Women often experience adverse challenges when pursuing higher education, ranging from general feelings of unwelcomeness to outright harassment. While laudable progress has been made since women were first allowed into universities and colleges, pervasive sexism still persists within the academic field even today, both for students and professors.
Female-presenting students have different experiences in college due to demands of their respective majors. For example, in humanities classes where discussions are common, women often have difficulty speaking up or being heard and experience frequent interruptions or complete disregard from male students. Since the University of Georgia has a larger female undergraduate population, much like many other American universities, this will hopefully experience more pushback as more students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
This is a great sign of progress, but science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, majors and classes still draw a predominantly-male student population. While this lack of diversity may seem insignificant, women in STEM classes may not have the support and community of fellow women, which present obstacles in the classroom that male counterparts do not face. Women are often relegated to note-taking roles, rather than more active roles, in group settings. Students that are active in their learning are much less likely to fail, often leading to higher grades, but women feel pressure to passively interact.
“[Women] tend to either take on or be assigned roles automatically that kind of fall under the work emotional labor category, so things like taking notes, scheduling meetings, taking care of the calendar, organizing everyone's phone numbers,” said Dr. Alison Banka, a lecturer in the School of Chemical, Materials, and Biomedical Engineering at UGA. She is proactive about preventing this phenomenon in the first place, asking her students to be more mindful about the roles they may feel inclined to take.
But gender biases are not exclusive to student interactions, they extend to faculty positions as well. For example, female professors are far more likely to be referred to by the incorrect title, such as being called “Miss” instead of “Dr.” Banka commented that this experience is “not uncommon,” even if women have similar or more advanced credentials.
Outside of the classroom, Banka has no problem with reserving “Dr.” for medical practitioners. But there is a need for it in the classroom, Banka noted the importance of asserting yourself as the professor, especially due to the small age gap between herself and her students.
There is a decline in female enrollment in higher education after graduate school. This reveals a troubling issue — the inward flux of undergraduate female students does not carry enough inertia to push women into higher-level academic positions.
That inertia comes from fair representation and equal opportunities. Women do not see themselves adequately represented in these higher-level positions and thus do not have role models to follow. Furthermore, if they do apply, they are often sidelined due to unexamined biases from male researchers responsible for hiring lab assistants. Studies show that faculty rate male applicants as more competent even when judging the identical female applicant.
Women of color face much higher discrepancies in academia. Although Black women are more represented in full-time positions at universities than Black men, still only 4% of these positions are filled by Black women. In terms of full-time professorship, that percentage drops to only 2%. While considering gender bias, it is important to recognize how other forms of discrimination impact individuals.
Women of color experience a far more intense version of the two-fold problem mentioned above. Despite these obstacles, Black women spearhead many important scientific discoveries. However, Research shows young Black girls often receive low expectations from STEM teachers and that Black women must prove themselves more in the workplace. These additional barriers must also be recognized in the conversation about academic discrimination.
Thankfully, sexism does not mean that women cannot succeed in academia. There is still room in many spaces at universities to cultivate a community of women that can empower one another and fight back against misogynistic pressures.
“Things are definitely getting better but that doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller slights and microaggressions still can’t have a toll on somebody,” said Banka. She feels content in her position at UGA, especially since she feels the presence of other women in surrounding academic positions. However, she does recognize the effects of harassment and acknowledges that “you don’t always have to choose to swim upstream.”
While academic settings have become more accepting, we must consciously recognize the large discrepancies in female populations within higher-level positions and their ensuing impact on female students and professors. Sexism within academia is hardly defeated, but as more women speak up and dare to pursue previously inaccessible academic spaces, progress is not only possible but inevitable.