Happy international women’s day!
I want to use this occasion to share some thoughts about how to given women in academia a fair chance. I’m not talking about affirmative action or quota, but rather making both the environment more welcoming to women, the formal practices fairer to women, and the informal practices such that they are less disadvantageous for women. The reason why these things need to be discussed is that I increasingly encounter academics (mostly men, I fear) who think that there are no further issues with the environment/procedures/practices, and who believe that in reality women now get better chances in academia than men. While there may be isolated cases of such favorable treatment of women, my judgement of the situation is that all things considered many women are still in many (subtle and not-so-subtle) ways disadvantaged, and that unfortunately many academics do not understand how the practices in academia are disadvantaging women. So, let us look at some of these factors, and ask what each of us can do to give women an equal chance in academia.
In many situations the causes of women’s unequal chances are small and not visible to those not trained to diagnose the situation. One cause is the effects of implicit bias, which implies that if a piece of work is being done by women, it will be judged of lower quality than exactly the same piece of work done by me, due to non-conscious associations we hold. Or, a certain skill, capacity or personality trait will be judged positively if we see it in a man, and less positively or even negatively if it’s a trait of a woman. A typical case is being assertive, which is in men seen as a sign of leadership, but in women quickly interpreted as being aggressive. Implicit bias is often at work in how we judge CV’s and publication list: a woman with a strong publication list will be seen as ‘promising’, a man will be seen as ‘excellent’. These differences in evaluation are documented in studies on implicit bias, but many colleagues (from various universities and fields) who know about implicit bias, have seen it work in evaluative situations (like hiring committees) in which the work and capacities of men and women were evaluated.
In my view, we won’t be able to make a significant improvement in the position of women in academia if academics in positions of power and authority (that is: those who hire people, judge non-anonymous grant applications or paper/books submission etc.) will not fully understand the workings of implicit bias, including some of the empirical research that documents implicit bias. Feminist philosophers such as Jennifer Saul and Sally Haslanger have done a lot of work on implicit bias, so anyone who wants to know more can read it on the web, for example here.
Networking and mentoring
Another cause is that due to the fact that there are many more senior male academics than senior female academics (supervisors, lecturers, professors), it is much harder for a young female academic to find a mentor of the same sex. When I was a grad student in economics in Leuven, around 1997, I noticed that the male PhD students, postdocs and lecturers would once in a while do a joint activity in the weekend, such as playing football or going for a hike. There were about 3 female PhD students in the department, and none was invited to join; and in fact these women may have felt awkward since this group of men were clearly friends. But there were no female professors and hence no female mentors for the young women with whom to hang out and learn much about the academic labour market that one doesn’t learn from the books. No-one did anything wrong and still the young women were disadvantaged in getting access to informal information about the workings of the academic labour market.
One of the things that has struck me being on hiring committees in recent times is that some young women have clearly been badly advised about what to publish, where to publish. In my part of the woods, publication track outweighs other factors in deciding whom to hire. Since numbers are small it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from this, but I’ve seen a number of good or very good women, who nevertheless had a publication record that was much weaker than they presumably could have had if they had received proper advice on how to develop a sound publication strategy. My hunch is that given the gendered structures of informal mentoring and networking, young men get much more and much better of such advice then women.
Any senior academic, whether male or female, therefore has an opportunity by scouting, intellectually nurturing, informally mentoring and guiding young women – undergrad and Master’s students, but also PhD students and young Postdocs. I have had several such senior people who adviced me when I was younger, and it has made a significant difference to my chances on the academic labour market. Many of them went beyond the call of duty—I was neither at their institute nor a former student of them, and still they supported me in numerous ways, including responding to endless questions I put to them about the workings of academia. Several of them were men. In fact, the person who supported me most in the crucial years after I got my PhD, was a man (not my supervisor). I am not quite sure they would want to be named here, but since they know who they are, let me just say: thank you.
The gender-representation of a discipline
It is very important for younger women to have older women to whom they can relate as role models. The Gendered Conference Campaign has argued at length why all-male conference, summer schools, and other events are bad. I’m not going to repeat their arguments here. But let me add that I’ve increasingly come to the view that although it is better to have a conference with 1 female invited speaker and 6 male invited speakers than a conference with 7 male speakers, it is still only marginally better than having an all male conference. So I propose the following: as a strict rule: no all male conferences. As a guideline to which we should strongly aspire and make any efforts we can to realise it: any conference, Summerschool or other event should not have less than one third of speakers of either sex.
Balance = at least one third of either sex.
There is the old insight that if members of a certain group are represented with less than one third in the composition of the larger group, then members of that group will be stronger identified in their capacity as members of the underrepresented group. So if you have a conference with 4 keynote speakers (1 female, 3 male), then the female speaker will be more perceived as a woman then if the division was more equal (in this case: 2/2). The paradox of this is that we should invite women so that they are no longer perceived as women first, but as professionals in their field: but to reach that goals we must make sure we invite at least one third of them. If you don’t quite know how to make a conference gender-balanced: the Gendered Conference Campaign has some ideas on how to do that, but feel free to add more in the discussion.
One problem I’ve encountered with activism on this topic is that when you notice an all-male event, it is often organized by people in your field, including your friends and also colleagues with whom you collaborate in various ways. So if then, as a woman, you notify the organisors, this can become very awkward: they may interpret it as that you are really saying that they should have invited you. In fact, it has happened to me that via social media I drew attention to an all male event, only to receive an invitation the next day. This is of course not what one wants to signal if one addresses gender-imbalanced events. It is therefore very good that there are independent media such as Feminist Philosophers, who can on more neutral grounds draw attention to gender imbalanced events.
One problem with the current situation in which in some fields there are only a handful of women, is that these women are asked to serve on all committees, since it is in itself a good thing to have more gendered-balanced committees. But if you only have 10%-15% female full professors (as in my country), but you want at least one woman on each committee (often committees consist of 5 persons, but I’ve also been on 2-person committees), then it means that female professors will be called upon much more to serve on committees, giving them less time for their teaching and research. I’ve noted this issue in my professional life, and virtually every female professor I’ve discussed this, has the same experience. I don’t see how we can solve this: if all goes well it clearly should be ‘merely’ a transition problem—but one that will take probably a very long time.
There are other hurdles and problems for women in academia. In an interview in The Times Higher Eduction, Jennifer Saul mentions the many testimonies of sexual harassment she received when she started the blog What’s it like to be a woman in philosophy? Some of the accounts there are horrifying. Yet I should say that I have never had a friend, colleague, or student who gave even the slightest indication of being sexually harassed. I suspect this is pure statistical coincidence, but it may also be a difference between subcultures within countries or something else that I am overlooking. But by all means discuss this in the comments if you have some advice to share on how to solve this problem.
Families and the labour market
Finally, there are issues that affect women in academia as they affect all women workers, especially women who want to have a job that is time-wise demanding. One issue is that many women who have been succesful in academia had supporting partners. Yet we also know that the demand for truly egalitarian men is smaller than the supply of truly egalitarian men; and that those young heterosexual couples who manage to be egalitarian often move to less egalitarian arrangements once they become parents. There are suggestions for institutional reforms that could address these issue, including the #1 solution which is to provide for high-quality affordable childcare, but also radical and somewhat less radical solutions regarding maternity and parental leave. Yet these affect all women and men, and not those in academia in particular.
So join me in celebrating International Women’s Day by sharing what you believe could help in giving women genuine equal opportunities in academia. And many thanks to all those who, often over many years, have done so much work trying to give women in academia more equal opportunities.