—– 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.