Strong networks can dilute sexism in higher education

Powerful, supportive academic networks can offer women a buffer against sexism and patriarchy. Shutterstock

In academia, as in other professional spaces, women are fighting an uphill battle against sexism. Sometimes this manifests in subtle but insidious ways such as unequal pay and biased hiring practices. In other cases, women have to fight off blatant harassment and even assault.

In many countries, there are also far more men in senior academic positions than women.

Even students discriminate against female professors and rate them as less competent than their male counterparts. This is hugely galling: surely higher education should be one place where brain always triumphs over brawn?

For all these problems, I feel at home in academia. I see my future here and I’m actively recruiting more female scientists into my research group. But am I just setting them up for a lifetime of struggling to find happiness in academic institutions?

I don’t think so - because while gender inequality is a pervasive problem that may take generations to fix, there is a home for women in academia right now. Here are a few useful strategies that can help individual women thrive in higher education spaces.

Networks are buffers

For starters, do not underestimate the value of strong networks. In the postgraduate space, picking one’s supervisor and research group carefully can provide an excellent buffer against institutionalised sexism.

This isn’t to say that women should automatically pick a woman supervisor. My MSc and PhD were supervised by the same man and my PhD co-supervisor was a woman. My postdoctorate was supervised by a man. I didn’t pick any of these mentors based on their sex, though.

Here’s how I chose them: they are all excellent scientists. They publish well, appear to enjoy their jobs and clearly enjoy expanding their mental horizons. They are not threatened by the success of younger academics like me and always appeared to hardly notice my sex.

Another crucial element was that all my supervisors had other - happy - women in their research groups. For example, the research group I’d joined for my postdoc was co-directed by an outstanding female scientist and the female postgrads outnumbered the males.

Research has revealed that dominant males who are at the top of their professional games don’t tend to bother with sexism. They know they are good at their work and don’t need to pick on women to soothe their own egos.

This makes evolutionary sense. Low ranking olive baboons and even hamsters will try to relieve the stress of being on the losing end of most fights by redirecting their aggression towards soft targets.

So if at all possible, pick a supervisor who is clearly successful, always learning and works with active young male and female researchers.

Find your niche

Even as a postgraduate student, it can be difficult to carve out a unique research niche. Your supervisor is calling a lot of the shots and his or her research interests often dictate yours.

But these constraints shouldn’t stop you from asking good, incisive questions. Look at data differently and explore beyond your mentor’s instructions. It’s important to inject original thoughts into your Masters and doctoral research and to work towards uniqueness. This will help you build your own brand as an academic.

For women, these efforts are another buffer against sexism. Making your own name, creating your own direction and developing your own expertise makes you an asset. Despite the patriarchal mindset that dominates most large institutions, the idea of gender equality is at least on their radar.

Give them a reason to support you: shout at them through your work.

Speak up

These buffers won’t completely protect women academics from sexism. We are living and working in a male dominated society. I’ve learned that in some meetings, men will be addressed by their titles while I and other women are called by our first names. Occasionally, I catch a man staring at my chest instead of listening to me talk.

Increasingly, I call the perpetrator out on their “isms” or phobias. If you hate conflict, start small. Politely point out someone’s bias and gradually build up the courage to take them on when they are completely out of line.

Sometimes you will have to grit your teeth - the good news is that many older offenders are probably just a moment away from retirement.

A fight worth having

Trying to change entrenched sexism from within a system can feel overwhelming. Many women are also scared that promoting themselves will be seen as arrogant and may even earn them lower ratings from colleagues.

Some are suffering from imposter syndrome and fear that they don’t actually deserve recognition for their success.

Remind yourself why you want to be in academia (for instance, I have an insatiable curiosity about the way animals work). Arm yourself with information, seek advice from those who have been through it all before - and build a strong academic support network. Together, we may be able to boot sexism out of research labs, lecture halls and administrative ivory towers.