Tag Archives: gender

Is “embracing ordinariliness” really the only way to cope with the impossible demands of contemporary universities?

Another depressing article: astute analysis of the problems in contemporary academia (which affect both women and men, but the average man tends to have better invisible support in coping with them)…sadly followed by a call to “embrace ordinariliness”.


“Given that women still bear the brunt of responsibility for running households and organising the school schedules of children and so on, the question I was asking myself was how can women academics ever hope to achieve success in their working lives when this kind of pattern is seen as not just normal but entirely unremarkable, especially in a sector deemed by and large to be well-disposed towards working parents? Deciding not to have children, and having a partner who is also an academic or at least very familiar with these kinds of schedules would seem like the obvious answer.

the ideal career track in the academy especially one which carried all the laurels of prizes, awards, fellowships and a high volume of grants seemed to have been tailored around the image of the brilliant young man untrammelled by any of the fine details of domestic life. And if the young woman was to follow this pathway and plan the right time to have a child, then when would this right time be? The first few years of full time work (34-38) are marked by all kinds of expectations, and so it may be that just before getting to 40 having children could be embarked upon.”

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UK women academics in 1974

This page and every sentence in it wins the prize for most depressing work-related reading of the month. I keep realising that I must have grown up on a different planet. I really hadn’t realised how recently things were shockingly horrible in what we in the East thought of as the enlightened Western Europe. For all the ills in the socialis bloc, at least scientists and engineers were, and still are, equally divided by gender… (See e.g. The chart on P.21  of this 2012 report on gender in science in the EU)

Excerpt from “The academic labour market” edited by Gareth Williams, Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, Elsevier, 1974 

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Women: Stop shrinking, “Take up space!”

This video isn’t about mathematics. But when you think about it, it really is about mathematics. I believe that the chief reason behind why there are few women in mathematics (relative to the number of men) is the same reason that urged Vanessa Kisuule to write this awesome poem.

Here is a selection of serious and funny descriptions from some of my interviews (I’ve done 50 so far, mostly in Germany, and some in the UK, with more to come), referring either to an abstract, or a real successful mathematician. Try to imagine the people with these attributes which are necessary, though insufficient, for success in absolutely any competitive field:





“not be afraid to experiment and fail”

“must have fun with maths”


“barges forth”

“does not get discouraged”


“you know the old saying, ‘fuck up early, fuck up often”

“focused on the thing s/he is doing and not so much on success itself”


“believe in yourself, believe that you can”

“a bit bloody-minded”


“not a shrinking violet when it comes to maths!”

“ready to make mistakes”

“get used to the idea that you will fuck up all the time”

“…seeing them helped me realise I’m not the only one getting stuck”

“focused on the work, not on how others see you”

“We mathematicians are a very tolerant bunch: we don’t care how you look or sound, as long as you have an interesting theorem to talk about!”

It is also the same reason for why many “mathematically-minded” men don’t make it into mathematics, or into other areas for which they might otherwise have a potential ability or even a full-blown talent.

That is not to say that this reason is simple or easy to overcome.  And it certainly can’t be overcome just by individual willpower – even if it may be useful in each individual case to realise that “yes, I am just as valuable as any other person and I deserve to take up all the space that I need”.

Taking up space, obviously, isn’t meant just in the physical sense. There are plenty of women who take up space and men who don’t. Just look next time you are on the Tube. (OK, some people think that men do it more often – I don’t have reliable quantitative data on that). But it’s a useful reminder that there is something fishy with any system in which many people belonging to any one group (in this case, women, though there are many other groups that face similar problems) face an inequality unrelated to the definition of their group. “Women” are simply “female people” – there is no intrinsic reason in being a woman that directly leads to the group of women not being represented equally in certain human activities, instead there are plenty of social, historical, institutional, political, personal, as well as plain stupid, reasons.


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Postdoc and motherhood in Austria or Germany: is it good or not good?

Everyone agrees that postgraduate, postdoctoral and other early career researchers struggle with reconciling the geographical demands of their careers with personal and family life. A lot has been said (informally over a drink or during conference coffee breaks) and written (on blogs and in academic journals) about the fact that the current academic system is unkind and detrimental to researchers’ families, relationships, childbearing decisions, parenting, other care responsibilities, and mental health. Everyone (including myself) has a bunch of criticisms and reasons why the institutional conditions in academic employment are not optimal. But in terms of what these optimal institutional conditions are, can, or ought to be, there is no agreement! I find it fascinating how much opinions on this can differ. Here are two articles I read recently. I struggle to disagree with both. And yet, they have opposite arguments. The first one argues that in Germany mothers are pushed out of the labour market because of societal expectations to be “perfect mothers”, and in comparison, in France mothers are far more relaxed, they trust the state childcare services more, and return to work much earlier instead of “devoting themselves wholly to their offspring”.  The article is not specifically about academia, but I have heard similar sentiments expressed by some of my interviewees in Germany who, for example, felt excluded and unrespected by their colleagues after one or two maternity leaves. The second article praises Austria’s system (which is similar to the German one) and says that it enabled the author to combine work and family life.

Article 1 (in German):“Es wird ein Mutterkult betrieben”

Article 2: A European postdoc for the family, by Michelle Gabriele Sandrian

I guess all should be read in context. The second article (the one which praises Austria’s Mutterschutz law) is written by an American researcher who has been exposed to a much less kind system (to me it sounds unthinkable that in the US there is NO paid leave for new mothers AT ALL). However, it is very important to notice also the hidden injuries of the more protective German (and Austrian) system, pointed out in the first article by an author who has experienced motherhood and work in both Germany and France.

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A few related articles about Germany:

Gender Inequality in British and German Universities, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Volume 37, Issue 5, 2007

Academic career structure in Germany (online resource)

Gender Inequality in German Academia and Strategies for Change, 2001 (free PDF)

FRAUEN IN DER WISSENSCHAFT: Wo sind sie bloß?, Die Zeit, 13/2014

Attitudes to gender equality issues in British and German academia (in English, free PDF)

Paths to Career and Success for Women in Science, 2014 (Google book)

Kind da, job weg
Warum die Babypause zum Karrierekiller wird
Aussortiert und abgelegt

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Irish universities’ gender gap: even worse than in the whole UK

“New data from the Higher Education Authority reveals that women are massively under-represented in senior academic positions across virtually all of the country’s third-level institutions.

The figures, gathered late last year, show that in the country’s top universities between just 14% and 20% of professorships are held by women.

It is the first time the HEA has published a detailed breakdown of the gender gap at senior levels in the sector.”

Read more here http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1203/664255-academic-posts/

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Sexist or not sexist? The debate about academic science

Not sexist:
“Academic science isn’t sexist” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/opinion/sunday/academic-science-isnt-sexist.html?_r=1

“Science isn’t the problem, scientists are” https://chroniclevitae.com/news/804-science-isn-t-the-problem-scientists-are
The “Everyday Sexism in STEM” blog: http://stemfeminist.com/

If you read this, please, add more links and your opinions in the comments!

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Why do (male) academics dress badly, and what about the women?

When I first began to move to and fro between the Social Studies and Maths and Computer Science buildings on campus, and attending various events in both (and occasionally in the hyper-fashionable Arts Faculty), I couldn’t help but notice a relieving and liberating feature of departmental life which is rather different in those different departments: fashion. Going to Maths suddenly meant I was suddenly among others who seemed to think it was ok to wear whatever they are comfortable in. It has also been nice to not have to notice what my interlocutor is wearing (or feeling obliged to pass the usual compliments about their cool new jumper or dress, or feeling rude when forgetting to do so). Fieldwork didn’t quite change the way I myself dressed – but it did made me more likely to wear the more comfortable clothes more often, compared to the slightly more complicated outfits.

However, the interesting point here is that this is a warning sign to never take my own fieldwork judgements at face value. I am clearly in the minority with my reduced appreciation or understanding of fashion, and as anything unreflected, this might cause problems.  I have since come across a number of articles (in newspapers, so far no serious research) bemoaning the state of academic dress and comparing (unfavourably for the sciences) across departments (like this recent one  by Jonathan Wolff in the Guardian), or this one expressing sheer personal anxiety about what to wear at a large anthropology conference by Carole McGranahan et al. There are also advice articles to women working in academia by Francesca Stavrakopoulou. The author refuses “to wear the male uniform” because:

“… a male academic can afford to look scruffy if he chooses: no one will question his intellectual or professional authority. Male academics who wear jeans, hoodies and t-shirts are “lads” to their students, and “good blokes” to their colleagues. Older men who wear scuffed shoes and a fraying tweed jacket, accidentally accessorized with a splodge of egg yolk down their tie, are “eccentric” or “distractedly intellectual”.  But a female academic who looks similarly casual, or scruffy, or unkempt, risks becoming the target of a range of sexist assumptions: she must be a student, or a mother distracted from the job by childcare, or a woman too old to need to bother about her appearance.”

I have to say, I have often been mistaken for a student. But it never occurred to me to think of this as a bad thing, because, well, I do look and feel like one. And because looking like a student is less effort, ergo it leaves more spare energy for work – just like Jonathan Wolff writes, “There we have it. Academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work.” I actually think we are all students of our subjects, although perhaps others prefer to call themselves “academics”. It is helpful for getting to things for free, too, sometimes. Perhaps I’m not well suited to understand the fashion, or social science point of view of things, but as long as I remember that not everyone agrees with me and pay attention to the majority who don’t – for example, already several of my female interviewees in the mathematical sciences find fashion important and find it annoying that they aren’t “taken seriously” when dressed as they like –  it should be ok…

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The slaves-who-are-masters of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley: an army of geeks and ‘coders’ shaping our future” (click on the title to read article)

A vivid, if somewhat sensationalist, description of Silicon Valley by a non-coder, highlightting a bunch of interesting issues – the historical importance of the computer revolution, power, the drive to innovation and its directions, gender, age, work ethics…

“An ad in the back of the main San José listings magazine reads: “Computer Systems Analyst, Sunnyvale, CA. Bachelor and five years experience required.” What is this place? […] for all we see and hear about the Valley’s gilded apps and networks, glimpses of the people behind them are rare. Who are they and what does the society they have made for themselves (the template for our own) look like by light of day?”

Andrew Smith, The Guardian, 11 May 2014

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