On sexism in academia

When I started this blog in 2013, my primary audience was working women in academia, balancing work, PhD study and the demands of family life. I am so honoured to have a  wider readership now, and in so many different countries and academic spaces, but as a woman in academia, a mum and wife, a researcher, and a feminist, one of my chief concerns is still helping women, like me broadly speaking, to navigate at least some aspects of their personal, professional and PhD lives as they traverse these spaces.


I have been thinking a great deal lately about sexism in academia, and all the big and small ways it makes itself felt. I had an encounter, recently, where a senior colleague who works at the university at which my husband still works (and where I used to work) asked me to apply for a post advertised in his faculty. But, rather than approach me (and he does know me well enough to do that), he sent me a message via my husband to tell me about it. My husband replied that it would be better to approach me directly, but did come home and tell me about it. Not only was this, for me, unprofessional; it was sexist. I was pretty angry about it.

I would not, I am very sure, have been given a message to pass on to my husband, unless it was to ‘say hello’ or ‘give regards’. Before you think I’m being overly sensitive, this is underscored by several other messages male colleagues have asked my husband to pass on to me over the years, including when I still worked at the university. And a former line manager meeting me for the first time, in a job interview, with the greeting ‘So you’re the other half of [my husband’s name]’. No, dude. I’m the whole me. And that same line manager dressing me down in front of peers and colleagues in a high level meeting for not being at my desk when he stopped by the day before, because I was on family leave taking care of a sick child and trying to work from home. And then proceeding to tell us all about a male professor who works 7am to 11pm, 6 days a week, and publishes prolifically, and is the epitome of academic success and worth (and has no children, partner, ageing parents, pets … or life, it seems). Ho hum. Taken together, all of these events can have the effect of making you feel smaller, less self-confident and less able to take up the same amount of space as your male colleagues can.

So, sexism is alive and well in my lived experiences of academia, and in those of many other women around the world. A recent piece in The Conversation reported on research that shows that women get less funding than men in the biomedical sciences, and tend to apply for smaller grants; a further piece in University World News reports that women are under-represented in senior academic positions across European universities, and elsewhere, such as in South Africa, the same is certainly true. Most of the research I have read speaks a great deal about how to change all of this; far fewer stories celebrate significant changes happening, although we are taking steps forward, particularly in the social sciences.


What interests me, personally, is what role I can play in celebrating my own and other women’s achievements in academic spaces, and in amplifying women’s voices, and research. What can any of us do? Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Amplify one another’s voices: Have you ever been in a meeting where 3 women will make the same basic point and the male chairperson will only really hear the point when a male colleague echoes it? I have. A lot of women I know have. So, one thing we can do practically is to amplify one another’s voices, using a fantastic tool women staffers working in the White House during Obama’s presidency put into practice: amplification. Essentially, how it works is that if one woman makes a point that is not heard or noted, another woman in the meeting will repeat it, giving her colleague the credit for suggesting it. If it is still not heard, a third woman will speak up, crediting the first two, and so on until the people in the meeting have no choice but to hear the point, and credit the woman who made it.
  2. Stop being so bloody modest: The male researchers and academics I know have no problem talking up their research, and promoting their achievements: grants won, books published, papers cited many times for being amazing, etc. No problem. But, and I am pretty sure this is not just me, I am less comfortable doing this. Women are taught to be modest, and not to be too brash, or self-congratulatory or in-your-face – it’s unladylike and makes other people [men, mainly] uncomfortable. The trouble with this learned behaviour, though, is that many women can also become squirmy when other women ‘brag’ on social media, or in person, about their papers published, or grants won or laudable achievements. We have to stop this, and start not only being less modest about our own achievements, but also add this to the amplification. ‘Did you hear about J’s grant – her stem cell research is really groundbreaking!’ Have you read C’s paper on a critical history of women resistance fighters in Africa? It’s really fantastic! Your students should read it too.’ And so on. We need to be our own, and each other’s, cheerleaders.
  3. Create and sustain supportive spaces: I am always encouraged, inspired and energised by meeting with other women colleagues and peers, spending time talking about our research, our lives, our writing and so on. I feel surrounded by people like me in the sense that they get where I am coming from, and what I struggle with, often without me even needing to put it all into words. We so often, in academia, feel alone. We feel we are the only ones not coping with PhD and home and work, or not writing papers, or not doing Impressive Research, or not winning grants, or not being Good Enough. We are SO not alone, and reminding ourselves of this, and learning from one another as we support and cheer on one another, is a really good idea. We need to be creating and sustaining supportive spaces and cultures in academia – formal and informal – so that we can give ourselves and one another this emotional and intellectual sustenance and support.


It is  galling that we still have to read so many stories of women in academia struggling to reach the seniority of their male counterparts, struggling to balance the demands of childcare with those of research, teaching and administration – often without sufficient support from their university – and struggling to make their voices heard above the still-male-dominated din. But, we do, because sexism in academia (and in society) is alive and well. But, it can be fought – it is being fought, and gains are being made. To keep the momentum moving forward we  can all be doing our part where possible, amplifying, listening to, supporting, and learning from one another. We’re worth it.


Being the boss of your own time

I have recently changed jobs, in that I have resigned from my job and taken up a postdoctoral fellowship at the university where I recently completed my PhD. This was a big leap for me because it meant quitting my first academic job that came with a pension, a proper income, and an access card that kept working year after year because I was not on contracts that kept ending. It also meant leaving colleagues and work that meant a great deal to me, and it meant a change in my own sense of identity as an academic because I gave up work that gave me a particular academic identity and sense of self.

I’m kind of like a student again, with a more student-y kind of income now (sadly), and a more student-y schedule. This latter bit is kind of brilliant. I don’t have to be at work by 9am, and I don’t have to set an example for the colleagues I used to manage by sitting at my desk all day, being busy and focused, and I don’t have to attend any more meetings unless I really want to. I don’t even have to wear shoes if I don’t want to. I fetch my kids from school, and I help them with their homework. I am really enjoying cooking again because I’m not exhausted at the end of every day having rushed around doing far too many things, and commuting a long way to work and back. It’s pretty cool, I have to say.

But, it’s also a challenge, being the boss of all of my own time like this. I am on my own most days. I have no one leaning over me, making deadlines and calling meetings that I have to attend. Only my husband and kids would know if I stayed in my pyjamas all day. It would be easy to watch decor shows all morning, or make ice-cream, or tidy all the drawers in the house rather than write the papers I am supposed to be writing, and transcribe all the data still sitting waiting for me, and the send in the abstract I am still trying to think up. It would be very easy to just let these sunny days at home drift past me while doing very little of any postdoctoral substance.

This week I am working quite hard. But I have some work I am being paid for that has to be finished, and I have big deadlines that have to met and other people to account to with those, so it’s actually quite easy to leave the TV off, ignore the messy drawers and just focus on this work. But what happens when this work is finished, and I’ve been flat out every day for a couple of weeks and I am a bit meh, tired, overdue for a morning of Downton Abbey in my pyjamas? I am not sure I can give myself that morning without it turning into a few mornings, and then a slippery slope of letting days pass by while being less than productive. I know myself too well, unfortunately, to fool myself into believing that I am good at managing my own time all by myself without deadlines and people to account to.

I think this is probably an issue for anyone who is in the position of being mainly accountable to themselves for how they spend their time, and only a little accountable to others. Unless you have a super-duper work ethic that flies in the face of a whole series of your favourite show on a USB stick waiting to be watched, or inventing a new ice-cream flavour, you may have to have some strategies in place to help you manage all this time effectively. This is especially important if you have other responsibilities that claim some of that time, like fetching kids from school, or caring for someone who needs you to be there for them in some concrete way. Making sure that your work time is protected and managed well so that you get the most of out it, and can then give your attention and time elsewhere without feeling stretched too thin, or worried about all the work you still have to do, is really important.

One of the reasons I took up the postdoc was so that I could spread myself a little less thinly; so that I could work on my research and be academically engaged and productive, but also be here for my kids and focus on myself a little more too. But I am aware that all these other things that are not research and work can become so lovely and enjoyable that they could encroach on the work time, making that smaller and smaller, and making it harder for me to feel less panicked about how much I am not accomplishing, and how much I am not writing. I need a few strategies to help me stay on track too – like a work plan I can adapt and adjust as I go, and that accounts for both work and personal demands on my time; people to be accountable to, like seeking out people to write with so that I am not always writing alone, or speaking more often to my postdoc supervisor so that even if she decides not to bug me, I will at least have a sense that someone is keeping an eye on me. I need to surround myself, even virtually, with critical friends and co-travellers, much as I did during my PhD, so that I don’t feel quite so alone and isolated, and so that I can be pushed a little to do some writing that I can share and ask for feedback on (and so I can stop writing out loud to interrupt all the silence!).

Perhaps, if you are also finding yourself the boss of all of your own time, whether for a few months or a year or more, some of these strategies will help you. Perhaps you have some you can share too? I’d love to hear what they are. Right now, I’m going to try to keep going on as I have begun, making my lists and hiding the TV remote from myself. And I’m going to enjoy this sabbatical from conventional 9-5 working life for as long as I possibly can.

The ups and downs of study leave

At the beginning of this year I spent a frantic week applying for a doctoral sabbatical grant from the National Research Foundation here in South Africa. These grants are designed to buy you out of your teaching/academic work for a period of time so that you can focus on and finish your PhD. I heard nothing for months, but I pinned a lot of my hopes and plans on the answer being ‘yes’. Finally, at the end of May the answer came and it was, thank ye gods, a ‘yes’. I started my long-awaited break from work in June, and had 3 months to savour and use wisely. For the first week I just revelled in not having to put ‘work’ clothes on, and the pleasure of ‘commuting’ around the corner and through the kitchen to my desk instead of halfway across Cape Town. It was, in a word, bliss to work at home in slippers and tracksuit pants and be able to get up to make tea in my own kitchen. To have silence all around me all day. To be able to think, and write and do so at a less frantic pace, not having to snatch bits and pieces of time where I could. But, while it started off well, sadly it did not continue in this vein. And it was largely my fault.

Three weeks into my leave my boys went on mid-year school holidays for 3 weeks. I worked, but at half-pace and my quiet was gone. It was frustrating and difficult. Grannies came to visit, which was lovely as they live far away and the timing of visits has to be carefully orchestrated. I kept working, but still only at half-pace, getting increasingly more worried about how little progress I was making in relation to my work-plan. Eventually the kids went back to school and the grannies went home and quiet reigned again and I picked up the pace. But then, for another set of reasons I won’t go into here, the bathroom needed to be renovated, having been left for far too long and gotten into a state it could not remain in. So four weeks of polite but noisy and messy building work ensued, as renovations almost never go according to plan and ours were no exception. The renovations ended a week before my study leave ended. Just like that, 3 months had passed and I was a month behind my schedule for finishing the first full draft. I had a few undignified tantrums, and whined, I am sorry to say, like a small thwarted child. I didn’t want to come back to work. I wanted to rewind and do it all again. I wanted to make different choices about how I let other people use my precious time, about how I used it. I cannot blame my kids or husband or leaky shower or the grannies for my lack of progress. I let all the interruptions happen. I told everyone I was fine, I was coping, not to worry, it’ll all get done. I took on big and small tasks I could probably have let someone else do, or just left for later. I didn’t protect my time. I didn’t feel like I had the right to do that.

In truth I felt guilty about my leave. Colleagues who have been in a similar position to me – working, parents, struggling to keep all the balls in the air – did not get time off to work on their theses. I was not even eligible for this leave because of the way my role is structured and I only got it because I had the funding to pay for a replacement. I felt like I was getting something I did not deserve, or at least I felt guilty that I got it when deserving others had not. So, there was that. I also truly believed that I could be and do everything and still get the work done – I didn’t protect my time because most of it never really feels like mine and because I often do cope, sometimes just barely, but still. I just feel like I have to get on and do the best I can, you know? I wonder how many women in particular struggle with part-time PhD studies because of precisely this: they don’t protect their time and ask for time off – demand time off – from other things because they don’t feel like they can or should or could. Perhaps I didn’t even want to. There is something quite seductive about being a superwoman type who does it all, but maybe that’s another post…

The thing is, though, that this ‘doing it all’ is an illusion, and you can only do bits of it well. Other things have to and will slide. And that’s okay. There are things that can wait. You do deserve time to think and work and write, and you can and should protect that time, even from kids and partners. It really is okay to have this one thing in your life (at least) be about putting you and your work first. If you are fortunate enough to get your own slice of blissful leave, do not do what I did. Make a plan, tell all the people who need you about the plan and ask them to support you. Tell your mum you love her and ask if she can visit later in the year, and say NO to the builders. The shower leaking is the worst of your worries, as is the washing up.