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.

- 12 comments by 5 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Charlotte Mathieson

    Great post, Anna, and I whole-heartedly agree there needs to be much more discussion about this. Something which came up last week in our Work/life balance session and in some other articles recently is the difficulty of the long, long hours required in academia, especially for ECRs juggling many jobs and trying to do everything necessary to get on the job market; for those with family responsibilities it’s very hard to fulfil all the “extra” requirements and make it through those post-PhD years to full-time employment – there was an article recently, in the THE I think, about the drop-off rate of female academics in the ECR years. I also have some thoughts about how gender and education of students impacts on this, but that’s best saved for a less public conversation.
    The issue of the all-male conference line-up was likely inspired by the Gendered Conference Campaign that has been running on the Feminist Philosophers blog (philosophy being a discipline where gender imbalance remains particularly prominent): http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/gendered-conference-campaign/
    Also, there was a campaign about the REF maternity provision, I believe the consultation date has now passed but it’ll be interesting to see what effect this had: http://www.swipuk.org/notices/02-09-11/

    26 Oct 2011, 07:31

  2. Thanks Charlotte – I look forward to discussing this with you more, and to perusing all these interesting-looking links when I get a chance to sit down!

    Do you think you might be able to provide a link for the article about female ECR drop-off rates? I’ve often wondered about this.

    26 Oct 2011, 08:41

  3. Ruth Pearce

    I feel that a lot of sexism within academia these days is – much like sexism in wider society – largely hidden, because it’s played out in interpersonal relationships, gendered expectations and institutional practices rather than blatant discrimination. That makes tackling the issue quite difficult!

    I feel that my own department is broadly free of many of the problems you mention. We have a whole bunch of female professors and a pretty equal balance of female and male academic staff (although this doesn’t reflect the predominantly female intake of both undergraduate and postgraduate students!) and I haven’t heard much about sexism within the department from any of my fiercely feminist colleagues.

    However, certain gendered discrepancies are still being played out. Every member of the administrative staff is a woman, reflecting a wider societal gendering of work roles. Moreover, a number of us who are running a seminar series – in association with the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, no less – recently received a query about childcare on Warwick campus from one of potential participants. This is something we hadn’t even considered, because families in academia simply aren’t talked about most of the time – there must be a lot of women prevented from presenting papers at seminars and conferences due to lack of childcare provisions.

    As for your comments on teaching: I love it and it will no doubt boost my job prospects massively, but yes, I have been provided with next-to-no training and don’t even have a work contract. I feel like I am being used as free labour.

    26 Oct 2011, 09:33

  4. Pete

    Great post Anna, and some very thought-provoking stuff. There’s another dimension to the invisible gender politics which I thought I’d also mention, which is one of second-guessing and self-worth. As a male academic, if I win a post over a female colleague, is that because I was genuinely a more suitable candidate or because I’m a man? And regardless, will it be perceived that I got the job because of my gender? There’s no real way to account for that, apart from a) not apply for jobs, b) not get jobs or c) develop anxiety over whether the system’s favouring me regardless of my actual merits.

    Your comment on the assumed gender split in terms of teaching and pastoral responsibilities is a very interesting one too, and I think may have merit. I’ve actively pursued additional pastoral responsibilities, and occasionally been greeted with surprise. Now I don’t know if this is explicitly a gender-related surprise (“Men don’t want the hand-holding roles”), but it IS true that I don’t feel restricted by the need to present myself in a certain way; whether I choose to be the hard-line research-driven scholar or the student-focused, welfare-oriented tutor feels unloaded for me, whereas you suggest that it can be a much more loaded choice for female academics.

    I’m hoping that there are positive steps being taken. In my department, at least, the gender split at the professoriat level is roughly even, and the Head of Department is female (although interestingly, in the light of what you said, Head of Research is male and Head of Teaching is female). A better system for splitting paternity/maternity leave is absolutely vital if all academics are expected to maintain a family life alongside their research. There’s still such a long way to go though.

    26 Oct 2011, 11:25

  5. Ruth Pearce

    Pete, you raise some important points about why feminism is so important to men as well as women! I feel quite strongly that this message isn’t conveyed as often as it should be.

    26 Oct 2011, 12:06

  6. Jenny Delasalle

    This BBC radio interview (aired yesterday) with a very senior female academic (Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell) touches on some of the sexism she encountered throughout her career:


    26 Oct 2011, 13:23

  7. Charlotte Mathieson

    Anna, the link is here: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=417367&c=1
    Also, there is often a gender-related story in the weekly round-up of researcher news that I post on the R2R blog (there is often at least one such story a week in the news and I think it’s important to draw attention to these issues).

    Ruth I think you pick up on an important point there – the trouble with gender discrimination is that it is often hidden and to do with more latent attitudes and values, rather than explicit, obvious behaviours (in many cases). I think there are perhaps issues around what values are privileged and respected in academia and whether these are, perhaps, more traditionally “masculine” traits. But that’s definitely another conversation for elsewhere.
    The other trouble with gender discrimination is that it comes down to individual, and anecdotal, evidence which makes it often easy to dismiss as related to individual qualities and circumstances; collectively, we see a pattern, but how do you actively deal with that or call it out in individual circumstances? I would certainly never want to be accused of playing the gender card, nor to demean the work of hard-working male colleagues. I think the important thing is that there is more discussion and acknowledgement of these issues – I’m looking forward to listening to the interview Jen posted later!

    26 Oct 2011, 13:53

  8. Me too! :)

    26 Oct 2011, 16:48

  9. Rebecca Johnson

    I’ve never posted on this blog before. I would like to lend my support to the conversation though, having stumbled upon it. This really is perhaps the issue for early career researchers, both men and women. And I don’t just mean in a tokenistic sense for men. Regardless of sex, if you saw a colleague struggling for a personal reason, would you try to help in ways you felt you could? Would you ask what the matter was? Or would you put your head down and ignore her or him? Would you think, one fewer in the competition pool? Is this a dog-eat-dog world, where we leave the weak and ill adapted to fend for themselves? It shouldn’t be. Because women are neither weak nor ill-adapted.
    Do women in academia ‘drop off’ because they want to? Do they want to because their partner is able to put in the long hours, benefiting from someone else’s inability to do so? Or do they ‘drop off’ because they feel they have to choose between a family life and an academic life?
    Perhaps. But universities might still also be about collaboration, innovation, and mutual respect. These elements breed and sustain a sense of worth, convey meaning in the work that people do, and promote building actual ‘intellectual capital’ without the zero-sum game some would have us believe is the ‘only way’. Treating everyone well, harbours wellness.
    The thing that bothers me is that most of us didn’t grow up knowing that the only option for us was to get married, have children and either raise them or get a job in the city, depending on our chromosomes. Most grew up with options and choices regardless of our sex. We all worked hard to get to the level that we’re at, so why should we not try to cultivate a work life balance that promotes flexibility, and doesn’t stifle innovation and collaborative efforts, again regardless of sex? I really don’t see why we should continue to promote ‘the second shift’ mentality, where women remain the primary caregivers in every way possible. It’s a hangover from the previous generation, and it needs to go.
    Colleagues (men and women) who watch indifferently as ECRs become destined to make the same decisions they did years ago (with fewer resources and less job security by the way) yet who agree in principle that a) this is a problem and b) something should be done, but do nothing to actually support equitable and realistic actions, continue to benefit from a system where long hours and interpersonal sacrifices are the only way to have a ‘successful career’.
    I think we can do better for ourselves and our colleagues. And I think the quality of our academics would be the better for it.

    28 Oct 2011, 08:51

  10. Charlotte Mathieson

    Update on the REF and maternity leave situation; The following statement will be issued today:

    “Decision on taking account of maternity leave in the REF:

    The Research Excellence Framework (REF) team today announces that following the consultation on draft panel criteria for the REF, the four UK funding bodies have taken an early decision on the arrangements for taking account of maternity leave in the REF.

    An overwhelming majority of respondents to the consultation supported the proposal that researchers may reduce the number of outputs in a submission by one, for each period of maternity leave taken during the REF period. In light of the response, the funding bodies have decided that this approach will be implemented across all panels.

    Further details of these arrangements, including arrangements for paternity and adoption leave, will be published as part of the final REF panel criteria and working methods, in January 2012.”

    28 Oct 2011, 09:40

  11. Rebecca – welcome to the blog! Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree that successful researchers – the professors etc – need to do more to make things less difficult for the younger ones – I think all too often there is a sort of ‘hazing’ mentality – like ‘I had to suffer, so now you have to pay your dues too’, rather than any effort to improve life for everyone. I think this attitude itself is the emotional result of working in a system that’s difficult, painful and too demanding. Unfortunately the people who realise this are the ones at risk of ‘dropping out’ – so sane people are way under-represented in senior faculty ;-)

    Charlotte – this is excellent news! Thanks for letting us know.

    28 Oct 2011, 10:48

  12. Thanks Charlotte for sharing the updated news!

    28 Oct 2011, 13:04

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