All entries for Wednesday 26 October 2011

October 26, 2011

Women in higher education – time for a discussion? – by Anna

In a Media Studies mailing list I subscribe to, there's been quite the debate going recently about women in academia. It was kicked off by a senior female academic who took exception to a conference programme that did not include a single female speaker. At first I was a little taken aback by this, because there are many prominent women professors in Film Studies, and indeed I've been to more than one research event that had few or no men. Surely days of counting up the numbers like this are behind us?

Yet in subsequent postings and articles, it's become clear that a lot more is left to be done to make sure women are included to the same levels as men in research culture. Indeed, reading about this stuff has actually felt as though something that was invisible has been made manifest to me.

For one thing, as this recent Times Higher Education article points out, taking time off to have a baby still puts people at a significant disadvantage in the REF. Since primary childcare (as well as care for other relatives, such as ageing parents) still overwhelmingly falls on women, this affects women far more than men and brings down women's chances of meaningful career advancement - which is reflected in the fact that 80% of full professors today are men.

Even though I'm not that keen on having children, I believe this affects me deeply - and it affects male academics too. I'm reminded of the saying I read recently, in a completely different context, about inclusivity in the political process:

What is done to non-whites under the guise of racism is a test run for what they will eventually do to you. [Saw this here.]

This is an excellent argument for why we need inclusivity at all levels of higher education - and of society: because aiding and abetting a system which leaves people behind will eventually leave you behind too. And I think this is happening: my (male) partner, for example, is a lecturer who is increasingly frustrated at the impossibility of having both an academic career and a life. I know that hard work is required for achievement in any career - I'm cool with that - but do we really want a system run by and for only the few people who are able (and willing) to make this level of sacrifice? Who are that disconnected from the world as most people live it? I think this is actually a major reason that people talk about the Ivory Tower of academia - because we allow these institutionalised barriers to entry, of which the lack of family-friendly career advancement policies is most definitely one.

(Also, the fact that women are still punished just for speaking out about the inequalities they face is in itself a sign that the system is broken. See herefor a great article on this.)

And speaking of care duties, the same article points out that pastoral care for students still overwhelmingly falls to female academics - a kind of work that is invisible and unvalued as far as career assessment is concerned. I have often noticed with dismay the way achievement in teaching is downplayed and dismissed - I mean really, the primary justification for our existence, when it comes down to it, is teaching, yet we are given almost no training in it and basically nobody gives a damn whether we're any good at it or not. Yet I had never really thought about this in gendered terms before. It's far more socially acceptable for male professors not to give a damn about their students than for women to behave the same way - an attitude which I'm certain women feel in their course evaluation forms, for example.

This sheds some light on a dynamic I've noticed between myself and my (female) supervisor, whom I've noticed before seems especially keen to make sure her time is respected - as though she's afraid of being seen as too soft or too approachable, which would mean taking on additional pastoral duties. Sometimes this grates on me, but I feel like I totally sympathise now: she's just determined not to be shouldered with extra work simply because she's a woman. Maybe she's allowed this to go too far occasionally, but it's easy to go too far and overcompensate when you've come of age in a system that is set against you at every turn.

However, this brings me to another point which is not so positive: I think some of the worst is done by women to other women. I think some senior female academics feel a little threatened on some level by the prospect of other, younger women achieving in academia - especially if this is because the younger women encounter less resistance and fewer difficulties than she herself did. Kind of like the joke that was going around the interwebs a little while ago about a banker, a Tea Partier, a progressive, and 12 cookies: The banker takes 11 cookies, splits the last one in half, then says to the Tea Partier, 'This progressive guy is trying to take your half a cookie'. I think there's sometimes a similar dynamic at work between female academics: oppressed by the broader system, they argue over crumbs rather than taking on the system itself.

I want to end on a question, plus an anecdote about a friend of mine.

The question is this: Do you have any experiences specifically as PhD students - or as early career researchers trying to transition into a full-time academic job - about the gender dynamics of our current culture in higher education?

And the anecdote is really an example of what this might look like: my friend - a very intelligent, ambitious, dynamic woman and definitely not one prone to complaining - confided in me how hard she was finding it to stay connected to her department after submitting her thesis. She had noted, too, how this differed with male colleagues, who are often helped along with part-time teaching jobs in the department, where the women were expected to 'just get on with it' and find a job on their own steam. I think this illustrates just how deep-rooted and also how hard to perceive sexism can be in the academic workplace: her department has several prominent female members of staff including the head of department. It's not a clear-cut, provable case of sexism - but that's the whole problem, right? It never is.

So I'm left with the old adage, which still FEELS true, even if I haven't got any statistics to back this up:

Whatever women do they must do twice as well as a man to be thought half as good.

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