The F-word in academia: Moving beyond individual choices


Feminism. Not a rude word. To be equal on the basis of gender. As someone clever said, “it is the radical notion that women are people”.

Sorry to say it folks – but gender inequalities don’t just go away by avoiding explicit sexism. I’m afraid implicit sexism structured into everyday mundane activities prevails.

There are more women than ever obtaining undergraduate or postgraduate degrees – but when it comes to moving up further through academia, institutional sexism is pervasive. To avoid accusations of being anecdotal (and the tired eye-rolling we feminists are accustomed to), let’s start with a few statistics from two recently published studies.

The first was published in Nature last month: Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science

The authors of the study used the Web of Science to analyse authors’ gender for 5 483 841 research papers and review articles with 27 329 915 authorships, including papers from a large number of countries worldwide. An analysis of authors’ gender revealed that “women account for fewer than 30% of fractionalized authorships, whereas men represent slightly more than 70%. Women are similarly underrepresented when it comes to first authorships. For every article with a female first author, there are nearly two (1.93) articles first-authored by men.” They also found that articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions. Given that citations play a key role in the evaluation of researchers and institutions, this situation can only worsen gender disparities.

In their concluding remarks the authors candidly state:

“Unfortunately, behind this global imbalance lie local and historical forces that subtly contribute to the systemic inequalities that hinder women’s access to and progress in science. Any realistic policy to enhance women’s participation in the scientific workforce must take into account the variety of social, cultural, economic and political contexts in which students learn science and scientific work is performed. Each country should carefully identify the micro-mechanisms that contribute to reproducing the past order. No country can afford to neglect the intellectual contributions of half its population.”

They rightly highlight here that, while we can safely applaud the great international success of patriarchy, applied as a central tenet in most human societies, its implementation varies from country to country, culture to culture, institution to institution. Without identifying the mechanisms favouring patriarchy within each structural form, we will continue to witness and describe gender disparities.

The second study was on allocated research funding published last month in BMJ Open Differences in research funding for women scientists: a systematic comparison of UK investments in global infectious disease research during 1997–2010.

In this paper the authors show that women working in biomedical science in Britain are less likely to receive funding than their male counterparts, and also receive significantly smaller sums. Out of more than 6000 funding grants between 1997 and 2010, fewer than a quarter were awarded to studies where the Principle Investigator was a woman. Male scientists received nearly £1.8bn of funding compared to just £488m for women in the same time-period.

Studies led by women were more likely to receive smaller sums of money. The average grant for a woman-led study was £125 556 – compared to an average award of £179 389 for research proposed by men. Public funding organisations invested a total of £1.025bn in research led by men (78.6%) and £279.8m in research led by women (21.4%).

Some of the usual excuses for these disparities are dealt with by the authors in the discussion:

“There have been suggestions that women are systematically less ambitious in the amounts of funding requested in their grant applications when compared with men who are equivalently ranked academically, and that relatively simple mentoring programmes could at least partially overcome this anomaly. However, there is no evidence supporting these assertions…/ … Women of childbearing age are being disadvantaged in some areas of employment, even though in relation to scientific endeavour, productivity as measured by published outputs is not significantly different between women with and without children.”

To many, the inherent argument that these issues are ingrained in our social structures and cultural practices will be so smack-you-over-the-head blatantly obvious that you should not read any further. But when confronted with how these structural issues infiltrate our lives to affect our every day practices, I am astounded by how blinkered people can be. What baffles me most is how the blame is firmly placed at the foot of individual women and their personal choices.

reclaiming F word

Here’s one example of the link between socially structured practices and women’s careers I come across each week.

In France, traditionally, things are different on a Wednesday for school kids. All schools have a half day on Wednesdays, and previously some had the whole day off. When you ask why, it’s explained as being in the children’s best interest to have a bit of a ‘rest’ during a long working week. If your child is to do any extracurricular activities, like sports or arts, they tend to be organised by clubs and societies on a Wednesday afternoon. Most local authorities also provide a heavily subsidised leisure centre which is a child minding service linked to the school that the kids can attend until the evening. These leisure centres are run by the Mayor’s office, so practices vary, and especially in rurally located communities they may not have the funding needed to cope with demand.

When you work in France, you will notice that some people, invariably women, disappear on Wednesdays. They are often on 80% or 90% contracts so as to care for and manage their children on Wednesdays. So the issue occasionally comes up: should you set meetings on Wednesdays? There is no denying the headache for employers or colleagues without small kids. Wednesday is a day like any other, and losing some of the workforce one day a week poses a problem. Why should we accommodate this personal decision to look after children mid-week? Conversely, working mothers are faced with the decision to either do ‘what is best for the children’, leaving work on Wednesday afternoon to traipse them from one activity to another. Or ‘favour their career’ and leave them at the leisure centre – or have some other arrangement.

Either way it is ALWAYS presented as an individual decision. Either way the individual is ALWAYS being judged.

You rarely, if ever, hear the argument that perhaps society’s decision based on ‘tradition’, to organise the school week in this way, may result in the inherent disadvantage to women who ‘traditionally’ care for children.

Ah – our good friend ‘tradition’ crops up once more, that ol’ chestnut! We seem to be managing OK after waving good bye to other ‘traditions’ like caning at school, or bloodletting, or the Stocks… So occasionally revisiting some ‘traditions’ is perhaps in order?

Luckily Caitlin Moran has provided us with a way of testing these types of situations:

“You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, “And are the men doing this, as well?” If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as “some total fucking bullshit.”

Caitlin Moran in How to be a woman.

So the Moran test: Are men taking Wednesday afternoons off to take their children to football? Hmmm. Nope. It would seem not.

Women’s systematic disadvantage in the workplace due to childcare constraints prevails in countries all over the world. Somehow, like other structural forms of gender discrimination such as violence against women, the conversation always comes back to blaming the woman, and not bothering to reform the system. She shouldn’t have gone out wearing that skirt. She missed the meeting so as to take her kid to music.

We need to move beyond discussing individual-level decision making.

Do I have a problem with individual women making choices? To have, or not have children; to work part-time, or take Wednesdays off; to walk about in stilettos or flat shoes? Of course I don’t. Obviously I have made choices of my own. However, before assessing the impact of one person’s behaviours on me or anyone else, I recommend carrying out the Moran test first.

Imbalance in childcare roles is one among many gender differences structured into our daily lives that disadvantage women’s position in the workforce. The studies discussed above demonstrate the omnipresence of these issues at the structural level  in academia. They are going unaddressed.

Sorry everyone, but the F-word is still relevant within academia.

Related links

-Nature Special issue on Women in Science

-Problem of Gender and Citations Raised Again in New Research Study

-Female Labour Market Participation

-The Everyday Sexism Project

4 thoughts on “The F-word in academia: Moving beyond individual choices

  1. Pingback: The F-word in academia: Moving beyond individual choices

  2. Great, great post… To complete all of these quantitative aspects, here is the beautiful article of an ethnographer who examines how she experimented the genderly structuration of parenting when she had her first child and took her maternity leave. I think this article should be spread as much as possible in our homes and workplaces – for obvious reasons.

  3. others which are at least as bad:

    – pregnancy leave lasts a while. Paternity leave is 2 weeks. Women miss out on promotions etc during this time. Not necessarily a patriarchal reason, but contributes a lot.
    – the likelihood of pregnancy leave or other such requests makes women more paranoid about promotion (“I need that position before I start having kids”), more narrowly competitive with other female colleagues (“I have to get that promotion before X gets it and then goes off on pregnancy leave”), and generally worried they will need to ask for time off or other favours.
    – because of the nasty combo of these points, many highly capable women where I work (a female-dominated workplace) accept work and pay conditions most men would reject, and daren’t speak out when passed for promotion or asked to do unreasonable work. If you know you are likely to need time off work for a sick or newborn child soon then it seems sensible not to make waves when asked to pitch in early for less money.

    On another note, work rights are mostly protected by unions. Women are much much more reluctant to join or appeal to unions or become representatives. They think well-meaning male bosses will look upon them more favourably for childcare and other ‘favours’ if they forgo basic rights. Typically the reverse is actually true.

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