Casual Sexism Towards Women in Academia: Why Do We Turn A Blind Eye?

Women in Academia, Decline In Student Enrollment
This world is difficult to be in, thrive, and survive. Be it education, housing, economy, and social living; everything has become ten times more complicated in the current times. But it’s undoubtedly hard for women in specific, unanimously across strata, castes and religions.

Women never have it easy and never seem to get a breather. Imagine getting up every morning with a hundred questions in your mind, equal number of responsibilities on your shoulders, n-number of deadlines specifically ‘tailor-made’ for you. Unfeasible and at times unreasonable demands at personal and professional fronts; you are bound to feel the heat of the day. You are struggling to get out of bed, but you must; you will barely reach workspace on time, but you try to; and once you start your work after gathering all the motivation of this world, you are constantly realised by the patriarchal authority that you are insufficient and unproductive; and that you are slaving your bottom off over nothing.

That’s what a workday looks like for most working women in India, where women are more educated than men, capable, resourceful, ethical, and devoted. You are made to realise again and again by ‘them’ that your appointment is a favour to you.

Casual Sexism Towards Women in Academia

Coming from academia and working in this sector for almost a decade now I have many such experiences that made me question my education, my capabilities, and my skill; again and again. Such episodes, pushed me to question my existence and goals. Afterwards, I would gather myself and recollect my courage; but suddenly, one sexiest comment would ruin the day for me. And the same condition is with many women in academia.

A few years back, when I was a university student, a respectable male professor asked me to submit my academic papers at his house. His house was inside the campus and hardly ten minutes away from his chamber. This special request was made at 10 am and I was asked to be present at his house at 12 noon. As a student, you think your teacher’s intentions could never be faulty. I asked around and inquired if this behaviour is a norm and fellow students chimed in ‘yes’. But I saw red flags all over it. So, I acted smart (or thought I was), and took a male fellow student to accompany me to that professor’s place. When we reached, he was all alone in his house, dressed up in casual clothing. For a second, I was relieved that I have company, but what I didn’t know was that this would backfire me. The professor became furious, and asked me on my face “What do you think? I am interested in you that you have brought a boy along?”

No papers were accepted that day and no ‘submissions’ were made. In the following days, I was made to do an excessive amount of academic work, which exhausted me to the core; I was made to take the random aggressive verbal outbursts from this person, and this pushed me further away from my safe zone. I ended up leaving the institution for my own mental health.

Many years have passed since then, but sadly that was not the only time I was subjected to such casual sexism in academia; there have been many similar episodes. At one time, a professor casually told me that when girls wear ‘revealing’ clothes in class, it becomes difficult for male teachers to teach. The revealing clothes in question were t-shirts, shirts and tops being worn by undergraduate female students. This person aggressively suggested that only ‘20%’ of the body (only face to be specific) should be revealed by the female students in front of male teachers. It was disturbing for me to internalise that some male teachers think like that. I couldn’t help but think about his strong remarks concerning female liberty and freedom, with reference to some female students who wore Hijab.

Many women in academia have faced similar experiences. I remember a female research scholar once shared an instance with me, and she resigned from a reputed private university. A senior male – co-worker (who used to be her teacher a decade back) once passed a distasteful comment towards her in front of the staff. To be specific, his choice of words were- “on the first day of your class with me, you were sitting right there, wearing an outfit with ‘open spaces’ in front; but your clothing improved later on”. The lady did not accept such problematic statements and retaliated; but was eventually shut down by him in the following days through excessive workload and refusal to grant leaves. The fact that this incident happened when that lady was his undergraduate student 12 years back; and that she remembered the details, is plain sad.

The question is what do you do and how do you cope? How do you deal with this systematic sexism at an academic workplace? And most importantly, what NOT to do?

So, what happens if we are subjected to casual sexism at the workplace? We get angry, blame ourselves, try to talk to people around us, but then we realise that we will become the topic of office gossip. We fear shame and hate from co-workers; and this vicious chain of thought goes on and on; until we end up feeling depressed, and alienated due to the toxicity and our productivity suffers. That’s exactly what we should NOT do. Do not fall into this trap, period. Self-blaming will eventually lead to victim blaming and we don’t want that. Many researchers have backed the fact that victim blaming promotes Rape Culture.

Raise your voice and expose the perpetrator(s). Do not let the nerves get the best of you. Try to think straight and surround yourself with the people that support you. At times, a lot of ongoing or upcoming academic and professional opportunities are at stake. Think rationally and react. Because if you don’t react now, there is a bright chance that the person will repeat this behaviour in future. Give yourself rational reasons and discuss the issue with your support system. If you are not able to have a safe space around you, talk to the HR, or with the people in authority positions, and report the case. Always remember POSH (The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act , 2013)which has been put in place to support the victims of workplace sexual harassment and to keep a check on such incidents. At each workspace, every employer must constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). Write to them and submit your complaint.

Know your Rights and don’t be afraid of anything.

The views expressed are the author’s own.