Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wolves in the throne room: Sexism in the academy

"I was just curious about the image you used". I paused, unsure of how to respond. "Okay-em, what about it?" I asked. "Well, you are going to be presenting this to women in the department, you know, as equals..." The sentence was left hanging, allowing the others in the room to see the implied accusation of sexism.

I'm paraphrasing a bit-I don't remember the exact words exchanged. I had wanted to use an image that concisely summed up the idea of someone chewing gum-a simple idea, but quite difficult to capture in a still image, given most people chew gum with their mouths clothed. Hey presto-I found a clear image of someone chewing gum, stretching it out of their mouth-a nice, unambiguous pic of gum-chewing. I hadn't really thought of the image as sexualised, let alone sexist. What a fool I was. If you're in work, you'd better shut down your PC in case you get sued for the hardcore porn you're about to witness:

Okay, so in hindsight it IS quite a sexualised image, but it was only a small part of an overall slide with other images (hence I needed something that was obviously a mouth with chewing gum associated with it). Looking at it now with the benefit of hindsight (and blown up larger on this page than it was in the PowerPoint! I swear!) I can see how someone could see this as a bit wuh wuh wuh. I did it in a rush, not really taking account of how it might be perceived (I swear!).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I recall a female postgrad (obviously not the same person as the PowerPoint accuser) voicing an opinion that feminism had had its day. (Here I pause for effect). Okay......

What connects these contrasting stories is that I could imagine at least a handful of people who hear these stories thinking that BOTH the high sensitivity to perceived sexism AND the assumption that sexism no longer exists could stem from a common source: that academia has lower rates of sexism than many other workplaces, and this is perhaps particularly the case for certain departments, such as sociology or psychology. There are not-unreasonable reasons for thinking this. At Cardiff University, where I did my PhD, the School of Psych has won an Athena Swan award for advancing women in psychology. Unfortunately, sexism is everywhere, and it's usually worse than not thinking through a throwaway PowerPoint pic, or indeed worse than a poor choice of shirt.

Here's an example; a male PhD student within another department of psychology expressed resentment towards a female academic for not marrying her long-term partner, with whom she had a child. (I should add the PhD student expressed this resentment to me, not to this woman or her family's face). The couple were living together and both caring for the child. The resentment didn't seem to come from any religious sense or "think about the children" mentality, but rather a sense of insult that the male's desire to marry was not reciprocated by his partner. The fact that the man had decided to stay with his partner and child did not seem to soothe the nerves of the guy taking offence on another man's behalf. It seems marriage should be according to the man's will; not by mutual consent.

There are various factors that could explain sexism. Although it may not explain the above example, as a psychologist, I have to give a mention to the just world hypothesis. This does what it says on the tin-basically, it's the attitude that the world is essentially fair. This can have the unsavoury effect of victim-blaming. After all, if someone brought misfortune on themselves, then the world is still basically a fair (and therefore safer) place, right? Right? I would suggest this can have a related effect whereby when people see discrimination (which is pretty hard to deny) they can at least make it seem fairer by assuming that each side is as bad as the other. Yes, blacks have it hard, but look at all the abuse whites get! Yes, women are picked on for their gender, but this is true of men too! Just in the last week or two an email went around the Uni about a workshop for helping women progress their careers-a male academic replied that there should be a similar workshop for males. It was a particularly delicious irony that this gender warrior was a Professor-after all, there is no gender disparity at the top of academia, so it makes no sense to have such a workshop herpa derpa doo. Although it is prosaic to point out that sexism against men exists, the idea that this is somehow as damaging or dangerous as sexism against women may be an example of the just-world hypothesis (even if those who think this way may cry "injustice!").

The rules around gender are changing; some men in science are too starting to thinking about whether they can "have it all". The work culture in academia doesn't lend itself to very hands-on family life, and if more men want to be more involved with their families this has obvious implications. Even if times are changing, and it's harder to get away with sexism, sexism is not going to just go away any time soon, and having a lot of education is no guarantee of good behaviour. When our job calls us to hold our mirror up to humanity, we need to hold that mirror up close to our own faces. I probably should've just used a pack of Doublemint.


  1. Interesting read. I think people are sometimes too sensitive, and actually look for opportunities to be offended. You can look at the above image and it's really your own interpretation as to whether it is sexualised or not. All that is actually there is a closeup of a woman's mouth, a piece of chewing gym stretched between her teeth. Ok, she's wearing red lipstick, and from what can actually be seen it appears she may well be a good looking woman, but I'd say it's difficult to argue that it is overtly sexual. To accuse you of sexism or of objectifying women for using it in a presentation is an overextrapolation and rather unfair.

  2. Oops, sorry for the late reply saintjimmy. People certainly vary in their tendency to get offended by something all right. I like to think it's an amusing little anecdote, although I suppose the main thrust of this post is a message of anti-sexism, which women are disproportionate victims of. It's probably not surprising that some woman are hyper-vigilant for signs of sexism when sexism has held them back in life (if it hasn't punched them in the face or worse). But yeah, I like to think the pic wasn't that bad.