Women and Inequality in Academia – Experiences, Analyses – 10th Max Weber Fellows’ June Conference

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Lorand10th Anniversary MW Fellows June Conference round table

Summary by Zsófia Lóránd (HEC 2015-2016),

Invited speakers:

Juliana Bidadanure (Assistant Professor, Stanford University, SPS 2014-2015), Diana Georgescu (Lecturer in History, UCL, HEC 2014-2015), Annaïg Morin (Assistant Professor, Copenhagen Business School, ECO 2012-2013), Mariely Lopez-Santana (Associate Professor, George Mason University, SPS 2006-2007), Cristina Poncibò (Professor in Comparative Law, University of Turin, LAW 2006-2007)
Concept and moderation: Zsófia Lóránd (current MWF HEC), Julija Sardelić (SPS 2014-2016)

To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the MWP and to contribute to the ongoing debates at the EUI on gender and inequality in academia, we invited five successful former Max Weber Fellows to discuss the topic. With my fellow organizers on the committee of the MW Conference and the moderator of the round table, Julija Sardelić, we felt that successful women reflecting on the difficulties in light of their triumph over them can be empowering and thought provoking.

The round table was based on two broad questions, in order to give space to the ideas of the participants and give those present in the room a chance to discuss the professional, the personal, and the political. The initial question asked about the ways in which gender and inequalities in academia should be discussed, the reflection on personal experiences with regard to one’s gender and the intersection between these experiences and other marginalized positions the round table participants have to face. We also asked the participants how their choice of research was affected by their personal position and how they experience their position in the field with this topic. Here I will only summarize the ideas I found most intriguing, adding some of the comments from the audience during the Q&A: the 40 minute discussion with former and current MWFs and the EUI community is living proof that there is a lot of knowledge and experience to dismantle gender inequality, if we take it seriously.

The discussion started out with Julija Sardelić’s recollection from her BA studies about the sexist remarks of a professor who suggested that she was too good a student for a woman and should focus more on kitchen work than her studies. The story rang a bell in several participants’ heads. Sexist comments and biases play an important part in the exclusion of women from some fields and positions of power. As Juliana Bidadanure pointed out, we need to identify the factors that lead to women and people of colour being kept away or staying away from philosophy as a discipline. At the beginning of their studies, young women are interested in philosophy. There are various factors that may explain why they disappear later: from outright discrimination, to implicit biases, to the lack of female instructors to identify with, to an environment that makes it harder for members of marginalized groups to feel like they belong in philosophy. One important factor has been described by psychologists as stereotype threat  i.e. when someone is expected to perform less well as the member of a negatively stereotyped and under-represented category, s/he will become more likely to lose self-confidence and perform less well. The phenomenon is exacerbated when individuals often find themselves in solo-status – when she is the only woman or the only black person at a conference, for instance.  Juliana brought us a quote from the work of the well-known philosopher, Sally Haslanger, which sums up the mechanisms often at play:

‘In my experience, solo status often results in my feeling tongue-tied and ‘stupid,’ even to this day. I watch myself unable to follow an argument or clearly articulate my question on an utterly familiar topic. We all know what it is like to struggle with complex ideas when ‘struck dumb’ with anxiety. What is less evident is how gender and race imbalance creates contexts in which it is more difficult for women and minorities to perform up to their potential. People are unlikely to want to pursue fields in which they regularly feel ‘stupid,’ where they can tell that they are under-performing. But given the combination of stereotype threat and, all too often, solo status, this is likely a familiar experience for women and people of color in philosophy.’

Diana Georgescu spoke about different forms of marginalisation and her precarious position as an immigrant in the US: the difficulties with a visa being tied to employment and the difficulties with a job search when unemployed. Mariely Lopez-Santana mentioned the prejudice she faces from her students in the USA for her accent as a woman professor of colour. Cristina Poncibò also drew on her personal experience, as an Italian woman academic in Italy. The personal to her also means to share the experience of one’s own country.

The losses and risks in our private lives are as hard to share as it is important to share them. Julija Sardelić’s early experience with her professor is one example. Some of the participants also spoke of the risks and consequences of having a successful academic career as women. For example, by postponing motherhood, a woman faces difficulties with pregnancy and ageism as ‘an old mother’. Pursuing a career can lead to the break-up of a marriage, which unavoidably puts question marks after the word ‘success’. The fact that the postdoctoral years are often without social security and especially maternity leave, means that many talented your woman academics drop out in this phase and become completely dependent on their partners.

The individualism that characterizes academia, as well as current Western societies, easily makes us believe that we are at fault. Mariely Lopez-Santana read up extensively on research about gender and teaching evaluations, how students assess male and female university teachers differently. ‘This made me realize that what is happening to me is happening to other women too. I was always doing well in small groups, but not so well in larger ones, while in the same classes the peer evaluation by my colleagues was very good. So, I looked into this and found research showing the contradictory expectations. A larger group, where you lack more personal interaction, expects their female teacher to be strict and caring at the same time. And “caring” here means lenient.’ Being both is of course impossible. http://library.auraria.edu/content/bias-student-evaluations-minority-faculty

That women need to support each other more, need to network more, was a point raised by several round table participants. It was also Mariely Lopez-Santana’s finding that when it comes to citations, since men have wider networks, they are more widely cited than women. This resonated with Cristina Poncibò’s experience in Italy, full professors working as a men’s club, with almost no entry for women. Annaïg Morin suggested that we need solutions for the inequalities which stem from academia, even if we cannot change the issues outside academia at the same time. Mentoring programs and maybe quotas are options, but also, we could introduce quality audit of the departments regarding gender equality. She brought the example of the Women in Economics network of the European Economic Association, which promotes exchange and cooperation between women in the field.

Diana Georgescu shared her good experiences with support from women. ‘Looking back at my career, I realized that with a few exceptions, the major mentors and models in my life were and are women – this started in high school in postsocialist Eastern Europe and continued throughout college and graduate school. It was mostly women professors who recognized my talent or encouraged me, or even, who wrote me a letter of recommendation. It was a stark realization that we can similarly serve as mentors and models for our women and male students.’

Apart from the fact that academia loses several brilliant women through its sexist discriminatory practices, Annaïg Morin pointed out that discrimination is also detrimental to the quality of research: it happened with worker-mobility research projects, for example, that they simply left women out of the data, as it was more complicated to track down their trajectories. Supporting this argument, during the Q&A session Magdalena Malecka (MWF LAW 2013-2015) referred to research that proves that diversity of scholars from different backgrounds can also advance other epistemic goals. Simply put, more diversity of race, gender, class and sexuality means better research.

Reflecting on this, during the Q&A, Olivia Nicol (current MWF SPS) warned us that structural and individual solutions are both very important. Women can network all they want if the system resists. Most comments from the audience supported this suggestion and demanded structural, institutional change. As Moti Michaeli (current MWF ECO) pointed out, coming from his own experience, mother-focused policies instead of parent-focused and gender-equality focused policies jeopardize women’s careers more than men’s and often lead to the maintenance of patriarchal family structures as well as institutional structures. Several MWFs, for example Aitana Guia and Katharina Lenner, voiced the fact that prestigious postdoctoral programs, such as the MWP itself, should have a parental leave policy at least for immediately after the time of child-birth. Florian Hertel (current MWF SPS) added that it is faulty to talk about excellence in academia and to claim that we can assess it as long as minorities are excluded from and discriminated against in academia. Success and excellence are certainly concepts to be treated with caution, and with Diana Georgescu’s and Juliana Bidadanure’s closing comment I felt that we reached one of the main aims of the meeting: to talk about success but also to talk about the problems by acknowledging the difficulties, to sympathize with those who face challenges, which is by no means victimization. I would say, without this empathy we cannot claim a more just academia and a more just society.

The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme