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Time to Take Sexism in Post-Secondary Education Seriously

KELLY J. BAKER is no stranger to covering difficult topics. She’s written about the 1920s history of the Ku Klux Klan, and the current role of white supremacy in American culture, patriotism, politics, and Christianity. She’s written about present-day zombies, blurring the line between fantasy and real life, between horror fiction and real danger. More recently, she published a memoir detailing her transition out of academia to become a public scholar.

But when Baker started compiling her latest book, Sexism Ed, a collection of essays about gender and labor in higher education originally published in Chronicle Vitae and Women in Higher Ed, she was worried that readers would find it too depressing.

“The work felt excruciating because I had to read through every essay that I have ever written on sexism, inequality, and labor, and recognize how much has stayed the same in the five years that I’ve written about each,” she writes on her blog.

Virginia Valian first examined the gendered disparity in professional advancement in her 1997 book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. She referenced research from the 1970s to the 1990s, which was largely biased toward white men and women, and the results of which have been replicated in similar studies today. Valian’s conclusion? That men and women have implicit biases regarding the sexes, no matter how impartial they think they are or how strongly they believe that academia is a meritocracy. The “most important consequence for professional life is that men are consistently overrated, while women are underrated,” wrote Valian.

Readers of Sexism Ed, published two decades later, may feel that there’s been little to no progress since the 1990s regarding gender equity, diversity, and inclusion. However, while Baker’s book provides a good overview of today’s problems, outlining structural and labor issues in academia that disproportionately affect women, she also writes about how things are changing for the better. Student activists are bringing attention to racism and sexual assault on university campuses, and there are increasing calls for funding for equity and diversity initiatives. Public scholars like Sarah Kendzior and Tressie McMillan Cottom have pushed debates around academic labor into the mainstream media. Even contingent workers themselves are organizing for better contracts and even unionization.

I write a series on women in science for the Canadian Science Publishing blog, and the women I’ve talked with all say that things are improving for women both in and out of the academy. Newer academics like Caroline Fox, for example, are more likely to focus on the fact that they’re the first in their family to go to university, rather than mention problems with being a woman in science. More established researchers like Dawn Bazely note that academics are now more aware of the lack of women in senior science positions, though many still fail to recognize that this is a result of implicit bias and structural barriers.

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Baker originally began writing about sexism in academia to determine why she hadn’t been able to secure a tenure-track position, despite having a strong CV and excellent references. “It didn’t take me long to realize [that it was] about how academia treats women academics,” she writes. “My story was not unique, but common, mundane, routine. The problem was systemic.”

As someone who left a tenured position in academic science, I completely understood Baker’s perspective.

I started my academic career in a two-year term teaching position and was naïve enough to think a male colleague was just being helpful when he gave me a stack of books to read, though perhaps he thought my PhD wasn’t as good as his. I moved on to a tenure-track position for which I was the third-choice candidate — something my new colleagues never hesitated to remind me of, as though it made me “lucky.” One year I was asked not to apply for a grant, so that I wouldn’t compete with a superstar male colleague hired at the same time I was. My colleagues called me “kiddo,” and one of them mistook me for a grad student at a conference just before I joined the department, asking me to “come party with him.” I tried to make a lateral move to a different university but, despite having several on-campus interviews, was never offered the job. In one particularly memorable instance, the university selected a male candidate who had one published paper to my 10, and who was focused on such a small aspect of environmental science that he’d never be able to collaborate with other researchers on campus like I could.

Many women in academia are treated as less than equal: they receive less pay, their ideas and opinions are undervalued, they get less respect from students, they are less successful at obtaining research funding, and they have less time to do research because they often undertake more service duties.

For myself, Baker, and other women academics, the personal is political.

Yet when universities do take action to improve the situation, women in academia experience varied results. As Baker points out. “I’m a white, cis, able woman in a heterosexual partnership,” she told Pacific Standard Magazine. “Most of the time, white women like me tend to benefit the most from affirmative action policies.” That she receives certain benefits based on the privileges associated with her race and sexuality doesn’t negate Baker’s experiences as an undervalued woman in academia, but rather puts those experiences in the context of work regarding the experience of women of color and other minorities in academia.

Baker’s book couldn’t be timelier, with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault taking hold across all sectors of society, including academia. Sexual harassment isn’t limited to a single discipline, and has appeared everywhere from geology (Boston University), to astrophysics (Caltech), to microbiology (University of Chicago), to history (UCLA) and creative writing (UBC). Even the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine have released a statement on preventing sexual harassment.

Baker’s book also speaks to the rise in precarious employment in the university setting. A 2010 report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) estimated that 75 percent of total instructional staff are now made up of grad students and contingent faculty. We’re at the point where institutions like Southern Illinois University are advertising for unpaid adjunct professors, whose job description includes all of the duties that a tenured professor would undertake, including serving on thesis committees, teaching in their area of expertise, and collaborating on grants and research projects.

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Baker examines sexism in academia from three separate perspectives: as a structural issue related to hiring, tenure and promotion, and who can “be” a professor; as an academic labor issue in which women make up the majority of adjunct faculty; and as a personal account of her experiences in academia.

While her essays are publicly available at Chronicle Vitae and Women in Higher Education, pulling them together in a single, edited collection allows Baker to examine the bigger-picture issues that women face in academia. Collectively, they are a powerful indictment of the experiences of women academics.

That said, some of the essays, while important, seem extraneous to the goal of this particular book. Baker includes both a chapter on and an interview with Miya Tokumitsu, who wrote Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. While Tokumitsu’s ideas on the toxic framing of academia as a “vocation” or a “calling” are critical to the discussion of why academics cling to adjunct labor, it wasn’t necessary to include both chapters. Likewise, the chapter “Academia is Not a Cult” is also not overly relevant to the topic of women in academia, though it’s interesting to learn that academia is more a “total institution” (to quote Erving Goffman) than a cult.

However, the majority of the essays are highly relevant to Baker’s central theme, and I found they closely matched my own experience. Drawing heavily on the statistics about higher education in North America, and on the available peer-reviewed literature on sexism and harassment in both the sciences and the humanities, Baker’s ideas can’t be dismissed as merely a case of academic sour grapes.

 

Academic Structure 

The university is, in general, not a welcoming environment for women who face structural challenges to their active participation in academic life and career advancement.

Women on average leave academia before reaching the ranks of associate and full professor. While many studies used to use the “leaky pipeline” analogy to describe this shift, it’s now well known that this neoliberal emphasis on individual agency tells only a small part of the story. As Baker notes, the ways in which universities are structured — the “two-body problem” of married academics; tenure and promotion evaluations that prioritize research over teaching and service (which women are disproportionately assigned); limited provisions for maternity leave; et cetera — make it far more likely that women will leave academia than their male counterparts.

In “Cruelty and Kindness in Academia,” Baker describes academia as a competition in which individuals focus on their own career success rather than helping others. There is little room for kindness for others — cruelty is the name of the game if you want to get ahead. This can also feed into imposter syndrome, which can be driven by institutional oppression, and which may be particularly acute for women in a university setting. Citing work by Martha West and John Curtis, Baker finds that women in academia face greater struggles than their counterparts in the corporate world.

Baker digs up all of the studies that those of us who research women in academia have read many times. For example, women authors produce fewer research papers and are cited less frequently — more specifically, the percentage of female authors is less than the proportion of full-time faculty women. Having children is a career killer for women, as hiring committees often feel that children will keep a woman from completing work duties. Finally, a résumé with a woman’s name on it is rated as less competent and the applicant is offered less pay than the same résumé with a man’s name on it — by both male and female faculty, although recent research suggests this may be changing. Once they’ve made it to the faculty roster, Baker notes that women faculty are disproportionately assigned “kin-keeping” tasks such as organizing and planning events, making coffee, taking notes, et cetera; duties that make them appear as “helpers” rather than independent scholars with their own abilities and strengths.

These structural challenges trickle down to affect how women’s behavior is policed in the workplace. The traits that make them competent and successful in their work often violate common gender stereotypes about how they’re “supposed” to act, a condition that presents female academics with an impossible choice. If they’re kind and accommodating, they’re more liked but perceived as less likely to succeed. If they’re strong and ambitious, they’re less liked but more likely to succeed. This tug-of-war between gender stereotypes and work requirements makes it difficult for women’s voices to be heard in the academy. As Baker observes, women are often “disparaged for having opinions and expertise, challenged, dismissed, ignored, and silenced.”

Part of that silencing is accomplished by an epidemic of mansplaining, a term originally coined by Rebecca Solnit to describe a pattern of socialized behavior in which men presume the authority to explain something to a woman — even (and perhaps especially) when they have no idea what they’re talking about. That behavior not only perpetuates a misogynist presumption of male authority, it also silences women.

In addition to being bullied and blathered into silence, women’s voices are sometimes cut out of academic discussions altogether, as Baker shows in her discussion of all-male conference panels. Researchers are increasingly calling out these so-called “manels” for their lack of diverse perspectives, and men are pulling out of panels that fail to incorporate women. Women also make up only a small percentage of invited speakers at conferences, another factor that promotes the voices and ideas of academic men over academic women.

To offset these challenges, some female academics turn to pandering to the “old white men” who are the gatekeepers of academia. Baker refers to Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay on the topic, noting that women pander to men at all levels of the university hierarchy. “We indulge them and make choices to gratify them,” she writes. “To pander to white men reassures them that they are the arbiters of what’s important and what’s not.”

 

Academic Labor

Baker’s deep knowledge of academic labor arises from her long-standing interest in pedagogy, and her experience both as an adjunct professor and as chair for the American Academy of Religion’s committee on precarious labor in academia.

Baker’s challenge to the perception that obtaining an academic position is based on merit alone is confirmed by her data on race, gender, and hiring. The numbers are revealing: 75 percent of faculty in the United States are white, and 44 percent are white males; unmarried women are seven percent less likely to get a tenure-track appointment than men, and African-American scholars are 50 percent less likely to be in tenure-track positions than their white peers. Baker notes that job candidates are more likely to be judged on ethnicity, race, and gender than on merit, thus implicit bias and discrimination informs who ultimately gets hired.

This is the case for tenure-track faculty, an increasingly rarefied position as universities replace vacant tenured positions with adjunct faculty, and some universities consider getting rid of tenure altogether to meet budget constraints. A 2012 report from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) notes that more than 75 percent of instructional employees at US universities are in part-time, adjunct, or non-tenure track teaching positions. As Baker quotes Sarah Kendzior: “Our exploited professors are teaching our future exploited workers.” Once again, women are shunted to the lower, more precarious rungs of academic employment: women teach more than men do and, as Kate Bahn writes in Chronicle Vitae, women make up 62 percent of adjunct labor.

 

Personal Perspectives

The last section of the book is intensely personal. It is the closest to my lived experience, and thus the most difficult to read. These chapters range from Baker hating how her voice sounds and how it is often ignored in conversation, to getting emails from men who assume she knows nothing about the topics on which she’s written essays (e.g., labor, gender, higher education) and who ask for her to read and comment on their work. As Baker writes, “I want another world, a different set of possibilities, for women. That’s where the resistance begins. That’s where I want to be.”

In these final moments, Baker offers a note of hope for a better, more equitable future in academia through a reading of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. In Solnit’s words, hope is “the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”

Despite Baker’s catalog of women’s struggles in academia, there is much to be hopeful about.

In the United States, 500 Women Scientists (an organization that now represents far more than 500 women) is on a mission to make science open, inclusive, and accessible by empowering women to achieve their full potential in science and by advocating for women’s equality in science. Some of its initiatives include Science Salons, where science is communicated publicly at informal venues worldwide, and a Science-A-Thon, which is a social media blitz of scientists sharing what happens during a normal day in science. Around the world, male allies are doing their part to bring much-needed attention and change, such as Canadian public health reporter André Picard, who withdrew from an invited panel at the 2017 Trottier Public Science Symposium at McGill University because it consisted of 10 men. New media organizations like The Conversation (based in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) have partnered with universities to develop quality venues for pushing the voices of academic women (and men) into mainstream media.

There are also encouraging examples of changes in hiring practices. The Canadian government now requires universities to consider equity, diversity, and inclusion when hiring prestigious research chairs. Some universities are even changing their general hiring practices to bring about necessary change. The University of Alberta, for example, has made hiring committees aware of the inherent bias in reference letters written for female versus male applicants, and considers teaching experience and public outreach alongside research ability when evaluating applicant’s CVs.

On another positive note, most of the women I’ve interviewed for my series on women in science said things have improved for women. As Anna Warwick-Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, told me, “Every year there are more women sitting around the table, and right now we are roughly equal in numbers. More of the women than men have PhD or MSc degrees. […] I do a tally in my head, and smile.”

The way forward is perfectly outlined by Imogen Coe, dean of Science at Ryerson University, who notes in an interview with the CBC, “We have to acknowledge that there are issues related to who has the power and who needs to share power, and potentially even give up power, in increasing diversity and inclusion.” 

Sexism Ed is an important contribution to the discussions of sexism and harassment on university campuses, and a call to action to academics to do better.

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Sarah Boon is freelance writer who covers the environment (wildfire, drought, flood), women in science, and mental health. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Hakai Magazine, Terrain.org, Science, Nature, Water Canada, Canadian Science Publishing, the Nature Conservancy of Canada magazine, and CBC’s The Nature of Things.

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