Would they ask a man to do that?

I’d heard of sexism in academia and spoken to friends and colleagues about the obstacles they’d faced as women, but I’d been very lucky to not have experienced it myself….until recently that is. Never once had I felt like being a woman made life more challenging, or made people look at me and my abilities differently, and I realize now that I was very lucky. That being said, I’ve recently caught myself wondering ‘is this sexism’? ‘would they have asked a man to do the same’? ‘am I being too sensitive’?

I’ve been lucky to have been raised by one of my greatest role-models, my mother, who is a strong and liberated Persian woman. Growing up in Iran, where machismo and sexist attitudes were the norm and were even applauded, she went through a great deal of agony and hardship trying to assert her rights as an individual.  Thanks to that, she became a strong-willed, no-nonsense kind of woman and taught me that I, just like my brother, deserve career and life fulfillment.  Also, we were never assigned gender-specific tasks. That’s why my brother can sew, cook and bake and I can build furniture, change car tires and do handy-work around the house. Because of my progressive environment and upbringing, I never even thought that being a woman could lead to additional obstacles in life. To my dismay and astonishment, I have begun to spot some disturbing sexist biases that still percolate in  academia, where one would expect to deal with the more enlightened and progressive members of society. After all, these are the ones who impart knowledge and act as role models for the future.

Still, I don’t like being in a position where I doubt myself, especially when it comes to receiving equal and just treatment. So, I started doing a bit of digging into the literature, and thought it’d be something worth sharing here in case anyone is interested.

One article I found very useful was this one,  where the authors (American Historical Association) wrote a letter to Deans, Department Chairs and Administrators with a “Guide to Best Practices”. One, of the sections which I found particularly interesting as an academic in more of an ‘administrative’ role at my university was the following:

Ensuring Gender Equity in Assignment of Duties and Academic Service

Expectations about women’s supposedly “natural” gift for nurture often lead to significant inequities in the kinds of duties and academic service expected of men and women, which in turn are associated with very different rewards. In departments and colleges in which women remain underrepresented, they are sometimes disproportionately expected to perform service. Many women report being placed in a kind of “double-bind” in which they are expected to represent a “woman’s” perspective, and then criticized for always representing a gendered point of view. This reinforces gender inequities, which in turn hinder women’s advancement in the academy. Gender equity can be fostered by:

  • Working with faculty regardless of gender to develop teaching schedules compatible with ongoing research.
  • Clarifying expectations of tenure and promotion and developing service assignments compatible with meeting these expectations. For example, in some settings, service on a university-wide committee may be important for getting tenure; in others, such service may be viewed as a distraction from the “real” work of getting refereed publications in scholarly journals.
  • Placing women on committees strategically, so that they are in a position to advance gender equity.
  • Recommending women for prestigious and key policy-making institutional committees, not just ones related to gender or race.
  • Recognizing that certain departmental duties such as inviting and introducing distinguished guest scholars bring visibility and prestige and should be distributed to women and men alike.
  • Distributing service assignments that may be less prestigious at some institutions, such as taking notes at meetings, advising the history club, advising students, and teaching introductory courses, equally among faculty without regard to gender or race.

This is another interesting article about women faculty being expected to do more special favors and exhibit more ‘friendship’ behaviors than their male counterparts. This is the link to the actual peer-reviewed study.  The authors of the manuscript state in the abstract that:

Those expectations consequently increased students’ likelihood of making the requests and of exhibiting negative emotional and behavioral reactions to having those requests denied. This work highlights the extra burdens felt by female professors.

Lastly, I found a book about Undervaluing Women’s work.

The outcome of undervaluation, whether arising out of undervaluation within a job or the undervaluation of the job category, is, from the perspective of employers, that they have access to a higher quality of labour for a given wage.

This higher quality in some contexts takes the form of the employee offering a higher level of effort, skill or commitment than might be expected for that wage level. Women may prove to be more reliable workers, less subject to high turnover or to ‘shirking’ and more willing to take the initiative. In other contexts, the job itself may require a higher level of effort or skill than might be reasonably expected at that wage level. These demands might include high levels of work intensity enforced by strong control mechanisms (for example, in some call centres), or high demands on employees’ emotions or stress levels (for example, in care work) (Belt et al., 2000; England, 2005a). In both of these contexts, the employer may benefit from being able to tap into high quality labour for low wages, even though the women themselves suffer from not receiving fair rewards for their labour. Men may also feel more comfortable if women’s earnings are below theirs, reinforcing their presumed higher status in both employment and the household.

This approach of valuing quality for a given wage provides at least a starting point for a definition of undervaluation. It also highlights the fact that women may be either underpaid for the work they do, or underemployed relative to their potential.

Anyway, I think the point is clear that we as women are not viewed in the same way as men, resulting in discontent, undervaluation and more energy being invested by women in positions that might not necessarily lead us to getting where we would like to be professionally. That being said, I now am more aware of the problem, and am glad I did this mini lit-review. I feel that being more informed about the problem will enable me to better ‘educate’ those around me about sexism as a real problem in society, and how simple actions might be reinforcing this problem.

As a side note: I’ve also been very fortunate as a working mother, to have the flexibility to work from home with my still-nursing 10 month-old. In one way, I think that is excellent as it allows me to continue bonding with my daughter in a way that I couldn’t if I were working full-time in the office, but in another way it also highlights some other societal flaws in the US – the fact that we don’t have a good parental leave system, and are dependent on our employers to grant us this type of flexibility. This also reinforces the amount of stress working mothers experience trying to fulfill their roles as employees and mothers to the best of their capabilities. I found this article to be really interesting, on this topic….but this is a topic for a whole other post. I guess I just want to say that through effective communication of ones’ needs, things might move in the right direction, and that not all has to be doom and gloom.

About saraguitiprado

I'm a Tropical Ecologist, Research Coordinator, and Mother
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