Gender and Academia

In recognition of International Women’s Day, SAGE Ocean — an initiative from Sage Publishing which supports computational social scientists — asked me to contribute to a blog post discussing challenges facing women in academia and reflecting on strategies for improvement.

I encourage you to read the full post here, featuring comments from Laura K. Nelson, Megan Squire, Lily Fesler, Diyi Yang, Kimberly A. Houser, Aleksandra Berditchevskaia and myself.

I’ve included my own answers below:

How do we nurture an academic landscape that is more accessible to women?

The challenges faced by women and gender minorities in academia goes beyond a “pipeline problem.” In many cases, good scholars are actively forced from the academy by cultures of harassment and systems designed for people with power and privilege. Nurturing a more accessible academic landscape, then, means critically evaluating and rebuilding these systems; working to make academia more inclusive for all. In a practical sense, this means genuinely listening to concerns that are raised, learning from other people’s perspectives, and working collaboratively to make our antiquated systems better. This work goes beyond the dimension of gender, and seeks to make space for all who have traditionally been barred from academic life. The key thing to realize here is that “the way it has always been” is — by definition – imperfect, since those past strategies were developed around a relatively narrow sub-sample of the population and cannot be expected to generalize. As we get more data, as we learn from different types of academic experiences, we ought to adjust our thinking and our systems to ensure that no one’s scholarship is being systematically excluded. 

What are the key challenges facing women in academia?

As an academic, I expect to be regularly critiqued for the substance of my ideas and the quality of my methods. This is good for science and it is how we all learn and improve. However, far too often, the possibility that I have the capacity to contribute intellectually is simply dismissed out of hand or the harshness of the criticism I receive exceeds what is conducive to scholarly debate. On numerous occasions I have had men yell over me while I try to explain my work, I’ve had men simply walk away when I introduce myself, I have been told that my presence indicates a lowering of the bar, and I have been sexually harassed in academic spaces. These are the things that make me want to leave academia. To be clear, there are many things I love about the ethos of academic pursuits: I love getting feedback, I love learning from people who are smarter than me, and, if I’m being honest with myself, I even love the stress and neuroses that come with trying to be successful in academic life. But to be constantly harassed and degraded, to have it made it so perfectly clear that a significant portion of the community will never even consider me to have intellectual potential – that is the most disappointing challenge of all.

I share these experiences because they are not just mine – these stories are endemic amongst women in the academy. Non-binary and genderqueer people often face even worse harassment and regularly have their very existence questioned. Furthermore, gender is but one dimension along which people may experience exclusion and discrimination within academic communities. When academia protects and even rewards the scholars who perpetuate such harassment, it only further emphasizes the narrative of intellectual inferiority: we mourn the careers of abusive scholars more than we mourn the loss of the many people they push out.

What do you envisage the impact of increased gender diversity in academia be?

While increased gender diversity is a good in its own right – representing increased diversity in perspectives and giving future scholars more opportunities to see themselves in academia – it can, perhaps, be better understood as an indicator rather as an outcome in itself. Existing gender disparities in academia are indicative of a system in which people are regularly bullied and harassed out of the field; they are indicative of a system in which anyone who falls outside a perceived cis, white, male norm is put at tremendous disadvantage. They are indicative of patterns of abusive and dismissive behavior which serve to keep a broken status quo in place and systematically silence some voices. This is why I suggest that levels gender diversity can be seen as an indicator rather than an outcome: a world in which academia has more gender diversity would be a world in which academia is less toxic. A world in which, quite simply — scholars are assessed by the quality of their scholarship.

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Don’t forget to visit SAGE Ocean’s post to read other people’s responses as well!

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