The Womb

Anatomy of Gendered Academia: What Early Career Scholars Should Know

By Rohini Sen

I started teaching at 25 with no prior experience of doing so but unbound enthusiasm for it. Early career teaching in India is not voguish and in 2012, it was quite the unchartered territory. There were very few of us who made our way to it and were perceived as anomalous, unable or unprepared to actualize our potent law school training. Things are seemingly changing now and there are more young people inspired to research and teach. Young graduates, undecided about academia, often approach me with questions. The enquiries vary from “what is teaching and academia like” to “is it worth it”. Most of them ask me to summarize and contextualize my experience in the academe. In response, I usually speak of teaching hours, how to make time for research and the relevance of academic liberty in bureaucratic and corporate environments. Often, I share anecdotes from my time in teaching and tell them of its many moorings. However, the one thing I do not/have not addressed in these queries is the terrible dialectics of academia as a gendered space. In speaking of it “objectively”, I inadvertently make invisible its normative hostility to the presence of women/not men.

I had entered the terrain unaware of this and it is quite possible that I unwittingly recreate that delusion for its newer entrants. Why do I do this? I am not sure. Gendered academia is not news or novel. It is an accepted truth within the circles and spoken of in critique, caricature and consequence. Sometimes, it spills over to the mainstream and social media, largely through accounts of sexual harassment. However, I understand this process of ‘mainstreaming’ to be grossly inadequate. Structurally, gendered academia is much more than multiple instances of sexual harassment and this is a reality early career scholars are forced to contend with only after they have set foot into its fold. Academia is still perceived as a profession “suitable” for women and those outside are yet to regard it at a space that is structurally imbued with patriarchy like any other place of employment. Perhaps this is to do with the illusion of objectivity that academia tends to present to itself (and others). And, knowledge and learning are not often associated with gender or gendered‘ness’. However, that makes it all the more relevant to present this to young aspirants of academia both in pursuit of honest praxis and in hopes of moving/changing the system some more. 

2. What is Gendered Academia, How is it Gendered and Other Questions to Ask.

Academia boasts of a number of female academics in varying stages of success. How then, is it gendered? When we say gendered, we are not simply referring to who inhabits it, but to the very nature of academia itself. Much like any other profession, the numbers are rarely reflective or indicative of the norms and practices. Therefore, high number of qualified women notwithstanding, the terms and conditions of the profession remain fundamentally male, further disadvantaged by location, ethnicity and proximity or distance from English. An important caveat at this stage – the gendered parameters are numerous and I will only touch upon a few that are directly consequent to early career teaching and research.

  1. Aesthetics of academia: When you think of the “Professor”, or the image of the teacher, what comes to mind? Popular culture references as well as the weight of formative memory of early education always depict the teacher/professor as a carelessly or carefully dressed male figure, often ageing. There is an absent-minded air to this image, as if the erudition keeps him from worldly preoccupations. And, his genius is unquestioning almost as if it precedes the image. These optics are so deeply rooted in the language of academia that the plethora of female educators, academics and scholars struggle to dethrone the implicit ‘genius male’.  With this as the ingrained, default normative, female teachers and scholars are already set up to a disadvantage. For women, this is the invisible metric to constantly live up to and it usually means operating between extremes, but never equal to this image. 

As an early career female academic, the opportunities to challenge the optics are limited. They are forced between two limiting choices. Some may choose to desexualize oneself to create a loosely strung together version of the ‘careless genius’. The process of desexualizing is giving up on performing a version of femininity in exchange for the seriousness one is then accorded. This may appear more as an expectation and not a choice and many make this as a right of passage to ‘serious pursuit of knowledge’. This is a close approximation of the “professor” who has no time for earthly indulgences such as grooming and his female equivalent then becomes a desexualized body that may only have time for serious scholarship. One must note that there is no dearth of dandy men in academia. However, the illusion of effortlessness and the pre-emptive perception of weighty intellect rarely draws any attention to their performance of maleness. On the contrary, for women, the hostility of academia to your intellect is often determined by how much of your femininity you are willing to cede. 

Sometimes, however, the bar is so low that the mere presence of female academics in the space invokes deep-rooted sexism. In 2015, Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt went on to make blatantly sexist remarks about the presence of women in science. Hunt’s remarks drew visceral reaction from the academe and he was vilified by modern day’s greatest weapon – the internet. But, despite University College London’s speedy disposal of Hunt from various academic positions, the systemic problems of recognition, sexism, unequal reception continued to remain. In fact, the University’s reaction, like most things post the #metoo storm was knee jerk fire fighting as opposed to addressing that which forms the foundations of the profession still today. 

The other alternative is to painstakingly locate a ‘right pitch’ for ones appearance – something that conveys ‘academic’ without seeming too frivolous. This category fares worse than the former, both mitigated to a certain extent by duration, age and tenure of one’s time in the academe. As a young woman in a visually ‘aged-male’ profession I struggled with this aspect in my early days. What was the accurate visage to be taken as seriously as my male counterparts whose intellect was rarely tied to their physical form and clothing? Or, perhaps, as seriously as some of my female colleagues who are told to/subscribe to desexualise themselves to assert their ability and intelligence. When our imaginary of the ‘Professor, is forever set against a standard male template, how are we to ever balance the scale with simply stir and mix? And, for the first few years of my teaching, in my mind, I only seemed to fail.

For male academics, including the young ones, the teaching experience begins with an assumption of their intelligence and it takes considerable failures on their part to be dislodged from that pedestal. And their clothes rarely make it to their teaching evaluation or performance assessment. For non-male academics, the scale starts at zero till at some point, people get past the visage, temperament and wardrobe to conclude that one may indeed be capable. The faith has to be earned from the very people who find no difficulty in ascribing brilliance to the men simply by virtue of their staid class presence. We are made aware of this banality by what constitutues one of the most controversial dimensions of the profession – Student Evaluation of Teaching or SET.

  1. SET and what it reveals: Student evaluation of teaching (SET) generates mixed reactions across disciplines and academia. There are those who believe that it is an excellent way to generate accountability and are usually fair. Then, there are those who think too much emphasis is placed on feedback from students that are not given objectively, sincerely or mindfully. These feedbacks may often be procured prior to examinations or soon after grades and the students are rarely in a position to distinguish between teaching, appeasing and knowledge in some instances. But general concerns aside, SETs have been found to be heavily gendered against women. 

Violent or vitriolic comments against female academics are common in the SET. Unlike their male counterparts, they are judged on completely different parameters that have little to do with their classroom performance. One commonly observed trend in SETs reveal that students’ opine a lot on how ‘strict’ or ‘friendly’ the female faculty are. This metric of accessibility is deeply tied to how students perceive their delivery of knowledge and seems to be a key component in determining their likeability as opposed to the content. This is not observed with men too often as their personalities mostly pass muster unlesss they demonstrate significant inability to teach/work. Female academics are also judged on the basis of the amount of time they devote to office hours in excess of what is allotted. In what is clearly disproportionate emotional labout (and its expectation), students approach female faculty for personal advice more often than they approach the men. The unavailability for excessive emotional labour then seeps into a feedback designed to assess one’s performance through completed unrelated yet gendered parameters. This assumption is rarely there for men and this is possibly tied in to the expectations of care from feminine, notwithstanding the immediate role they occupy. Male faculty members, on the other hand are approached for career advice far more often in what is presumably an appeal to their ‘logical’ selves. 

Content or pedagogy is rarely subjected to the same standard of scrutiny at an identical starting point and sometimes, even for the same subject. For female academics, this stage is arrived at after a few rounds of teaching once the otherwise uninitiated audience is convinced of their repertoire. In other words, men are not bad until they are blatantly wrong. While women are only good once they are exceptional. SETs have also revealed that the in-classroom sexualizing plays a relevant role in assessing the content and performance as well. 

  1. Rueful Research and Time: Then, comes research – the holy grail of academia. The emotional labour from a) and b) easily spills into c) for women. If one is able to survive the general hostility of peers and structures, then the remaining time is allocated to research which is difficult for early career academics, gender notwithstanding. The domain of research is perhaps the most accurate articulation of where the public/private distinction best manifests. The academic aesthetic is reproduced here just like it is in teaching. This is followed by a demanding intrusion of the female body’s personal and/into the workspace.

For women, the expectation of catering to some form of domestic space – single, parents, partners – and balancing research takes up much time independently, in well defined patriarchal spaces. Comprehensive maternity leave for women (men take parental leaves as well but we are still looking at female oriented leave structures) are still not implemented. And once she is back into the workforce, the system expects her to continue in full disregard of the signficant bodily changes.  The workspace is equally unmindful of menstruation related challenges, everyday sexism and the likely security concerns female academics may navigate to and from there. This curtailing design impedes any possible fieldwork as well. This is not to say women do not perform adequate fieldwork but to point out that this is done under great constraint. This time for research is over and above teaching and one is expected to navigate this post the ongoing emotional labour of being in a male environment everyday. Anne Marie Slaughter in 2012 famously spoke of managing time re work and research in an article titled ‘Women Still Can’t have it all’. While the tone was largely optimistic, it addressed structural hindrances that get in the way, no matter what is ones level of success.

The other equally disturbing aspect of research is its gendered reception as among colleagues. This too, is a version of the ‘male’ aesthetic. Men understand female scholarship as non-serious/not objective and very often, presume that such scholarship lacks rigour. These assumptions are without and real basis and rooted in their misguided notions of what academia represents. For the young male academic the aspirational is an objective ‘philosopher’ akin to, perhaps, Rawls. The same image that forges the dimensions of the ‘male professor’ also lends itself to male academic thinking. The research here then is an act of privilege, distant from the mundane and everyday emotion or labour – a sphere that is seemingly female. The condescension manifests in identifying areas as ‘typically female’ or the work not being ‘adequately scholarly’. It also bleeds into a class-gender mired notion of who really has time to pontificate. I borrow from an exceptional essay on Virginia Wolf’s record of her writing habit where the author observes that: 

‘…..the uniqueness to her work is ‘the combination of this mystical vision with the sharpest possible sense for the concrete, even in its humblest form. …….In preserving this balance, her sex was probably a help; a man who becomes interested in the Ground of Being all too easily becomes like Lowes Dickinson—“Always live in the whole, life in the one: always Shelley and Goethe, and then he loses his hot-water bottle; and never notices a face or a cat or a dog or a flower, except in the flow of the universal.” A woman who has to run a house can never so lose contact with matter. The last entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary is typical: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’

If one is to study citation politics in academia, men usually cite men. They attribute this to a preponderance of male scholarship generally stating that this is an unfortunate reality. In defence of this practice, it is often stated that one simply cannot include mediocre female scholarship simply for visibility thus presenting the two-fold structural obstruction of a) female presence and b) male standards to assess female presence and scholarly work. Men also do not engage with female scholarship frequently, especially if it is feminist scholarship. Women are still expected to do ‘the feminism bit’ and men consider feminist scholarship ancillary to their work. Even men in critical scholarship seem to treat the body of feminist literature as optional. Much like men working on feminist scholarship is rare, the expectation of women doing feminist scholarship is almost imperative. Male colleagues have admitted to less likely to think of women as reading philosophy or capable of philosophical thinking. Even the guilt of acknowledgment is of the smug feminist variety. Response by students is often no better than by colleagues. The aesthetic feeds this narrative once again. 

In What I Call Miscellaneous Misery! What may we do?

Academia, like most other workplaces, is hardly designed to accommodate women. However, it is pertinent to understand how gender operates as unique and peculiar to academia as well. Raya Sarkar’ list revealed to us that structural misogyny is all pervasive and how a whisper network is pertinent in a profession where deep relations are not just fostered but critical between individuals and intellects. Perhaps, it is the most disappointing to acknowledge academia as horribly gendered because here is where the unpacking of such systems is most cognizant. Here is where one learns what ‘gendered’ means in itself.

In addition to all that I have stated above, other significant things that ails the profession are unequal pay, delayed/overlooked promotion for women, categorical work allocation and unaccounted for labour in identical designations, no different from the domestic private. Women are rarely in positions of actual power even though universities often boast of the strength of its female workforce. Statistics and numbers are used to detract us from things that remain structurally enabled no matter the nature of the institution – public or private.It is almost as if the fear for real change pervades the knowledge bastion the most. In intersection with other forces against spirited intellect, this is truly worrying. 

How is one to navigate this quagmire then? In the beginning of this piece, I had stated that we do not address this when speaking to young, aspiring female academics. And, as I write this, I realize that one of the best ways to do this is to acknowledge its presence. My entry to academic did not come with this insight and in not handing it down to those who follow our footsteps we become complicit in this un-feminist project. The strongest way forward is to support early career scholars by repeated conversations on gendered academia and how it manifests in the subtlest of ways. The reality of academia is textured. And it is almost as if it pretends to be objective so as to ensure that one is forced to conform to the male standard – like anything else. It is our task as feminist scholars to break this chain and I write this in hope of recruiting fresh energy to what is one of the most demanding and continuous feminist projects – reclaiming knowledge itself.

This piece was first published here.

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