When I used to teach, I did an exercise that required students to analyze my gender performance (thank you, Judith Butler). Students judged how feminine, masculine, or androgynous I was by paying careful attention to my appearance, affect, and personality. To make it easier for them, I wore a skirt, flowery tops, sparkly accessories, high heels, and more make-up than usual. By exaggerating my femininity, I helped them realize how pliable and deployable gender can be.
Later, I tweaked the exercise and my self-presentation. Students tended to be shy at first, but quickly offered up observations about my pixie cut, clothes, personality, voice, and interactions with them. Almost every semester, a couple of students would raise their hands to tell me that I didn’t “look” like a professor. They weren’t wrong, since I was a lecturer. Maybe I was just a teacher to them?
When I pressed them on why I didn’t look the part, they explained that professors seemed to be male, older (or younger), bearded, and white. Their vision of the professoriate startled me. Wasn’t the university more diverse in the 21st century? Weren’t women presiding over lecture halls and seminar rooms? Surely, I would ask, all their professors did not match this vision?
The students assured me that no, all of their professors weren’t white men; that’s just what they tended to imagine all professors looking like. This stereotype shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone, including me. Popular culture is rife with examples of tweed-wearing, bespectacled male professors. There is privilege in matching cultural expectations. Yet I still found it surprising that students, who admitted to having female professors, still equated professorship with masculinity.
The numbers, however, support my students’ stereotype. Mary Ann Mason describes the “pyramid problem” in higher education: Fewer women than men occupy full professorships and administration roles, while more women than men fill the ranks of adjunct faculty and part-time laborers. Additionally, Mason reports, women are paid less—and are less likely to have children—than their male peers.
Even though women earn more Ph.D.s, master’s, and bachelor’s degrees than men (at a rate of three to two), we are still underrepresented in academia. According to a 2006 report on gender equity by the American Association of University Professors, women made up only 38 percent of all faculty. A further breakdown is especially revealing: Women represented 46 percent of assistant professors, 38 percent of associate professors, and just 23 percent of full professors. Those numbers have improved over the last eight years—we’ve reached parity with men at the assistant level and we’re up to 29 percent of full professorships—but men still earn tenure at higher rates and outnumber women at the senior ranks.
The question so often becomes: What happens to women in the academic food chain? They disappear while men thrive. Do more women simply opt out more than their male counterparts? Do women “choose” to leave? Or is something more going on?
Some call this problem the "leaky pipeline," a disturbing image that points out that women are dropping out at every possible stage, from graduate school on through tenure. But the leaky pipeline imagery ignores the fact that many women remain in higher education, working off the tenure track. Women are still overrepresented in contingent roles, as full- and part-time faculty members and graduate-teaching assistants.
All of which suggests that women aren’t necessarily dropping out of higher education; many are just stuck in low-paying contract work. The leaks in the pipeline go hand-in-hand with the adjunctification of the modern university. Martha West and John Curtis write that women “face more obstacles as faculty in higher education than they do as managers and directors in corporate America.”
The stubborn persistence of this gender gap, however, is hard to explain. There’s just no “smoking gun,” as Jane Mansbridge notes, that easily explains the absence of women. Instead, the sexism that women face is implicit and structural. And it manifests itself in a number of ways. Here’s a helpful (but by no means all-inclusive) catalog from Eric Anthony Grollman, who notes the subtle but nefarious gender (and race) biases endemic to mentoring, hiring, service, tenure, and promotion.
Compared to identifiable sexism (though that happens too), implicit bias is harder to combat. Media theorist Susan Douglas describes the embedded nature of feminism, in which women’s achievement and equal treatment becomes normalized and expected. Of course, women can earn graduate degrees and excel at scholarship! Look how far we’ve come! For Douglas, the larger problem is the appeal and embrace of post-feminism, the idea that the work of feminism is now done. This is a fantasy, and it’s a dangerous one.
It’s dangerous, Douglas argues, because it gives rise to “enlightened sexism.” Enlightened sexism allows women to be treated differently than men by trotting out an oft-recited canard: If women aren’t as well-represented (or as well-compensated) as men in a particular field, that’s not because of structural inequities. It’s because women are making “choices” that hinder their career development. Gender discrimination, then, falls solely on the shoulders of its victims.
We might even call this the Lean In effect: “If women would just lean in rather than opting out, we could be as successful as men.” Leaning in, in this calculation, becomes the cure-all for our ills.
But look: We could lean in until our backs were permanently bent forward and still face discrimination, bias, harassment, and more recently, rescinded job offers. The purposeful shift to choice-based language deftly avoids larger structural problems and minimizes the possibility of collective action. Telling women, including academic women, to adopt a certain mentality or strategy often perpetuates inequality rather than confronting the barriers women face. Blaming women for our choices is much easier than examining the conditions that limit choice and possibility.
The leaky pipeline was never about choice, but structural constraint and implicit gender bias. Academia, like the rest of our culture, is a haven for sexism, enlightened and otherwise. The question should no longer be: Why do women leave? Instead, it should be: Why might we stay?
During graduate school and in my early years on the job market, I made the dangerous assumption that gender equality was the norm in academia. I expected more enlightenment and less sexism. Now, I realize how wrong I was.
So here’s an attempt to take stock of all that. I’ll be writing an occasional column—I’ll call it Sexism Ed—as a way to continue the conversation on sexism and gender discrimination in higher ed. In the coming months, I’ll cover topics ranging from gender gaps in citations to motherhood, from the two-body problem to sexual harassment to employment.
Others have already documented, named, and discussed the problems women face in the ivory tower; I’m joining their efforts to make fellow academics recognize that this is a tragic, ubiquitous problem, not a rarity. I want the academy to be a more hospitable place for women. I hope you do, too.