The story of a George Washington University professor who admitted to fabricating her ethnic identity set the internet aflame last week.
Unsurprisingly, the shocking revelation elicited a range of responses. Some questioned the professor’s individual motives and psychoses, others emphasized the many people she deceived and hurt throughout her career, while still others directed their criticism at the institutions and academic culture that made her success—despite her deceptions—possible.
I’m not personally acquainted with the scholar in question, nor am I familiar with her work beyond a passing reference. And I’m not surprised the story made a splash, especially among conservative figures who reach for any reason to condemn the supposedly liberal academy or so-called identity politics.
But I think focusing on this bizarre incident might detract from a more consequential discussion about the challenges women, and especially women of color, face in advancing through the academy.
The historian Troy Vettese has done a great service in this regard by investigating the many ways patriarchy limits and diverts women as they embark on academic careers.
Although they compose slightly more than half of the undergraduate student body in many countries of the Global North, the number of women in academia falls approximately ten percentage points per academic rank, from assistant to associate to full professor, with the latter category constituting only around thirty-two percent of tenured faculty.
In the United States, the numbers are even worse, with the share of female full professors in relation to all female faculty reaching only into the single digits. “Among the most serious expressions of women’s hardship in the academy,” Vettese writes, “is the case of US black female scientists, who often experience desolate isolation in addition to sexual and racial harassment.”
In academia, “the quotidian machinery of patriarchy” has many moving parts. Among them, Vettese highlights three in particular: male professors, male undergraduates, and male romantic partners. In order to avoid summarizing the entire piece, I want to focus on the first group, if only to provide a glimpse of how the pervasive and debilitating system of patriarchy structures much of the academy.
First, male academics exhibit a preference for other men, whether in mentoring students, citing colleagues, or granting tenure. For example, one study described by Vettese found that male advisors often write shorter, less enthusiastic letters of recommendation for their female advisees, and these letters comment less often on the research skills of the respective students.
Self-citation poses another problem. Male scholars are almost twice as likely as female scholars to cite their own work, leading to a higher aggregate citation count. This higher count is further magnified as other scholars are more likely to cite papers that already appear frequently in academic literature.
Second, male academics exhibit skepticism about women’s abilities, which forces them to waste time doing unnecessary extra work. This pattern of behavior, Vettese argues, reflects the underlying assumption that academic excellence is solely the province of men. One way this attitude manifests itself is through the frequent requests for female academics to prove their work.
One study summarized by Vettese examined academic papers submitted to the top economics journals. The study revealed that female economists, despite submitting papers that have no noticeable difference from their male counterparts, are asked to revise their work more often, even though this does not result in a higher acceptance rate. As with so many other examples, this pattern reveals the routine, time-consuming consequences of sexism.
Finally, sexual harassment stymies the work of female scholars, diverts them from their interests, and subjects them to pain and trauma. Vettese highlights instances in which female academics have had more senior colleagues or advisors withhold data necessary to advance their research. In more extreme cases, female academics have faced harassment and assault at field sites, in labs, and on medical rounds.
According to Vettese, studies show that around one fifth to a full half of female postgraduate scholars have experienced sexual harassment. Alongside the harm and trauma to which female academics are subjected, sexual harassment sometimes forces them to change the subject of their research and slows their progress overall.
Not only does patriarchy in the academy frustrate and undermine female scholars in the aggregate, it also produces intense forms of individual suffering. “Like all scholars,” Vettese writes, “women eschew potential riches to seek their intellectual fortune, motivated by a passion to learn and teach.” He goes on to lament, “that so many are forced to relinquish this goal because of condescending or lewd supervisors, selfish spouses, smug students, and prejudiced hiring committees is in every case a personal tragedy of an unfulfilled life.”
Using Turkey as a case study, Vettese suggests some ways to remedy this dismal state of affairs. Given the systematic biases against female academics, he asserts that hiring quotas can be easily justified. Moreover, an expansion in hiring would increase the overall power and influence of women in the academy, while also providing a mechanism to redistribute the work of research, teaching, and service more equally.
Given the cratering job market, a trend that will surely continue beyond many people’s wildest imagination in light of COVID-19, these small changes might seem like a tall order. Vettese is no more sanguine about the prospect. “Academic patriarchy is too well entrenched and vicious to be defeated by piecemeal reform,” he contends. What’s needed is “a Cerberus-headed politics combining a social movement, activist scholarship, and new radical bureaucratic structures.”
Given the immensity of the problem, and the absolute necessity of the task, it would be a mistake to let one person’s strange story overshadow the wider problems of exclusion and oppression that plague women scholars as they try to pursue a career in academia.