Where have all the dead women gone?

Matthew Reisz reflects on the challenges of the obituary writer

February 28, 2016
Pair of empty, aged wooden chairs

One of my roles at Times Higher Education is producing a weekly obituary.

Although I sometimes search through websites and Twitter feeds, I have many other demands on my time and must confess that I depend largely on university press teams, departments and sometimes individual academics notifying me about who has died.

The crucial thing I need, obviously, is a basic “narrative” of the deceased’s life – roughly equivalent to a CV – including details such as date and place of birth; education; list of positions held; main honours and publications; unusual achievements (and adventures); date and cause of death; and surviving relatives. Where possible, it is also nice to include a short tribute from a colleague who can ideally say something both about the deceased’s professional achievements and what he or she was like as a person. These, unfortunately, can get a bit formulaic. I must have lost count of the number of times I’ve been told: “X had a wry sense of humour, always had his door open for his students, spared no efforts in supporting younger colleagues, was a keen supporter of the local football team, etc, etc.” I much prefer something a bit more concrete and specific, even anecdotal, rather than anything so generic and unrevealing.

It usually works pretty well, and I’m delighted to be able to memorialise academics who were never household names (and are unlikely to receive obituaries in the national press) but still made an important contribution to their discipline and institution, and are fondly remembered by colleagues. What is odd and somewhat disturbing is the extraordinary gender imbalance.

Of the people submitted by universities or departments within them for obituaries, the proportions are utterly skewed towards men – far more than can possibly be true on the payroll. (The same applies to the comparatively few universities that have a section for recent faculty deaths on their websites.)

So why is this? I realise that the most senior levels of university management are still dominated by men. The really “big names” in certain disciplines may also be predominantly men, though there is much debate about whether this is because of their sexist ethos, an overvaluation of some male and an undervaluation of some female thinkers, or a number of other factors. (There has been some interesting discussion, for example, about whether the “vicious streak” and “blood lust” common in philosophy tend to alienate many women.) Since women on average live longer than men, it is possible that more of them have been largely forgotten by former colleagues by the time they die. And it may be that there are more utterly obsessive male than female academics, who are simply unable to retire and so go on until they drop, though this is just (perhaps sexist) speculation on my part – and the philosopher Mary Midgley is certainly a spectacular counter-example.

Yet, even granting all these factors, I can’t help wondering – from my small, unscientific sample – whether colleagues, departments and universities don’t tend to favour men of equal eminence over women when making suggestions about who deserves an obituary. And, to push the argument even further, what does this mean for decision about pay rises, promotions, opportunities to speak at conferences and other “honours” a good deal more important than the number of column inches one gets after one’s death?

So I guess I should end with an apology. I wish there were a better gender balance in the obituaries published in Times Higher Education. I can plead in mitigation that it is by no means entirely my fault.

Send suggestions for obituaries - male or female - to matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com.

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