GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘gender’

When He Trumps She

In Liminal Thinking on 2011/11/17 at 09:49

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

I spent the day grading my midterms, never a fun task. Usually I get into a vague kind of automaton state; as I read for key phrases, look for definitions and the critical use of concepts, and references to key authors and guest speakers. Check, check, check, grade. But this time, I noticed a pattern that I’m sure I’ve seen before but just ignored. It is the gendered attribution that says so much about how students view “authority” (in the author sense) in academia.

My class covers a broad range of literature regarding globalization. We look at global inequalities, economic theories, human rights issues, women’s rights, international trafficking, and many other topics of global concern. The readings I assign are meant to give contending viewpoints, give more detail to my lectures and to teach students how to read academic writing. Importantly, I have intentionally assigned readings that are written by both male and female scholars — almost a 50/50 split.

And yet, in essay after essay, students refer to authors whom they have cited as “he.” With one exception: those authors that wrote specifically about women’s issues or discussed gender are always referred to as “she,” even when the author was male.

On the one hand, this is just sheer sloppiness, and I recognize that. But on the other, I think it speaks to how students perceive the authority of female writers in academia and in the classroom more generally. Are women only capable of writing from the perspective of gender, and male authors cover everything else?  Do students face a mental disconnect when they confront a woman writer or teacher who writes and teaches on “hard” issues, like traditional security and foreign policy?

In my own life as an academic, I have confronted these subtle prejudices time and again, and try to point them out to students as they occur. As a graduate student and a professor, I’ve taught both American Foreign Policy and Introduction to International Relations. American Foreign Policy tends to skew male in terms of class make-up. ROTC guys, particularly, love taking that class. What I noticed over the years was that the male students constantly challenged my lectures — usually after class, and usually when they were standing. I am five feet tall, on a good day, so it doesn’t take much to tower over me — and that was intentional.

The challenges were always of a technical sort, or on a point of historical record. But always, I noticed, with the presumed notion that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about (how in the world could I know anything the long and storied history of the V-22 Osprey, for example?). Even when I had revealed that I had grown up on military bases, gone to military schools, studied the military, lived the military, one student wrote in his evaluation “she claims to be from a military family, but she clearly doesn’t understand the military.” (My dad, a Marine vet of 24 years, got a chuckle out of that one.)

But this is not just an issue among male students — it is a deeply embedded bias. In the case of the essay writing, it wasn’t just the male students who automatically referred to authors by the “he” pronoun — both men and women made this slip into the “gender-neutral he.” They had clearly memorized last names and ideas, but not once questioned this slippage in their heads.

Is it important that students (or anyone, for that matter) know the sex of a writer? Perhaps not. But I think this is indicative of something larger and deserves a bit of attention.  Male scholars have, for too long, have been allowed to stand over their female peers, and I’m tired of watching it happen. Maybe in the next essay I’ll require they know first names as well.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.


When You’ve Done Everything Wrong

In Guest Blogger on 2011/10/23 at 03:58

Maria Nilson, writing from Växjö, Sweden

Suddenly tenure is within my grasp. I am a scholar who has done everything wrong (according to the academic standards). I was born a woman (!), I choose to study literature (not a lot of career opportunities), I decided to focus on popular culture (the horror of it) and showed an interest in historical romances and chick lit (disaster) and then I aged (never a good thing). When I started my doctoral studies in Sweden in the 1990s I had a lot of confidence and a lot of fight in me. I had taken every course in gender studies and feminist theory that was available at that time. I was a member of several discussion groups with other women and I had a female professor whose seminars talked about literature from a gender perspective. The future seemed bright and I honestly thought that the academic world would change in a decade or so.

Sweden has had the advantage of a very clear legislation on gender equality since 1980, and has several programs to improve both the conditions for women at universities and to increase the number of female professors. One example is the “Tham Professors”, which was created in the 1990s and aimed at researchers that had a clear gender perspective in their work. They were given the opportunity to become professors and develop more opportunities for women and strengthen gender research at all levels. But it has taken a lot longer than we thought. Today there are more women at the universities than men at all levels – except the highest one. We still have only 20% female professors and that doesn’t seem to change.

I meet a lot of young Ph.D. students who don’t see any discrimination, who seem oblivious to the glass ceiling, and in a way, I envy them. Sooner or later they will run straight into the same structures that I have been struggling with for a long time now, and I don’t know if it is better to warn them or to just let them discover it for themselves.

Now, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. A lot has changed, and today I think it is easier to enter the university as a Ph.D. student. You can choose your own subject, no one can argue with you if you want to work with feminist theory and we have gotten rid of a lot of the blatant discrimination. But – and there is a but – we haven’t really changed the structure. There is still a lot of opposition and in one way I think it is harder today. When I first came to university as a graduate student, I met a lot of “open” opposition, but today it is more subtle, more hidden. On the surface everyone agrees that equal rights are a must, that gender perspectives are important and that we need more women professors. But underneath the surface? Well, I don’t know. There is still a lot of good old-fashioned sexism floating around and now it is more difficult to battle it.

So why do I want to stay at the University? Well, I love the students (yes, you heard me right: I love teaching!), and I enjoy doing research and getting books published. I feel that I can still be of some use and even if I am not a man, or particularly high brow in my research (working with paranormal romances for the moment) and as I get older, I actually think the university needs people like me and like you reading this, so don’t give up.

Senior Lecturer Maria Nilson has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and works at Linné University in Växjö, Sweden. Her main field of research is popular culture.

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

(Role) Modeling Gender Gaps

In Guest Blogger on 2011/05/17 at 02:29

Monica Jacobe, writing from Princeton, New Jersey in the USA. 

At one of my first gatherings as a new faculty member at my current institution, I sat around a table of men and women from different campus units to discuss a common concern—communicating with students. I was stunned to note the mostly silent women—even high-ranking university administrators—among men of lower rank and less experience who spoke often and forcefully. These men often said quite smart and interesting things, agreeing with each other on many issues. When the women did speak, they often did so meekly, almost apologetically—and were often ignored. When I spoke to debate or counter what one of the men had said, it seemed to shock most of the table.

I wouldn’t have guessed it then, but I had come to a university, like many these days, that was concerned about gender representation in certain disciplines, in leadership roles, etc. Just recently, a committee on campus finished its report on this issue, finding that undergraduate women lagged behind their males colleagues in many benchmarks for leadership. Many were surprised, but I wasn’t, given that early meeting experience. How is it that girls and young women learn to lead?

Example, of course, is part. Many women faculty don’t advance to full professorship. The vast majority of contingent (non-tenurable) faculty positions across the US are held by women. And most women in academic departments do the majority of the service work required to run the university—whether they have tenure or not. So, certainly, on university campuses where few women are in leadership roles, their students won’t see any value or need in taking them on or—worse—will feel that such positions aren’t appropriate for them.

These positions—or lack thereof—are part of the social cues any of us picks up from role models, whether we want to or not. But the actions and attitudes of the women working in higher education must also impact students. As a Catholic school girl, I was taught by nuns who wouldn’t say “He” for “God,” and on game days, I wore my basketball jersey while the cheerleaders wore their skirts and sweaters, with all of us recognized as athletes. Female voices were often the most confident ones in those rooms, with the boys somehow quieter or less sure. It is this sense of education I carried into my academic career, where I was often lucky enough to run into women faculty and staff who created an equal playing field for themselves and, as a result, me. I always spoke up, took on important jobs, and got things done— just as they did.

So, with women in fewer leadership roles, female students have one half of a problem, one created on an institutional level, but the other half of the problem can be countered by individuals. Every time I walk into my classes now and into meetings where younger colleagues or students will be, I am aware of how my actions and attitudes could be read, not just for the construction of my own ethos, but as a woman who is communicating social cues, as a potential role model. Do I take myself seriously? Am I hiding my own accomplishments in some way? Do I take them seriously? Do I give my students space to speak around their sometimes more vocal male classmates? Do I engage with the ideas presented by other women in the room? It goes all the way down to posture and tenor of voice sometimes, with me becoming hyperaware of my presence in a room. Honestly, I hadn’t thought of my place in higher education in these ways before, though I had always observed and paid attention to my own female role models in these scenarios.

That report on gender and leadership didn’t call on university women to do this, but it could have—perhaps should have. It called for many other valuable things, like identifying and mentoring more young women toward graduate study. However, it also noted behaviors and conceptions of self among undergraduate women that were just like the ones I observed in that early gathering of faculty and administrators—quiet, self-deprecating when speaking, being ignored in larger groups. And how can any real change be made in the society if the social cues don’t change?

Monica F. Jacobe is a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University where she teaches in the writing program. Her literary research focuses on issues of identity in contemporary American literature, but a large part of her research agenda deals with academic labor and the state of humanities education. She currently serves as co-chair for the Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession as well as Communications Editor for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, & Pedagogy. She can be reached at

Naming Assumptions

In Ponderings of a Peregrine Pinoy Professor on 2010/09/09 at 22:32

Rosalie Arcala Hall, writing from the Philippines.

For women in the academy, one’s name is akin to a passport which under no circumstance must you tamper with. Your reputation as a scholar is attached to your name, which when subjected to a Google search, may yield only a few or a substantial number of hits depending on if it is correctly remembered or spelled. Unlike men, marriage pressures women to decide whether or not to make this changed civil status a separate “name reality” from their professional one. It is a tough choice to make.

Within my age and professional cohorts, I am a statistical outlier. First, I wanted a name that reflects a connection to my husband, a fact that some of my more liberal colleagues find counterintuitive. I also wanted my maiden surname spelled out to honor my local roots. Upon marriage in 2003, I conveyed this individual name preference in an official form to my university and government pension authorities. That I continue to receive communications in various permutations–“Dr. Arcala-Hall”;  “Dr. Alcala(sic)-Hall”; (medical) “Dr. Hall” suggests that my form possibly got sucked in a black hole (read: lost) or simply fell on deaf ears (read: ignored). Why is this is so? I blame feminism-infused university administrators on a crusade to hyphenate female faculty members’ names for this debacle, as well as spelling-challenged bureaucrats who mistake my maiden name for that of a more famous former Environment Secretary (Dr. Angel Alcala). As for the confusion between a medical degree and a Ph.D., “doctors” more often conjure men with stethoscopes rather than a female, book-wielding scholar like me. In the Philippines, my battle with bureaucracy and convention over my married appellation is like Don Quixote challenging the windmill. It is at times exasperating and downright comedic.

Adding to my woes is the fact that I have an obviously foreign surname, which never fails to draw unusual attention in our neck of the woods. Often, the reaction I get from colleagues range from “Why are you not in America?” to “When are you going back to the US?” indicating the built-in prejudice of Filipino wives of Americans whose only end-and-be-all is to get a green card. In several foreign fellowships I had applied for, I was “flagged” and asked to “prove” my intent to serve my home country given that I am married to an American. On the positive side, my name card tickles curious minds: the military General who spent some time grilling me about how I met my husband and why we chose to live in the Philippines; residents of a remote upland village dismayed by a motorcycle-driven woman (!) who came to interview paramilitary members rather than dispense medical services (easy to assume with someone named “Dr. Hall”); or a colonel from Mindanao surprised by me, an obvious local, coming to do research (she was expecting a blond woman, perhaps). In my area of research which is civil-military relations, I often have to dodge concerns that my husband is into covert operations (again, a natural assumption amongst many Filipinos whose limited encounters with Americans are either those in uniform or retirees).

It gets more complicated. Spelling out a middle name in the Philippines invites further speculation about your familial and ethno-linguistic origins. For a married Filipino woman, the maiden name is not a statement of sacrosanct individuality, but a window to a vast network of real and imagined connections. It opens doors, makes getting interviews a whole lot quicker and builds instantaneous trust, which a foreign surname simply could not muster.

These brushes with bureaucrats over my name will likely continue ad nauseum, but now I carry it with a grin and an unfailing patience. After all, I am one of only three Political Scientists in the entire country with a foreign surname and the only one in my entire university who insists on not being hyphenated. Uniqueness has its many rewards.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Confessions of a Trailing Spouse

In Uncategorized on 2010/08/19 at 02:08

Guest blogger, Lee Skallerup, writing from Kentucky in the USA.

Last winter semester, I didn’t teach. It was by choice, but it was a choice that dates back to 2001 when I first met the man who would eventually be my husband.  I was just starting my PhD and he, after some time off school, had his sights firmly set on grad school and a PhD. We agreed that if we were to stay together, we were not going to have one of those academic marriages where one lived in one city while the other lived in another in order for both to have the tenure-track job; why bother even getting married, we reasoned. Getting married, to me, meant having a spouse around most of the time, not just some weekends, holidays, and extended summer vacations.

Secretly, I figured I wouldn’t be the one who would have to sacrifice. I was four years ahead of my husband and mathematically reasoned that my chances of getting a tenure-track job first were better. And, that is exactly what happened; before my husband had even written his qualifying exams, I was hired as an assistant professor.  We moved across the country together, as a family, even though he had virtually no hope of landing an academic position close by.

And then, he got a job, too. His job was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for a young professor: low teaching load, primarily graduate students, lots of external funding, and travel support. The trade-off? I would have to leave my tenure-track job in a mid-size city and move to a small, rural town, and the economy being what it is, they didn’t have anything comparable to my current position to offer me.

We agonized over the decision. Do we live apart for a year? We have two small kids who adore their father – something I am very grateful for and I didn’t want to spoil those relationships for the sake of my career. I teach English, possibly the most employable (and lowest-paying) discipline. I found some adjunct work, quit my job, and we moved yet again.

The past year has probably been one of the most difficult of my life. When we first arrived, my youngest was at an age when life was still dictated by naps and feedings. Most mothers worked and when we would go to the park, it was deserted. Every mother I did meet was typically ten years younger than I was and had lived here her entire life. Most of the faculty (or faculty wives) had older kids. I felt incredibly alone and isolated.

Professionally, I felt like a failure. I had devoted my entire adult life to becoming a professor, and here I was, underemployed and staring down a mountain of debt. I was raised to be independent, and here I was unable to pull my own weight in the household. I hate housework, I can’t cook, and I ended up resenting every time I had to make dinner or clean up. This was my job now. Ugh. And I desperately missed teaching. For some, a job is just a job. For me, I am a teacher as much as I am a mother and a wife.

Meanwhile, my husband was in his dream position, complete with all of the insane hours that came with it. We lived within walking distance of the university, so he was able to come home most days for lunch and dinner, but being close by also meant that he would often go back to work in the evenings to keep working. He was incredibly supportive, giving me time to keep working on my own research interests and encouraging me to start my own business and blog. But he couldn’t create a friend or teaching opportunity out of thin air.

This fall, however, is looking up. I was offered a full-time instructor position for this upcoming academic year. It offers twice the money as adjunct teaching, but half the money as being a professor. I’ll take it. A new faculty hire and her family have just moved in two houses down from us, and they have a son the same age as my youngest. We’re already scheduling play dates. I feel extremely fortunate and hopeful. But, as a trailing spouse, even by choice, I still wish I had more control over my life and career.

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting).

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

“Wherefore art thou,” . . . Wait, who are you, again?

In Uncategorized on 2010/08/16 at 14:38

Guest blogger, Afshan Jafar, writing from Connecticut in the USA.

For a while now, everywhere I go–whether I’m teaching, doing research, interviewing for a job, or cooking—authenticity rears its ugly head and demands that I answer questions about myself, about my teaching, my research, the clothes I wear, even the spices I use in my cooking. Questions that I sometimes don’t have answers for, questions that sometimes I’d rather not answer, and questions that sometimes I am too exhausted to answer all over again.

To label something as authentic is almost always a positive label. Inauthentic, on the other hand, is almost always something that is to be shunned or not held in high esteem.  Let me try and persuade you to think of authenticity differently- to think of it as a dangerous idea that is capable of doing much harm. Allow me to give you a couple of examples, both from my personal life and from my scholarly interests.  I am a Pakistani Muslim woman living and teaching in the United States. I came here in 1995 as an undergraduate student, having never left Pakistan before that time. One would think my background would qualify me as an “authentic” Pakistani Muslim woman.

Not so. A few years ago I interviewed for a job which fit very nicely with my research. The institution was looking for a scholar of Islam (in a very broad sense), and my research on women’s NGOs in Pakistan and Islamic fundamentalism seemed like a good fit. The people on the search committee must have thought so too because I was interviewed for the position. I never did get the position and was later told by a friend of mine (who worked at this institution) that it would’ve been better had I shown up in a burqa! Apparently, my (very) short hair and my “Western” dress somehow did not live up to the image of a female Muslim scholar that the institution had in mind. I have no way of knowing what the precise reasons were for why I was turned down, but the fact that my appearance played a role (even if it was a minor one) cannot be ignored.

Several years ago, when I was doing research on women’s NGOs in Pakistan, the issue of authenticity became hard to avoid as it is quite central to the question of activism and feminism in a non-Western country. Change, and agents of change (such as NGOs), are often criticized by Islamic fundamentalists for aping the West, for not being respectful of traditions and practices that are authentic to local cultures. This makes the work of social change agents very difficult since they become labeled as traitors, or unpatriotic, simply because they are questioning something that is seen as tradition (read: authentic). An interviewee said to me once: “We [Pakistani women] shouldn’t become so Westernized that we forget that our place is in the home. For instance we shouldn’t work once we have children. As Pakistani women it is our duty to raise our children.” Here being a working mother was seen as an inauthentic version of Pakistani womanhood. What this interviewee failed to take into account is that many women in Pakistan have not been raising their children themselves: Poor women have always worked outside the home, and women who belong to the upper classes have hired domestic workers and nannies.

In a strange turn of events, these examples have brought together academics and Islamic fundamentalists, both of whom subscribe to similar notions of authenticity. Calls for authenticity are always calls for stifling change; they are almost always calls for promoting a one-dimensional, and an ahistorical view of a culture or people. The search committee for the position I interviewed for wanted the stereotypical Muslim woman- disregarding the fact that Muslim women are just as diverse in their practices and appearance as women anywhere else. The fundamentalists in Pakistan who denigrate NGOs as Westernized or unpatriotic view culture as unchanging, and also want to hold on to an image of Muslim women that does not reflect the diversity of their lives. Both of these examples ignore the reality of cultures – that they are porous, permeable, changing, and dynamic–and by so doing, limit the portrayals of and expectations of the people from these cultures.

My hair is long now. And every now and then I wonder: Did I give in? Did I grow my hair long so I would be seen as more authentic?

Afshan Jafar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women’s movements. She can be reached at

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Be Careful What You Wish For

In Liminal Thinking on 2010/08/06 at 11:48

Denise Horn, writing from Boston in the USA.

My career has always been important to me, but I never wanted it to dominate my personal life.  Early on, I instated my “8 o’clock” rule: if it’s not done/read/written/graded by 8:00 pm, it would have to wait until the morning. This was the time when civilized people had a glass of wine and ate dinner with someone they loved.

I fell in love with someone who understood my work, and indeed, was proud of it. He lived abroad with me when I had research to do. He read my book manuscript thoughtfully, and worked on the index for me.  He listened to my ideas for lectures and gave me tips on how to use technology more effectively. He took care of the dog when I was away for weeks at a time. He listened to hours of anxiety regarding my reviews.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see that my successes exacerbated his difficulties in finding his dream job. As someone freshly minted into the (non-academic) job market, he was finding his prospects dismal. That year abroad failed to land him the NGO job he’d hoped for and may have hurt his chances when he returned to the States. I didn’t see that my ability to pay bills and have money for dinners and trips highlighted his inability to do so. While he lauded my little triumphs, he wallowed in his own perceived failures. Despite our (often) happiness, the guilt and anxiety for him was too much, and in the end, he moved on to find what opportunities he could.

There is a trend at work here. The July/August 2010 Ideas Edition of The Atlantic boldly proclaims “the end of men,” as Gen-X women come to dominate the workforce, college admissions, and management fields. Young men coming of age during this Great Recession are finding that they are either severely underemployed or not employed at all, for long stretches of time. They are struggling in every way imaginable, while we women are finding our niches in our careers. Gen-X men are being laid off while their wives retain their jobs, but the psychological toll on younger men is incalculable: prolonged unemployment in the early stages of one’s working life is closely associated with dim future prospects, including lower pay over one’s lifetime and limited access to upper-level management positions.

In the classroom, and indeed, across the board at the university, the dominance of women has become apparent. My program, International Affairs, is one of the largest majors in the College and is disproportionately female. We struggle every year to recruit more men to go on our international programs, but every summer I find myself traveling abroad mainly with young women. The Atlantic article points to a sense of lethargy that seems to plague young men in the classroom, and I can attest to that. I know talented male students who admit to feeling hopeless in the face of their prospects, and I see them float through classes while their female counterparts take charge.

As a feminist, I am thrilled that we may be fulfilling the promise of the women’s rights movement. As a professional woman in her 30s I feel empowered in a way that my mother never did. But when I see young men I care about flounder and suffer, and when I see the toll my professional success has had on my personal life, I find it all so bittersweet. The promise of our movement was that women and men would all succeed, and that we would live in a society that valued the talents of everyone, and that we wouldn’t have to give up personal happiness for professional satisfaction.

I wished for a lot. That civilized glass of wine at 8 o’clock now represents a solitary toast to my success.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Men Swagger, Women…?

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/03/26 at 09:00

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Since I became an administrator, I have had a yearly performance evaluation.  Overall, they have been positive, but I am consistently criticized for one thing, year after year: my lack of “swagger.”

It is a confusing thing to be criticized for.  When I look up “swagger” in, I find:

–verb (used without object)

1. to walk or strut with a defiant or insolent air.

2. to boast or brag noisily.

–verb (used with object)

3. to bring, drive, force, etc., by blustering.


4. swaggering manner, conduct, or walk; ostentatious display of arrogance and conceit.

It is difficult for me to believe that this is a desirable quality.  Swaggering makes me think of bullies and cowboys; it is very macho.

Is it swagger that I need to be successful as an administrator?  When I was a full-time teacher, the qualities that made me successful were patience, knowledge, authority, and perhaps my sense of humor.  These qualities made my students feel comfortable and helped bring them together.  However, in my role as an administrator, I have been trying to develop my swagger.  I have a fancier notebook and nicer pens.  I wear more blazers.  I think before I speak.  I smile less.   I feel lonelier.

Moving from a teaching role to an administrative role was moving from a traditionally female role to a typically male role.  When I was teaching, it was easy and natural for me to be in a collaborative, friendly environment.  Administration is more competitive, political, and ruthless.  I need to rely on a different skill set to navigate my way.

Although I have made improvements, I still feel like I am missing the mark.   I know that I don’t actually want a swagger.   I want to improve my confidence.  I want to raise my game.  What is the feminine form of swagger?

Meg Palladino

Bookmark and Share

Dressing the Academy

In Guest Blogger on 2010/03/24 at 09:00

Guest blogger, Karin Sarsenov, writing from Lund, Sweden.

I chose the academic career because I hated to buy clothes.

In the department, my status depended on my intellectual brilliance, my rhetoric performance, and not on whether my attire radiated perfection and unobtrusive taste (or at least, so I thought). And – there were women who dressed even more carelessly than me!

In my Humanities department, I am surrounded by people with the most diverse sense of status. There are scholars of the more anal kind, finding their pride in scrupulous detail, exactness, tables, and figures. Then, there are the more frivolous, high-spirited, with IDEAS, assigning obscure titles to their books. And a dozen of other types, but common for all is that their dress code, if they have one, is purely a personal whim, never imposed by the social community.

Or so I thought.

Then I discovered the magic of clothes. Looking at a person who takes joy in dressing gives me pleasure. My female colleagues, who accentuate their figures with the right kind of costumes, bring about an atmosphere of sensuality that fertilizes the controlled academic discourse. They tell everybody: here I am, look at me, isn’t life beautiful! And men who… no, I can’t say that there is magic in male scholars’ way of dressing – not for me. Alas! I like male scholars with an intensive gaze and hardy egos that can stand the thought of not being the centre of the world all the time. As long as their clothes emphasize these qualities, they’re fine with me.

So, it turns out that I am one of those pillars of patriarchy, that keeps the body-mind dichotomy in place, objectifying women into a source of corporeal pleasure. Well if it is so, it’s better to admit it.

Being a woman in academia is a heroic task, it’s about facing challenges that you are not socialized into coping with. It’s about trying, failing, and trying again. The university is acknowledged a “greedy institution”, and that’s true! If you don’t watch out, it takes you all, your intestines, your creativity, energy, sexuality. It might give you something back, but it might as well spit you out, wet and miserable. When fighting with whitening knuckles to avoid that fate, your gaze grows determined, you move and talk fast, you acquire a no-nonsense relationship to most areas of life.  That’s why I adore lazy, overweight women with a loud laugh, who makes mistakes but aren’t bothered.

I see university life as a temptation: it lures you into substituting your own sense of identity with the one given to you by its bureaucratic machinery – but this identity is so tenuous, so frail, you blow on it, and it disappears.

I still hate to buy clothes. But I receive such a pleasure from being dressed to my own liking, to moving smoothly, and just not bothering too much about what other people think or what will happen to me next.

Karin Sarsenov is a research fellow in Russian literature at Lund University. She worked as an interpreter in Moscow while the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1990, then went there again in 1994 as a marital migrant, raising her first child. She defended her Ph.D. in 2001 and has worked at Lund University ever since, teaching, performing academic leadership, writing articles about Russia, literature and power relations. In 2003, she did her post doc at University of Pittsburgh.

Bookmark and Share

Gender (in)equality in higher education: Sweden, Europe

In Anamaria's Posts on 2010/03/02 at 09:00

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

To portray the situation of women in academia today is not a task meant for success in the space of 500 words. I will nevertheless try to describe briefly the situation in Sweden and to use that particular case as a springboard for more general thoughts about how it looks elsewhere and how it would be desirable to look everywhere in the future.

In today’s Sweden 60% of those who begin university studies are women, and this is a trend that began in the 1970s. In terms of the distribution across the fields of knowledge, men form the majority in the natural sciences and the technical subjects, but even in these areas women are the majority of graduates. Overall, two-thirds of those who finish a program of education are female.

This women dominance ends however when we examine the higher levels of involvement with research and teaching at the university. More men than women are doctoral students, for example, and the difference reaches its apogee when we look at the fact that 82% of professors are men and 18% women, confirming the well-known trend of vertical segregation.

The Swedish picture is almost identical with the general European one. There are more female bachelor level students (55%) and graduates (59%) across the 27 member states of the European Union, but only 48% of those who begin their doctoral studies are women, like the 45% of those who actually obtain their Ph.D. Even more similar is the situation at the professor level: the Swedish average is identical with the European one: only 18% of those who work as grade A academic staff are women (She Figures 2009).

How can this discrepancy be explained? Why is it so that so many women get a bachelor degree and so few continue to advance in the higher academic echelons? In a report from 2008 the Delegation for Equality in Schooling finds that this is not the reflection of the free choice of individual men and women, but rather the consequence of long-lasting power distribution patterns. To this contribute the obscure recruitment criteria and processes, and the unwritten expectations that separate men from women. For example, it is supposed that women will take on more social and administrative responsibilities whereas men are given more room to focus on the research and creative aspects of their jobs.

The most typical pattern of discrimination is invisible and subtle. It is not the case that women are actively excluded but that they are not invited to participate in what it has traditionally been a man-dominated world: they are not chosen as key note speakers at conferences, or they are not part of the informal networks created originally by men. They are forgotten, they are not seen, they are ignored.

There are still some positive trends. The younger generation in Europe, our dear Generation X, benefits from a more equal treatment that the previous cohort. Females between 35 and 44 represent 23% of grade A academics, whereas 45 – to 54-years-old females account for 21% and those over 55 only 18%. This improvement over time is reflected in the results of the three consecutive reports from the EU: the proportion of female professors increased Female grade A professors increased from 15,20% in 2000 (in the space of EU-15, the Western European states) to 19% in 2009 (in the expanded EU-27, including East European states where there was a higher degree of equality). Moreover the number of female researchers is growing faster than that of men (+6.3% during 2006-2009 compared to +3.7% from 2002 to 2006).

The numbers are bleak even if they do show a slow improvement. Who is responsible for changing the situation? How can one work against this invisible but very insidious passive exclusion of women? In Sweden, and this is a relatively unique situation, it is the government that has been actively engaged with the issue of bridging the gap. The main reason is that all Swedish universities are state-owned. Yes, you heard it right, there are no private universities to speak of. This leaves most of the responsibility of promoting equality to the politicians, who have had gender equality on the agenda for decades. And of course, it does give results (ever so slowly), but as the comparison with the general European trend confirms, it is by no means better than other strategies, where governments cannot exert control over gender issues in higher education.

How do you have it in your countries? Does this picture correspond with yours? And if not the government, who is it that took up the issue of gender (in)equality?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

Bookmark and Share


Women and Science –

She Figures 2009 –

Dold könsdiskriminering på akademiska arenor – osynligt, synligt, subtilt (2005) –

Delegation for Equality in School –