Part Two to Chris Keith's post yesterday.
As a 22-year old PhD student, I was ill equipped to deal with the sexism within our profession. I had been brought up in a household where men cooked, where girls played with Meccano, and women’s academic success was not only accepted but expected. Looking back, I suppose the warning signs were already there in my undergraduate degree. Only one of my lecturers was female, and she was safely pigeon-holed as a ‘feminist theologian.’ But the undergraduate cohort was half women, we did just as well as men in our exams, and I was blissfully ignorant of the trials to come.
Almost as soon as I took the step into postgrad work I knew something was wrong. I was the only female in a relatively large group of doctoral students (25 or so) and my fellow students treated me very differently. I noticed that they discussed their research with one another but to me they’d comment on my hair or my clothes. I had neither the background experience nor the vocabulary to articulate the sense of marginalization and resentment that I felt. Part of the problem was that I was ‘other’ in so many ways - the only person in her 20s, the only single student, the only person from the UK - so it was hard to pinpoint gender as the root cause of my isolation. At times I wondered if my male colleagues were right to trivialise me and my research: perhaps it was patently obvious to everyone but me that I wasn’t up to the task? It was only much later, at a theological college which took sexism seriously, that I learned to put a name to what I’d experienced – and started to formulate strategies to deal with it.
One of the difficulties is that sexism in the academy often manifests itself in small matters: the male colleague who calls me ‘my dear’; the elderly male professor who introduced me at a prestigious gathering as ‘Helen Blonde’ - realising his mistake, he added, ‘Well, she is a blonde’ (many of the delegates laughed); the visiting academics who ask my male colleagues about their research but talk to me about my children (or, worse, their own). A colleague of mine recently was the only female speaker at a conference; instead of introducing her with a flourish (as he had with all the male speakers), the organiser asked her to introduce herself! All of these are minor misdemeanours in the grand scheme of things. Often the slight is so subtle that others hardly notice. To complain might make me feel better in the short term, but it would get me a reputation for being ‘prickly,’ ‘over-sensitive,’ or ‘hard to work with.’ And we all know that that can be just as devastating to an academic career as poor scholarship.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes found unexpected allies. Older male colleagues with adult daughters develop great insights into what it’s like for women in the profession. Blindly oblivious in the past to the needs of their wives (who mostly gave up their own career aspirations to look after the home) their daughters often have first class degrees and PhDs, and are at the stage of trying to juggle their first steps in an academic career with family responsibilities. Suddenly these male colleagues observe things through their daughters’ eyes, and are shocked by what they see.
I’m also aware that we women don’t always help ourselves. It’s quite amazing how many women refer to their own research as ‘niche,’ or ‘non-mainstream’ – perhaps in an attempt to belittle ourselves before others get the chance. Women are much less likely to brag about our achievements, or to refer to our books as ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘seminal.’ Well meaning souls (usually male) have sometimes taken me to one side and suggested I cut my hair, lose the heels, and ditch the ‘bling.’ I could do all of this, of course, but somehow I wouldn’t feel like myself any more. And there has to be something rather ironic in a discipline which praises originality and independence of scholarship and yet expects those who engage in it all to look the same!
One of the things I like least about conferences (and particularly the SBL) is that question: ‘What are you working on?’ In the past, I tended to approach it much too literally, noting that as it was November I was really quite busy with teaching just now. Over the years, though, I’ve honed my strategy. I noticed that no one really answers this question literally at all – the most successful answers (by which I mean the ones that sound impressive to other people) start by outlining what research the person has had published in the last couple of years before ending up with a brief outline of current plans. Now I never go to conferences without my ‘what are you working on’ speech firmly in my head. (Of course, I only need to give it to men, women don’t usually ask).
My experiences in the academy are far from unique. They are all too common, particularly amongst women who don’t have a strong female support group around them. As I’ve become more senior, overtly sexist behaviour has become much less common, though it can still appear on the fringes of any gathering. I’m lucky now to have several female colleagues. Edinburgh’s School of Divinity has four full time permanent female members of staff in biblical studies, and Scotland’s ancient universities have seven women in New Testament (we’re meeting up soon to celebrate the fact). But there’s still a long way to go. Female PhD students still report the same feelings of marginalization and isolation that I felt, and the number of women continuing into postgraduate work is pitifully low. (I’m convening a group to look at this, so if anyone has any suggestions as to how to recruit and retain female PhDs I’d be happy to hear from you).
What else can we do? I’m not in favour of positive discrimination (the last thing anyone needs is to be told by resentful competitors that she got a job because she’s a woman), but there are other strategies. We need to make sure that female scholars are represented in course bibliographies, and that their views are taken seriously in course curricula. Historical Jesus studies are particularly bad in this regard. Most are still in thrall to the cult of the male scholar, and many courses are even designed around the ‘great male scholar,’ treating the views of a handful of men as representative of Historical Jesus studies as a whole. (My own Historical Jesus course, for what it’s worth, is topic based, and we’re as likely to look at essays by Amy Jill Levine, Paula Fredriksen and Kathleen Corley as we are Crossan, Sanders and Wright).
As a female biblical scholar, I’ve often been landed with the ‘Women in the Bible’ class. This is something I’ve enjoyed teaching, but my longer-term hope is that one day it won’t be needed. Things are changing, and Paul’s views on gender are nowadays likely to be found in a mainstream Paul course, but there’s still a way to go before we can scrap the ‘Woman’ class completely. At a more senior level, people planning research papers and conferences might ask themselves whether any women might have something to contribute. (I still go to conferences or SBL panels at which every speaker is male). It’s all too easy to invite our friends to participate, and not to ask what an all-male cast list says – either to outsiders, or to people of the opposite gender within the discipline. And women too need to set aside time for networking (even if it’s not our natural habitat) and mentoring more junior colleagues. When you start to think about it, there are plenty of ways that we can make the discipline a more welcoming place for women. And that can surely only be to everyone’s advantage.