On the Abuse of Women in Academia

I have the privilege of associating with a lot of really incredibly smart, powerful, and talented women who have chosen to be in academia, either in the short term as graduate students preparing for professional careers, or in the long term as people who intend to be researching, publishing, and teaching for life. Men continue to dominate academia numberswise and also culturewise, making many fields very much a man’s game, and in the last few years, one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve been forced to witness is the routine abuse, cruelty, and evil endured by the women academics in my life—some of whom have actually been driven out of academia altogether by what they experience, or who warn other women away from their programs or academia entirely because of what’s happened to them.

People are fond of saying that here in the 21st century, sexism isn’t a problem, and women have it pretty good. It should take only a casual look around to see the lie in this statement, and it’s especially acutely obvious in academia, where women are routinely treated like garbage and devalued because of who they are, no matter what kinds of contributions they make to the field.

Women in academia routinely report harassment, sexual assault, and abuse at conferences and other events, as well as within their own departments. It’s made clear to them that discussing the issue could result in damage to their careers, including loss of publication opportunities, trouble getting letters of recommendation, rescinded invites to conferences, and more. The lesson here is clear: women are provided as eye candy and toys, and if they want to stay and play with the boys, they’ll have to grit their teeth and tolerate harassment.

They also report radically differential treatment; the male students who get the plum research positions and jobs, the professors who ignore them, the faculty members who make derisive and nasty comments about women in general and other female academics not just in casual school settings but also in formal meetings and in the classroom. Imagine being a student in a classroom where a male professor, an authority figure, is telling you that female academics don’t conduct valid research, can’t be trusted as reliable sources of material, are too hazed with baby fever to be taken seriously—all comments my friends have encountered in the classroom.

And a serious lack of social and political connections is another recurring problem for women in academia. For men, these connections seem to come almost effortlessly, and through networks including fraternities, private clubs, and other groups, they can secure book deals, professorships, chairs, grants, and other benefits. Women in academia, especially women of color, have to fight extremely hard to get the same kinds of benefits, particularly when their research involves so-called ‘women’s issues,’ even when those issues are in fact applicable to everyone.

A friend of mine working in the sciences who happens to be an extremely talented biologist has been assumed, on multiple occasions, to be a lab technician, not a post doc with her own research. She works in private industry now, where she’s treated with much more respect as a valued employee of a company that stands to make millions from her research; research she would have much rather conducted in the public sector where it would have been available to all. At varying points in her career, people thought she was an assistant, undergraduate, or observer, not a project head.

Another friend completed two PhDs in closely related fields with the intent of becoming a professor, only to drop out of academia altogether because the rampant and systemic sexism in her area of interest was too much for her to endure. She tried to imagine doing this for the next forty years and just couldn’t, so she walked away. She’s now tens of thousands of dollars in debt with highly specialized degrees she can’t use, working for a consulting firm—at least it’s woman-owned, so she works in a supportive working environment where she’s treated as an equal.

Yet another, now a practicing surgeon and researcher, was told repeatedly that she was going into a field that was too difficult, and that she would never be able to make it. When she presents at conferences and other events, people seem surprised to learn she’s a woman, because her surgical field is heavily dominated by men, and some people are skeptical about her work because of her gender. Even her patients sometimes express concern because they were expecting a male surgeon to operate on them, since that’s what they’ve come to expect.

Another, a woman with young children, is routinely criticised for choosing to have children at all, let alone for trying to maintain a work-life balance that includes the care of her children and opportunities to be home with her family. It’s implied that if she was serious about her work, she’d dedicate herself wholly to it; easy for men who aren’t considered the primary caregivers of their family to say.

When I think of the number of women who turn away from academia early or drop away because it’s so grinding and awful in many ways, and so disheartening for women struggling to make their way in the world, it infuriates me. The fact that women have to struggle to survive on two fronts, as both academics and women in an academic landscape, means that they have to work twice as hard, yet they are accorded a quarter of the respect. Many male academics are oblivious to the problem and may not even be aware of their role in it, while others are actively delighted to work on driving women out—and yet, we wonder why there aren’t more women in the academy.