The gendered aspects of academia

by Eszter Hargittai on July 18, 2006

Over at academicsecret, several posts start out discussing topics in fairly general terms, but have ended up with a gender twist. For example, there is the issue of having babies while in grad school or the question of “strategic incompetence”. The latter refers to some people’s ability to convince others that they are incompetent with all sorts of inconvenient tasks (whether secretarial work or committee membership) and thus manage to get out of a lot of service work.

Neither of these posts started out as a discussion of gender differences, but in both cases a commenter suggested that the issues work differently for male vs female academics. I think those commenters are correct. Even in fields and departments that are more egalitarian less obvious differences remain. But it’s interesting to note that even people who recognize these challenges in academia don’t necessarily see the gendered aspects right away.



laura 07.18.06 at 11:57 am

oooh. I love this blog. Thanks for the tip, Eszter. Here’s another blog that I found recently that discusses sexism and academia.


Chuchundra 07.18.06 at 12:30 pm

How can the topic of “having babies while in grad school” not roll into one about gender differences?


Richard (a boy) 07.18.06 at 12:49 pm

my own, teeny-tiny data point is that so far my all-male committee has been very supportive of my having babies in grad school, and taking the time necessary to be a present and supportive father.

…that said, I have noticed that grad school in general is not very compatible with child-rearing, and that a successful academic career, with frequent traveling (for fieldwork, conferences, invited talks, archival research etc) appears much less so.

…and yes, I am already aware that the idea of fieldwork or archival research alongside an academic career is laughable… but allow me my illusions for the moment.


Jacob Christensen 07.18.06 at 4:04 pm

As a note on the child rearing-theme: This has been a relatively big issue in Germany recently (If you read German, I’ll recommend this article from Die Zeit) as the Germans and most other Europeans have noted that on the macro-level there seems to be an inverse relationship between social conservatism and the rate of child births.

In a modern society, a system which is based on the single-breadwinner model discourages women from having children.

The question then is: Can this macro-level observation be reproduced at the medium- and micro-levels? And: Can we conversely say something about the degree of social conservatism of medium- and micro-level institutions (such as segments of the labour market and individual workplaces) by looking at the rate of births among women who work there? (Just to state the obvious: Is academia to a higher degree than other parts of society still based on a socially conservative or a single/male breadwinner-model?)

The article, that I link to, also have a really fascinating discussion about how demographic statistics are politicised in Germany. Basically, the Christian Democrats do not want reliable statistics about variations in fertility rates.

PS: At “my” department, two of our female grad students have had children recently and the overwhelming majority of the female staff are in a relationship (yes: I didn’t write “and have children” but I suspect that the rate of infertility isn’t much higher than in Sweden-at-large). It is the men who are more likely to be unmarried and childless.

But this is of cause anecdotal evidence – I would need numbers for all of “my” university or Swedish universities to be able to say something reliable about this.


Jacob Christensen 07.18.06 at 4:07 pm

I’ll proof-read myself here: The sentence should be – there is an inverse relationship between social conservatism and the rate of child births, not …there seems to be an inverse relationship…

No weasels here.


Kelly 07.18.06 at 6:51 pm

Huh, with that title, I thought this post was going to be about the FTM transgendered scientist talking about his three decade career, and comparing the differences to being a scientist as a woman, and as a man. I don’t have a link to the Nature article he wrote, but I do have a link to the New York Times interview with Dr. Barres.

But that just could be because I’ve seen the story in three different communities today, so I’m sort of primed… ;)


Martin James 07.18.06 at 7:05 pm

Jacob Christensen,

What are the parameters in the relationship you describe?

What measures social conservatism and how much does it lower fertility rates?

How does it relate to the single-breadwinner model you describe, for example, are you saying couples with one breadwinner have fewer children than couples with two-breadwinners.

Does the data hold for the USA also where social conservatism is correlated with fewer births? Is this a trend over time or a trend across areas?


minerva 07.19.06 at 12:38 pm

What I’ve discovered is that there seems to be an understanding about how many children women are allowed to have pre-tenure on the part of so-called progressive academics: You are allowed one child before tenure. Two, however, and we write you off. So long as you are a woman. I’ve noticed this doesn’t seem to apply as stringently to men. Surprisingly, the three professors who emphasized this most strongly to me were women and committed feminists. One was a Women’s Studies Professor. Another told me that if I did much more than what is usual for tenure I might be allowed more than one child.

It seems to be the case that the one child policy is a progressive thing. The less progressive view is that you aren’t allowed any.


Jacob Christensen 07.19.06 at 6:54 pm

@7: The observation is that birth rates are lower in countries like Italy, Spain and Germany than in the Scandinavian countries. Social policy research has (surprise!) concentrated on factors like tax policy, social insurance, the availability of child care and so on.

On an individual level the connection is likely to be that “traditional families” have more children than “modern families” in “conservative” systems – I’m using the termonology which is common in social policy research – but that the share of traditional families compared to modern ones is falling. In “social democratic” systems there would be fewer “traditional” families and the gap between the number of children would be smaller.

Btw: I noted that the author of one of the posts, that the original post in this thread linked to, complained about the difficulties of being (and wanting to be) a full-time mother while at the same time doing academic work. A Scandinavian mother would leave her child/ren in day care after the end of parental leave and go on with her work. End of story.


Dick Fitzgerald 07.20.06 at 1:47 am

You’re the Zionist who crowed about your wonderful trip to Israel. You’ve heard what the Nazis did to Guernica: the Israelis hit Saint Therese Hospital in Lebanon.

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