In politics and in the academy, it’s the sexism, stupid

The male chauvinism faced by female political leaders is not worlds away from that too often encountered in academia

December 1, 2016
Woman holding sexism is a social disease sign
Source: Getty

As someone who stands 6ft 4in tall, I speak with some authority on what it’s like to bump your head. It hurts. It’s irritating. And, if you’re in a public place, it’s a bit embarrassing.

Hillary Clinton is only 5ft 5in, but it’s a safe bet that she knows the feeling, on a rather different scale, after cracking her head on the glass ceiling in her failed bid for the US presidency.

Her expected victory was supposed to be the crowning glory in a female takeover of some of the world’s most important seats of power. In the end, it wasn’t to be, and however complex the toxic sludge that swept Donald Trump to victory, it’s undeniable that sexism played a part.

The extent to which sexism continues to afflict politics and public life is addressed in an interview in this week’s Times Higher Education with the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Perhaps best known outside Australia for an extraordinary take-down of her then-opposite number (and later successor), Tony Abbott, in which she refused to be “lectured on misogyny” by a politician whose own shortcomings she proceeded to list one by one, Gillard is perfectly positioned to comment on the issue. Now a visiting professor at the Policy Institute at King’s College London, she tells THE that “sexism – and, particularly, sexism as it confronts women leaders – is now one of the issues in global conversations of our time”.

Her analysis could easily be applied to academia. There are numerous factors at play, but one of the most fundamental issues is the skewed representation of women within different academic fields.

The reasons for this were explored in a paper published in Science last year by academics at Princeton University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Otterbein University.

Their hypothesis is that the gender imbalance is a problem that extends well beyond the confines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the context in which it is usually discussed. For example, they point out that women earn about 70 per cent of all PhDs awarded in the US in psychology, but less than 35 per cent in philosophy.

A possible explanation, they suggest, is that women are under-represented in disciplines where researchers believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success. Using a large-scale study of academics in 30 disciplines, they compare this “brilliance-required” hypothesis with three other possible explanations: gender differences in the willingness to work long hours; selectivity of entrants; and the balance between a systematic and empathetic approach to the field in question.

Of these hypotheses, the authors find that what they call “field-specific ability beliefs” are the only significant predictor of female representation (a correlation that may be explained in part by the fact that such prejudices make fields significantly less welcoming to women).

It may not shock you too much to hear that the model also works as a predictor of representation among African American scholars – for the avoidance of doubt, the authors point out that “the case has not been made that either group is less likely to possess innate intellectual talent (as opposed to facing stereotype threat, discrimination and other such obstacles)”.

The conclusions of the paper, “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines”, may not surprise but they’re vitally important. Because, as Gillard says: “This conversation [about the impact of sexism] is increasingly being had – and being had with more sophistication. Ultimately, problems of discrimination only get fixed and resolved if a spotlight is shone on them.”

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