For 12 months I’ve been working in a project team that’s been thrown together to support an institutional shift from one LMS to another, and I’ve learned a lot about what people think about academics. Listening to IT colleagues in particular it seems as though we either need monk-like protection from the realities of technology, or their technology needs protecting from us. That’s when we’re not huddled under our desks with our robes thrown over our heads, resisting change.

But the most interesting part of the experience has been meeting people who still refer normatively to academics as “he”.  As in, “this is what will happen when the lecturer updates his site.” I found this so startling that for a while I said nothing, because it seemed picky to point it out, like mentioning that someone who is saying something quite interesting has spinach in their teeth.

In the end, however, it had to be said.  And here’s the thing: the result was instant, thoughtful, and courteous. Our colleagues were surprised to discover that they did it, and immediately took to correcting each other in meetings, without any irony.

I was thinking back on this essentially good experience when I read the recent column by Female Science Professor in The Chronicle on the kinds of comments she has heard from male colleagues in the last 12 months:

  • Regarding three female scientists listed as principal investigators on a grant proposal: “That’s too many women on one project.”
  • Regarding three female scientists (and no men) as organizers of a conference session: “Don’t they like men?”
  • Regarding three female scientists talking in a corridor of a science building on a campus: “Is this a Girl Scout meeting?”

Female and male academics, from STEM disciplines and others, are still slugging it out in the comments over whether or not these are symptoms of an unusually toxic departmental culture, or are the product of an over sensitive disposition (what do you call a feminist with no sense of humour? surely you’ve heard that one), or whether they’re just the kind of corridor banter that everyone runs into now and again.

The nerve that Female Science Professor has jangled seems to be the same one behind yesterday’s suggestion in The Atlantic, that men could pledge not to appear on or moderate all-male tech conference panels. Rebecca Rosen’s article picks up on a blog post by Matt Andrews from The Guardian, who challenged the organisers of an unusually packed schedule to explain why their selection process for discussion leaders had not managed to find a single woman.

And this apparently sparked off such a response that the organisers themselves have now posted this explanation on the conference website:

Why aren’t there more women on the panels?
We’re very much aware that our panels are male dominated, even more so than the broader tech industry. Underrepresentation of women in the industry is a problem we fully acknowledge and is something everyone in the community should be working hard to change, the organisers of this event included. There are many ways of doing this, and it can’t be as simple as saying that every event without exception must be representative to have any legitimacy. If small, niche events go unstaged for fear of unintentionally provoking arguments over diversity, then we’re the poorer for the lack of valuable knowledge sharing opportunities that those events would have provided.
Well, OK.  I want all of this to be true. I want to work in an achieved culture of non-discriminatory inclusion of all of us, regardless of what we look like, how we dress, what age we are, whether or not we have beards, or speak French, or need help up the stairs. I want all our children to be educated in that world, and I want our students to graduate into it.  I do also think that in that world, we will all enjoy the way that randomisation of opportunity and blind promotion of ability will be the twin guardians of “small, niche events” and “valuable knowledge sharing opportunities”. It all can’t come soon enough.
But we’re not there yet. The gender gap in graduate salaries is persistent. Career progress is much harder for some than others, regardless of ability. Vague ideas of “cultural fit” currently govern the recruitment process in many companies, which adds up to hiring more and more people who look like the boss.  And long-term unemployment is still hard to overcome for no better reason than that hip young recruiters think people over 45 will need naps after lunch.
So we all still work in a world hamstrung by stereotypes, and unless we’re as conscientious about challenging this as my two colleagues who keep remembering to say “when the academic updates her website”, then this world is going to go on reproducing itself, because it can.
And this is why it really is making me crazy that I work for an institution whose current student recruitment campaign, representing the relationship students can expect to enjoy with the academics they’ll meet here, hasn’t managed to come up with a single female academic.  Everywhere I traipse around my community, I’m confronted by billboards featuring my male colleagues, from talented ECRs to the professoriate.  Maybe there’s a billboard I haven’t seen, tucked in a stairwell somewhere, where one of our female professors gets a go, but I doubt it.
Because the talking-head video from this same campaign that’s prominently featured on our website also doesn’t feature a single one of my internationally respected or locally appreciated women colleagues. In fact, as the student in the video says, “the best thing is that … my lecturers are the researchers, so I get to learn directly from the guys that are doing the research.”
OK, hands up who pictured a woman at that point? I really do get that “guys” can mean men or women in Australia, but it’s very context specific. I don’t think this student was referring to his female professors as “the guys”.  I just don’t.
So here we are, starting a new year with a marketing campaign that doesn’t practice the simple courtesy that my two tech colleagues have achieved—in fact, it confirms their first approach.  And no one involved at any stage in its creation thought this was a problem. So now I’m wondering what it would take for my male academic colleagues to take a pledge and not participate in our marketing without checking first that the result will do justice both to the institution that they work in, and the future we all want to see.
I think if asked, they would.


  • Just by way of an anecdote, thirteen years ago my wife (who was a junior professor at the time) was occasionally addressed by a soon-to-be emeritus department colleague as “princess.” Her response was to say “*Doctor* Princess please!” We both have an aversion to being called doctor but in that context it seemed to make sense. Thankfully the custom of regal address toward femaie colleagues seems to have disappeared in more recent years.

  • Hi Luke
    I think one of the things that we’re all struggling with is how to create a better conversation about inclusion when the individual instances of frustration can seem so tiny–each on their own an exquisitely insignificant bit of first world whining from relatively privileged workers. So I get that being called Princess isn’t the end of the world—and ironically I think that’s why it takes more courage to bother to speak up about it. Because when it’s part of an overall pattern, I think what we see is a culture that discriminates indiscriminately, if you like. Everyone loses, in very subtle ways.
    I’ve found myself thinking this morning that a productive reworking of Rebecca Rosen’s pledge, for example, would be for all of us with tenure to politely decline to cooperate with any marketing activities that (deliberately or through basic ignorance) whitewash the working conditions of our adjunct colleagues. How many times do we go along with the marketing fiction that university classrooms are staffed by “the guys who do the research”? What if we didn’t?
    Nice to see you.

  • Hi Kate Interesting blog and sadly old news. You should always tell someone that they have spinach in their teeth and we should always point out discriminatory language, The recent news flash about the gap between income of male and female graduates is one of the results of gendered language. There is of course the old boys club in business circles and the business section usually has mainly male images. So, your post is a timely reminder to be vigilant and outspoken.


    • Hi Lesley, welcome. I’ve been having an interesting conversation as a result of all this with Matt who wrote the original blog post about the Edge conference that couldn’t find any women participants. Comments on his post have raised the (also sadly old) accusation that we’re calling for a return to affirmative action, and that diversity is somehow a brake on progress. As a seed of doubt it’s really quick to grow. So I’m wondering how we set this up as a new conversation, including with our own colleagues and our institution. Patiently, I guess.

  • Long ago in the time when EEO workers were admired (yes, there was such a time), an acquaintance commiserated with me about the sly undermining of women in academic settings. She spoke of how good it was to be working as an EEO professional in an organisation of technical and manual workers. She found that when supervisors were picked up on apparently undermining remarks or demeaning comments, they replied ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t want to insult anyone, I won’t say it again’ – and didn’t. Like Kate’s IT colleagues, they didn’t know that their language was reflecting a set of values that they did not support – so they took it on and fixed it. Academics, my acquaintance said, “had skills”, that is they knew they were being disrespectful and had no intention of changing, so wouldn’t say sorry or stop the behaviour.

    As for the adjuncts – many of those ‘guys’ are doing research under very poor conditions.

    New Year’s greetings and a wish for a move away from the same old- same old.

  • Piano

    “But the most interesting part of the experience has been meeting people who still refer normatively to academics as “he”.”

    This is correct usage of the English language when gender is unknown. “He or she” is considered tedious and “they” is considered slang. Personally I like “they” and think everyone should switch to that to not worry about gendered pronouns. One can only hope!

    (Although I would think Dr. would probably be more likely in an academic situation, no?)

  • The notion that ‘he’ is the correct use of the English language when one’s gender is unknown illustrates a number of issues. These include: the long history of subordinating women in western societies, the level to which patriarchy is unmarked and permeates across society, and more specifically the wilful (strategic) ignorance of men that enables nonconsideration of the implications that their actions (actively) perpetuate.

    Language may seem like a small thing. It is part of much broader and deeper structural exploitation based on one’s gender which greatly harms all of us.

    As an (partial) aside, we can reflect on how men react when being referred to as ‘she’. I have read a number of documents which employ such an approach — the reactions from men are indicative…

  • Thinking about “‘he or she’ is considered tedious” and “‘they’ is considered slang” I find myself wondering about the considering authority. Who decides what’s tedious in terms of courtesy or the appreciation of complexity, I wonder? When I lived in the UK I often heard people railing against “Madam Chair”, and all sorts of lefty efforts that were being made to find gender neutral language, but the derision often came from people who seemed otherwise relatively comfortable with complex formalities, especially in relation to the various social verticals that culminate in aristocratic titles — by comparison with which “he or she” is actually quite streamlined.

    I think language is one of the simple ways in which we get to show others that we’re willing to make an effort on their behalf. Listening to my IT colleagues remembering “he or she” really does give me a bit of hope.

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