Feminising Academia: Understanding and Challenging Contemporary Sexism at Universities


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Source: Penn State

There is a poignant moment in the recent film On the Basis of Sex, where its title character, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is directly asked to reveal “why (she) is occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man” .

What is key to this scene, naturally, is its context. This does not take place in the court room, her current occupational residence; instead, it is set during her law school career in the 1960s, at a dinner hosted by the Dean of Harvard. Ginsberg is one of nine women first admitted to the Ivy League Institution and the dinner is an event marked to celebrate their presence. What is more upsetting about this scene is the fact it is none other than the Dean himself who poses this question—and not only to Ginsberg, but to all of the women.

Of course, we might be tempted to believe that just because this type of question is not posed to women entering Harvard classes today by their Dean, that the question does not itself ever take root in their minds. However, as an independent student project sponsored by UCL Changemakers revealed, female students and faculty alike both struggle in their confidence about the seats they each occupy in their respective educational institutions.

The project, titled Female Academics and Aspirational Influence, was carried out by Imogen Resnik, Tsovinar Kuiumchian, Leah Aron, Lizzy Holt, and Lara Schiffrin-Sands. Their goal was to determine to what extent the presence of female lecturers/professors in the classroom and female authors on the module reading lists can and does contribute to the academic aspirations of female and non-binary students. In order to conduct this research, they interviewed 18 UCL students (female and non-binary) as well as engaged with multiple faculty members (male and female). The interview responses were then processed and filtered into categories by the program Nvivo, which all highlighted the significant role female representation plays in shaping their perception of themselves and their potential success in academic careers. One student reported the 95% male-dominated reading list was highly discouraging, while others were more motivated against pursuing postgraduate degrees because the majority of their lecturers and professors were male.

A similar effect of imposter syndrome appeared to burden the female faculty members interviewed. Even those in the most prestigious positions in their universities still regarded themselves as “silly little girl”(s) in comparison to their male colleagues. It is also noted in the podcast detailing the project, that they may find it difficult to view themselves as worthy of their respective seats because of the institutional ‘tokenism’ that demands that certain administrative seats be filled not on the basis of intelligence or qualification, but on the basis of sex.

The Feminising Academia Panel, inspired by this project, introduced the critical opportunity for all UCL students to participate in this discussion. The event, held on March 14th from 6:30-8:30 pm, hosted by Tsovinar Kuiumchian and Carlotta Serioli, brought together a diverse audience of students (yes, even male students!) and a diverse panel of teachers. It included Professor Kristin M. Bakke (UCL Department of Political Science), Dr. Alexandra Hartman (UCL Department of Political Science), and Dr. Victoria Showunmi (UCL Institute of Education). Each of them came with a willingness to be very open regarding their personal experiences in academia; a great benefit to all in attendance. The discussion flagged a few key issues that persist even in today’s liberal and progressive society: meritocracy and sexism; carework and the gender pay gap; and gender-based challenges in job interviews. Dr. Victoria Showunmi also wisely cautioned students against the prevailing bias of white feminism in identifying and engaging with these kinds of challenges at universities and academic institutions. It is always going to be an uncomfortable conversation, she acknowledged, but that does not make it any less necessary. White feminism refers to feminist activism that champions the rights and equality of white women, while disregarding or ignoring the experiences of minority and LGBTQ+ women.

Near the event’s conclusion, the audience were encouraged to ask questions and unsurprisingly, many sought advice about how to build their confidence in the face of these adversities. The panel articulated different responses born of their unique experiences of hardships and triumphs; however, they were all united by their insistence that a spirit of tenacity is the best tool to dismantle not only the psychological barriers of self-doubt, but the institutional structures which might unknowingly facilitate it.

Although the solutions to these difficulties are not straight-forward, this project has at the very least opened up the avenue for more constructive dialogue on the UCL campus as to what can be done. Perhaps professors and lecturers might not be entirely amenable to the idea to overhaul their existing reading lists for this explicit purpose, but we certainly can voice our desire for it in student evaluations. As a political theory student, I am well aware of the fact that traditional political thought demands an extensive reading list of predominately male authors; however, this does not mean that more modern courses will not benefit from the inclusion of a wider diversity of authorship—after all, is more than just one group of individuals who continue to engage with their works today and debate their interpretations and value.

It is the hope of the creators of this research project that this event become a tradition at UCL, so that the discussion will continue and evolve to incorporate even more perspectives. While it is true that we might not have the direct formal power to change who holds what seats or whose works we read in class, we can make the conscious effort to make sure everyone who does hold them is able to recognize their worth by increasing the number of forums where these concerns can be raised. It is my personal wish—and undoubtedly the wish of those who started the project–that this discussion spread beyond our campus to many campuses across Europe and beyond.

Fortunately, these problems have not gone entirely undetected. Germany, for example, offered 150 million euros in research funding as incentive for universities to restructure their system to afford women greater opportunity to scale the ‘Ivory Tower’. The ultimate goal was to secure “highly qualified academic females” posts befitting their actual merit.

In sum, I think it is best we agree that it is only on the basis of individual merit that we should ever be questioned about our place or future place in higher education. But, most importantly, we must be better equipped to recognize that merit within ourselves or it is on no basis that we will be able to truly appreciate our academic potential or success. And that is why we must fully endorse projects of this kind because there are so many in academia that are doubting themselves on every basis but the one that does matter.

You can listen to the podcast detailing the project here: http://jewcl.libsyn.com/bonus-feminising-academia

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