Sarah Pett

Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)

The Gender Agenda: Inequality in the Humanities

Women are not a “class”; they are not uniformly oppressed; they do not all experience sexism in the same ways.

– Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English, Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness (1973)

So, yesterday British academic twitter went momentarily mad for this Guardian article on gender (in)equality and the humanities, aimed at raising awareness about the obstacles women academics face to career progression, and to promote the University of Oxford’s recently established Women in the Humanities programme and funding pot. As a female early career researcher currently working two part-time contracts at different universities, I should be a natural supporter of the programme’s ethos and objectives, and in many ways I am. Since beginning my career as a teacher and researcher, and particularly since entering the job market this time eighteen months ago, I’ve found myself at the sharp end of higher education’s gender bias more than once, from students who unintentionally, but tellingly, address me as “Miss” to interviews in which my behaviours and responses have, I feel, been read in particularly gendered ways, such that what in one of my male peers (such as taking notes on long, multi-part questions) might be seen as assiduous and confident has been interpreted in me as “insecure” and “opinionated” — though of course, I’m aware too of the fact that I might well present as insecure and opinionated, regardless of my gender! Seeing my brilliant, hard working female friends and colleagues with publications and strong teaching records struggling to get short-term work in HE, while male friends without those supposed “essentials” have landed on their feet also hurts. I’m in no doubt that the humanities has a serious gender imbalance, and that change is long overdue.

And yet, I’m also painfully aware of the layers of privilege that have got me this far in an academic career, and concerned about the ways in which debates about gender inequality act to obscure a much more serious problem in higher education. To get more of a handle on this, let’s take a look at the image that accompanies yesterday’s Guardian article:

Image of Dr Selina Todd, accompanied by young white female Oxford students. The image caption reads "Selina Todd, of St Hilda's, Oxford, aims to champion the rights of women in universities."

Guardian caption reads: “Selina Todd, of St Hilda’s, Oxford, aims to champion the rights of women working and studying in universities.” Image © David Levene

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Unless you’re someone who habitually wears sunglasses in doors, it should be glaringly obvious to you that the women in this photograph are almost entirely white — and in this the caption to the photograph is telling, making no mention of Selina Todd’s colleague and fellow Women in the Humanities member, Associate Professor Cláudia Pazos-Alonso, awkwardly positioned behind and to the right.  The younger women in particular are remarkably homogeneous in appearance: mid-brown long hair, smart-casual clothing, natural-looking make up, the overall effect being modest but not prim. The underlying message? Academic women–the women who are being cheated out of jobs by swaggering men who love the sound of their own voices–are white women. They’re white women who look like straight women, and though the image can’t talk, to my eye they’re also white women who look able-bodied and middle-class. While calling for the dismantling of male privilege in the academy, then, this image actively reproduces the nexus of class and race privilege on which this academy depends, as well as its preference for heterosexual, able bodies and minds. It encapsulates the ideal female Oxford undergraduate, and the intended recipient of the advocacy and financial support that the Women in the Humanities project represents.

I’ve always known that the funding packages and university places I “won” were no doubt aided in part by my ability as a white, upper-middle class, privately educated individual to talk the talk and walk the walk of the academic mainstream, but it was in the transition from postgraduate study to early career that I first encountered the ways in which those privileges made the nearly impossible possible. There is no way I could have finished my PhD without the generosity of my parents, and there is no way I could afford to live on the two part-time, nine month teaching fellowship contracts I’m currently on without the support of my partner, who is much further along in his career. The psychological impact of that dependence is often difficult–I know, cry me a river–and the knowledge that my ability to even give an academic career a shot depends so much on class privilege and relationship status quite thoroughly undermines the sense of achievement at having finished my PhD and successfully getting a job in an exceptionally competitive market. Without these things finishing my PhD would not have been an option and the academic job market completely out of the question – or at least without taking on substantial and terrifying loans that I might not have been granted in the first place. More importantly, though, ever since I arrived at university I have had been aware that there is a place for me in academia, that there have been women like me on the lecture stage, and in positions of administrative power. For many of my students, this is most definitely not the case. There are no such role models, and those who do appear in the spotlight from time to time testify to feelings of isolation, prejudice, and exclusion: take Dr Katie Edward’s recent account of the hostility she’s experienced towards her Mexborough accent, for example, or coverage from last year on the refusal of universities to acknowledge and appropriately respond to institutional racism. Images like that which accompanies Todd’s article are acts of gatekeeping in their own right.

This is not to say that Todd and her colleagues don’t have a point to make. It perhaps makes that point even more pressing: if the humanities can improve gender equality without sacrificing its other identifying landmarks, why hasn’t it done so already? We can see the beginnings of this in the AHRC/Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers scheme, which quite clearly aims for a 50/50 gender balance. Currently on its fifth iteration, the previous four cohorts have looked like this*:

Image of New Generation Thinkers cohort 2011

Group photograph of the New Generation Thinkers, 2012

Image of New Generation Thinkers cohort 2013

Image of New Generation Thinkers cohort 2014

Great gender balance, but yeah – pretty white. Not entirely, and even so the (by my calculations) ratio of non-white to white people in these images is significantly above the national average in the UK across the disciplines. But still, I hope it’s clear by now that academia has a problem, and gender is the least of it.

This is of course a largely self-selecting scheme, but to reiterate: what frustrates and angers me about this scheme, and about the image accompanying Todd’s article, is the fact that these are some of the very few images of academics that make it into the public eye, along with popular history programmes, which perform much the same ideological work. What do they say? This is what academics look like. If that’s not you, don’t bother. In many institutions, including my own, we’re now at a point in which texts by a range of different authors are studied by students of many different ethnic backgrounds, and yet the face of academia remains white (though thankfully, there has in recent months emerged a series of projects like Dismantling the Master’s House and Why Isn’t My Professor Black aimed at addressing this). It’s imperative that those of us who have a head start–those of us who have a place, however insecure, in academia–explicitly recognize the complexity and extent of the exclusionary discourses and practices that crosshatch the sector, and act accordingly, rather than use one issue to obscure the rest. What I’m saying, then, is not to check your privilege if you’re white, middle class, and female with a foothold in the academy, but to actively recognize it and use it in ways that seek to dismantle inequality in all its forms. Amen.

* Let me emphasize that this is not in any way personal – I know several of these people, and they are not bad people. My issue is with the scheme and the selection process, not the individuals involved. As a further caveat, I should note that I have never applied for the scheme, nor do I intend to.

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5 comments on “The Gender Agenda: Inequality in the Humanities

  1. Charlotte
    February 27, 2015

    I generally agree with what you say, and it is a huge problem in academia – we have a hell of a way to go to address the race and class prejudices in Higher Education and the ‘image’ of HE is definitely a resulting and contributing factor. I do, however, take issue with your description of people as ‘looking’ straight and/or middle-class, primarily because this implies that there is a way to ‘look’ queer and/or working-class, which is a problem. In this case it also happens to not be true with the WiH people, but I get that you’re going on the general image it projects (which is embarrassingly white). Race and class prejudice *is* significant and pervasive – and there are things you can identify from a photo. There’s a problem with making other assumptions based on what you think middle- or working-class and straight or LGBT+ people *look* like.

    • essiepett
      February 27, 2015

      Hi Charlotte – Thanks for reading, and for your comments. You’re not the first person to mention this, and clearly I should have expanded on this point in a footnote. I would love it if we lived in a society that didn’t make assumptions about individuals based on often inaccurate beliefs about the aesthetics and behaviours of race, gender, sexuality, class, and all manner of other things, and perhaps one day we will (though I’m also aware of the desire, and perhaps necessity, to reclaim these aesthetics and behaviours as sources of pride). However, there is a long history, both in the UK and beyond, of exactly this. Ideas about the aesthetics and behaviours of race, gender, class, and sexuality have for centuries, if not longer, made possible/necessitated the phenomenon of ‘passing,’ and there’s a rich tradition of scholarship and artistic practice that revolves around this (and works against it, for example the ingenious lederhosen-based work of Jean-Ulrick Désert). While I don’t happen to think that people look a certain way according to class or sexuality, I do know people who consciously choose to perform aesthetics and behaviours associated with their class, gender, race, or sexuality, and those that don’t. More importantly, I firmly believe that as a society, we tend to read people (and be read) according to these codes. I was struck by how the whole “debutantes at a stately home” aesthetic of the photo plays into this (though I hope unintentionally), and how this feeds into wider problems related to the popular image of academia.

  2. wadhamite
    March 4, 2015

    Oxford isn’t UCL, Imperial etc – it’s quite a white university. Could well be they didn’t have anyone non-white to put in the photo (certainly if I look at my matriculation photo there’s not much diversity going on…) – although pushing the other senior female academic to the back was a bit of a silly idea.

    On a more general note, you just have to dress a certain way to be taken seriously as a woman in academia. I’m a 27 year old lecturer and researcher, and unless I dress the way the women in that photo are dressing, I get mistaken for one of my own freshers! Similarly, when I do research in hospitals, I have to dress like a junior doctor (often a male junior doctor: shirt and smart trousers) or I constantly get asked: am I student, am I a nurse, am I a play specialist… We have quite rigid preconceptions as to how an academic should look, and unless you play up to those, members of the public and even other professional pigeon hole you as something other than you are. Usually something more junior, so they can look down on you and treat you with less respect. It doesn’t seem fair to judge those young women for playing by the rules. Only senior academics (male and female) have the power to break down those dress barriers, and make it easier for junior researchers to be goths/have green hair/wear dreds etc.

    • essiepett
      March 4, 2015

      Thanks for this, and you’re right about the dress code of academia. In that vein, you might find Ambika Kanath’s recent post “Evaluate My Work Not My Body Art” an interesting read.

      In terms of Oxford’s diversity, Natalya Din-Kariuki’s recent response to the Women in the Humanities scheme suggests that Oxford is more diverse than one might assume, and highlights some of the great work going on there.

  3. Pingback: In Search of the Great White Male: Or, We Need New Terms | Sarah Pett

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