That women are underrepresented and underappreciated in academia is hardly groundbreaking news for the majority of Cambridge students. Three years ago, when some of us were first embarking on our degrees, a group of fifty Cambridge academics called for a more “inclusive” process for becoming a professor in response to the statistic that only 22% of professors at UK universities were women.
Then, a year later, the University revealed that women on academic contracts were earning an average of £8,000 less than men which became a central point of protest during striking action. And even now, as we approach International Women’s Day 2017, it is clear that the issues of underrepresentation and under appreciation are only gradually improving: we do not have to look much further than our own supervisors, lecturers and masters to see the gender imbalance in play.
The gap only increases, moreover, if we consider BME women academics, or women in STEM subjects, or factor in disability, socio-economic class or sexuality. So much more must be done to make academia a vibrant and diverse field of work in which women are able to excel, something which I hope is being reflected in this year’s International Women’s Day theme: “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”.
But what I would like to now consider is why female and non-binary academics, or students for that matter, are vital to Cambridge: why they might even be called its saviours, despite their current underrepresentation. Quite aside from the obvious fact that, seeing as women make up half the population it’s only really fair that we take up roughly half the roles in any given profession — which would simply be statistically likely without the blockades of systematic bias — women are fundamental to this University’s relevance and survival.
Nowhere, with perhaps the exception of politics, are the words “pale, male and stale” quite as relevant as academia. The first women’s college, Girton, was not established in Cambridge until 1869 — almost seven hundred years into the University’s existence —
and even then at a safe distance from the real happenings of the University. Women could only become full members of Cambridge in 1948, yet continued to face opposition: many of us will have heard tales of Magdalene scholars wearing black armbands each year to commiserate women’s admittance.
The effect of this is that many of Cambridge’s traditions and ways of operating are deeply entrenched in patriarchal norms. Some of these were commented on by Virginia Woolf in her polemic A Room of One’s Own, written after lecturing on “Women in Fiction” at Newnham and Girton in the 1920s: the imposing architecture, the majority of male academics and works for study, the lack of funding or recognition for women’s colleges, even the inferior food women were served, Woolf argued, were all evidence of a male hegemony.
Although the gender ratio amongst students and the University’s efforts for inclusiveness have drastically improved since then, many of Woolf’s observations are still relevant today. Cambridge is inextricable from its history and as such we are constantly surrounded with reminders of male achievement, whether it’s the almost-exclusively male portraits in the dining hall, statues of former male Prime Ministers and poets, the pittance of female masters, senior tutors, deans and porters or the male academics who undertake most of our teaching.
On the flip side, almost all of our college bedders are women which, although by no means a less important job or one we should ever feel ungrateful for, offers quite a contrast to the fact that we’ve only ever had a single female Vice-Chancellor, one of the highest paid roles in academia.
From my experience, our courses are also male-centric by virtue of being deeply traditional. As an English student with compulsory papers in Medieval, Renaissance and Shakespearean literature last year, the only women’s writing I had the opportunity to study was that of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, women whose mystical experiences were transcribed by men.
This phenomena only worsens when considering the primarily twentieth-century English criticism we read each week: from its use of ‘he’ as a universal pronoun to its dense style and apparent need to show off every ounce of classical and historical knowledge the writer has, before ever getting to the point, we’re never left in much doubt as to masculine dominance in the field. This is also an issue for subjects like Law and HSPS, and STEM subjects in which women’s achievements and discoveries are all too often overlooked.
Women and non-binary academics are vital, then, to usher in new styles of criticism, writing and teaching for students and other academics to benefit from. Of course, women’s brains are not wired any differently from our male counterparts, but distinctly different upbringings and socialisation, shared experiences and treatment within society’s patriarchal structure means that
women — and particularly BME and LGBT+ women — offer fresh perspectives essential to academia’s relevancy.
Moreover, whilst it shouldn’t necessarily be the case, it is often true that women academics are more likely to flag up issues of gender and representation in their fields of study. It is women who have spearheaded feminist criticism, for instance, and female students who are at the forefront of
campaigning against the University’s patriarchal norms; it’s more difficult to push issues of sexism and underrepresentation to the back of your mind when they’re directly affecting you.
Women academics are also vital to inspire female students. To be a female Mathematician or Compsci student, or study any subject with a majority of male lecturers or professors, can sometimes be isolating and make a student feel ‘othered’ if they are treated differently on the basis of gender. Whether their students go into academia or other professions, women academics are often some of the most immediate and influential role models female students will encounter.
This is particularly important given the unique pressures of being a woman academic in what continues to be a male-dominated profession. These include the assumption that they will take maternity leave at a particular point in their life, the unnecessary complications if they do, having their qualifications or research doubted or underestimated, and the assumption that if they are introduced as a Professor or Doctor that they will be male.
Some women academics have even reported mansplaining from male students and sexist comments from often older, male academics. Research and comment from women academics attesting to these trends are plentiful, from Benjamin Schmidt's 2015 study which concluded that similar behaviours in female and male professors were interpreted by students in opposing ways — such as bossy versus assertive — to the report published in Nature earlier this year that only around 20% of peer reviewers in the data they analysed were female.
As a female student in Cambridge I am extremely grateful to be surrounded by a number of women academics who pioneer within their field, having overcome structural biases and the male domination of their profession. Their work is vital to the continuance of Cambridge’s relevance and quality of research and is something that must only increase as a new generation of female students graduate and become women in academia ourselves. •
Joanna Taylor is a second year English Literature student. She blogs for The Huffington Post and is a Deputy Editor and Columnist at The Cambridge Student.