Is it possible for men to experience gender discrimination in academia?
To even ask the question risks raising the hackles of many who still see sexism as a huge problem faced by women in the academy. Others might justifiably point out that claims for anti-male bias ignore oceans of research on sexism in science, while cynics may simply dismiss the idea as deliberately provocative, reactionary or self-serving (perhaps the result of losing out to a better-qualified female colleague).
However, conversations about potential bias faced by men are taking place in quiet corners of university departments, even if it largely remains a taboo subject for public discussion, some suggest.
In a recent report commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, one academic said he felt that universities tended to promote women over men whenever possible, often at the expense of more suitable male candidates for top jobs.
“Departments have some kind of fear of some men – that’s why I have been held back,” said the academic, quoted anonymously in the study, whose main focus was on support for ethnic minority staff in academia.
"Universities are in [a] structural rut where blokes in universities are seen as more of a threat,” he continued, adding that “blokes who…answer back without fear of reprisal” were passed over for promotion in favour of women, whom he said were generally seen as more amenable to management demands.
“Females will tend not to apply for promotion because of confidence issues, but at the same time, if they do apply the institutions will promote [them],” he added.
While claims of anti-male bias were made by just one of 15 senior academics interviewed for the report, several male academics have raised the issue at other points, said one of the report’s authors, Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Southampton.
“Male academics have said, in private conversations, that they feel disadvantaged by what they see as universities wanting to tick boxes around diversity and equality,” said Professor Bhopal.
“It is particularly true in the STEM subjects, where women are seen to be in an advantageous position thanks to universities’ need to get the Athena SWAN charter, which is now a condition of receiving some types of research funding,” she added.
Some men may feel doubly disadvantaged by efforts around Athena SWAN if they are from an ethnic minority or less affluent social background, two areas less well served by sector initiatives, Professor Bhopal said.
She is so far unconvinced that the anecdotal evidence indicates a wider trend of anti-male bias, given the huge wealth of data indicating that it is women who are discriminated against in academia.
“Nearly all the statistics show women do not do as well as men in many areas, so I think we really need some more research to see if there is anything in it,” she added.
However, a report published in Science in July into hiring patterns in French universities appears to show a significant pro-women bias in male-dominated disciplines.
Analysing about 100,000 applicants to high-level teaching positions between 2006 and 2013, the study by Thomas Breda and Melina Hillion, researchers at the Paris School of Economics, found a gender bias in favour of women in engineering, physics and philosophy, and concluded that the effect was a reward for women “surmounting social norms”.
The findings follow the controversy caused by Cornell University psychologists Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci in April 2014 when they published a paper claiming that women were twice as likely to be hired for maths-intensive positions as identically qualified men.
That conclusion came from an experiment in which around 2,100 faculty members in engineering and economics were sent a list of imaginary CVs and narrative essays about applicants’ lifestyles and asked which ones they would hire. However, the study’s results have been criticised as misleading on the grounds that this is not how academic hiring takes place.
Nonetheless, the furore caused by the Cornell duo’s conclusions that women may be reaping the rewards of concerted efforts to correct a gender imbalance perhaps shows why men may remain reluctant to make claims of an “anti-bloke” bias for some time to come.