Everyday Sexism in Academia

Everyday Sexism in Academia

We recently hosted another STEM Women Hangout discussing the issue of everyday sexism in academia. Our guests were Professor Rajini Rao (Johns Hopkins University, USA; content manager at stemwomen.net) and Dr. Tommy Leung (University of New England, Australia). Dr. Buddhini Samarasinghe and Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos co-hosted the hangout.

Facing Five Scenarios

Zuleyka began with a quick overview of everyday sexism. Sexism can be both hostile and benevolent. Studies show that the two go hand in hand. Routine, everyday social interactions within STEM careers that we are told to take-for-granted, are actually connected to institutional sexism. We considered five scenarios of everyday sexism.

SCENARIO 1: Alienation, benevolent sexism from casual remarks

Rajini recalled a faculty meeting at which the amount of the departmental seminar honorarium was being discussed, to bring it up to date. An honorarium is a token of appreciation, typically a few hundred dollars, handed to a seminar speaker. Everyone shared how much they received in their recent travels, and a colleague jokingly exclaimed that Rajini was “a cheap date”. Everybody laughed, but Rajini recalls feeling insecure and wondering if she really was paid less than her male colleagues. This throw-away joke is particularly hard to take early in one’s career, and can undermine our confidence in a highly competitive academic setting.

Men experience insecurities too, and although Tommy was not at the receiving end of sexist remarks, he did encounter comments based on his age or race that undermined his confidence. Tommy’s experience of racism/ageism illustrates the intersectionality of gender issues: ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, appearance and age all factor into how we view gender. Rajini says:

Try replacing gender in a statement with skin colour, or even hair color (say, red hair); if it sounds racist or ridiculous, it is probably sexist.

The point of this discussion is that these seemingly innocuous interpersonal exchanges are connected to broader inequalities within academia. Research already shows both men and women experience insecurities in STEM but women leave because in addition they face additional barriers: For example:

  • face a masculine culture;
  • they are expected to put up with sexism;
  • they don’t see women role models from their fields;
  • most of their instructors are men, so they can’t see a clear career path for themselves as women;
  • along the way they’re not promoted and not rewarded for their efforts.

Men don’t have these additional institutional barriers. We all need to recognize these factors in order to be better colleagues.

SCENARIO 2: Boobs to Broteomics  Journal Saga

The recent “coconut woman” saga at the Journal of Proteomics illustrates benevolent sexism. The authors of this science article try to justify  their use of an inappropriate image of a woman holding coconuts in front of her chest, in a graphical abstract, as “art” or “physiology”. Surprisingly, the offending image has been up since 2012 but did not cause a stir until it was brought to light by Professor Jonathan Eisen (UC Davis). Buddhini discussed how the graphical abstract illustrates a culture of sexism in which the perpetrators do not recognize sexist behavior in themselves and offer a “non-apology” that does nothing to change the culture that they propagate. The charge of over-sensitivity is brought against people who object to this sort of sexism. By dismissing protests and diminishing concerns about sexism as “political correctness” in STEM, we allow a culture of everyday sexism to continue. This in turn feeds further discrimination and harassment of women.

SCENARIO 3: Tone arguments

When women speak out about sexism, they may be labeled as emotional or excitable. When women speak up for themselves and what they want out of their careers, they may be viewed as bossy instead of overly confident. Rajini remarked how, on the one hand, she was was once described by a senior colleague as being “excitable” because she voiced her opinions. On the other hand, her male colleague who routinely broadcasts angry emails peppered with four lettered words does not raise eyebrows.

In discussions about disparity in men and women’s recognition and remuneration in STEM, people will often argue that perhaps women don’t ask for pay rises or talk up their abilities. Our discussion showed that women self promote just as men do, but this is not recognised. Even when women are promoted, they are still paid less than men. Women’s behavior and accomplishments are not rewarded in the same manner as men’s. Women are always described as “bossy”, while men are simply “confident” and “assertive”. These are subtle ways in which women are punished but men are rewarded for similar behaviour. The myth is that women don’t ask for promotions but the research shows this is not true. Women do ask and actively seek to get promoted, but they get nowhere near the same rewards, opportunities or recognition as men.

Bosses simply think that women don’t make good leaders because they’re not assertive, even when they have management responsibility. Women’s leadership style tends to be more collaborative, which men see as a weakness. We recently had the case of “W,”  an early career researcher who tried to negotiate the terms of her contract and she was shouted down by the public for the “tone” of her email. The message this sends to women is that they should stay quiet, they should take whatever they’re given, whereas men are expected to demand recognition, and they’re rewarded for negotiating.

Tone arguments are used to derail a discussion on gender issues. Women are advised to be nice and not strident. We see this in discussions on sexism in the Science on Google+ Community. Arguing that women should be “more positive” when speaking out against sexism is actually considered a form of “hostile sexism” by sociologists. Women who complain about sexism are labeled overtly  feminist and “professional victims”. Buddhini discusses how men can be “fair weather allies” by only supporting so-called “positive” messaging on women’s issues.

Policing the way women should and should not discuss sexism is both an act of sexism and it perpetuates further sexism. By failing to recognise that “tone policing” is part of sexist culture, individuals normalise sexism. It just becomes part of everyday life that women should accept critique about told how to behave when talking about the barriers they face in STEM. Sexism becomes accepted part of being a woman STEM practitioner – but this same expectation is not imposed on men.

“Tone” arguments are used to derail discussions on gender issues. Original photo by Hazzat via Flickr CC 2.0. Adapted by STEM Women
“Tone” arguments are used to derail discussions on gender issues. Original photo by Hazzat via Flickr CC 2.0. Adapted by STEM Women

SCENARIO 4: Compliments and Come-Ons

Buddhini recounted  a troubling incident at her first international conference when a senior scientist spent some time at her poster, but followed up by asking her for a date. This incident relates to the inappropriate exploitation of unequal power dynamics between a mentor and mentee. Buddhini makes the point that if you’re a mentor you shouldn’t comment on your mentee’s appearance, it leads to professional doubt. Would a male mentor make a point to compliment male mentees on their looks? A male mentor may think he’s just being nice by complimenting, but not only is it inappropriate in a professional context, it may compound any professional baggage that women may be managing. Men don’t have to constantly deal with ‘compliments’. Tommy explains that there are only very limited circumstances when it is appropriate to compliment a woman on her looks, which is only in a friendship context where a woman has asked for feedback.

The point of this discussion is to re-think why this behaviour is not okay. Imposing “compliments” on women colleagues is sometimes labelled “benevolent” sexism. The presumption behind these “compliments” is that women need to be constantly reassured they’re pretty. The message this sends is that women are judged on their looks first and their skills and competencies second. Men don’t have this pressure. It is, in fact, against the sexual harassment law to create an environment where unwelcome comments about looks and sexuality are permissible. In a professional context, especially in science where we all have the same qualifications, what people look like has nothing to do with their ability to carry out their job. Research shows that most professional women don’t want men to resort to chivalry – they want to be treated as equals.

SCENARIO 5: Women scientists get labeled as women first and scientists second

Rajini has seen first hand how an eminent scientist giving a named lecture was extolled for her virtues as a mother. She further illustrates with the  case of Yvonne Brill’s NYT obituary. Despite being, literally, a rocket scientist, Dr. Brill’s obituary began as follows:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.

Only in second paragraph does the article go on to say: “But Yvonne Brill ….was also a brilliant rocket scientist”. This illustrates a common double standard: scientists are never introduced as wonderful dads. A hilarious and satirical piece that hits home this point, is titled, Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Dies.

Buddhini mentions the Finkbeiner test. Most scientists, including Rajini, want to be seen in professional context as a scientist first and as a mother/daughter/partner second. There is a time for women to be portrayed as role models, but one has to know when is appropriate.

Early-career academics face a lot of pressure, but women have an additional burden of institutional disadvantages. We see it in countless empirical studies: women’s work is not rewarded the same as men’s and on top of that, we have to navigate sexist interactions which we’re supposed to politely ignore or explain away.

We need to create a space where identifying and addressing sexism becomes part of STEM culture. Everyday sexism is a framework for critically rethinking the conversations and behaviour that we see everyday, which we’re encouraged to stay silent about, which are trivialised or dismissed, or which we think is “unintentional.” Part of the impediment to progress is pretending that sexism isn’t such a big problem. It is. We need to face it head on.

Try replacing gender in a statement with skin colour, or even  hair color (say, red hair); if it sounds racist  or ridiculous, it is probably sexist.
Everyday Sexism: Try replacing gender in a statement with skin colour, or even hair color (say, red hair); if it sounds racist or ridiculous, it is probably sexist.


Over to You:

Can you think of other examples of everyday sexism that you’ve witnessed or experienced? Has your STEM workplace put in place useful policies to address everyday sexism? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Next Time

We are interviewing roboticist Annika O’Brien on Sunday 27th of April at 230pm Pacific USA/ 9pm GMT. Annika is an engineer who works on robotics and she is also a passionate STEM educator, teaching kids how to program and build robots through STEAMtrax. She will talk to us about her exciting career path as a woman in STEM, what inspires her, and why supporting women in STEM is important. Find the scheduled video and more details on our event page.

STEM Women Event Annika Obrien PROMO

2 thoughts on “Everyday Sexism in Academia

  1. I’m frequently told that I don’t need to worry or moan about being a post-doc on short-term contracts…… Because I’m married to a cardiologist.

    Universities also need to prioritise part-time working and childcare


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