Postgraduate & Environment editor, Dr Florence Hazrat, explores the sexism rife in academia and demands institutional change from its most guilty institutions.
We who dare break into that male bastion that is higher education know these moments all too well: ‘I cannot understand your father. How can he let you study in Scotland? Men are dangerous, you know!’ – ‘But I’m 28…’. And another old chestnut: ‘Meet Florence, she’s a student of [insert male academic]’ as if, at the end of my PhD, I hadn’t accumulated sufficient academic brownie points to be a researcher in my own right. And my all-time favourite: comments on a female academic’s outfit. ‘Persuasive cleavage. Bet you have a supervision in that top.’ ‘Nice dress…for an evening, not a conference.’; ‘Oh, go away with your “female response to Montaigne”! You’re wearing a dress with a zip at the front to get out quickly, and you talk of women’s writing?!’ This, incidentally, comes from a man who thinks women have the ‘privilege’ to be ‘soft and beautiful’ like (wait for it) ‘fluffy little dogs’, while men are ‘rough and hairy’. Has he ever seen a woman’s leg? Should he be discussing Shakespeare and form young minds at all?
The cherry on top of the cake: women only study because they need to make themselves interesting for men, because they’re ‘fucking ugly’.
This is the truth.
We oh-so-ugly university women are all familiar with having our skirts talked about rather than our thoughts, and, surely, we all have a story or two to tell (though do we? Or is the bias perhaps so ingrained that we don’t even notice anymore?), but can we go beyond anecdotes and actually put our fingers on hard evidence for persistent individual and institutional inequality?
Yes, we can.
According to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), in 2014 only 22 percent of university professors were women (4,415 out of 19,750), with less than 2 percent from non-European backgrounds. Compared to 15 percent a decade prior, numbers are increasing, but the process is slow, and parity lies in the distant future, if at all. According to the report, a third of senior academic staff excluding professors are female, and 45 per sent of all academic staff women. Often, temporary research assistance postdocs will be female, but the leading professorial candidate and adopted heir to the senior academic’s throne: invariably male. There’s a glass ceiling, and the tools to smash it are on the other side. They’re in their hands, and they are called: recruitment, recommendation, reputation. The three Rs. And the imperative P (we all know what i’m referring to here).
Worryingly, the HESA report also reveals, 82 percent of clerical jobs at university are operated by women, often highly trained, often to doctoral levels. So men are researching while women make sure the day-to-day university runs smoothly? Sounds all too familiar. Are we replicating unfortunate family models in the work place? And a workplace that, ideally, revolves around ideals and ideas?
How does the situation look in other European countries? Similarly depressing. According to the 2015 report of the European Commission She Figures, no country rises above the magical 20 percent mark, except, perhaps not altogether surprisingly, Sweden (24%). The higher up the hierarchy, the fewer the women. She doesn’t figure. Why?
Reasons are manifold and historically hidden. Firstly, women have only been studying at the university for a 150 years. The University of London admitted women in the 1860, and awarded them their degrees in June 1869. Oxford was slow to follow suit (1920), and Cambridge even slower (a shameful 1947, that is 78 years, a whole lifetime, after Girton had been founded). Also, of course, the old issue of biological realities: almost half of all female professors in Switzerland have no children (43%), 21 percent are single. Apart from choice, the pressure of either/or is real.
Often, women are less well connected than their male peers (who tend to hire those that are like them), are too humble to claim what is their due, and, if they do, suffer from name-calling (‘energetic’ was the nicest I received). Just think of Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard and the shameful controversy around her grey hair.
All these reasons for a general lack of (higher-ranked) female academics is deplorable, though, perhaps, make sense. What does not make sense, though, is the persistent gender pay gap. With an average pay gap of 16 per cent (more than 20 per cent in 30 institutions), UK universities fare much worse than the already-disappointing median of 9.7 per cent across employment.
Academic publishers lead the field, paying male employers bonuses up to a startlingly 58 percent larger than female workers (Taylor & Francis). The go-to excuse are the several years of conservative governments tripling student fees and crippling research funding, which results in a small number of men controlling who gets what. But this does not hold, seeing that the phenomenon is the same across countries that offer free higher education such as Germany and France.
While lower-skilled jobs at university such as cleaning tends to be paid fairly among men and women, the higher-skilled the job, the greater the disparity. Being paid less for the same job – why? Are women too modest to negotiate higher salaries, because it’s still taboo to talk about money, while their male counterparts happily bargain for adequate pay? Are they consciously side-stepped during selection of staff? Do they not apply for high-paying jobs, and if so, what are the reasons for letting themselves down? Is it not perfidious and blind to trace the roots of the pay gap evil back to the women themselves rather than to a systematic stifling of their professional mobility inherent in the overlapping patriarchy networks that are academia, policy making, and public opinion? What is necessary to not only address inequality, but change the profound suspicion of women in positions of power?
Cultural attitudes towards women in academia need to alter through, for example, compulsory undergraduate courses in feminist and queer theory and practice, and professional training in equality that goes beyond a 30minute computerized multiple choice test. Well-educated future male academics who rigorously self-examine themselves and others can be game-changers in the path towards parity. Young female researchers will thus speak up about discrimination, and encouraged to report offences more persistently.
Recruitment needs proper checks and balances, taking decision-making out of the hands of the few and letting it run through several blind-checking instances that pick the best qualified candidate, not the one best connected. That being said, until we have achieved absolute stable parity, positive discrimination must continue, bespoke programmes boosting the progression and leadership of female academics.
Since the bias against women in academia is institutional, institutions must fight it. It boggles the mind that Oxford successively got rid of all of its all-female colleges. Why? Is there no need anymore for women’s spaces? Because there is. Sexual harassment is still a reality, and the figures that show it are scary. Cambridge, perhaps owing to a particularly fine-grained reporting system, shows the highest number of incidents in the UK. But the dark figures vary and are hard to record and compare. So why did Oxford deliberately deny the long struggle to the women’s higher education and the recognition of degrees for women? Why did it exclude potential applicants who for personal or religious reasons, feel more secure and enabled in an all-female environment? Some traditions are better kept. At least, as long as they still mean something. And they do, luckily, in Cambridge, home to three women-only undergraduate colleges, of whom one for mature students, our Lucy, the last of its kind in the UK.
A systematic bias for women must persist until there is total equality of opportunity, payment, and recognition. But not only institutions need to put more effort and money into conscious support of women academics; we, too, we female students, postgraduates, postdocs, and professors must stay and stick together. From the Lucy Cavendish Alumnae Association to the British Federation of Women Graduates, we must organize ourselves and carve out opportunities. Social media, while not exactly blessed with longevity, does draw attention to the cause and can enable solidarity and increase visibility of both women in academia and the particular challenges they face. The summer of this year saw a wave of female academics change their twitter handles to Dr or Professor followed by their name, posting the hastag #ImmodestWomen in solidarity to Dr Fern Riddell of Royal Holloway University. After tweeting that her ‘title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell’ and that she ‘worked hard to earn [her] authority, and [that she] will not give it up to anyone’, a male academic replied she should not be vocal about her qualifications, or would else come across as immodest. Taking her troll’s allegation and running with it, Riddell kickstarted the hashtag that was enthusiastically followed by female tweeters, proudly publicizing their achievements.
In a despondent hour, I once complained to a close friend over my lack of engagement for women in academia and elsewhere. Caught up in present postdoc work, and the next post-doc chase, I said I found no time to dedicate to the advancement of women, and that I was useless, utterly useless, to women anywhere in the world. My friend and fellow academic, wise as she is, had the right words: simply by being me, by filling that post, and getting that far at all, I did women a service. It was me, and not a man. It was me, a formerly mature student. It was me, a non-native speaker. It was me, stemming from a mixed-race background. It was me. Me, publishing that article, me presenting that paper, me tweeting, and me applying, and encouraging young women from diverse contexts to apply, and to keep applying. These are our tools, and they have already made chinks into the glass. Soon, we will be free, regardless of our gendered identity.
The Lucy Writers Platform is just such a tool to focus and reflect our manifold “me”s, claiming to be heard, indeed hopefully clamouring and clanging across the web. I am looking forward to receiving contributions on all things female education, including (but not limited to) graduate and postgraduate matters.