A Pervasive Gender Bias (Not Just in the Sciences)

Bias in the humanities.


November 11, 2013

In her essay for The New York Times, Eileen Pollack asked the now-familiar question, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in the Sciences?” The answers that Pollack presents are not new: a pervasive culture of sexism, combined with overtly sexist practices discourage young women from pursuing these demanding careers. As astrophysicist Meg Urry put it, “the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks” accounts for much of the attrition in the undergraduate and graduate levels. Joan Williams's response article in the Huffington Post cites another one of these roadblocks: women who wish to have children are pushed off the tenure track by either covert or overt (and illegal) practices. It is no wonder, then, that women constitute only 17.6 percent of the tenured faculty in the sciences and engineering, according to a 2003 study of the AAUP.


In the humanities the gender distribution tends to be more even, and in some cases women hold a higher percentage of tenure-track positions. Consequently, there is much less awareness of gender bias in humanities fields. When I tried to bring up the subject during my graduate studies, I met with consternation and disbelief. How could there be gender bias when the chair of the department is a woman and so many of my female classmates are doing well? Besides, no one else is complaining.


Though few students complained—for fear of being stigmatized and falling into disfavor—the fact that  men and women were often subject to different standards was an open secret. Male faculty usually chose male students as their protégés and rewarded them for academic accomplishment and intellectual rigor. Female faculty frequently chose women, yet they expected them to be personable and compliant. I was surprised to see one of my female colleagues scramble to read every book her adviser (a woman) recommended without questioning its substance or relevance to her research. When I emailed the same adviser with critical queries about her dissertation feedback, I never received a response. Much later I learned that my attempts at an intellectual engagement were perceived as rude and “ungrateful.”


Such a double standard was even more pronounced when it came to teaching. Like many literature Ph.D.s, I taught in a writing program that was located outside of our department. It followed a principle of systematic management that assessed our teaching almost entirely on the basis of student evaluations. To qualify for a more advanced course or for a much-needed summer assignment a graduate instructor had to receive “above average” evaluation scores. Conversely, “below average” evaluations resulted in frequent, mandatory class visits and threatening emails from the supervisors. Male students tended to receive better evaluations than female students. Though it was obvious that the ratings reflected students' biases and a very different set of expectations for male and female instructors—not to mention a variety of racial and cultural biases—supervising faculty members refused to change this policy.  


What makes Eileen Pollack's essay particularly relevant to the humanities is its emphasis on the cultural aspects of academic sexism. Some of these cultural trends can remain quite hidden and they are difficult to point out as “evidence” of inequality. For instance, Pollack's own complaint that her mentors did not encourage her to apply for graduate school, or the stereotyping of women scientists that so many of the interviewees mention are rarely acknowledged as forms of gender inequality in academic departments. Yet as studies show, such trends are pervasive and oppressive enough to cause a large percentage of women to leave STEM fields.    


In the humanities, such cultural trends are further obscured by the multiple functions of most humanities departments. Whereas in the sciences PhD students are by and large trained to conduct research, humanities departments also train students to become teachers and, increasingly, to undertake occupations that have little to do with their field of study. Women who follow these “softer” tracks are less likely to be stereotyped; and even on the research track some women find ways to conform to conventionally feminine roles and circumvent some of the barriers. Yet women who wish to pursue intellectually rigorous projects and are unwilling or unable to perform a traditionally feminine role are likely to encounter the same forms of cultural oppression as their colleagues in the sciences.


Since the onset of the economic crisis, humanities departments have scrambled to prove their relevance through media campaigns, outreach, and assorted symposiums. They have tried to show the world that they are not insulated circles preoccupied with the esoteric, but vital communities deeply engaged with the problems of the day. Yet from what I've seen, one of the problems that plagues these departments is the failure to take their own critical concepts seriously.


Along with the social sciences, the academic humanities have done the most to bring the complexities of gender inequality to light. I spent the better part of my twenties reading theorists like Laura Mulvey, Jacqueline Rose, and Michel Foucault who have shown the insidious effects of oppressive cultural practice on minority group (and this of course is also true of race, class, sexuality and other identity categories). Yet the same scholars who are eager to debate the intricacies of theory in the classroom won't give a second thought to such insights in matters of institutional practice. If humanities professors want to show that their work has social relevance, they can begin by putting their ideas into practice within the walls of their own institutions.


Polina Kroik has received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine and has since contributed to edited collections and served as a guest editor for a special issue of Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society. She writes about gender, culture, and work, and teaches writing at Lane Community College in Oregon. You can find her on Twitter @pkroik.





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