Discrimination isn’t accidental

This is probably not surprising to any women who are in academia:

New research show there’s a considerable gap between men and women when it comes to being promoted to the top jobs in the country’s universities.

I don’t like the language of “gaps”. Gaps are natural or accidental – whoops, I didn’t measure that carpet properly, there’s a gap. But systemic discrimination – the kind in play when there aren’t as many women doing the “top” jobs in academia – isn’t natural. And in 2016, after decades of activism and research and shifting of the way we think about gender and work, there’s no excusing it as accidental.

But we still do, on some levels. Look no further than that Radio NZ article, from the headline “Women missing out on top uni jobs” to explanations like:

Emeritus professor Steve Weaver, who chairs Canterbury University’s academic promotions board, said the lack of female professors could partly be explained by the fact only half as many put their names forward for promotion compared to men.

To Weaver’s credit, he also says managers need to play a bigger role in encouraging women to apply for promotions. But saying “men put themselves forward more, women are more risk averse” implies this is simply the way things are – and that there isn’t a basic problem with sexism in our society.

Women are just risk averse, and men aren’t, and since men are getting all the important powerful well-paid positions, we can logically conclude that there isn’t any risk at all. It’s all in your heads, ladies! Stop imagining risks and the job’s yours!

But what if we assume that academic women aren’t all nervous fillies shying away from every shadow? What if we consider the risks they face?

The risk of being told your whole life that girls just aren’t as good at science.

The risk of being harassed at university by a “mentor” whose good opinion will determine whether you even graduate.

The risk of being downright disrespected and ignored by colleagues, superiors and even students. The risk of being assumed to be the secretary or the teaching assistant.

The risk of doing all the work and having the men in charge of the lab publish the results under their name.

The risk of getting pregnant, and not getting the promotion. Or being assumed to be a person-who-will-get-pregnant-at-some-point, and not getting the promotion.

The risk of being seen as “ambitious” or “aggressive” – words which are turned to praise when they’re describing your male colleagues.

The risk that even when your manager is encouraging and supportive, it all comes down to an appointment process which favours men, gives more weight to men’s achievements, hears more authority in men’s voices, and is simply more comfortable with the familiar: men. Why set yourself up to fail when the game’s rigged against you?

What’s not to be averse of?

These are the things we ignore when we fall into the language of natural phenomena. That’s how things are. People do the things they do. Women don’t put themselves forward. It’s out of our hands.

At a meeting last week I overheard a conversation between some very progressive, liberal folks, about school kids and homework. It was along much the same lines. Girls are “just” better at homework because they’re “naturally” more thoughtful and better at planning ahead. Teenage boys by contrast are simply “not wired” to put in effort before a deadline. ‘Twas ever thus.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don’t start asking why – why are young women more conscious of the expectations on them? Why don’t young men think about consequences? Why do women still do the bulk of housework and child-rearing?* – we cannot be surprised if nothing ever changes. It cannot be mysterious to us that organisations will keep promoting men over women, that employers will keep paying women less than men, that our society will continue to be unequal and unjust.

Women are not “missing out on the top jobs”. They are being denied the same access and support as their male colleagues. A lot of it will be unconscious. The product of thinking and assumptions we don’t even know we’re making. Which is why we need to change the way we talk about it.


*The instinctive response to many of those questions will be, “not all young men!” etc. But that just goes to show that there’s a lot more going on than the simplistic, “we ticked the “male” category on the birth certificate so obviously he’s going to love trucks and hate personal responsibility” argument we keep accepting. And that’s the point.

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