The unequal expectations of academia

A few weeks ago, a summary of the key results of a workplace culture survey of my department were released*. The survey revealed a hostile environment of widespread discrimination, workplace dissatisfaction and bullying.

Some key findings were:

  • 90% of female academics perceive there is discrimination in the School based on gender
  • More than 30% of staff and students feel that there is little or no career support
  • 22% of staff disagree or strongly disagree that the School is a friendly, respectful, co-operative, supportive and fair environment
  • Fewer than half of female academic, technical and research staff wish to stay, although many would stay at the university in another department or move to another university to pursue an academic career
  • The treatment of women visiting or speaking in seminars is considered inappropriate
  • Physical bullying and verbal harassment in the form of racist and sexist jokes was reported, although many perceive no action has been taken in response to previous complaints of bullying

Every day I go to a workplace that tells me I don’t belong. At work, I’ve experienced anti-semitic, homophobic and sexist comments. I’ve been told that students should be bullied because it makes them work harder. I’ve been shoved out of the way in a corridor and told that I must yield space to my betters. I’ve recounted this story and been told it’s kind of funny.

Around the time that the workplace survey summary was released, I was undergoing my annual performance evaluation. That week I also attended an annual program strategy meeting for my Centre of Excellence. Together, these demonstrated a gulf in expectations in academia.

For my personal performance evaluation, I was required to set myself ambitious, unachievable “stretch” goals.  Where will I be in 5 years time? How many peer reviewed papers, Phd student thesis submissions and committees will I have conquered?

Then at the program strategy meeting, we carved out key priorities for the year and the leadership group were encouraged to set the most ambitious of scientific goals. What scientific questions could we aim to answer that we could barely yet imagine?

In the academic sector, individual and group ambition is mandatory. We are made to be bold and dream big. At the institutional and sector level, expectations seem very different. Ambition is evaded, leadership avoided and the “good enough” is aspired to.

In the weeks since the survey results were released, they have been discussed and shared. There’s been murmurings that bullies will be dealt with and that big changes are afoot. I’m very hopeful this is the case. I’m hopeful that in response to the survey’s revelations our leaders will set themselves  ambitious stretch goals, goals that will reassure us that we will all be valued and helped to thrive.

The culture of my workplace is not unique. This hostile environment is reflected in many departments nationwide. Even more so, I see it as a distillation of our wider cultural norms. The gendered language of our faculty meetings (“he” = academic, “she” = administrator) mirrors the gendered language I see in comment feeds on The Conversation news website whenever my female collaborators and I contribute articles. Equally, the inappropriate comments on the clothing and behaviour of women visiting my School mirrors the comments we see levelled against women in politics.

As an industry, academia is highly conservative. It resists progression, reinforces hierarchy, it shies away from introspection and evades responsibilities. I’ve been in meetings where we’ve collectively accepted gender inequality in our sector, because why would be lead when we can wait to see what the rest of the world does next? We accept that it’s an intractable problem that will take 30 or 40 years to fix, so we watch and we wait.

Academia is empowered to test, to experiment, to shift and ultimately to lead. But sadly we choose not to do so.

As far as I understand#, the survey revealed that 100% of the young women in my department who participated in the survey responded that they want to leave. It’s not hard to see why. I am so often told that women leave academia because we lack confidence or that in leaving it is self evident that we lack talent.

In my department at least, evidence suggests that women brimming with talent and confidence leave because our collective lack of ambition is failing them.

* The survey was the culmination of many months, if not years, of hard work by dedicated and relentless academics. I am very impressed with and grateful for their dedication to improving our workplace for everyone.

# I may well be mistaken on the precise numbers and corresponding statements of the survey. The full details have not yet been released.

+ After this aside, I’ll return next week to my cheerier ‘How to ECR’ series for the final post.

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One thought on “The unequal expectations of academia

  1. I’d have hoped that things would have turned around by the 21st century. That this sort of systemic malfunction had faded to a bad memory. So sorry to read that it still lingers on.

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