International Women’s Day is a celebration of women fighting for their rights. This fight started in the late 18th century with political and legal issues being the main items on the agenda and it gained traction in the 19th and 20th. Since then, women have accomplished a lot in all spheres of life, including academia. Just like men could do for centuries, women can now make significant contributions to scientific knowledge. The more women joined academia, the more they theorized about their everyday experiences, and the more everybody became aware of the inequalities they were facing. Women have been the agents of and the force for change. It was them who insisted to take such concepts as patriarchy, gender bias, and positive discrimination seriously and address them in public discourse and policies. Many challenges, however, still remain. This is why we have come together to write this blog post on women in academia reflecting different perspectives. We claim neither to present the full picture nor to represent the correct perspective. We want to raise some issues relevant to our experiences. Let us walk you through these with some music in the background:
Men Explain Things to Me – Tacocat
“We get it dude
We’ve already heard enough from you
The turning point is overdue”
Imagine for a moment that you are a female researcher. You work hard, and your scholarly output is quite good, at least as good as that of your male colleagues. Still, they seem to be doing much better than you are: publishers ask them to revise their work fewer times, they are cited more, and their work regularly appears in other people’s syllabi. You start wondering why and find no reason other than their work being simply much better than yours. Then, you come across some eye-opening statistics: women are held to higher standards in review processes and their papers take half a year longer to get published, they are systematically cited less than men, they have written less than 20% of papers that appear on course syllabi, and they receive less recognition for co-authored work. This is a relief, you think to yourself. Your work might, in fact, be good – you are “just” being discriminated against based on your gender. Well, you will now have to face every working day with the awareness that you might not be playing on an even playing field.
Run The World – Beyoncé
“Some of them men think
They freak this like we do
But no they don’t
Make your check come at they neck
Disrespect us no they won’t”
One day someone knocks on your office door, asking “Hey, would you like to take part in our panel discussion, we are short on women,” or “May I put you on our third-party funding application? We have to address gender equality, and our team includes only men so far.” You realize that the increasing awareness of gender inequality in academia comes with its own curiosities. As everybody becomes more aware of the problem, things begin to change: committees give preference to female candidates in case of equally qualified applicants; editors challenge the generic use of the masculine pronoun in academic articles; researchers start making the conscious effort to quote more women and are aware of the social condemnation of “manels” at conferences. As ever more institutions and funders request gender balance from their members and applicants, a new role has been cast: the role of the female add-on. In this sense, women are addressed (also by themselves) first as representatives of “the second sex” – as Simone de Beauvoir would call it – and second as knowledgeable colleagues. But soon you start to wonder if you are there because you produce quality work or merely because you’re a woman. While positive discrimination may lead to a subjective perception of only being addressed as a woman, it is now up to us to take this structural opportunity and use the growing social awareness to reach gender equality. And by this, we will contribute to be addressed on grounds of our competences first and foremost.
Boss Bitch – Anna Wise
“I’m not asking for their respect
I am who I am whether they respect me or not
What they think of me does not define me
It defines them”
Imagine that you are a female professor. You love teaching and want to inspire your students. But you see that your students do not want to be inspired by you; they want you to be caring and forgiving. Although you do not want to coddle them but treat them as adults, their expectations do not change easily. Usually you have two options here: you will either comply with the expectations or risk being labelled as bossy. Most female professors juggle these two.
Most female academics have experienced at least one episode of “I really want to be nice towards my students, but then I lose my authority over them.” Teaching may be one area in academic life where the effects of gender are the most observable. Here is what we learned from my quick search on teaching and gender:
Male professors have better evaluation scores, as demonstrated by a recent randomized trial experimental study by MacNell et al. The experiment showed that students give higher scores when they think the professor is male, regardless of the professor’s actual gender. The study suggests that students hold females and males to different standards. The same set of behavior or practices are labelled differently depending on the professor’s gender.
Drawing on 14 million reviews from the popular Rate my Professors website, Schmidt created a chart through which you can see which adjectives are used by students for each gender in different disciplines. We used the chart to examine the following adjectives: strict, cool, and genius. The chart shows that male professors are more likely to be seen as cool, brilliant, and funny, and female professors as more strict, bossy, and pushy. (Check out Mr Genius versus Ms Strict’s graphs below or create your own here).
These differences probably do not occur because female professors are actually “more strict” than their male counterparts, but because they were not expected to be “strict” in the first place. It may even be the case that the same amount of strictness makes a male professor somewhat cool or even a genius. After all, if a man does not have empathy towards students, it is probably because his mind is too occupied with more important stuff.
Complexion – Kendrick Lamar
“Light don’t mean you smart,
bein’ dark don’t make you stupid”
Put yourself in the shoes of the professor who in many meetings has been mistaken for the coffee lady. To speak of women of color and non-western women in academia is not a straightforward business. But this tells us something about the nature of western academia and women within it. Women of color itself is a fraught term, it is an add-on, as if white women were women without color, “normal women.” Where are the non-western women in academia? Usually, we appear as objects of knowledge not producers of it, this is what the feminists refer to as the intellectual division of labor. Academia is a gendered and racialized space: this is apparent from the numbers of female professors of color across universities in the western world. Curricula in every discipline, including International Relations, reproduce a canon of knowledge with its western centric perspectives, to which all are then supposed to subscribe to. Research indicates that women of color deal with issues like exclusion, invisibility, tokenism, and poor mentoring; which is not exclusive to a specific field or region of the world. Does the mere presence of women magically make academia a friendlier space for all women to inhabit? Probably.
Fight Song – Rachel Platten
“And all those things I didn’t say
Wrecking balls inside my brain
I will scream them loud tonight”
So far, it has been mostly women who fought for women’s rights; and they have done a remarkable job. But we must not stop. As difficult and risky as it may be, women should call out gender biases, discrimination, and harassment, and encourage each other to do so. Be it by including more women in their syllabi, by quoting more of them in their papers, or simply by naming and shaming every “manel” they come across. Every voice counts in placing patriarchy and masculinity in their natural habitat: history books.
This call for action, however, equally applies to men. When they hear “gender,” they have to stop hearing “women.” Particularly our colleagues in the social sciences know how strong the effects of social structures are. They also know how gender biases function, yet they rarely call them out. We do not think that they are silent because they are anti-women. Most of them are not. We believe, instead, that their privileged position blinds them. They cannot see what they do not feel, and they cannot react when there is no affect. As gender scholar Michael Kimmel points out in his TED talk, when a white woman looks in a mirror, she sees a woman. When a black woman looks in a mirror, she sees a black woman. But when a man looks in a mirror, he sees a human being. He sees a generic person. No race. No gender. He sees disembodied Western rationality. Men should become aware of this privilege, empathize, and take their share of responsibility.
We expect that what we have written may make some men and women feel defensive. If that applies to you, we invite you to reflect on why that may be the case and how the way you are positioned in life may contribute to your reaction. Similarly, writing this blog post has been a useful opportunity for self-reflection for some of us.
The reason we decided to write this piece is that “women in academia” and “gender” are not only scholarly topics of interest to us. We are writing about them because they are real to us. They are based on our first-hand experiences. Gender isn’t a suit that we put on to go to the office and then take off at the end of a day’s work. On many occasions, we are made aware that we are held to different standards of appropriate behavior in order to be viewed as worthy and competent. This is burdensome, exhausting, and unjust. And it has to change.