Kelly J. Baker

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Introducing 'Sexism Ed'

Full sexismed

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.

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  • Your opening is compelling--what an exercise! And how telling! I imagine that any minute you'll start getting a ton of comments describing academia as a meritocracy and women are making other choices. But I choose to focus on your opening story: the power of implicit bias, the micro aggressions of daily life. YOU GO GIRL. I will retweet the hell out of this.

    Aimee Morrison
    Aimee Morrison
  • Sounds like it's going to be a great series - thanks for spotlighting these serious issues.

    Ellen Mueller
    Ellen Mueller
  • Up here at McGill University, a member of the board of the student union was accused of "micro-aggression," and required to apologise and take a course in political correctness. The overwhelming negative reaction of the student body, including the alleged victims of the "micro-aggression," required the governing body of the student union to reverse their judgement and apologise to everyone. "Micro-aggression," notwithstanding Aimee Morrison's enthusiastic endorsement, is perhaps the worst new concept of the millennium. Let us not every day count the ways that we are victims; let us not demand revenge for every real and imagined slight. Let us not wave our flags of racial, gender, religious, sexual preference, linguistic, national, or class identity at every conceivable moment. Let us not constantly "other" the folks around us. Let us not constantly accuse others of bad faith, misbehaviour, and incorrect thinking. Let us strive, if it is conceivable, for civil behaviour, even in face of the complexities of living.

    PhilipCarl SALZMAN
    PhilipCarl SALZMAN
  • If you haven't read it already, "Why So Slow: The Advancement of Women" by Virginia Valian, addressed these issues thoroughly more than a decade ago. Probably because the book To quote:
    "Why do so few women occupy positions of power and prestige? Virginia Valian uses concepts and data from psychology, sociology, economics, and biology to explain the disparity in the professional advancement of men and women. According to Valian, men and women alike have implicit hypotheses about gender differences -- gender schemas -- that create small sex differences in characteristics, behaviors, perceptions, and evaluations of men and women. Those small imbalances accumulate to advantage men and disadvantage women. The most important consequence of gender schemas for professional life is that men tend to be overrated and women underrated. Valian's goal is to make the invisible factors that retard women's progress visible, so that fair treatment of men and women will be possible. The book makes its case with experimental and observational data from laboratory and field studies of children and adults, and with statistical documentation on men and women in the professions..."

    cristina ruggiero
    cristina ruggiero
  • The author asks students to describe a stereotype, then is surprised when they do so... One wonders how the matter would have been interpreted had the students described an older woman in sensible flats, gray woolen sweater and with a severe hair style - would this somehow have been better? Or perhaps a younger woman with a masculine haircut, in jeans and a plaid shirt? Or a slightly built, middle aged man with a penchant for pink oxford shirts and skinny jeans?
    Rather than deploying the same old selectively constructed argument with all the same old junk assertions, the article might have served a purpose had the author examined the crappy employment conditions that constitute the academy, irrespective of gender.
    The author undermines the point of the article herself by asserting that bias is evident in the statistics for full professorships by gender (ignoring the fact that one important reason for this is that a sufficient pool of qualifying woman candidates in the process of developing, but isn't there yet), yet glides effortlessly over the fact the women significantly outnumber men in doctoral programs. So in one instance, there's rampant bias, yet in the other it's simply the result of being "strong and amazing." It can't be both ways.

    Seth Kellam
    Seth Kellam
  • It is difficult to take this column seriously. The demographic reality is stark: females have taken over the university. In my classes, 80% of the student are female. In my seminar on immigration, all three assigned books are by women. The current president of my university is female. The past president of my university is female. As senior males retire or die, their places will be taken by females.
    There are many serious problems in our universities: the high cost of higher education; the lack of fit between education and jobs; the redefinition of "excellence" as diversity (although not diversity of opinion). But the sufferings of oppressed females is not one of them. If there is any gender problem, it is that males are not going to universities. It is time to stop whining about imaginary problems, and time to address the real problems.

    PhilipCarl SALZMAN
    PhilipCarl SALZMAN
  • My college President is female. Both of my college's VPs are Female. Over half of my college's Deans are female. Conditions in academe that limit career choices for women? I don't see it.

    Search committees making choices based on gender? It happens all the time, and no one dares to speak against it if the chosen candidate is female. If that was the goal, then congratulations are in order.

    Brian Wells
    Brian Wells
  • Didn't this run last week? Or is it just that all feminist diatribes sound the same?

    Gerard Harbison
    Gerard Harbison
  • Well, I will be looking forward to it.

    Andrew Spencer
    Andrew Spencer
  • This is the story of my life. I went on the job market thinking that I'd have the same chance as my male peers. Five years in visiting positions later, my male peers - many of whom have published, taught, and presented less work than I have - have landed tenure-tracks. My female peers, like me until just a month ago, remain in visiting assistant professor limbo. In fact, the first sexism wake-up call I had was when I was passed over for a tenure-track in a department where I clicked with the faculty and filled their needs exactly. Even so, they hired a man who was ABD at the time of hire, three full years behind me with weaker teaching evaluations and fewer publications in our small subfield. I know this because a friend of mine was a VAP at that department. She's still a VAP. This year, I came in second place after three campus visits. My teaching in my current job was thrown into disarray in my efforts to ace those visits, all for naught. Thankfully, a 4/4 lecturer position came my way and I was thrilled because it is multi-year and I can stop moving my husband from place to place. They say they want to keep me and advocate for a conversion to tenure-track. I accepted without negotiation, terrified that it would go away.

    It's too late for my husband to get an engineering job; he graduated college the year I got my first visiting position, and a PE license requires two years in one place. We opted not to live apart. Colleagues have criticized him for being un- and under-employed in a way a trailing female spouse would not be (or are they now?). They have excluded him from conversations and made snarky remarks on finding he's a house-husband and we have no children. Our marriage suffered under the strain, and I am grateful that we were able to come through together.

    As a practicing Catholic, I made a difficult decision to use contraception after I had a pregnancy scare that would have put my due date right in the middle of our discipline's convention and campus visits. I haven't gone to confession since, fearing judgment from priests I've not had time to develop a relationship with (one year is not enough time). I am terrified to ask hiring institutions about maternity leaves and family benefits now, or even to negotiate. I've changed the way I cut my hair, dress, and talk. But I've grown close to a lot of allies in the field who have had similar experiences, and my eyes are open to sexism, and how fortunate I am to have a husband who sees the sexism too.

    I am in therapy. I need it. The culture I was raised in thinks poorly of such things, so that's a secret. My family supports me, but is among those who thinks my husband should be better employed than the retail position we are deeply grateful he got. His family blames me for 'ruining' his professional life. All my friends live on Skype because one year is not long enough for an introvert to make and keep friends.

    This is my reality. This is what sexism looks like for me. I am coping and have many, many things to be thankful for, but I have compromised my private life and religious beliefs to keep trying. And - here's the kicker - I'm one of the 'lucky' ones who has benefits and decent pay.

    M JL
    M JL