Sexism in Academia, Part I: Breaking the Silence
This was supposed to be a blog post recounting our experiences at the “Sexism in Academia” workshop we initiated and that finally took place around two weeks ago. But since it got really long, it will come as a two-part piece now. And it’s not only what we learned during the workshop but also, kind of in a condensed way, all the opinions I have come to collect on this topic over the last years. I’m afraid that even two blog posts can’t really do this huge thing justice. But well, at least it’s something.
We often think that in our generation, sexism is not an issue anymore. I think we couldn’t be more wrong. Of course, some progress has been made. But we haven’t achieved equality yet at all. Just look at the gender pay gap and tell me you really think that’s ok?
Just think about the number of times you as a womxn have experienced some sort of weird situation because of your gender. Then look how many times it has happened in the work place. If you can’t come up with anything – I am a quite firm believer that you will have experienced sexism in Academia already, even if nothing comes to mind at first. Not because I want to make you paranoid. But because I see more and more in womxen around me that certain sexist behaviours are so normal for us that we don’t even get offened anymore. But we should.
It starts with the assumption that girls just aren’t good at math but rather prefer languages and typical Humanities subjects. Or that men are the ones to whom computer capabilities are constantly attributed. When someone asks “Who is the technician in your project?” in German they usually would give a male pronoun. Or people who ask whether you know a ‘good man for the job’. Or the 500 times you have not protested non-inclusive language or inappropriate comments on your looks. This post will examine the situation and give some first suggestions for how things could get better.
Throughout this article, I will use the term ‘womxn’ as an inclusive form which includes trans, lgbtq+, all sorts of womxn imaginable, in short. The focus in womxn is not meant to exclude men or de-validate their struggles, but because as a womxn myself, I am most familiar with this perspective and also, to reduce complexity (a little bit at least) in this incredibly complex topic.
It’s not about sex, it’s about the struggle for compentence and power
Like they say with sexual harrassment in general, it’s mostly not about sex. It’s about power. And in Academia, competence is power. You become vulnerable to sexism in Academia especially once you try to climb the stage and are confident enough to claim your space. To claim the authority you should have. To get the respect your competence deserves. To make your competence visible and to get the acknowledgement for your achievements and compensations for your efforts.
Sadly, so far womxn often don’t just get these, while men do. As a womxn, it often happens that you get overlooked. That you don’t get that praise you deserve. That a man just states all sorts of skills in their CVs with confidence when you know that they barely passed the class in which they would have been supposed to acquire this skill – that is coincidentally your principal skill, yet you as a womxen don’t actually feel confident enough claiming to possess this skill on your CV.
Because as womxn, we have been raised to not stand out. To not make anyone feel bad. Most men really couldn’t care less how their presence makes others feel. As a womxn, you often feel insolent even for asking to take part in this workshop which will be an important formation to advance your specialty skills. Insolent to ask for what you want because you think you have no right. Or you are afraid to ask for help when you need it because you are afraid it will make you look weak.
Sorry to hear you had to experience such disgraceful and disgusting behaviour. Always astounds me that when such perpetrators are confronted their fallback excuse is usually 'it was just a joke.'— Morte Photography and Research 💀 (@MortePhoto) July 16, 2019
So, no. It’s not about sex. It’s about competence. And with competence comes power in Academia. Yet competence mostly is something which needs to be acknowledged by other people in order for it to be valid. It’s not enough that you have a skill. Other people need to know about it, need to praise you publicly for it and acknowledge that you have it. How many times do womxn have to prove they actually possess certain skills when those same skills are never questioned in a man? Like the ability to lead, for example. And how often does it actually help to prove you have a skill? If they don’t want to believe you, they just don’t.
It’s happened to me many times that I had proven to have some skill and I was just ignored. People pretended like it hadn’t happened and still treated me as though as I didn’t have the skill. Even though I was objectively better, more advanced, had a (provable) greater level of mastery of the skill than the men present who were acknowledged to actually have the skill.
The importance of not remaining silent
I have learnt in many conversations that men who I think should be allies often lack understanding for my experiences or, mostly, general comments about how womxen often suffer from sexism. Sometimes I was quite surprised with these comments coming from lgptq+ friends very much into inclusive language and so on. Then I realized that men often really don’t have much of a clue about some of the blatant sexism womxn encounter quite regularly, maybe even on a daily basis. Some of these things are so common that they don’t even stand out for womxn anymore. At the same time, such situations are completely unknown to men.
Also things like the hearfelt advice to “just put on whatever you want – your outfit doesn’t matter”. For a long time I tried to believe this. But it’s just not true. As a womxn, if you’re not dressed in a certain way, this reflects much stronger on as how competent you are perceived. (If I’m not mistaken, there even was a study which proved this objectively – you see, as a women you often need to offer proof for your everyday statements if you want to be taken seriously. Sometimes people just plainly refuse to believe me even when I cite a resource proving my statements…) If a male programmer just shows up unwashed, people often still respect them on the sole base of their extraordinary skill. But if you did that as a womxn, it just wouldn’t work. When has anybody ever based their judgement on you as a womxen on skill alone? Do you remember one single time?
Men can’t understand when we complain about these incidents because they just don’t happen to them. This is because a lot of sexism is silent and invisible. And so ingrained into our culture that it takes extra attention to become aware of it and notice it again.
So speak up whenever something happens to you (and you feel up to it), especially when it’s “just a small thing”. These things are good practice for not being shut up by non-believers. Start talking about small, less hurtful instances of sexism and work yourself up to bigger things or at least up to what you’re comfortable with. Apart from being good practice, they help raise awareness of common sexism. With womxen, a problem is that we often don’t report or even recount the small stuff because we think it’s just normal or not such a big deal. Then, when somebody comes out with a big complaint, nobody believes them.
People will say that something like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it doesn’t. That’s why you should speak up early, if you can. It only becomes more difficult, the stronger the harrassment gets.
Don’t think about how people will make fun of you or call you a ‘feminazi’ if you speak up. Yes, of course I have received my share of stupid comments. Heck, a friend even gave me a door sign along the lines of “It’s so difficult to be a woman” to mock me. It’s not worth avoiding to speak up just to avoid these little nuisances. You have to be stronger than that. But also, if you feel actively endangered, be careful and stay silent if you feel like you need that to protect yourself. You know your own situation and when to take what I write with a grain of salt, I assume.
Special problems with sexism in Academia
Speaking out without wrecking havoc
In Academia, a big problem is that you often can’t speak out without hurting a big ego. And one who is in a position of power over you, whom you need or whatever. So even a bystander’s comment which puts attention on the misbehaviour can be detrimental to your career. Thus, we need try to find ways of handeling situations in a non-offensive way. Even though I really don’t like it, but I have to advise you to react in ways which do not cause the perpetrator to lose their face in front of other people. Though I think they should. But we’re probably not there yet. But hey, nothing’s more powerful than an idea whose time has come. So maybe we’ll be able to do that some time so.
In order to protect yourself from a horrible situation, you might have to extract yourself from it. Often, this means that victims will leave Academia while the perpetrators stay. Do things to heal the trauma. Dare to ask for help (professional and friends / family).
The power (and necessity) of “saying something”
If you are a bystander, you should definitely do something. Often just acknowledging in a clearly audible voice that you do not agree or don’t share this opinion can throw perpetrators off and helps victims feel validated.
We need to give perpetrators devalidating responses to their behaviour and opinions. A study, which I sadly can’t find anymore, has shown that rapists think that everybody thinks like them and that their behaviour is normal. This is why sexist jokes are not actually harmless, like it is often stated by people who do have valid moral judgement. Everybody knows it’s just a joke, right?
No, it’s not ok and it’s not funny, because in fact, a rapist does not know it’s just a joke. Rapists often tell rape jokes in their circles of friends. Most people brush it off saying that the person is awkward. So they laugh along and forget about it. But to the rapist, this means validation. To them, it’s not a joke. They feel validated in their opinions. So this is a call to people experiencing a situation like this. Everybody has this one creep in their circle of friends. Educate everyone why sexist jokes are not fun. Even if they are not rape jokes, they still serve to socialize people subconsciously with long outdated concepts of womxenhood. They still cement patriarchal, misogynistic thinking into subconscious thinking and thus, perpetuate it to another generation.
Silence reinforces the stigma, obscures the size of the problem and makes people “become accomplices”
Many womxn also become accomplices in sexism rather than being allies for the victims because they are afraid it will affect their own standing if they say something. This is even more hurtful because it reinforces the silencing. Also, it’s often the same with the ‘good guys’ who officially are on your side but also “become accomplices” when they are afraid to speak up because of potential risks for their careers. This reinforces the system and makes me more and more determined that silence really is the key problem. If we can break this silence and education against sexism is all around, something will have to change for the better at some point.
Sorry to hear you're experiencing this. One of the reasons I left archaeology. The only thing that helped me was a good group of women around me who'd back me up, even the 'good' guys I knew wouldn't speak out or challenge behaviour because of career risks.— Ruth, (Online) Therapist (@RuthFT) July 16, 2019
Often, I also wonder whether people who don’t say anything “because they fear consequences” would actually suffer consequenes for their behaviour. Or whether it’s just a lazy excuse. Pretending to be an ally has become fashionable in our time. As long as it’s conveniant, of course. But I think that you really need to prove yourself if you want me to believe you. Pretending to care is a way of preserving the status quo too. The only thing which really makes a difference is action.
And you can only call someone a real friend and ally if they stand up to you despite the consequences. Standing up when it doesn’t hurt you is not an act of courage.
Yes, had a good experience with a male supervisor speaking up and saying 'this is not okay and I will be making a complaint about your treatment' that was incredibly validating – I hadn't even intended to complain it had become so normalised. Gave me energy to continue the fight.— Ruth, (Online) Therapist (@RuthFT) July 17, 2019
Getting over it is unavoidable. But how to repair the (pluridimensional) damage to your career?
Many instances of sexism are hurtful, but you can get over them with the right psycho hygiene regimen. Meditate, release your anger, workout (and no, not so you look good in a bikini because that’s what’s expected of womxn). Also, it’s not like you had another choice than to get over them. As long as it’s not sexual violence (and even then), you probably have no choice but to get over it anyway. You can improve your psycho hygiene and help the movement once you decide to speak up: Join an initiative, go to womxn’s marches. Let it all out and help with the activism.
But there is one other problem in Academia: Like it’s not about sex in sexual violence, but about power, in Academia it’s largely about competence. Because (acknowledged) competence is power in Academia. So when someone makes a sexist comment or you suffer from a non-event (not) happening to you, this will be a dent in your perceived and acknowledged competence.
The assholes-are-part-of-life part of sexism I can live with. Or, at least, I have to. But in Academia – which is the field where I am trying to have a career – I really can’t have the fact that sexism hurts my chances in the job market.
Many instances of sexism and non-events are, largely, “not that bad”, like everybody around you is going to assure you. But they are. Because they add up to what is going to be perceived as the difference in competence which will cause your male colleague to get the job. Unless there is a womxn quota. Then, of course, you only got the job because of that quota and not because of your genuine superior competence. (Edit March 2021: Btw, I just read in Invisible Women that there are studies indicating that this womxn’s quota not so much “favours womxn”, it helps weeding out incompentent men who overstate their skills and are bad fits for the job anyway).
Step 1 is acknowledging the damage done on a daily basis by sexism
I think, the first step to solving this, is to acknowledge that there are non-events happening and that sexist structures hurt the perceived competence as well as the credibility of womxn. Here, the perpretrators may be a large anonymous mass. It’s not really anybody’s fault. You can’t point a finger at one single responsible person. But in the end, this disease which befalls all of us womxn, feeds on silence.
The more we speak up, the more we take away it’s fuel. So let’s speak up. Be open about what sexism has happened to you if you feel up to it. Don’t ever be ashamed of something that was done to you. It’s always the perpetrator’s fault, never the victim’s. No, you didn’t “ask for it” by being the way you are or wearning certain items of clothing.
Like somebody said in our workshop, it’s still sexism if you walk around naked. Not even being naked is an invitation for sexual advances or sexism, unless the naked subject clearly states their wish and consent to engage in sexual behaviours or to receive sexual comments. And no, this does not mean “you can’t do anything anymore nowadays.” It just means you can’t be a sexist asshole without having me pointing it out publicly.
Step 2: Don’t remain silent
I hereby vow to never be silent again. Not only for myself but because I know that many cannot speak up for themselves due to trauma or because they don’t dare to. This workshop, in fact, was created because experiencing sexism made me aware of the fact that probably this happens to a lot of people who are less outspoken and angry and impolite than me. Who speaks up for them?
So if you are not sure whether or not to speak up, but you do feel up to it mentally – do. If not for yourself, then to support others and join the fight. It doesn’t take much but our united voices will have some effect. Don’t feel like your case was not “dramatic” enough. Or that it “doesn’t really count” as sexism. Everything counts if it made you feel uncomfortable or threatened.
Sharing the small stuff with likeminded people can be an extremely helpful and validating experience for someone who has experienced sexism but kept it a secret. For people who had this weird situation that bothers them but they are not sure whether it was, in fact, sexism they experienced or whether their feeling is valid.
Step 3: Biannual compulsory educational workshops for bosses
Our guest speaker at the workshop, Seunghyn Song, said that it is already practice at many universities to have binannul compulsory educational workshops for bosses. While those bosses often sit in these workshops behind their laptops without paying attention, I believe that it will help the message to trickle down. It shows the bosses that, even if they don’t care about the topic themselves, it is important to their institution for which they are representatives. At some point, this gentle but frequent form of education will do something.
[Edit March 2021: Seunghyn Song also said that it’s not just about “being a womxn”, it’s also about “how you’re a womxn”, i.e. she has experienced lots of sexism based in “exotism” stereotypes and that’s super important with BlackLivesMatter etc. as well! – maybe check out my Book Review of Rebecca Solnit’s “Men explain things to me”; and what that has to do with Anti-Racism]
These workshops should concern sexism as well as other forms of discrimination, like non-events. Bosses should be educated so they know that these seemingly inconscipuous actions already constitute sexism, learn how to spot them and how to react. This will at least raise awareness and help womxen who want to speak up: If bosses have already heard about it from some authority, they are more likely to believe a womxn who claims to have suffered from sexism in their institution.
So this is it for this time. Stay tuned for the rest of the post with more concrete info on the actual contents of the workshop.
And for the PS a little quote from an article on gender bias and perceived incompetence in womxn:
One assumption is that women are first assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. It’s the opposite for men. So right from the start women are not perceived as leaders. If a woman is successful it’s because she’s a hard worker […}, or was lucky; if she fails it’s because she’s incompetent. If a male succeeds, it’s because he’s competent; if he fails it’s because of bad luck or a scandal […].
Consequently, cultural biases consistently overrate men and underrate women. Self-assessment studies show that men and women do the same to themselves. Women tend to evaluate themselves two points lower than reality, while men will evaluate themselves two points higher.
Assumed incompetence puts women on the defensive and their struggle to prove themselves keeps them on a never-ending treadmill. So if you as a woman have felt held to a higher standard, it’s not your imagination, you have been. It’s the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers syndrome: Ginger has to do everything Fred does, except in high heels and backwards.
It’s not just men assuming women are incompetent; women also fall prey to assuming incompetence in women. A woman may feel that she’s competent but she won’t assume that of other women. In one global experiment called the “Goldberg paradigm,” […]
Some women use the negative gender schemas against them to their advantage. These women play along as if they don’t know what’s going on, when in reality they are five steps ahead of the guys. As Mae West put it, “Brains are an asset, if you hide them.”
Being under-estimated can work to women’s advantage when she is covertly outsmarting him, but that’s a short-term benefit. In the end, feigning ignorance only helps perpetuate a misperception. […]
So let’s be conscious of this unconscious assumption. If your comments are overlooked, don’t assume you have nothing to contribute or are not a leader. Rather assume an unconscious assumption has kicked in. If you agree with what a woman might be offering to the discussion, don’t tell her at the water cooler. Speak up and stand beside her and giving her credit. If someone takes your idea and claims it as their own, do as one woman scientist who did research on cancer told me. Tell that person, “Thanks, I’m so glad you love my idea!” (Birute Regine, Forbes)
Männer klagen gegen— Michael Fischer (@der_fisch001) January 23, 2019
Und bekommen Recht
Frauen klagen für
– genderneutrale Ansprache auf Anschreiben
Mein Lieblingswitz ist, wenn akademische Philosophen angeben, aus Gründen der Leserfreundlichkeit nicht zu gendern. DER LESERFREUNDLICHKEIT! In der Disziplin, die uns die transzendentale Dialektik, den Unterschied zwischen sein, Seyn und Seiendem und die différance brachte. Klar.— Frau Lindhold (@Symposiarchin) March 8, 2019
Gender Bias Sways How We Perceive Competence in Faces, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/gender-competence-faces.html