Blogs & Commentary

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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