50 shades of sexism in the academy

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, University of Dundee

In a blog post entitled We have come a long way but…, Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University with an interest in matters of equality and diversity, while recognising the success of the Athena project launched back in 1999 and of the Athena Swan Charter, also acknowledges how too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’.

As a sign of how successful the Athena brand has become the Charter, originally limited to STEM subjects, will be expanding later this year to include arts, humanities, social science, business and law departments. Some pilot schemes in the humanities have already been carried out last year; of particular interest is the report just released by the Royal Historical Society, where concern is expressed ‘about a macho work culture of intense competition and peer pressure, with no interest in a good work/life balance, in the context of a sector-wide climate of continually raised expectations of achievement in research, publication and grant-winning.’

Ireland is following suit with the launch on February 5th of an Athena SWAN pilot open to all publicly funded universities and institutes of technology. NUI Galway is taking a lead on the issue of gender equality by setting up an independent taskforce; however as retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness writes in the Irish Times, the issue of gender discrimination ‘is not unique to traditional sectors such as higher education or even to Ireland.’ This is sadly true. In fact according to a recent World Economic Forum report not one country has fully closed the gender gap yet (the UK has dropped from 9th to 26th place since 2006), and it will take 81 years for the worldwide gap to close if progress continues at the current rate.

Back to academia. An analysis by Thomson Reuters in association with Times Higher Education in 2013 demonstrated startling levels of gender inequality in research-intensive universities across the world. In the UK the Equality Challenge Unit’s statistical report for 2014 on Equality in Higher Education showed a persistent pay gap median of 13.6% between male and female academics, a decline in uptake and duration of maternity leave, few opportunities for part-time working across the whole higher education sector and the continued dominance of men in senior roles. Specifically, only 14% Vice-Chancellors and Principals are female, only 20.5% of professors are female, and in 2013 only 15 professors were BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women.

On a positive note, one might celebrate the fact that more women are now reaching middle management and yet, as Tara Brabazon notes in her sobering piece Generation X Women and Higher Education:

‘These posts manage teaching staff, workload, timetabling and assessment: the ‘housework’ of universities…female academics into middle management is not the clean victory it appears. The structures have not changed. The assumptions about teaching ‘value’ have not altered.’

What is also troubling is that female academics remain very reluctant to bring cases over career progression or gender discrimination. This, according to Joan Donegan, deputy general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, is mostly due to isolation and lack of confidence.  In the UK I recall the case of Liz Schafer, a Professor at Royal Holloway who took legal action over her employer’s ‘scandalous’ professorial pay gaps.

Perhaps it is not so shocking that, as the author of a study on sexism in academia reveals, she had to find a way to tell women’s stories, without any hint of those women being identifiable, so afraid were they of negative repercussions. I think that there is enough evidence to attest that universities have a gender equality problem, one which is not ‘natural’ but – ironically, given the business universities are in – ‘cultural’. The question is how to solve it without waiting 81 years for the gender gap to close.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem, to talk about it in public fora like this one. Secondly, universities must not become complacent, they must be aware of the ever-present risk that policies and programmes (like the Athena Swan) aimed at addressing equality and diversity issues may become substitutes for action. Thirdly, conscious, structured, institutional efforts are needed to counteract unconscious and unintentional gender biases.

As judge Catherine McGuinness rightly put it in the opinion piece cited above, ‘systemic problems require systemic and not localised solutions’, hence corrections need to be built into our systems. Such corrections can include training, mentoring, leadership programmes, and as the Equality and Diversity in the REF: Final report advocates:

‘Funding bodies should consider more explicitly assessing measures to promote and support equality and diversity, as part of the research environment element of a future REF exercise.’

Lastly, quotas can be, even on a temporary basis, the corrections we need. Personally, I am persuaded by the research in this field, for example by the work of Curt Rice and Louise Davidson- Schmich. Significantly, one of the recommendations of the review of higher education governance in Scotland, chaired by the host of this blog in 2012  was that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim. A synergy between universities and governments can deliver results, as the Flemish gender action plan shows.

In conclusion, the reader may have noted of course that the title of this post echoes the one of a popular erotic romance novel. This is no cheeky choice: as the writings of generations of gender studies scholars like Andrea Dworkin or novelists like Angela Carter have argued, sexuality and power converge to create masterful societal narratives, hence old romantic fantasies of dominant men happen to coexist, in our sexually saturated culture, with highly successful examples of macho management and leadership. The risk is that the permanence of similar models will tie women down far more than any rope ever could, trapping them forever in universities’ ‘ivory basements’.

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10 Comments on “50 shades of sexism in the academy”

  1. jms32 Says:

    Really interesting post; I see all around me women doing the teaching and programme leadership whilst male colleagues win readership and professorial roles. Also am re-reading Dworkin: finding that she still has a huge amount to offer in understanding our current culture of work.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Thanks jms, you are right about Dworkin, but do not overlook Angela Carter, she might be not well-known now but at one time she was ranked number ten in The Times list of The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945. Her wikipedia page provides some useful information http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Carter
      I recommend reading her books/short stories wholeheartedly!

  2. Vincent Says:

    What McGuinness is saying is that people are reacting logically. And for what it’s worth the academy isn’t all the friendly to breeding men either. However, for all the current talk about quotas, all it will do is provide certain employment for those wealthy enough to breed without it impinging further on their lives and, those that are in effect nuns, for equality thinking is in terms of suffragettes and not Bryant&May match girls.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Women have slowly but steadily risen in the ranks of academia … it’s time that the professors and admin staff reflected this!


  4. Renember Anna that when we were born women did not vote in Switzerland and there was no divorce in Italy. We have achieved a lot. But you are right a lot has still to change.


  5. Let’s follow Germany’s lead and mandate quotas for women at all levels (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/world/europe/german-law-requires-more-women-on-corporate-boards.html?_r=0), from the boardroom to the laboratory to the classroom. Though I agree that 40% is a better target.

  6. ammienoot Says:

    Thanks Anna – a thought provoking read.

    I think the points about schemes like Athena Swan (and Aurora) are well made. They can only be part of the picture. In addition to visible role models, we need committed and sustained leadership, gender equality in recruitment and research funding, and supportive working environments. As you point out this likely requires systemic change and quotas can be a useful short-term blunt instrument to resolve issues around e.g. more women represented in the leadership/decision making processes that might then improve practice in some of these other areas.

    I think however that there’s also a need to frame the arguments for equality in a more rounded way. The most prevalent argument I hear is the utilitarian one – that it makes no sense to constrain ourselves economically by not recognising the talents of the entire labour market, so we should recruit more women. We don’t hear enough about the moral and ethical dimensions of gender equality – perhaps there’s an assumption that they are implicit, but I think that’s a dangerous assumption. If we frame the argument for gender equality in recruitment in utilitarian terms only, then I think paradoxically it can lead to more of a temptation to judge women by their perceived or actual reproductive capacities – will we really be as ‘valuable’ as men if we’re going to disappear off and have babies? The very policies intended to support working women to have families as well start to work against us. Including the moral and ethical dimensions of equality explicitly would potentially have a rebalancing effect.

  7. James Fryar Says:

    I started my degree in 1994 in a class of roughly 50 students. Only 5 of those students were female. Of the 12 or so who progressed on to postgraduate studies, 2 were female. These sorts of figures were typical for physics at the time and probably worse in decades gone by, so I do not see how it is *mathematically* possible to expect more than about 20% of physics professors to be female given the gender balance in decades gone by. In fact, I’d expect the figure to be much lower than that.

    I use this as an example. The point I’m making is that there is a tendency to look at figures (*only* 20.5% of professors are female) without also examining those figures in the context of decades of under-representation of women in many fields (computing, maths, physics, engineering, etc). In other words, entire faculties (ultimately contributing to the broader statistics) could show massive gender imbalances. I’m wondering, and I’m asking this as a genuinely interested party, whether a detailed analysis has ever been performed, and whether there has been a breakdown of the *expected* numbers of senior academics by field of study based on average student intakes per decade since, say, the 1950s?

    Such an analysis would also highlight other imbalances in the system. How many men are there in senior positions in schools of nursing in Ireland and England.

    I suppose what I’m asking is whether we might get a better view of the issue if we separated the bulk statistics from a much more granular analysis, which I have no reason to assume couldn’t be done if it hasn’t be done already?

  8. Prof Pat Says:

    Anna’s post is welcome. Some comments
    1) The setting up of the Task Force by NUIG follows from the finding of the Equality Tribunal that the promotion process there was ‘ramschackle’. It found in favour of Dr Michelin Sheehy-Skeffington’s claim that she had been discriminated against in the promotion process: rit ecommended her promotion, and awarded E70,000 in damages.
    2) Since five other women had been shortlisted but not promoted in that competition, Dr Sheehy-Sheffingtom has given the E 70,000 to them to fight their claims (BTW: She is a grand-daughter of Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington)
    3) There is a good deal of cynicism in Irish universities about the NUIG Task Force since only one of the seven external members has any expertise in gender equality
    4) There is considerable evidence that policies do not create gender change. In Ireland there have been state regulations about 40 per cent gender balance on Governing AuthorityBoards since the late 1990s which have been ignored.by universities. The payment of most academics within scales for each position is helpful in reducing wage gaps.
    5) Leadership – both positional and informal- is critical. The linking of e.g. Athena Swan to research funding in the UK has proved very effective. The inclusion of gender metrics in the global ranking measures would also be useful.
    6) A case study narrative of gendered change in the professoriate (from zero to 34% over a 15 year period) is available on Researchgate Pat O’Connor under title understanding success: A case study of gendered cchange in the professoriate. Change is possible- but never total and never inevitable


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