Pay Attention!

I have to make a troubling admission: when it comes to gender issues in academia, my internal monologue has often been rather silent. What is more, until relatively recently, I didn’t see this as a problem: given that a person’s sex is irrelevant to questions of scientific worth or ability, then surely not being overly preoccupied by gender is the ideal we’re all striving for? I suspect that this attitude is quite common amongst men of my generation, and to a certain extent the thought behind it is honourable; but recently, I’ve started to realise that not only is such a philosophy at best rather naïve, it is also only sustainable if one remains determinedly oblivious to current realities.

Cheerful ignorance can be quite easy if you don’t put your mind to it. When I was doing my PhD, the gender balance amongst my fellow postgrads was fairly even – if anything, I was in a slight minority. These limited observations allowed me to believe that institutional sexism in academia was a thing of the past, or at least was a dying problem.
Then I started reading blogs, and I noticed that many women academic bloggers, at all levels, didn’t seem to see it that way. Disturbing as the far-too-numerous horror stories were, even more disturbing was the common thread of people having to put up with continuous little slights and insults from people who clearly weren’t treating them as the equals that they were. Not only that, but the only place that the slighted felt that they could air their grievances was on-line, and anonymously.
Then I came to South Africa, where academia still bears some jarring and impossible-to-ignore scars of apartheid: there are no black lecturers or post-docs in my department, in a country where they represent 80% of the population. But I also noticed that there are no women either: indeed, whilst there are a couple of black PhD students, there are no female ones at all. In the light of some anecdotal evidence that casual sexism (in the sense of the perpetrator saying something that is clearly sexist, but seeming to be totally unaware that some might consider it sexist) is quite common here, at first I thought that this was a demonstration of the progress that had been made in rooting out prejudice in US and European universities. But then, thinking back to my old department, I realised that the step function was still there: the male/female ratio dropped off dramatically above the post-grad level. Our ‘progress’ had just moved it a rung up the academic ladder. I just hadn’t noticed.
This highlights the problem with the “think not of gender” approach: if you don’t bother to look too closely, clear imbalances can go unseen. A particularly damaging consequence of this blissful ignorance is that it encourages a certain suspicion of things like affirmative action schemes: if people should be judged on merit alone, and these people really want a level playing field, what’s with all the “preferential” treatment? The problem isn’t us: after all, we’re not the ones making an issue out of it. This assumption of the moral high ground is deeply flawed, for the simple reason that it is only valid in a world where the playing field is actually level – and not just when you tilt your head 45 degrees or so to the side.
The other problem with such an attitude is that it ignores a lesson that I learnt, in another context, many years ago: it is one thing to imagine that you are unprejudiced, but it is quite another to actually be unprejudiced when faced with the choice. We all harbour subconscious biases, which can only truly be overcome if you force yourself to acknowledge them, and watch out for their influence.
So, I suppose in answer to Yami’s question, it’s not so much a matter of what I do say to myself, it’s what I should say: pay attention. Pay attention to what’s going on in my department, and in my field, and note where things are truly representative, and when they are not. Notice where morons create their own self-fulfilling prophecies through their mistreatment of, and disrespect for, colleagues and students. And, most importantly, to keep an eye on my own conduct and thinking, and resolve not to act like an insensitive moron myself.

Categories: academic life

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