Facts, Stories and Strategies: Women and Academia

Belinda Smaill offers a reflection on gendered dynamics in academia in the hopes that young scholars will not have the same blinders she had on when she began her professional career…



As I write this the fallout around Harvey Weinstein’s decades long career of predatory behaviour is triggering a slew of commentary about the sexist culture of Hollywood. Against the background of this fallout, I want to meditate on the gendered dynamics of academic careers. More interesting than Weinstein’s behaviour and his expulsion from the Hollywood machine are the claims that such behaviour is systemic to not only the American film industry, but to professions everywhere and, indeed, is a characteristic of female existence under patriarchy. In an insightful interview, Emma Thompson points out this fact while also noting that sexism is so endemic to Hollywood, in part, because there are so few women in decision making positions. Power is wielded so disproportionately by men.

As a PhD student in my late twenties, I was surrounded by smart, successful and inspiring women as teachers and supervisors. Studying in a Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, I was already well versed in political theories of race, gender and class. Although I wasn’t blind to issues of discrimination, the nuanced ways in which gender impacts on academic careers was veiled by, or seemed less consequential, given the visibility of exceptional female scholars and educators. I do not intend to focus here on sexual abuse or harassment (which is of great importance and does occur in academia, perhaps with less frequency than it used to) but rather the subtler effects and rhetorical nuances that contribute to how academia functions as a gendered environment, to make visible that which wasn’t clear to me as a young scholar.

The hard data shows that universities share much with Hollywood – men dominate in positions of power and women are less likely to succeed on terms set by the institutions. Research shows that, internationally, women are underrepresented at senior levels, despite the fact that, at least in the humanities, higher numbers of women are employed at junior levels and now more women undertake PhDs. Teresa Marchant and Michelle Wallace summarise the key literature here, also identifying that women academics do proportionally more teaching, identify more as teachers, prepare more and are more likely to sacrifice research time for teaching. This is crucial in an environment where research is still the locus of prestige. They typically earn less than men and take longer to apply for promotion (often waiting until they are more than qualified) and are underqualified in terms of leadership training. These are dismal facts and well known to those who have trod the halls of the academy for some time. Other, more insidious issues include research that shows young women achieve lower teaching evaluations from students and anecdotal evidence that the research of female scholars is cited less often and is more likely to become obscured over time.

It is very important to acknowledge that this is not a static situation. In Australia, as Marchant and Wallace show, the numbers of women at the level of Associate Professor and Professor has increased (from 14% in 1997 to 29.2% in 2012). In my university, there are women working at the highest levels, including the Vice Chancellor, the dean of my Faculty, and my Head of School. While this is encouraging, my advice for emerging female scholars is to remain active and aware in the gendered workplace. Some ways of achieving this include:

  • Seeking out career advice. This is often not adequately built into research training. If more established academics do not offer comprehensive advice voluntarily, hunt it down, preferably from more than one source.
  • Resisting the “imposter syndrome” or the sense that you are “just lucky” when success hits. This is an internal gauge that women have that undermines their achievements. While many men have this too, it is endemic in women. It is a story we tell about ourselves that benefits no one. The fact of greater male entitlement is demonstrated not only by their characteristic willingness to apply for promotion and jobs, but also their greater propensity for self-citing.
  • Building a clear research strategy, with coherent objectives in a defined area and in ways that position you as an expert. This will allow you to productively focus your energy. Find ways to succinctly convey the story of your research. As part of the strategy, find collaborators, especially more senior ones. These are key recommendations from an excellent report on women and research.

The last point I want to emphasise is how important it is to know what motivates you personally (your passion). Alongside this it is equally important to know what motivates the sector and the institution. There are increasing and shifting demands on academic labour and the weight of these can become oppressive, whether you have an ongoing position or not. A clear sense of how to balance your own objectives with the objectives of the institution is essential for good mental health, at the very least. Too often women (and, yes, men too) lose sight of their own values and the good work that sustains us.


How many women work at the highest level of your university? What about your faculty and department? How many of them are employed at junior levels? Recognising what is happening around you will increase your awareness around the gendered workplace of academia. Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Belinda Smaill is an Associate Professor in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University, Melbourne. She has published widely on women and cinema, documentary film, and screen media, animals and the environment. She is the is the author of The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture (Palgrave, 2010), Regarding Life: Animals and the Documentary Moving Image (SUNY Press, 2016) and co-author of Transnational Australian Cinema: Ethics in the Asian Diasporas (Lexington Books, 2013). You may contact her at Belinda.smaill@monash.edu


Image: chess-chess-board-game-original-1394419 / Nana-ne / CC0 1.0

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