I think the reason why I am scared to write this story on gender discrimination in academia is precisely why it is needed

—– Since posting this I’ve been asked by numerous people for a hashtag so they can share their own stories: #NoMoreAcademicSexism —–

I’ve been thinking and worrying about how to write this story for quite some time.

This is for fear of backlash from writing a personal story for lack of anonymity and from general anxiety about my particularly bad experience of discrimination over the past couple of years. I also fear negative responses to writing a feminist story or critique, which I have experienced in the past when posting online. Gender- or sex-discrimination and sexism are important issue is in academia, and have been highlighted recently through major news stories of overt discrimination and sexism, especially in science. An example of a story that has received major attention is Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt stating in his keynote for a conference that women in laboratories “fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” Gender-related discrimination is not the only type of bias that plagues academia, and discrimination related to age, colour, sexuality, and disability exist, and often intersect with each other.

There is a general consensus that women are underrepresented in academia in senior positions because of sexism and sex discrimination. Many women (and men) in academia also feel that if they speak up about sex discrimination that it will have negative repercussions for them. But why should it? Feminism isn’t a dirty word. Feminists do not hate men, they are not “feminist killjoys” whining about every good thing that may happen to men. Feminists are aware that there is inequality between the sexes and attempt to resolve this. Full-stop.

I have forced myself to get over this anxiety of doing this story, or more correctly to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. To offset this fear somewhat, instead of writing about my experiences in story form and therefore risking anonymity, I want to share a list of observations and events that have occurred to others and myself in academia, which indicate gender-discrimination or sexism, and sex-related bullying. These instances happened at academic institutions in New Zealand and internationally. A lot of these revolve around pregnancy, and motherhood, a time when sex discrimination becomes most apparent for women. I am not including all of the stories I have heard as it would make this piece too long! So although stories on sexism in academia such as that of Tim Hunt may seem like isolated events, they are not. I haven’t gone out and asked for these stories, these have simply been relayed to me in passing, so I don’t think that I have a biased view of gender-bias! Interestingly, for a lot of the cases it is women who are being discriminatory.

Some experiences of sexism and sex discrimination in academia:

  • A woman kicked off a large research fieldwork project for being pregnant.
  • Someone putting a cover over a women breastfeeding in an academic common room without her approval.
  • A woman being discouraged to make a complaint when she felt sex discrimination was occurring.
  • Being called a bitch for not smiling and saying hello to a male work colleague and getting no apology because there was “no evidence that it happened”
  • A woman told to step down permanently from an academic committee because of maternity leave.
  • A candidate being asked her marital status during an interview for a postdoctoral position.
  • A woman being continually asked if she wanted to continue on an external university women’s organisation committee after having a baby.
  • Having a Departmental ‘policy’ without wider consultation of staff inhibiting children entering the premises.
  • A woman being discouraged from bringing children to a marae (Māori meeting place) visit, when it was culturally totally appropriate.
  • Women being called unkind and rude for behaviours that are tolerated if men do them.
  • Junior male colleagues with little track record being given precedence for academic committee positions over women who do have the track record.
  • Women at a University women’s leadership course being told, “you need to shake hands [at upcoming event] as this is what men do”.
  • People gossiping that a potential candidate for a job may have been in the early stage of pregnancy, and this was viewed negatively in terms of her ability to do the job.
  • A colleague of a pregnant academic informing the Head of Department about the pregnancy before she was required to do so based on her work contract.
  • A PhD student being asked to finish her degree before her baby was due when she was only very early in her candidature and hadn’t completed her required one year long clinical postings.
  • A female student hearing sexist and homophobic jokes most days during a long period of fieldwork.

I want to say that I am very thankful for very supportive mentors, and many good colleagues and support staff. My PhD supervisor was extremely supportive of my family and I during my studies and later as a colleague. I have also seen very good practice by some leaders at my University. For example, a job selection panel chair reminded people to allow for “breaks” in people’s career related to childcare responsibilities and that this should not be held against them when assessing their ability for the job. I have also had good support from a couple of senior academic men in the Department, who sympathise that being a parent and an academic is not the easiest of tasks.

If only the good experiences outweighed the bad. My hope is that in the future my daughters don’t have to experience this type of discrimination in their careers.


The baby ‘helping’ me clean and reconstruct a late Iron Age burial of a newborn infant, from the site of Non Ban Jak, Northeast Thailand (taken by my 10-year-old daughter)


  1. Jean Fleming · January 16, 2016

    Beautifully written Sian. The road goes ever on. The first steps are the toughest but you are long past those and running free.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate Bowles · January 16, 2016

    Thank you for writing this. What feels important about this list is that it contains gestures and events that wouldn’t have felt discriminatory to those making the suggestions, especially in relation to workplace responsibility. Workplaces very often attempt to manage pregnancy, childcare and illness on behalf of women by making choices for us about what we can and can’t take on, while not addressing the significant career impact of being removed from those activities. It’s one thing to offer maternity leave, and quite another to recognise maternity leave at promotion time.

    I’ve heard senior academics make presumptive decisions for others many times, and I recognise what’s well intentioned about it. But I think if you find yourself saying “So-and-so has a young family and is too busy or can’t travel so let’s find someone else”, you’ve skipped a huge step in respecting so-and-so’s capacity to work this out for herself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • childhoodbioarchaeology · January 16, 2016

      Thank you. Yes, you are right that most of these would have been said/done without wanting to cause upset on the basis of assumption. I should include that! Thanks for reading. Sian 🙂


  3. Amanda · January 16, 2016

    I actually have a post similar to this planned for Monday. However, I don’t come from a mother’s point of view so it was interesting to see that. Also, I don’t have a position in academia so I can be a bit more candid about some of my experiences in the field. I am glad to see women speaking up about this and I truly hope that things change in the near future because of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • childhoodbioarchaeology · January 16, 2016

      Thank you, it is an interesting point that you bring up. I was asked to be an interviewee for a popular magazine story that intelligent (highly educated) women were choosing not to have kids based on their interpretation of some NZ statistics. I found the whole take of the story derogatory and sexist in itself, although they were trying to be feminist, it seemed to perpetuate negative towards people who may choose to have a career and a family, or choose to focus on work at home. I look forward to hearing your story, Sian 🙂


  4. Alexandra (Sandy) Stephens · January 17, 2016

    Thanks for writing this. We need lots more to share their stories of sexism and all the other -isms in the workplace. Academia probably isn’t very different to the sexism in most workplaces where women are a minority (and even where they are a majority). There are lots of articles documenting the specific issues for women scientists, engineers etc. Even in the UN with all its human rights protocols and conventions including the universal convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) where I worked for 22 years in FAO, sexism was rife and professional women concentrated in the lower echelons of power and pay. Many men were allies in the fight for equality and these need to be cultivated and used to help the cause. When women do gain positions of power they often need to be made aware of gender issues and equipped to identify and address these where they can.

    More of these stories please!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival | Bone Broke

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