Some Notes on Sexism in Academia

Federica Caso

Some Gender Problems in Higher Education and Research in Science

I am a feminist because the numbers about gender inequality make me go bananas. An example? In the UK and the US alike there are more men called John leading the largest companies than women. In Australia Peters dominate the corporate sector, with a ratio to women of 26:23 over 400 CEO and chair positions. Either there is a deep crisis of creativity when it comes to naming baby boys, or there is a structural problem of gender inequality. And if the numbers in the corporate sector weren’t enough to feel outraged, at a seminar held at the University of Queensland last week on gender (in)equity in science and academia in Australia, Professor Jennifer Martin presented a graph that showed how despite a balanced number of female and male students enrol in bachelor degrees in science in Australia, and an equally balanced number finish their PhDs, the gender gap in Australian academia starts widening in the early stage researcher positions, reaching visually discomforting proportions at professorship level. This trend is consistent with international evidence.

The causes of these, we were reminded at the seminar, are not difficult to figure out, ranging from sexism, harassment, glass ceiling, societal pressures over family, caring duties, lack of female role models, hostile environments, and the list goes on with quite predictable variables.

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At the seminar we were reminded of the normalisation of stereotypes and sexism. So, for instance, it is often the case that women are not invited at events because assumed to be busy with their family. Or we have cases such as that happened recently at Science Careers, an online career magazine, which, to the question “Help, My advisor won’t stop looking down my shirt” posted by “Bothered” in the online forum, responded:

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Then, there are cases such as the one of Tim Hunt, Nobel Laureate, who infamously said  about women in science: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry”, reproducing the old stereotype of the sexually disruptive and/or weeping woman. The attempt of livescience, an online magazine of science, to provide some scientific justification for Hunt’s claim, is left to the reader to judge. But, remarkably women in science have started a twitter campaign against his misogynist claims, with people like Amy Remeikis, editor at the Brisbane Times, tweeting:

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And Dr Steve Diggle, microbiologist at the University of Nottingham:

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Professor Martin suggests that we ask the following questions to address gender inequality:

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and recommends that academic institutions: 1) Make gender equity a priority, for instance by publishing rates of pay for men and women so to address the gender pay gap; 2) Train decision-makers about unconscious bias, and include equality and diversity in the agenda of decision-making committees; 3) ensure childcare, and support for women; 4) Participate in SAGE Forum/Athena SWAN and aim for gold.

What are Athena SWAN and SAGE Forum?

Athena SWAN is the British national scheme to recognise institutional commitments to support and advance women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in higher education and research. It was founded in 2005, and since 2015 it is extending to race, as well as arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law departments. It works through award granting. In order to be granted an award departments have to:

  • Sign up to the chart
  • Collect data on women’s progression
  • Critically analyse the data
  • Identify reasons for under-representation
  • Develop a plan of action to tackle it
  • Show progress over time

Some funding bodies such as NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), Biomedical Research Unit (BRU), and Patient Safety Translational Research Centre have made the Athena SWAN silver award mandatory to be eligible for funding. National research councils have not made Athena SWAN awards mandatory, but they have pledged they will if significant progresses are not made within the next couple of years. Among the reasons the government adduced for not making Athena SWAN awards mandatory for national funds is that experts agree that gender equality has to be a matter of consensus and commitment on the part of the institution, rather than just a box-ticking exercise, and national research councils fund also the arts, humanities, and the social sciences which have just been included in a system similar to the Athena SWAN in STEM, but are not as advanced yet, and therefore it would create unfairness among the funding bodies.

This system is gaining momentum outside of the UK, with countries like Italy, China, Malaysia, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands showing interest in the project. Ireland and Australia have recently launched pilot projects. SAGE is the Athena SWAN-inspired Australian initiative to improve gender equality in STEM through collective discussions and actions.

The ‘Lad Culture’

Institutional efforts to tackle gender inequality in research and employment in higher education are to be prized indeed. But is that enough to tackle the gender problem in academia? Is the disparity between female and male researchers, lecturers, and professors the full story? On the 4th of June I attended a symposium at Leeds University about the so-called ‘lad-culture’ in academia. This term refers to the normalisation of sexism, racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment – often associated with partying, drinking, and student banter – that goes on in the background of each university student. While the term is not unproblematic (suggesting at times that sexism is perpetrated by men only, and that these men are working class, as someone from the audience suggested), it has become a common way to address male chauvinism in academia, particularly in the UK and the US.

The so-called lad culture is certainly not just a student problem, as we were reminded at the symposium. There is a general lack of institutional support to tackle the issue, that makes it a problem of the of whole academic system. For instance, a group of academic researchers who wanted to conduct research about the lad culture in UK universities approached several institutions, the majority of which refused to take part in the study because they did not want to be associated with sexism, racism, and sexual violence. Preventing research on their institution was a way to deny that they are also part of the problem. The fear of PR fallout certainly does not help addressing the fact that universities have poor institutional guidelines to tackle sexual harassment and violence, and that they tend to put the onus on victims of rape and sexual harassment.

Some of the victims interviewed by the NUS, National Union of Students in the UK, reported lack of support from their tutors, lack of validation and support from university counsellors, victim-blaming attitudes, lack of disciplinary procedures, failure by police to properly investigate their cases. Moreover, it is common that student survivors of rape and violence are referred by their universities to the police, if any action has to be taken by the university. The problem is double: firstly, the survivor of violence often shares the same academic space with and knows their attacker, thus making reporting more difficult, especially when there is a lack of confidence in successful persecution. Secondly, a series of power relations that disempower the survivor of violence are instantiated. The Guardian reports a survivor of rape describing the lack of control she felt when forced to go to the police at the age of 18: “I remember how overwhelmed and vulnerable I felt when someone in a position of power was telling me that only the police could deal with it and, if the university was going to do anything, I would have to go along with that”.

So What?

So, what do sexism and glass ceiling in research employment and the so-called lad culture have to do with one other? I speculate that one reinforces the other, potentially. I do not want to reinforce the stereotype that women are the only victims of the lad culture. Men are victims too, and women can be perpetrators. However, when it comes to the gendered numbers about who the victims of rape and sexual assaults are, women constitute the majority. Surviving sexual violence is a traumatic experience for both men and women alike. It can lead to PTSD, some students drop out, failing to or taking longer to complete their degrees and, especially when the institutional response is poor, students lose confidence in academia. After all, why would someone want to work for an institution that provided limited support when support was needed the most? While sexism exists everywhere, the path to academia is through one single institution, the university. Students go from their bachelor’s to their PhD and their academic job (possibly) through the same institution (by which I don’t mean the same physical university, but the same institutional system). As universities compete over reputation and student experience, and move towards “edutainment”, issues like pastoral care and real life experience[2] are glossed over. Ensuring good student experiences has sometimes also meant being lax with regulations and control over sexual violence on campus, as for instance the PR fallout issue suggests, as concerns over reputation take over the priority of investigating and addressing the lack of proper policies. Addressing the so-called lad culture should be part of the institutional effort to tackle gender inequality in academia, because a person damaged by this culture is a person and brain lost in the world of academia, and a missed role model of sexual violence survival and/or prevention.

For those interested in sexism in academia, I recommend the podcast “Sexism in Academia” at The Disorder of Things about the ‘everyday sexism’ panel at ISA 2015.

[1] It was soon removed, followed by an Editor’s note to apologise and suggest that “women should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace”

[2] And in fact it not uncommon for ex-students to define their bachelor years as a bubble in their life, nothing that resembles life after university.

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