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Recent Reflections on Female Academics

March 9, 2014

Lately, two very interesting approaches to the question on women in academia have come out. The first was a wonderful speech given by Prof Mary Beard on the issue of women's voices in academia. The second was a call from academics at the University of Cambridge for the widening of appointment criteria in a way that would make promotion more accessible to women.

 

There are perhaps three points to make on this second article - two positive, and one far more problematic - inspired by Prof Beard's remarks.

 

First, it is excellent that we are looking to widen the criteria for promotion within the academy. This is a long time coming, and is a way of fighting the overemphasis on niche jargon-filled research fueled by REF. The group of Cambridge academics have suggested that "teaching, administration and outreach work" would be valued in this new approach. Dissemination thus would become more important, making our jobs as academics more relevant to the wider public. A great step.

 

Second, I am so very happy that the disparity between the genders is being taken note of and attempts are being made to try to rectify it. I applaud this effort. It is beyond high time that this became a major issue for all those in the academy, and who support it.

 

However, this proposal concerns me. It suggests that women are not as successful as men at the 'traditional' jobs of the academic - primarily getting research grants and publications. This is supported by a series of interviews and research done by the group making the proposal. Therefore, giving this research the benefit of the doubt, it would be best to concede that as things stand, the current criteria do indeed "unduly advantage men". However, when one starts to as why this may be the case (unless one accepts that pesky extra 'X' is getting the way of research) the focus shifts from underpromoted academic women with their underdeveloped academic CVs, to those on the other side of the hiring equation - and indeed the entire structure of academic promotion, publication and administration.

 

So what is going on? Here is where Prof Beard's comments become especially relevant. It's not that women have nothing to say, or are not saying it particularly well, it's that no one is listening or taking it seriously. It is for similar reasons that women might find themselves succeeding in those roles other academics tend to disdain or devalue - teaching, outreach and, above all, administration. It does not surprise me in the least that women are often relegated to the administrative tasks in academia. Thus the issue has little or even nothing to do with promotion criteria and the women who may or may not be disadvantaged by it - but is a far more pervasive problem of embedded sexism within the system.

 

Now, I love teaching, outreach and, yes, administration. I think every academic ought to. And, as I've already said, I do indeed hope these do become integrated into promotion criteria. As a temporary measure to fix the imbalance and encourage men as well as women to take these roles, this proposal might find use. But I think overall the widespread acceptance of these criteria need to remain a separate issue from that of reducing the gender disparity among senior academics. Otherwise, we run the risk of perpetuating a harmful stereotype, reinforcing limiting gender roles and not addressing the real source of the issue which, as Prof Beard helpfully points out, is not on the side of the woman speaking, but rather her audience.

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