As a feminist planning scholar, I have received my fair share of pushback. For example, readers’ comments on my piece in The Conversation on “sexism and the city,” in which in which I talk about how modern planning has failed women, seem to me to be more or less split along gender lines. Some male commenters accuse me being anti-men, while other male commenters say I’m antifeminist for arguing that women have different needs than men when navigating urban spaces.
Meanwhile, at work I contend with depressing statistics on gender equity at professorial levels. In Australia, the urban planning sector is notoriously “blokey” (local slang for masculine). This is evident not only in academe but also in practice. I find that older white men of Anglo descent tend to call the shots. They get more consultancy projects and research grant funding.
Much has been said about some men’s defensive or hostile reactions in response to feminist scholarship—or simply female presence, let alone leadership, in the workplace. I have witnessed ad hominem attacks, seeking to undermine academic women’s careers—to masquerade as scholarly arguments over substance, in the form of peer reviews of articles, books, grant proposals and the like.
Having led several diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the University of Queensland, Australia, I am well aware of the gendered discourses and norms, as well as the “benevolent patriarchy,” that sustain the glass ceiling in university environments and in professional workplaces more broadly.
Whole books have been written to advise female academics on how to cope with misogyny in the academy. I will contribute a viewpoint on a lesser discussed phenomenon: the lack of support that women in academe receive from other women, who are supposed to be their allies and mentors. This is far from universal, but it does happen more than it should, given a century of feminist activism.
Why Does This Happen?
Why do women not support each other more often in higher education in various countries around the world? I’ve identified at least four key reasons.
Internalized patriarchy. In some cases, women have internalized the patriarchy that reigns in academic circles and are compliant with its demands. To be taken seriously, they have learned to repress “feminine” emotions and adopt confident or impassive behaviors, which are associated with masculinity.
In very male-dominated sections of academe, such as the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine fields, those few token women who have made it through feel more pressure to “fit in with the guys”—for example, during arduous fieldwork outdoors. That may involve embodying a “tomboy” persona. When asked to support policies such as gender quotas in hiring, tenure and promotion, these women hesitate. They are more concerned about not offending male colleagues than they are about helping female colleagues.
Some nonfeminist women, particularly older ones, had it tough during the early stages of their career, battling gender discrimination at every step. Having crawled their way to the top of the professoriate via a combination of ability and luck, they have become firm believers in “meritocracy.” Their rationale is that if they could get where they are without help, others can, too.
Academe’s cutthroat competition, fueled through an avalanche of performance scores and metrics, inevitably produces some “queen bees” who do not support—and sometimes actively undercut—female colleagues or subordinates. They try to outperform male scholars while at the same time favoring male over female peers. They may not resort to open confrontation and intimidation but use gossip and subterfuge to bully and damage the reputation of other women. Although queen bees do not hesitate to use the so-called gender card when it suits them, they do not act as agents of change or as positive role models for junior academics. In fact, they support the status quo.
Another aspect of the internalized patriarchy is a lack of awareness about the barriers that other women face in the modern university. For example, female academics without childcare responsibilities may not understand the difficulties that working or single mothers or parents face. I am guilty of that myself. Being child-free, I had not realized the effort involved in combining teaching, research and service demands with child-rearing—the “second shift”—until my sister (also an academic) had children.
Narcissism of small differences. In the case of highly ideological fields, such as mine, one must also contend with the narcissism of small differences. That leads academic women, including those who self-identify as feminists, to emphasize petty disagreements or distinctions and even adopt a holier-than-thou posture.
For example, in Australia, one runs into white female scholars being outraged at one another on behalf of Indigenous people, even where they don’t fully understand the tenets of Indigenous culture. Personally, I have been critiqued for adopting a “homogenizing” view of feminism, because I insist this movement should speak to and for all women. A colleague, herself from the Middle East, wrote about the lived experiences of Muslim women in Anglo city spaces, only to be reproached for stereotyping Middle Eastern migrants. Other well-meaning colleagues have been charged with exclusivity for not explicitly mentioning nonbinary gender identities in their scholarship.
The well-known feminist author Jo Freeman coined these outpourings of hostility as “trashing.” Others have called out these attitudes and behaviors as performative activism. It’s puzzling and frustrating to observe supposedly progressive scholars, who claim to feel empathy for disadvantaged and marginalized groups across the world, treat women in their immediate professional circle poorly.
Intersectionality. Being a tenured or tenure-track academic implies privileged status regardless of gender, race and class background. However, some female academics from working-class families may feel a stronger allegiance to men in their social class, who are underprivileged and underpaid, than to their academic sisters, who benefit from an advanced education and a secure job. On the flip side, female academics who have grown up in upper-middle-class families, encountering abundant opportunities and privileges and few obstacles in their path, may feel no need for female unity in the workplace.
Attitudes, behaviors and perceptions in university spaces are racialized as well as gendered. For example, academic women from racial minorities that have been historically oppressed and exploited do not automatically trust colleagues from racially dominant groups. Meanwhile, an emotion such as anger from a woman of color may be seen by white colleagues or students as irrational or unprofessional. This creates another divide between female academics. Some progressive Anglo female academics go overboard to “protect” and “save” culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) colleagues. But, when strong CALD women speak their minds in areas of their scholarship, teaching and service, those same “mentors” dismiss or threaten their “mentees.”
The unconscious wish to fail. Some explanations might be buried in the psyche rather than stemming from the social environment. According to psychologists, women who have unresolved childhood conflicts with their mothers sometimes struggle to find healthy ways to relate to other women in the workplace. They may also resent female colleagues who are academically successful—that is, who have presumably overcome the covert messages of female dependency and failure conveyed by their mothers since infancy.
What Can We Do About It?
Women’s antifemale behavior within colleges and universities is not due to mere professional jealousy or innate cattiness. A host of factors are at play, which deserve to be properly researched and analyzed. I have only scratched the surface here.
Going forward, the key is to recognize and value a shared goal. In the case of my own field, urban planning, this is the quest for the sustainable, just and livable city; other fields will have their own shared goals. By emphasizing common ground, female academics can foster greater understanding, collaboration and harmony—starting with their own research or teaching teams.
Personally, I would not have made it this far in academe without the support and mentorship of kind colleagues and supervisors of all genders. Gender equity in the academy cannot be achieved without strong bonds within various intersections.