Friday, November 16, 2012

Seeing sexism in academia - moving up the ranks opens the eyes

A few years ago I remember reading an article about the fact that as women become more senior in their disciplines they start to encounter more sexism. For a long time I've been trying to figure out how that worked - was it that senior women encountered senior men more often, and were thus encountering old attitudes?

Recently, after a particularly upsetting incident, I realised what it is. It is that as we become more senior and have more experiences, we simply see sexism more. We are more aware. As junior women, when we encounter a microaggressive comment, it's just one papercut. Maybe it's one of those very subtle papercuts that you don't even notice until a few days later when you use rubbing alcohol.

But as you become more senior, you become more aware. You start counting these comments, and noticing them more and more.

"What's the big deal? Who cares what they say?" the well-intentioned male colleague says. The big deal is that at work I am Scientist first, Woman second. Men that treat my science as secondary (or even peripherally) to my gender insult my intelligence and insult my years of hard work to get to the place I am at.

Furthermore, the fact that these comments are unequally delivered is particularly infuriating. If, when my male colleagues had newborns, people said, "OMG! How will you survive as a professor??? How will you keep your research program afloat?! AUGH!!!", it would be ok. If, when my male colleagues wore colorful clothing, their senior colleagues stopped them in the hallway and said, "Please don't take this in the wrong way, but that shirt really brings out the color of your beautiful eyes.", it would be ok.

But it's not equal. Women-as-mother, women-as-sexulized-object - these take first place. Women-as-scholar, woman-as-professor is in the back seat.

So what do I do in these situations when they happen to me? First, my heart starts pounding. I think, "This is A Moment! I am supposed to Say Something!" Then, I stop. I realize this person is just clueless. They have no idea that they are saying all this dreadful stuff only to women and not men. They honestly have no earthly idea. Finally, I ask myself if this is a Teaching Moment or not. It usually is not, at least not right then. 

These attitudes are so ingrained in our culture, they are just a part of how many people think. Publically humiliating the offender will not suddenly make them change their ways. But sometimes I desperately want to.


  1. That's funny, I always commend the colour scheme of people's clothing, irrespective of sex, and I'm heterosexual.

  2. Maybe the non-offending teaching moment can be, after an inappropriate question is asked, to simply, kindly ask: why do you ask that? Pause a few seconds. Then start another topic. If the question was inappropriate the asker usually will have realized that him/herself by now.
    This is a trick I learned in a interpersonal skills workshop, that was not specific for women (meaning the trick is a good answer to any inappropriate question).

  3. You know the one I hate? I hate the "compliment" where a senior male suggests that all the students in my class see is my hot body, or that I am somehow distracting. "The guys must love your class if you wear that skirt." Yes, because three decades of study in the area are worthless compared to a nice ass. Really? I am pushing fifty. My greatest goal in life is NOT to arouse 19 year olds. I think it is because they are feeling their own age, and it makes them feel young or something. But I really hate that one, and it is absolutely new. The only way I can think of replying is scathing. It makes me tired.