The academics tackling everyday sexism in university life

universitySelina Todd, of St Hilda’s, Oxford, aims to champion the rights of women working and studying in universities. Photograph: David Levene

At a recent academic conference, I stepped back in time, and not because we were all talking about history. Here was a group of men who announced they were “redefining” modern history. They swaggered through presentations – about men – asserting that only those in their charmed circle had anything of significance to say. Male speakers were introduced as great scholars – “he needs no introduction” a favourite opening – while the few female speakers were granted brief, unenthusiastic descriptions of their work. Few women asked questions; those who did were often ignored, though if a man picked up and repeated their ideas, these were then considered worthy of debate. We are all wearily used to “mansplaining” and being talked over, excluded or ignored. But this conference was a personal nadir.

On the first day I thought: is it me? We’re often told that women overreact, taking offence where none is meant. These were younger men, who’d grown up since the 1970s: wasn’t misogyny meant to disappear when they came of age? Yet, as I watched our next generation of professors perform, it was as if feminism had never happened.

On the second day, I left an overrunning session (those men sure can talk) and discovered a bunch of other women huddled around the cold coffee and curdling milk, who felt exactly the same. Something, we said, has to change.

Our universities are highly sexist institutions. Women are outnumbered and relegated to junior posts. More than 60% of academics are men, and about 80% of professors. Official statistics show that more women are on temporary contracts than men.

Behind the numbers lie depressing examples of everyday sexism. A new survey by the Royal Historical Society (RHS) shows that female academics, regardless of whether they are PhD candidates or professors, are exploited and marginalised by “macho practices and cultures”. Combative behaviour in academic debates and a long-hours culture are de rigueur. And, as a report by Women in Philosophy points out, the problem is “not that women are somehow less able to cope when aggressive behaviour is aimed at them… It is rather that aggressive behaviour can heighten women’s feeling that they do not belong, by reinforcing the masculine nature of the environment within which they work and study.”

When women do engage in combative debate (I speak as one who does), we receive no kudos: what is assertive in a man is arrogant in a woman. At the conference I attended, most of the women on the platform were junior to the men present – many academic men can’t deal with female equals.

‘Most men regard their universities’ equality policies as ‘good’; women consider them ‘poor’

Even women who have a track record of research aren’t treated equally. Increasingly, universities fail to advertise prized permanent academic jobs, simply filling the post with their favoured candidate – invariably a man. As Women in Philosophy reveals, lazy stereotyping means men are assumed to be “brighter” than women; assertive polemic is taken as evidence of intelligence. Lecturers who research women are considered esoteric or marginal to “mainstream” scholarship. History students at Oxford are required to study medieval, early modern and modern history – but not women’s history. Look at the course requirements of most humanities degrees and you’ll very rarely find any obligation to study women.

But soon after that conference, I found myself in a more exciting, inspiring meeting. This was the steering group of a new initiative at Oxford University – Women in the Humanities, formed by a group of academics to introduce real feminism into universities and to combat women’s marginalisation, both as subjects of study and as serious scholars. Many of us teach on Oxford’s master’s in women’s studies – one of just a handful of such programmes in the UK. We aim to promote the study of women – and champion the rights of women working and studying in universities.

We aren’t the only group of academics concerned about women in universities, but unusually we’ve got some hard cash. WiH exists due to the generosity of a private donor who shares our belief that the study, and the career development, of 51% of the population is something a major university should prioritise. Worryingly, few universities seem to agree – women’s studies courses are disappearing and there’s little support for female academics. We’re filling the gap as far as our limited resources allow – we’ve got about £20,000 a year for the next three years to provide grants, seminars and fellowships to support women in the humanities.

We particularly want to encourage early-career scholars, those who have just finished their PhDs. They are reliant on stop-gap teaching jobs to make ends meet, but we know from the large proportion of women academics on temporary contracts that these jobs rarely turn into permanent lectureships. Universities prize research productivity over collegiality, in a system where women are most overburdened with teaching and administration. So we’re offering postdoctoral writing fellowships to help scholars break into academic publishing.

Our research grants and visiting fellowships aim to encourage collaboration. There’s a worrying emphasis at the moment on rewarding individual “leaders”. The Arts and Humanities Research Council, the leading grant-giving body in my field, now evaluates applications according to candidates’ “leadership” potential. This does nothing to challenge the combative, competitive working practices that alienate many women, and also ignores the kind of collaboration that so often leads to research innovation.

We’re also hosting seminars and conferences. Women’s scholarship isn’t as widely known as men’s because they aren’t invited to talk about their research. As one woman complained, “I have been asked if I was married, while my colleagues have been asked what they think”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked by male academics have asked me if I have children. My husband, also a university lecturer, can’t recall ever being asked this.

One initiative can only achieve so much. But we hope to provide some new ideas to the macho managements who have so few of their own. The current mantra of “flexibility” and privatisation damages women’s interests. Universities offer lamentably little childcare – partly because many of them have privatised or cut funding for all non-academic services. Working days are long. At two universities I know of, for example, academics can be timetabled to teach at any point between 9am and 6pm. Often they are notified of their semester timetable only a week in advance, which makes organising childcare extremely difficult.

Universities blame timetabling software, but given that other large, complex institutions – notably the NHS – offer flexible working, this is a weak excuse.

University managers claim that higher education is “in crisis”, and that we can’t afford the time or investment to make our universities more equal and humane places to work and study. But the real crisis in higher education is not financial – as can be seen by vice-chancellors’ annual pay rises.

Our managers and politicians want to increase our exploitation, and women are the losers. When universities announce redundancies, non-academic staff are usually first in line, and guess who then bears the cost: the RHS survey found that many women “get stuck mid-career”, often overburdened with administrative tasks. We resolved that WiH could only exist if we had administrative support – and that our administrator must be paid at least the living wage and offered flexible working conditions.

In 1970, the UK’s first women’s liberation conference was held at Ruskin College, Oxford. Participants demanded “equal education”. But no measures since have eradicated sexism from universities. Equality legislation has failed. Reform will not arrive with more “enlightened” men. Most men questioned by the RHS regard their university’s gender equality policies as “good”, but most women consider them “poor”.

So we are doing something about it. On 6 March, WiH is hosting Oxford University’s International Women’s Day Celebration at St Hilda’s College. Participants include academics, but also feminist campaigners Melissa Benn and Caroline Criado-Peres. Their presence makes the point that we’d all benefit from universities embracing feminism. University managers claim they need to become “globally competitive” by making a profit out of students or academics’ labour.

We’ll be planning how to promote a different form of higher education – one that offers alternatives to the sexist status quo and pioneers a feminist fightback.

From The Guardian – Education

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