I had two ideas for a dissertation. I weighed up pros and cons. One probably had more sources, the other was more straightforward; one was more controversial, the other was more unique; etc. My decision, however, came down to a single factor: there was a particular supervisor that I would probably be allocated for one of the topics, and I felt that this supervisor might treat me differently because of my gender. I did not view this realisation as a tragedy. It was simply a con that outweighed all the other cons. When friends and classmates asked which topic I had chosen, I told them and I told them why. No one was surprised by my logic. Reactions consisted of “Yeah, that makes sense”, “Probably clever”, “Yeah, I find that about him as well’, or “I’ve heard that about him before”. End of discussion.
They were unsurprised because this was just part of a dance that we’d all been dancing for a while now. It’s a dance that swerves around particular modules, daintily tiptoes to avoid certain essay titles, sweeps over this or that author or critic on the library shelves. It’s a dance of signals and reactions. Signals: the hasty dismissal of feminist readings in a lecture, a subtle eye‐roll at that person who always brings up the female characters in tutorials, a conspicuous lack of female authors on a syllabus, having your argument dismissed for the third time that class, an unjust or gendered comment on an essay. The signals are often much less subtle. I have heard stories of female students being chided for writing about feminism, or, conversely, being told to abandon their current essay topic because “something on feminism would suit you better”. Another friend has a story about realising towards the end of a term that the reason she was never called on was because the lecturer could not distinguish her from the other blonde girl in the class.
Reactions: You gradually learn your lesson. You do not take certain modules, and if you must take them you do not write certain essays, do not answer certain exam questions and avoid certain ideas, authors and critics. You abandon certain dissertation topics. Why risk it?
What is most startling about this phenomenon is just how uncontroversial these reactions are. Almost everyone I know has at some point mentioned a member of teaching staff within their department that “seems kind of sexist” or “isn’t very nice to women” but the conversation ends there. The problem is that the signals that allow students to identify this trait are anecdotal and insubstantial. It might just be the way you are spoken to or the way you are treated, or, to further complicate the problem, the way a friend was spoken to or treated. So you avoid rather than confront. The dance becomes natural and instinctive.
Obviously there are many ways in which this is problematic. First there’s the issue that this information is often only available to those “in the know”. The students who were sharp enough to pick up on a dismissive comment in a lecture, those with older friends in the same course or those who have already had negative experiences and thus the knowledge of how to avoid them in the future. More than once I’ve had what felt like tenuous suspicions about a lecturer, only to ask around and discover that in fact they had a reputation. A reputation that remains hidden unless you have cause to go looking. Your grade should not be a reflection of your stealth at uncovering a lecturer’s tendency to treat women differently.
Then there’s the reality that what female students are doing is limiting their options, crossing out modules they would have otherwise taken. This is significant when you consider that an individual’s entire academic career can be shaped by one module that they took and loved or an essay they wrote that then lead to a dissertation and then to a master’s and so on. When that individual is excluded from engaging with their interest, or has a negative experience of that engagement, then certain paths are blocked to them that are not blocked to their male counterparts.
The situation is even worse when you consider that certain departments offer very little choice. For students within these departments, the process of dodging and sidestepping is simply impossible and many are forced to just accept with a sigh that they might be marked lower than they deserve or have to deal with patronising attitudes.
Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that whenever a student makes a decision about their education based on the prejudices of a lecturer, they are hushing up a problem, maintaining a smooth exterior for something which is anything but. “Sexist” is a big word. It’s an especially big word for an undergraduate to level at a tenured professor. So they don’t. I don’t. I was hesitant to even write it in this article. How do you report someone for rolling their eyes at you or questioning the relevance of your feminist reading? The accusation of sexism is always going to seem dramatic as a response to these incidents.
After all, what I am describing is small in the scheme of things. It’s a mark or two here and there, an uncomfortable moment, an insensitive comment, a scrapped dissertation topic. But that shouldn’t matter. It’s still a force which negatively shapes the lives of female students and indeed many other students, because it is logical to assume that some variant of this dance is danced by all those dealing with staff members who hold prejudices against their race, sexuality, class or anything else.
There are ways to combat this. After my decision about my dissertation, I wondered why I was not given the option to veto certain supervisors. Perhaps I could have emailed and asked for them not to be allocated to me, but I do not know if that request would have been taken seriously. Realistically, I wouldn’t have done it anyway for fear of seeming petty or difficult. I also began to wonder why there is no means of accessing student feedback on a module. I realise that it may not be pleasant for a lecturer or TA to discover that female students felt ignored in their class, but it is more important that students do actually have access to that information, which is currently only available to certain sly investigators. Lecturers who were surprised or upset by their feedback or reputation could alter their behaviour and that alteration would presumably be reflected in future feedback.
These actions, however, would require a drastic overhaul of the attitude that universities and society in general take to senior academics. It is rarely acknowledged that it is possible to be both a genius and a sexist.
The reality is that academic staff have become (or perhaps always were) virtually untouchable. No department or university wants to admit that a member of their staff is acting unjustly or inappropriately, especially when those injustices can be written off as minor. They don’t even want to entertain the possibility of such a thing. So they don’t and we keep quiet, because what else can we do except maybe twirl and sway in silence and hope our heels don’t trip us up.