Sexism: pervasive in the academy?

As more women push on the ‘sticky door’, Paula Nicolson reflects on her own experiences over three decades

July 23, 2015
Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (23 July 2015)
Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

Over the past 20 years, women have become much more visible in the upper echelons of political, professional and business life. But, despite Louise Richardson’s recent unveiling as the University of Oxford’s first female vice-chancellor, the academy still lags behind.

I began to wonder why, and then along came Sir Tim Hunt, with his now infamous “trouble with girls” remarks. This set me thinking about my own experiences, none of which made me cry, but several of which were illustrative of what women are up against.

Sir Tim’s crass humour recalled the appeal I once heard from one vice-chancellor (now deceased) for new staff to encourage their wives to accept that academics sometimes had to work in the evenings. At that time, I taught psychology to medical students, of whom half were women. Shortly after my arrival, female students were knocking at my door complaining of harassment and sexist behaviour by male staff. Examples included the use of gratuitous images of overweight, underdressed women or unnecessary comments about female patients in lectures. Their concerns were rewarded with accusations that they lacked humour, or worse. Indeed, a similar accusation was directed at me in a clinical staff meeting when I objected to the head of department’s jovial manner while describing a man in his care who had beaten up his wife. But this was the 1990s, you might say: what would you expect?

Ten years later, having supported my rise to reader, my head of department prepared laudatory papers in support of my application for a personal chair. But days before the deadline, he came to my office. Would I be prepared to stand aside for my colleague? Actually, it wasn’t a request – it was a done deal. He was young, talented and might move on otherwise, you see. I was shocked and angry. In the head’s mind, I am sure, was the age-old stereotype that, as a woman, my career was secondary to my domestic life.

I responded by making an individual unsupported application – risking, of course, being seen as an aggressive harridan rather than an ambitious academic seeking justice. The result was that we both got chairs, but the head never spoke civilly to me again. A year later, my colleague moved to another university anyway.

Ten more years passed. I too had moved elsewhere, and was now involved in middle management. But it was not until my female line manager left for her own external promotion that I fully realised the value of her supportive mentoring. I found myself frequently in all-male company at meetings headed by a senior, and, to my mind, misogynist man. No one noticed how I was being treated, or how its impact was undermining my ability to be effective.

At one such meeting, feeling a little chilly, I put my jacket over my shoulders. The chair responded with something along the lines of: “If you are cold, I suggest you hang upside down on the chandelier and pedal.” My colleagues all laughed – they thought the man a little eccentric, but he was in a powerful position. But although I see myself as tough enough to ignore such behaviour, I felt humiliated both by the image conjured up and the intention to shift the discussion from the substantive issue to a hostile and personal attack on my dignity.

At another all-male meeting, while waiting for everyone to arrive, the senior male chair (a different one) started joking about the physical appearance of a female singer, and the others joined in. They seemed to treat it as a bonding experience. Anti-women remarks and behaviours occur in many such formal situations. The question is whether we should object every time, and risk making powerful enemies – or, at the very least, be deemed a humourless troublemaker who will not be invited to key subsequent meetings. Or should we, instead, wait until there are potentially serious consequences that may influence a grievance outcome, promotion or appointment panel?

In this case, I believed that if I had told my colleagues about how I felt, they would have suggested I had overreacted. They might have apologised on behalf of men in general. One actually did, publicly, when I reported another incident. But that response was implicitly – and clearly unintentionally – dismissive of the complaint; the fact that, as was insisted, not every man would be overtly or covertly sexist does not mean that sexism is no longer pervasive.

The rhetoric of equal opportunities, the legislation against sexual harassment and gender discrimination and the replacement of the metaphor of the glass ceiling with the one of the “sticky door” (a term used recently by Nemat Shafik, the second female deputy governor of the Bank of England) all serve to obscure the emotional and practical stress that still afflicts female academics aspiring to leadership, seniority and power. It is indeed troubling to be a “girl” in the academy.

Paula Nicolson is emeritus professor of health and social care at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her latest book is Gender, Power and Organisation: A Psychological Perspective on Life at Work (2015).

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