 March – 2 April 2015

CALL FOR PAPERS “The Causes and Consequences of Male Over-Representation” ***Deadline for submissions: December 1, 2014***

Submit under Workshop 16 at http://www.ecpr.eu/Events/PanelList.aspx?EventID=90

Workshop Directors:

Rainbow Murray

Queen Mary, University of London


and Elin Bjarnegård

Uppsala University



Nearly every legislature worldwide has a male majority. This well-known fact has generated significant research on women’s political under-representation. While male over-representation might be explicitly acknowledged, it is usually problematised in terms of its impact on women, and is seldom the central focus of study. This workshop will open up new research agendas focusing explicitly on male over-representation, studying the causes and consequences of having male majorities (as opposed to female minorities) within legislatures.

The workshop seeks to bring together scholars currently working on men and masculinity within politics from a gendered and/or feminist perspective. While research with a focus on men, rather than women, is relatively rare, we also hope to inspire the many scholars working on women and gender to embrace this new research agenda by reconceptualising their research questions and producing new research in this area. We welcome participation from scholars working in related areas but outside the discipline of political science. We invite both theoretical and empirical papers that explore and develop the workshop’s theme of male over-representation. Papers exploring male power networks, masculinist cultures within parliaments, men’s interests, and the substantive representation of men are particularly welcome. We do not have a regional or methodological preference, and papers exploring single country case studies are welcome, as are more comparative pieces. We ask paper proposals to ensure that the primary focus of the research is men, masculinity and/or male over-representation, rather than women.

The full workshop description is available here:


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