Gendered Micro-Inequities In Academia

Ah, the start of another school year! I love the beginning of the semester because it’s always an invigorating time. I’m excited to be teaching an introduction to folklore class, which means I get to view my beloved discipline through new eyes. However, this is also a time to reflect on and take stock of what it means to be an academic. And for women, people of color, and other minorities, this can be an unsettling topic.

One Chronicle blogger writes about “micro-inequities,” which she defines as “the ways in which we are ignored, disrespected, or somehow made to feel that we are “different” (and not in a good way) because of gender, race, religion, or some other characteristic.” While often very minor incidents, such as being a woman and constantly receiving mail addressed to “Sir,” these incidents add up and can become very damaging. Different people have different strategies for diffusing these situations or turning them into teaching moments, which can involve humor, direct confrontation, or even letting colleagues step in and let the offender know that they were insensitive.

Another blog post, on why the rules in academia aren’t the same for everyone, focuses on these same micro-aggressions, both gendered and racial. The author writes: “For minorities, women, trans and pan gendered people, clothing is an essential part of performing legitimacy, authority, and acceptability. There’s a sizable body of literature documenting how students see women and black professors as less competent, less authoritative than their white and/or male peers. So, while I would love to be the kooky beatnik-come-theorist who teaches in Hawaii shirts and Birkenstocks, I risk undermining my effectiveness.”

Those of us in minority positions may be taken less seriously despite our best efforts (as with the “Dear Sir” letters above), so why wouldn’t we make every effort to look and dress like a “serious” scholar in an attempt to reduce misunderstandings? Of course, this makes more work for us in the legitimization process… but is it worth risking not being taken seriously? Even if all the micro-inequities like spending more money and energy on our wardrobes so we’re not mistaken for secretaries add up over time?

One major issue, of course, is parenthood. And by “parenthood” I mean “motherhood,” since the majority of academic parents impacted by their parental status are women. Professor Amanda Klein presents these statistics from various studies:

* women who get [Tenure Track] jobs before having kids were less likely to become mothers or get married and were more likely to be divorced or separated.

* female academics were found to hold the highest rate of childlessness amongst professional women at 43%.

*12-14 years after obtaining PhD,  males on the tenure track in the humanities & social sciences with “early babies” (babies born in the first 5 years after finishing the PhD) receive tenure at rate of 78%.

* 58% of women in same position receive tenure.

*women with “late babies” (babies born more than 5 years after the PhD) received tenure at a rate of 71%.

*47% of women reported great deal of tension and stress over parenting/work conflict versus 27% of men.

Klein goes on to make a powerful argument for child-friendly departments, which could function in a variety of ways (not scheduling meetings after 4:30 so parents can have time to pick their children up from daycare; respecting that the choice to have children or to take care of elderly parents does not reflect poorly on a scholar’s dedication to his or her work; and so on). None of these are arguments for trying to get academic parents out of more work – they’re instead pleas for understanding that when you have more people in your family, you’re bound to have more scheduling conflicts. Academia should be comfortable for parents and non-parents alike, and sometimes a little give and compromise is required from everyone involved to make that happen.

I’ll wrap up this post by suggesting that as this semester starts off, we all try to be a little more accepting of the various identities converging in academia. Some of us are minorities, including transpeople and sex workers. All of us are here because we want to be – in most cases, we’re muddling our way through so many micro-inequities because we love what we do, not because the paycheck’s huge. Doing what you love is usually its own reward, but a basic amount of respect and understanding is nice, too.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.