Masculinity and femininity are encoded in the way we see the world, in metaphors we use, and expectations we have. Despite centuries of philosophical thought moving away from the well-known Cartesian divide of mind and body, we often recognise reductive, saddening archetypes in referring to experience and knowledge following a gender divide: men are/should/we expect them to be more mind than body, while women are/should/we expect them to be more body than mind, with the established implication that the mind is superior to the body. Cultural clichés and conventions rest on this nonsensical division: if women would be in charge of the world, we wouldn´t have war, but a lot of countries not speaking to each other. Not a lot of women would laugh at this joke – which would trigger an invitation to “relax” or “smile more.”
Surprisingly, women are also more likely to be associated with emotions, implicitly and absurdly seen as emanating from somewhere else than the brain. It is by now clear that there are no scientifically proven differences between the average intellectual abilities of men and women. Nevertheless, from the moment of being ascribed the female gender, to that of occupying a position in academia, some kind of bias against women intervenes, significantly affecting gender parity in the field.
In popular perspective, “hard” sciences and top management positions are intrinsically masculine, while women dominate, and are more likely to succeed in “soft,” humanistic fields, and fill roles that pertain to their “care-taking nature.” Numbers and figures tend to prove this faulty view, to the satisfaction of those whose argument falls short of the rigour their gender would typically claim: “If women are such great coders/engineers/physicists, why aren´t there more of them in universities?” This type of reasoning fails to consider these numbers and figures as consequences of deeper issues regarding access or the gender imbalance of evaluating and appointing committees.
A study carried out by the European Commission focuses on gender and innovation, looking specifically at the situation of women in science and research. The study shows that, despite a favourable situation for youngest generations of female academics, “the gender gap is still disproportionately high compared with the increase in the proportion of women students and thus casts doubt on the hypothesis that women will automatically ‘catch up’ to their male counterparts.” The solution, according to the authors, lies in more proactive measures and policies.
Beyond telling statistics, cultures of inequality in academia are joined with popular perceptions and naturalised views, so deeply engrained that it´s often difficult to spot their genesis. Language used when referring to male and female professors is one such area that shows how penetrating prejudice is. Benjamin M. Schmidt, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, developed a tool that explores the words used in professor rating in more than 14 million reviews on the website RateMyProfessor.com. Out of 25 academic fields, in 25 of them female teachers and professors are described as “caring,” “smiling,” “pleasant,” “annoying,” or “unfair,” at a significantly higher degree than their male counterparts. In all 25 fields, male teachers and professors are described using words such as “genius,” “smart,” “sexy,” “rigorous,” “intelligent,” or “respected” at a higher degree than their female counterparts. This speaks less to the ability and competence of the teachers and professors reviewed, and more to the gender-bias in language, and the seemingly low levels of awareness to these inherited preconceptions.
Research carried out by Amy J.C Cuddy, Susan Fiske, and Peter Glick looks at how female professionals who become mothers exchange “perceived competence for perceived warmth.” They find that working fathers or childless professionals have higher chances to be hired than working mothers: “Thus, working moms’ gain in perceived warmth does not help them, but their loss in perceived competence does hurt them.” This complex network of perception, projection, and prejudice is part of the reason why “women can´t have it all.” They can´t have their cake and eat it too, but they are probably expected to bake it – in a caring, smiling, and pleasant fashion.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Cover Image: Military women demonstrating their skill in drilling, 1955. Photo source: The Women's Memorial Archive.