sexism and the seventies: back to the future?

Perhaps I should explain how it is that I’ve become so vocal about addressing the attrition of women in academia. I can pinpoint the start of it to a place, and a time about 5 years ago. But for the full story I need to take you back with me to my early teenage years. And that was many years ago. In the dark ages. Before twitter. Before facebook. Before the internet. Before email. Before …well you get the message. It was in the 1970s.

Things were different then. Most women stayed at home after they married. For my family, my mum had to work; there were 9 children to support and that definitely needed two incomes. As the eldest girl in the family, a lot of the caring and housekeeping responsibilities fell to me. But I digress. That’s not where this story is going, though I might return to it at some point in a later post.

What I wanted to share with you were two events from this long-ago time. Two incidents that occurred in relatively quick succession. These events marked my realisation that I was growing up, that society saw me as a young woman, even if I didn’t yet accept that. Both events occurred as I was walking home alone from high school.

On the first occasion, it began with a car full of young men driving in the opposite direction and yelling obscenities at me; I ignored them, put my head down and continued uphill, quickening my pace and hoping they would drive on. Chillingly, the driver of the car executed a U-turn and pulled up beside me, with the men now shouting lewd remarks from a much closer vantage point. Adrenaline kicked in, I made my own U-turn running as fast as I could back down the hill. To my terror, the car reversed to keep pace with me, while the men inside continued their offensive and humiliating tirade. It only ended when I ran into a house – any house – and knocked on the door to ask for help, breathless and in tears, but there was no-one home. Fortunately, the car drove off and I made my way home again.

On the second occasion, I noticed a young man bicycling towards me on the pavement. I moved to my left to make room for him to pass, but instead he veered towards me.  As he closed in he made a deliberate move to grope my breast. This time, I took the offensive. I shoved back with all my might, pushing him off-balance and off his bike. Then I ran hell for leather for home, which was mercifully just a few hundred metres around the corner.

The terror I felt on both occasions can still be recalled with complete clarity. And with it the sense of shame, powerlessness, confusion, revulsion. I’d done nothing to provoke the harassment on either occasion. I was just a girl walking home from school.

When I look back to this time growing up, I recognise that most days nothing happened. Yet it is these two events that stick in my mind. Perhaps because I learned an important life lesson, to be aware, to be alert. That I was a target because I was a woman.

I had hoped that since the 1970s things would have improved for young women and girls. That’s not the case though. The same things – and much, much worse – happen every day as documented by Laura Bates’ @EverydaySexism project. The mission of the project is “By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.”

Last year, @EverydaySexism asked people to post their experiences of everyday sexism in academia. I was horrified to read the tweets that came in. The same things that happened to me as a young academic so many years ago were still happening now. In 2013. Women’s bottoms were being pinched, their ribs being tickled from behind by senior male colleagues, they were receiving excessive unwanted attention from males at conferences. Thank God for @EverdaySexism, “Women are silenced through sexual harassment every day. Now it is time to speak out”. Women now had a voice.

I didn’t tweet anything to @EverydaySexism at the time. But I’ll share a few of the everyday sexism experiences from my academic career. The first occurred about 15 years ago, when I was a mid-career researcher struggling to find my place in the world of academia. A male professor, and collaborator of mine, sat with two or three younger male colleagues in the tea room and, whenever any young woman entered the room, discussed aloud whether she was wearing a G string.

I said nothing.

Then, about 5 years ago at an international conference in Europe, I overheard 3 male PhD students discussing another conference delegate, a female PhD student who had won the major poster prize. They weren’t discussing her research, or her brilliance. They were discussing her physical attributes and what they would do to them if they had the chance. It was sickening.

I said nothing.

Over the next days and weeks I grew angry with myself. I was by now a senior academic, a professor, someone of status. Why didn’t I say anything? Why should this behaviour go unchallenged? I thought about the young female student and wondered what she would have to put up with if those male PhD students, or men like them, became her colleagues, collaborators, peer reviewers in the future.

Then I got my answer. A female colleague, a professor at another university in Australia, was in a conference committee meeting. She was the only woman present, in a group of 8 or 9. It was a dinner meeting and alcohol was involved. That’s not to justify what happened, just to set the scene. The woman offered  an opinion on a specific discussion point, and the immediate response from one of the men – a leading light in the Australian science scene – was “That’s like cocksucking”.

Surprised at how her idea was dismissed out of hand, she asked what he meant by saying that. He boomed back “Come over here and I’ll show you!”.

All the men laughed: some loudly, some nervously. The woman said nothing.

I hasten to add that most men I work with respect women and women’s opinions. But how many men put in a similar situation would call out such overt sexual harassment. How many would let it slide and laugh along with others. It was a joke right? Get a sense of humour.

What would you have done?

Anyway, as a consequence of these events, I decided to become more informed. I began attending gender equity workshops, collecting data on the attrition of women in academia, and presenting at women in science events. I joined twitter and followed a number of women in science feeds. Through twitter I learned about this. And this. And this. And much more besides. I remember thinking last year at the height of these twitter storms, enough is enough, someone should do something about this. Then I realised that I was someone, and I could do something. So now I do. I call out sexism and bias.

Last year, at a major national health professional congress in Melbourne,  the entertainment at one of the evening social events included women dressed only in G-strings and tassels. This time, I said something.

At a dinner last year, where I was the only woman in a group of 5 peers, a male colleague made a sexually charged comment to a waitress. I called it out.

There are other things too, that I’ll talk about in subsequent posts, but you get the idea I hope.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy. Especially when the people being called out are my colleagues or more senior than me, or when I’m the only woman. My heart is in my mouth every time I voice my concerns. But I still do it. And I hope you will join me. Because if we say nothing, then nothing will change.

You see, I don’t want the next generation of academics – male and female alike – to feel that sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of gender, objectification of women, and unconscious bias are acceptable in academia or elsewhere. Surely, if you have a mother, sister, female partner or daughter you would want them to have an equal opportunity to succeed, and to be treated respectfully by men.

So when you see it, say something. Call out sexism. It doesn’t belong in this millennium.

***I decided to post this two days earlier than intended, after reading the following post, which sends the same message ***

the incredible disappearing women of academia

Mission Australia’s 2013 youth survey found “For the first time ever, young women ranked equity and discrimination as the top issue facing the country….“. Perhaps this is not surprising given the treatment Australia’s first female Prime Minister received from the media during her term of office. What saddens me deeply is that the ultra-negative message about women in leadership trumpeted by many in the media is influencing a whole new generation. I was astonished at a family gathering in June last year when my 11-year old nephew told his high-achieving female family elders “I don’t think a woman should be Prime Minister“.

The issue of gender equity and discrimination is one that has occupied quite a bit of my time over the past few years. You see, as a female professor, I am in a distinct minority.

But when I started my scientific career in the early 1980s, there were about as many young women as there were young men undertaking the same undergraduate Pharmacy degree, and women were awarded the majority of academic prizes on offer. As a Master of Pharmacy student with mentor Professor Peter Andrews in the mid-1980s, again there was no noticeable difference in the gender balance of students. And as a DPhil student at Oxford in the late 1980s, gender balance wasn’t an issue either. Indeed, I was surrounded by amazing female role models: Nobel Laureate Dame Professor Dorothy Hodgkin was still attending seminars and my DPhil co-supervisor was the inspirational Dame Professor Louise Johnson. Perhaps I was just lucky that the field of crystallography, into which I had stumbled, was one with a long history of female pioneers. In any case, it was at about this point I suddenly and consciously realised that being a woman and succeeding in science were not mutually exclusive.

My DPhil was awarded in 1990, and after an ill-fated post-doctoral appointment at Bond University and a much more successful placement at Rockefeller University – with the amazing HHMI Investigator Professor John Kuriyan – I established my own lab in Australia in 1993. I’ve had great male and female mentors encouraging me to succeed, offering advice and pointing me in the right direction. I’ve scaled more metaphorical academic ladders than I ever dreamed possible. Yet I’ve also witnessed and experienced unconscious bias, overt sexist behaviour, and discrimination on the basis of gender. Twenty years on, the gender imbalance at my level is very obvious to me and very concerning. Over my career, women colleagues have disappeared from academia at a much greater rate than men. Now, I am often the only woman present in meetings of my peers.

In their recent paper Sixteen years of change for Australian female academics: progress or segmentation?  Marchant and Wallace (AUR Vol 55 (2) 2013) evaluated data collected from the Australian higher education sector over roughly the same time period that I’ve been an independent research scientist. Gender equity for Australian university students was achieved in 1987, and for university staff as a whole this was achieved in 2001. The percentage of women at academic level A in research-only positions has been above 50% since at least 1997. But women did not achieve parity at research-only Level B till 2009, at least 12 years later. Equality at research-only levels C through to E (where E=professor) has yet to be achieved. Overall, the authors’ conclude:

  • “Raw numbers mask ongoing, systematic underrepresentation of… women in the desirable career track roles and higher status levels
  • Males still constitute a large majority of the academic professoriate
  • Women’s overall status in Australian Universities continues to improve, albeit slowly
  • Apparent gains are patchy and women tend to be confined to ‘bad’ jobs as casual teachers
  • Overall, the increasing numbers of women (in academia) mask segmentation and marginalisation.”

At my own university the percentage of women professors hovered just under 20% from 2008-2012, though on the up-side it has increased from ~13% in 2003. However, at the current rate, it will be another 50 years before professorial gender equality is achieved. This low ratio of women at the top level, and the slow rate of change, is by no means unique. The gendered nature of universities and other research institutes is a worldwide phenomenon. The international journal Nature featured a series of articles in March 2013 for International Women’s Day on the issue of women in science, and highlighted the Lack of Female Leaders in UK universities in Dec 2013.  Recently, a vibrant discussion on the issue of gender segregation in religious lectures and debates at UK universities raised wry smiles. Gender segregation, vertical and horizontal, is already entrenched at Universities: men hold a greater proportion of higher level appointments and women hold a greater proportion of teaching-only roles at the lower levels.

In future posts I’m planning to write on specific issues that contribute to gender segregation, discrimination and inequality in academia.

Making universities better workplaces for women will improve their quality for everyone” Curt Rice has eloquently stated. I may be an idealist, but I’d like to think that such changes in the university workplace will happen, and that it won’t take 50 years. I’d also like to think that sometime in the relatively near future, young Australian women – our daughters, sisters, nieces – won’t feel that equality and discrimination is the major issue facing this country.  And I’d like to think that young Australian men – our sons, brothers, nephews (definitely nephews in my case) – won’t get themselves into hot water by parroting sexist media claptrap about women and their leadership qualities.