At a recent academic conference, I stepped back in time, and not because we were all talking about history. Here was a group of men who announced they were “redefining” modern history. They swaggered through presentations – about men – asserting that only those in their charmed circle had anything of significance to say. Male speakers were introduced as great scholars – “he needs no introduction” a favourite opening – while the few female speakers were granted brief, unenthusiastic descriptions of their work. Few women asked questions; those who did were often ignored, though if a man picked up and repeated their ideas, these were then considered worthy of debate. We are all wearily used to “mansplaining” and being talked over, excluded or ignored. But this conference was a personal nadir.
This piece speaks to any woman who has ever felt silenced, marginalised ignored in academy. I think we’ve all been to of of “those” conferences. Indeed, the very problems described about such conferences on the piece (“he needs no introduction”) have made me very careful about where I go nowadays. Life really is too damned short.[…] Our universities are highly sexist institutions. Women are outnumbered and relegated to junior posts. More than 60% of academics are men, and about 80% of professors. Official statistics show that more women are on temporary contracts than men.
Behind the numbers lie depressing examples of everyday sexism. A new survey by the Royal Historical Society (RHS) shows that female academics, regardless of whether they are PhD candidates or professors, are exploited and marginalised by “macho practices and cultures”. Combative behaviour in academic debates and a long-hours culture are de rigueur. And, as a report by Women in Philosophy points out, the problem is “not that women are somehow less able to cope when aggressive behaviour is aimed at them… It is rather that aggressive behaviour can heighten women’s feeling that they do not belong, by reinforcing the masculine nature of the environment within which they work and study.”
When women do engage in combative debate (I speak as one who does), we receive no kudos: what is assertive in a man is arrogant in a woman. At the conference I attended, most of the women on the platform were junior to the men present – many academic men can’t deal with female equals.
And the fightback:
So we are doing something about it. On 6 March, WiH is hosting Oxford University’s Internationalat St Hilda’s College. Participants include academics, but also feminist campaigners Melissa Benn and Caroline Criado-Peres. Their presence makes the point that we’d all benefit from universities embracing feminism. University managers claim they need to become “globally competitive” by making a profit out of students or academics’ labour.
We’ll be planning how to promote a different form of higher education – one that offers alternatives to the sexist status quo and pioneers a feminist fightback.
Rest: The Guardian.
Selina Todd, a social historian, is fellow and vice principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She is the author of Young Women, Work, and Family in England – which won the Women’s History Network book prize – and The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010
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