Misogyny in academia.

By Professor Richard Shaw

A month or so back Cat Pausé, a TEU stalwart, died. Most TEU members will know about the towering contribution Cat made to the union. Some may not be aware of the nature and amount of misogyny that Cat was subjected to over a long and impressive career of activism and academic work.

Following Cat’s death several of my women colleagues challenged me to write something for public consumption regarding the misogyny women face in universities. It goes without saying that tertiary institutions are not always safe spaces and places for women (professional or academic; staff or student). It probably is the case, however, that they are not the first places that come to mind when the conversation turns to misogyny.

In the process of responding to my colleagues’ wero, the men with whom I collaborated on the article and I decided that they should be. The article itself explains why. So, too, do the experiences of the group of women whose views on the issue of misogyny I sought before speaking at the Men’s Breakfast at this year’s TEU Conference.

Here are some of the things that have happened, and continue to happen, to the women I work with:

  1. ‘A senior overseas visitor came to New Zealand to work on a book with me. A couple of days into his visit he asked me if I wished to sleep with him. He then minimised his advances by saying he normally did that with female colleagues and was just trying to test my sense of humour.’
  2. ‘I get lots of comments on my clothing. A staff member once told me he knew I was pregnant before I told anyone because he could see I looked like crap.’
  3. ‘I have also been tone policed as a way of denigrating or simply ignoring what I have had to say – the terms “shrill” and “militant” are often used to shut women down.’
  4. ‘I’ve seen women academics asked to clean up dishes after research seminars as male academics walked right by the male manager making the request.’
  5. ‘Being asked by a male academic colleague if I was there to take the notes or make the tea when I was attending a meeting as a professor.’ 
  6. ‘At a University graduation, just prior to entering the graduation hall, and after being looked up and down, I was told by a senior professor that my place on the stage was to ‘pretty up the front row’.’
  7. ‘Nicknames in the workplace. My uni has two male leaders who have ‘football’ style nicknames. I can’t think of any examples of female leaders with nicknames. It perpetuates the culture of  ‘boys clubs’ and while I could pick a nickname, I bet my career would not flourish if I did.’
  8. ‘I lead a project that designs tech app.  I am often asked “who designed the app?”. When I say it was me, they say “but who actually designed it?”’
  9. ‘Mother shaming. I find that because I travel a lot, I am often judged for it. Colleagues say: “But what about the kids?”’
  10. ‘Promotions panels made up of men. Men who dress like in tweed jackets and have scruffy hair and who “look like real professors” get promoted – I fear that the same does not apply for women. I was recently told that grey haired women do not do so as well with promotions.’
  11. ‘Everything seems so small when you type it out like this, and my experience is that if you complain about something seemingly small you are seen as the problem (sensitive). But it’s the endless papercut of microaggression upon papercut of microaggression that in the end can become such a burden that     one limits one's exposure to it, even if that also means limiting one’s career opportunities. It’s just tiring.’

The women who recounted these things to me range from relatively inexperienced lecturers to seasoned veterans of university politics at the highest level; from recent PhDs to research professors of international standing. (And what I’ve reported here amounts to about a quarter of what they had to say.) Here are a couple of things I take from their experiences.

First, this has to do with systems, not individual behaviour. One of my close women friends explains it like this: ‘Misogyny is often defined quite simply as hatred towards women. This definition does political work by constructing misogyny as an individual state of being – an individual person is misogynous; an individual person displays misogynistic behaviours. Such a definition fails to account for how misogyny operates and how it’s able to flourish. We need to abandon this naïve and individualising understanding of misogyny in favour of seeing misogyny as a social and political phenomenon. Misogyny is a system – not an individual state of being or an individual’s practices. It is about controlling, policing, punishing, and exiling the "bad" women who challenge male dominance – and with rewarding "the good women who support or prop up male dominance”.’

In a way, what she says parallels the neo-liberal propensity to eschew collectives and to obsess about individuals. If there is no society then it follows that there can be no institutionalisation of misogyny - there are just individual men who do bad stuff and if we can get them sorted we’re sweet.

But it isn’t that easy to do even that, because while universities are public institutions they contain a lot of private spaces in which male behaviour is difficult to observe. Think of the office in which supervision takes place behind closed doors. Even in classrooms, which are notionally public, the asymmetrical distribution of power means that a male academic can get away with inappropriate or flat out unacceptable behaviour – talking over women students; privileging questions from the men in the room; indulging in ‘jests’ and jocularity – with little fear of reprisal (and perhaps plenty of tacit support from other blokes in the room). If I’m marking your essay/ dissertation/thesis, you are likely to think twice about calling me out.

We men need to do better. For Cat. For our friends and colleagues. For our students. That we may not ourselves indulge in this grotesquerie is not the point – the point is that we share the responsibility for stopping this bullshit.