This week an interviewer at NUTS asked me why I started writing about sexism in university life – and specifically at the university where I work. Just a handy question to kick off an interview with, but it forced me to think a bit more precisely than usual about the issue, and even consider whether there might be a conflict involved.
The most obvious answer is because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I’m reading and writing about feminism, about sexism and misogyny in the world at large, then it makes sense to be concerned about it in my everyday life. A university is likely to loom much larger in the lives of both staff and students than the average workplace: they might live out more of their social, cultural and intellectual lives within it than they would in a bank or a law firm. I’d hazard a guess that the everyday shared culture and ethos of a university (as opposed to its mission statement or public documents) has a disproportionately large impact on the people in the institution, and that problems or injustices will have a corresponding effect.
It’s all too easy, particularly for a man and someone who became interested in feminism via reading and discussion rather than the experience of prejudice, to point outside my own life at evidence of misogyny. Oh, those US fraternities. Oh, those medieval poets. Oh, that Saudi conference on women. Easy to let feminism become a way of structuring correct beliefs, delineating which forces in history and current culture I am Definitely Against and which are Striking Adumbrations of Later Developments, instead of making it part of my life and my relationships with people I know. So writing about misogyny and sexism in universities, where I’ve spent the last ten years of my life and where a lot of people are shaping and reshaping the kind of person they’d like to be, made sense.
But I’m aware of a possible objection. This does sound rather like I’m simply keen to point out which parts of the world around me don’t accord with my personal beliefs. If universities do indeed have such an impact on the people within them, and particularly upon students who take the opportunity to experiment with new ideas or ways of life, then it might be that much less wise to bring my own preferred ideology into my professional life. Academics are not famous beyond our own sector for our intellectual humility, our reticence about suggesting drastic change in the world, or our sensitivity to the emotional needs of young people. This isn’t any sort of reflection on the academics I know, simply an observation based on the way our profession is portrayed political debate, TV shows and novels. Perhaps I should exercise more care in distinguishing between the categories of “how I think the world should be”, “what I am being paid for” and “what my students need from me”. Keeping the latter two in any sort of close relationship can be difficult enough, without confusing them with the first.
Except I think a concern with feminism is even more compelling given my job. I teach in English Literature and Drama, a field which has a comfortable majority of women in the student body. Not a technically greater number, or one of those well-documented perception tricks which leads an even gender split in a lecture hall to look like a preponderance of women, but the kind of majority which led to my being jokingly accused of “hoarding blokes” when the first seminar I ever taught had two men in it (out of fifteen.) The split isn’t that drastic across the board, but I cannot think of any group I have ever taught which was even 50% men. I’d guess the number’s usually between 10 and 30%. So if there is misogyny at British universities, if women are not taken seriously and their experience is not valued, if they are silenced and put at risk in public spaces, then it is a problem for most of my students.
Feminist scholarship has documented the subtle ways in which women are accorded less authority: the tendency to interrupt them more often, to question their intellectual credentials, to class the strong expression of views as “personal bias” or “going off on one” when it would be called “passionate engagement with the topic” in a man. I’ve heard anecdotes from female friends about fellow students who talked over them, advised them in private that they should speak up less in class, or would only take an idea seriously when it was repeated by a male peer. (And I’ve repeatedly noticed the way the rustle of papers being packed up at the end of a lecture seems to arrive earlier when a woman is lecturing, and doesn’t always recede if they raise their voice slightly, in contrast to their male colleagues.)
This kind of sexism isn’t solved by admitting women to the university, or by having a policy on gender discrimination (though those are obviously vital.) It pervades day-to-day life, and the academic life of a university is no exception. If women are marginalised and devalued within university life, academic and social, then most of my students aren’t getting the education the institution agreed to give them. If I don’t try to change the misogyny and sexism at university, and support other people doing the same, then I’m concentrating my skills on a mere one-tenth to one-third of the students I claim to be teaching. I love lecturing and holding seminars, but if I’m not attending to the intellectual needs of my students then I’m not doing it properly. As an academic in an English department, I can’t help but see engaging with feminism as part of my job, if only because a sexist society is getting in the way of me carrying out the duties I am paid for. I didn’t bring gender issues into the seminar room. They were there when I came to work this morning.