How men can help combat misogyny in graduate education

Explicit or not, misogyny is commonplace in academia, write Charmaine Willis and Nakissa Jahanbani, who offer advice on how men can become women’s allies

May 7, 2019

Defined as the “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women”, misogyny is a hot topic on social media and in news stories. Much recent attention has focused on more egregious forms, but this means that common forms often go overlooked, despite their importance. Misogynistic experiences can exacerbate impostor syndrome – something that affects both men and women in academia – especially among female graduate students who already feel it at disproportionately higher rates and more often in minorities.

Studies have also noted that many graduate students experience high levels of mental health issues, with rates of depression and anxiety six times that of the general public. Misogynistic experiences can compound these mental health issues by reinforcing feelings of worthlessness, anxiety and other emotions associated with mental health issues.

These experiences can have a more pronounced impact on female graduate students who are also: persons of colour (POC), identify as members of the LGBT+ community, are not cisgender and/or are a member of another minority group. Here, we share our experiences as two cisgender females, one Caucasian and one POC, and both graduate students in an American political science programme.

The graduate student as colleague

In our experience, misogyny from fellow graduate students ranges from systemic gender-based slights of which perpetrators may not be aware to overt forms of discrimination. However, the consequences are the same: female students feel disrespected by their colleagues and question their own abilities.

Ingrained misogyny from male students can manifest in several ways, including “mansplaining”, speaking over female colleagues and a tendency to look to other male students for expert opinions. In one instance, we partnered with a male colleague for a class presentation. Afterwards, another man questioned the male presenter on the subject that we presented on, undermining our expertise on the subject.

The graduate student as instructor

Myriad challenges face graduate students as they enter the classroom at the onset of their academic career, including concerns about managing a classroom and being an effective instructor. Categorically, these challenges can be more difficult for women: a recent study found that students tend to evaluate female professors more critically than their male counterparts.

Students can engage in a variety of microaggressions and broader misogynistic behaviours that can undermine female graduate instructors’ ability to teach. Students often interrupt or talk over us, which sets a poor tone in class. In our experience, this happens far less for our male counterparts: one colleague admitted to having this issue only once or twice a year.

Therefore, female instructors may have to exert themselves more to dissuade students from talking over us. For example, we once had to ask a male student twice in one class not to interrupt us. Although he did not interrupt again during that class, we had to do this every week.

Administrators may unknowingly reinforce challenges surrounding misogyny and intersectionality in the classroom. One student repeatedly made one of us feel uncomfortable as a POC by ignoring her when she spoke in class and making disparaging comments about minority groups in full knowledge of her background as a minority female.

However, when we approached the appropriate administrator, they, as a white person, dismissed the possibility that we would be regarded differently by students, despite corroborating evidence. While this issue was not resolved, we recommend that students in this situation find an advocate in their administration who not only understands but believes the instructor’s experience.

Advice for male allies

We suspect that our experiences with misogyny will resonate with many female graduate students and faculty. But in our experiences, we have also worked with many supportive male colleagues, instructors and students. For such allies, we offer advice for supporting female graduate students.

First, be cognisant of the fact that women, particularly minorities, are more susceptible to impostor syndrome. Comments undermining their achievements reinforce feelings of worthlessness.

As students, our opinions may not be as respected as those of our male colleagues, even if we are as well informed. Allies can bridge this gap by making an equal social space for female graduate students in several ways. Call on their expertise in discussions: doing this supplants other voices (including their own self-doubt) that may demean their ability. Name them as subject specialists when describing or introducing them to other scholars.

Second, recognise that women may experience graduate school differently from their male counterparts. This includes the forms of misogyny mentioned previously, which can be difficult for even the recipient to identify.

Demonstrate respect towards female graduate instructors in front of their students; undermining them sends a message to students that they are not worthy of respect. In the case of female teaching assistants, faculty should consult with them on issues involving their students; by making them a part of the process, it sends a message to students that the TA’s opinion is valued.

Charmaine Willis and Nakissa Jahanbani are doctoral students in political science at the State University of New York Albany.


Print headline: Keep ‘mansplaining’ out of graduate education

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Reader's comments (3)

Hey, I enjoyed the article but was left partly dismayed by the below passage: "First, be cognisant of the fact that women, particularly minorities, are more susceptible to impostor syndrome. Comments undermining their achievements reinforce feelings of worthlessness." Does this not reinforce the difference in treatment between men and women, to approach women more with care than we do with men? If we do this, how can we hope to achieve ultimate equality? Generally interested in what you guys think. Thanks!
Thank you for bringing up this point. Our point is that women are more likely to have impostor syndrome and thus, remarks that disparage/undermine their achievements validate their thoughts of being less-than or not belonging in grad school. Ideally, all students should be treated equally, but as the second commenter brought up, in reality, this is not the case.
The current situation is that women and minorities are being treated differently, in a negative way. The suggested remedy is to take care to treat them with respect. When this becomes automatic, then we have equality.