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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2016

Sexism in the academic workplace

By Robin Vose
It’s 2016, and for the first time in history we have finally begun to achieve gender balance in government — at least at the symbolic level of federal cabinet posts. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many other areas of Canadian society, including post-secondary education. While Statistics Canada indicates that women now make up a clear majority of university students, serious gender-related barriers and inequities remain to prevent their full and fair participation in academic work. Longstanding problems like glass ceilings, sexist attitudes and old-boys networks — as well as outright gender-based violence and rape culture — are still all too common. The fight against sexism is far from over, and indeed in some ways it matters now more than ever.

Generations of struggle have allowed us to better understand the roots, the complexities and the costs of gender inequality. Yet almost 40 years after Canada’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, disturbingly little has changed. This is therefore not the time for cutbacks to women’s and gender studies programs; on the contrary, it will take renewed commitments of resources, activism and solidarity to disrupt a status quo that has so long remained intractable.

Data abounds to identify, and often to quantify, the real injustices of unequal employment. Women’s wages still trail substantially below men’s (by at least 20 per cent) in the majority of fields, including university and college work, although pay equity studies and adjustment initiatives have recently been used to lessen the gap at some institutions. And despite improvements to parental benefits, lifetime earnings overall are still further reduced for women with children — even while the careers of fathers tend to suffer no such setback, and indeed there is evidence to suggest that men who have children actually tend to earn more than those who do not. Individual circumstances vary, of course, but by and large it seems that we still have a long way to go if we are ever to achieve even the most basic forms of gender parity when it comes to wages and benefits.

Working conditions, including opportunities for retention and promotion, are also negatively impacted by the persistence of both overt and subtle sexism. Teaching evaluations — or more accurately “student opinion surveys” — are perhaps the most notorious means by which discriminatory attitudes are actualized with devastating effect. As many of us know from anecdotal evidence, and as study after study has demonstrated, women consistently score lower than men in these surveys. Anonymous comment sections also reveal the extent to which female academic staff can be faced with attitudes ranging from mild disrespect and objectification to outright taunts and threats. Racial difference, disability and other forms of “othering” also take their toll in such exercises, resulting in serious negative impacts on many of our colleagues’ working lives; contract academics in precarious employment situations are particularly vulnerable. Employers must cease clinging to a useless and thoroughly discredited evaluation method that so often functions as a form of ritualized abuse. It is high time that opinion surveys, like all other discriminatory workplace practices, were consigned to the junk heap of bad policy.

Workplace safety is also an ongoing concern for many women, as well as for LGTBQ2S and other equity-seeking groups. Unfortunately, university and college campuses remain sites where incidents of gender-based harassment and violence are a regular occurrence, and where victims generally do not feel they receive adequate support. High-profile recent cases have drawn attention to the problem, but employers have been slow to develop effective policies to deal with it in more than just a stop-gap or publicity-minded fashion. And of course, harassment and violence does not stop at the campus gates; domestic and other forms of systemic abuse targeting women throughout society constitute yet another level of inequity that disproportionately impacts the lives of Canadian women. Violence against Aboriginal women and girls in particular has had a profound historical impact, and must be urgently addressed if we are to sustain any hope of living in a more just society.

Inequity is all around us, and takes many forms. Its very pervasiveness sometimes allows it to be ignored or accepted as “normal.” But a situation where co-workers are regularly denied equal opportunities, safe and dignified working conditions, and fair compensation, is neither normal nor acceptable. Women’s rights, like those of all marginalized or under-represented groups, are human rights. When they are respected the whole community benefits, and when they are disadvantaged we all suffer. Sexism is everyone’s problem, and we will need to work together, whenever and however we can, to make it a thing of the past.