Sexism and the university campus

For many, sexism seems like a distant artifact of our institutions that is no longer a present or pervasive problem. However, there are signs of structural and agent-specific sexism throughout post-secondary institutions – even on our campus.

There are indicators showing that women at North American university campuses, whether professors or students, are still facing immense discrimination in terms of discrepancies in compensation and respect for the academic work they produce.

Within academics

A Statistics Canada report released on Aug. 10 shows that full-time female professors at Laurier make, on average, $11,765 less than their male counterparts. This is a difference of more than 10 per cent.

While this discrepancy may be attributed to the fact that fewer women were present in the field in the past, a report released by researchers at the University of California suggests that these differences prevalent in Canada and the United States reflect more than just a need to rectify the “Pipeline Problem” – the notion that by increasing the number of qualified women in academics, the wage disparity will be eliminated. The study suggests that what underlies the problem relates to more systematic, deep-rooted biases.

Helen Ramirez, an assistant women and gender studies professor at Laurier, in an interview with The Cord in September, attributed these wage differences to the ideas we hold about female intelligence.

“We don’t associate women with being knowledge bearers or with power either. In fact, we don’t like that equation. I think there are lots of biases that still exist about how we view women as academics,” she explained.

Ramirez noted that in a project conducted for one of her women’s studies courses in which students were required to interview community members regarding sex and gender, she was surprised to find out that most individuals actually contended that women were not as smart as men.

She added that women at post-secondary institutions are often held to different standards than men with regards to intelligence and academics.

“There’s a huge surveillance of whether or not [women are] truly smart or competent or good leaders,” she said.

Daniel Adelman, a Women’s Centre volunteer stated, “I think we belittle things that are associated with women,” adding that it is derived from a negative cultural and societal attitude towards women.

In her work What Knowledge Is and What It Ought to Be, MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger, a philosopher from MIT, writes that “[there is] substantial evidence that our actual knowledge attributions and practices of authorization privilege men and help sustain sexist … institutions.”

Haslanger provides an example of this in her paper, concluding through an experiment that the acceptance rate of papers written by women increases when the referee is oblivious to the sex of the author.

For Sue Horton, an economics professor at the University Waterloo and Centre for International Governance Innovation chair, her experience as a successful female academic has not been completely negative.

Horton, who is Laurier’s former VP: academic, explained that she was once bullied by an individual to whom she reported. However, she told The Cord, “I’ve succeeded in doing what I want in the academic world and two kids with a supportive husband, so my experience has been good.”

As a scholar in the field of economics, which she stated is approximately 75 per cent male, Horton said that assertiveness and confidence are important for women in academics, specifically in male-dominated departments.

“I think people initially may look a little more questioning at you,” she said about entering into a position of authority at a post-secondary institution.

“And what you have to do is just go in there and be confident and show them that you know what you’re doing and at that point they will respect you. But it probably takes a little more effort for women to do that at the beginning.”

Course content

For some, the classroom experience can also encompass sexist interactions and material.

“In the classroom, I think [sexism] manifests in women being talked over,” Adelman noted.

Adelman also explained that often in classes, individuals diminish issues affecting women such as reproductive freedom.

However, Adelman stated that what happens in classrooms is not a cause of sexism – it is a symptom of widespread sexist views held across our culture.

“People are unwilling to unlearn,” said Adelman, referring to the inability of individuals to let go of their previous prejudices.

“What happens in the classroom is a product of our broader culture,” Adelman continued.

Former student and teaching assistant in Communication Studies at Laurier Laura McDonald said that she has noticed “that men tend to be a lot more confident to speak up and interject their opinion and women tend to hedge their language and hold back a little bit more,” which she attributes to the way women have been conditioned not to express their opinions vocally.

“I’ve definitely experienced having trouble jumping into a conversation with men in class,” she noted.

As well, North American post-secondary education often receives the criticism of being primarily focused on the viewpoints of Western, Caucasian males.

McDonald noticed it in her own education, stating, “When I think back to psych we studied eight men and one woman.”

She added that it is important that when professors compile reading lists, they should “be aware” of including diverse authors.

Adelman, who is a student in women and gender studies at Laurier, believes that eventually academia should approach a state in which specific courses highlighting the perspectives of non-males are not necessary because regular classes are more inclusive.

Horton noted that some positive changes have been made in terms of subjects becoming less male-centred.

“I think things are changing,” she explained. “It’s been a long process of change. Women’s studies, that’s been around for more than 30 years and people talk about how it’s becoming irrelevant and how you should just mainstream women.”

Next steps

It is important that the social and academic sexism that does exist, however, not be seen as a battle between two dichotomous sexes. Sexism not only affects individuals who do not identify with either gender; but as well, women often discriminate against women.

“Women buy into patriarchy as much as anybody else,” said Ramirez.

“We buy into this idea that we’re dependent on men for the jobs that we have so we secure a good relationship that will help us survive economically and socially.”

In The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, Shankar Vedantam wrote that people behave in these ways because “people have unconscious stereotypes about men and women, and also about the nature of leadership – which is linked in our minds with strength, decisiveness and manliness.”

He continued, explaining why women are often portrayed as harsh when in roles of power.

“Our unconscious stereotypes about leadership come into conflict with our unconscious stereotypes about women. The hidden brain reconciles the conflict by stripping women of their feminine, caring side,” he wrote.

The outcome is that women appear less caring and more ruthless whereas, since men and power go hand in hand in our minds, men who assume leadership roles are not viewed negatively.

However, for Horton, women have the ability to be successful while being well liked and respected.

“You also have to be quite confident in yourself and quite assertive to put up with things that happen,” she explained, adding that part of the problem is that women have been conditioned to be submissive.

“It’s true for both men and women but women are less used to being assertive about their views and the quality of the work that they do.”

But Horton also explained that conditions are being improved for women, in terms of awareness of sexism and the ability of women to have children while pursuing an academic degree.

She also noted that compared to countries such as England and Germany, Canada has very good conditions for female academics.

“It’s glass half-full, half-empty. It’s a lot better than for women in European universities, but we have not quite reached parity in Canada,” she explained.

For Adelman, while things are improving, it is impossible to predict when sexism will be eradicated or if it will be.

As a result, the only thing individuals can do is try to fight to eliminate it in the areas in which they have an impact.

Adelman noted that we should all “call out” instances of sexism when we encounter them in order to help prevent and stop discrimination in action.

McDonald agreed with Adelman, stating, “I think it can be hard to call people out on stuff, but if professors and TAs make space for that, it can be a lot easier.”

A different perspective on sexism

Valuable insight into the contrary behavior towards women and men can be provided by a look at research regarding transgendered and transsexual individuals.

A transperson has the same professional qualifications before and after their transition. Despite this fact, research done by Shankar Vendantam shows that transpeople are treated differently after their transition than they were before their transition.

More specifically, transmen (those who change their female body into a male body) are treated with more respect and are taken more seriously after their transition and transwomen (those who change their male body into a female body) are generally treated with less respect after their transition.

People are less homophobic and less blatantly sexist towards homosexuals and individuals who visibly fit in with social stereotypes of what it means to be a respectable man or woman, explained Robb Travers, a psychology professor at Laurier.

“At the root of male homophobia are these misogynistic notions that if you are anything less than what a ‘real man’ should be, you’re like a women, which is bad,” said Travers. This is where sexism and homophobia link very strongly.

Jocelyne Faubert Tetreault, a third year psychology student who identifies as queer explained that “there is a stereotype that gay men are feminine.

“This is bad because it means that people still have it in the back of their minds that females are the lesser sex so when a man is acting like a female he is taking a step down.”

In an interview with The Cord, transman Lukas Silveira, lead singer of The Cliks, echoed this hypothesis and shared his personal experiences with regards to this phenomenon.

“I know both sides so I can say from experience that you definitely gain privilege as a male,” he said on the matter.

Later he added, “After their transition, many transmen feel that they are treated with more respect and as though they are smarter. They even get jobs more easily.”

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