The Price Women Pay: Sexism and Power in Academia

This piece is reposted with permission from Auntie Bellum Magazine: An Honest, Unapologetic Voice for Southern Women.

Next month marks the three-year anniversary of my escape from academia. I say “escape” not because I really wanted to leave academia, but because I’ve come to realize in recent months that I barely got out with my sanity intact.

Last December, one of my former professors passed away from cancer. She was young and brilliant, and one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve met in academia. In the wake of her death, I’ve reconnected with several of my women friends from grad school, and we’ve begun talking in serious, often painfully, honest ways about what it means to be a woman in academia.

We all know that grad school is difficult — the work is too hard, the pressure too much, the funding too little — but for women in male-dominated fields, there are a multitude of additional obstacles and pressures that stem directly from systemic misogyny and that even the most empowered among us quietly endure for the sake of our careers.

Like me, these women friends came to grad school mostly for altruistic reasons, to make a difference in the world through teaching, research, and writing. I loved being an historian of modern American, African-American, and LGBTQ history — telling the stories of those whom our dominant narratives have attempted to forget. I loved teaching history to college students, complicating their assumptions, and helping them see themselves reflected in our nation’s past.

From the start, we all knew the challenges we faced wanting to study the histories of women, people of color, queer people, and other marginalized groups that despite decades of progress still aren’t taken seriously in a field dominated by straight white men. We knew sexism was going to shape our experiences as scholars. But the gendered and sexualized power dynamics within our departments and our profession go far beyond the work itself, and it’s only in hindsight that we have begun to recognize the trauma some of us have endured even from our own mentors.

As grad students, my female colleagues and I regularly discussed the sexual harassment we heard about, witnessed, or experienced ourselves from some of the most esteemed men in our fields. We rolled our eyes and laughed about the older scholar who routinely made sexual comments to his female grad students even though his wife also taught in the department. We shared our exasperation at the one who always stared at our breasts during meetings.

In more concerned tones, we worried about our friends who were sleeping with their advisors, or the influential scholar in our field who suddenly took an interest in our work but might have ulterior motives. We wondered what would be more detrimental to our careers — rejecting these advances or getting involved with much older, much more powerful and respected men.

We drank on porches together during the South Carolina summers, processing our situations, and comforting each other when our hearts had been broken by these academic men who too often used us to soothe their insecurities and feed their narcissism. Ultimately, we all just wanted to do meaningful work and have that work acknowledged in a field where the vast majority of those who controlled our professional futures were men — and where too many of those men were more interested in fucking us than mentoring us.

Unequal, coercive, and unethical relationships were normalized among our professors and grad school colleagues. Sometimes we asked our male classmates to stand beside us at conferences or department functions in case we ran into that guy who harassed, stalked, or assaulted us last time; other times those male colleagues became our harassers, stalkers, or assaulters. Eventually, some of them emulated their predecessors and became our abusive partners or seduced their own undergrad students without shame or repercussions.

In such a context, honest discussions of consent, coercion, and trauma rarely happen. At history conferences, the liquor flows, and grad students and junior faculty regularly find themselves drunkenly chatting into the night with their professional idols, blurring the lines between professional and personal engagement. And yet, because we are all adults, we tell ourselves that we’re consenting in these relationships that we would otherwise avoid because we fear the repercussions, and because we’ve seen it happen to other women like us.

While I was a part of a circle of incredibly resilient and mutually supportive feminist academic women, none of us felt empowered to challenge the status quo, if we even realized in the moment how fucked up it was. The prevailing sentiment was that this was the price we paid to do what we loved.

We laughed off blatant harassment, quietly warned each other about the more predatory colleagues, and slept with people we didn’t want to. All the while, we had an acute awareness of how our female academic mentors and colleagues would see us when we worked with men who had those reputations, regardless of the true nature of those relationships. None of us wanted to be just another young slutty grad student who broke up some respected historian’s marriage. None of us wanted to risk everything we had worked toward because powerful men made indecent proposals to us, and we were forced to choose the least terrible response.

During these recent discussions with my amazing academic women friends, I’ve had so many moments where I had to pause and ask myself how some of the smartest, most educated, outspoken, feminist women in the world find ourselves in a field where sexual harassment, stalking, assault, and coercion are routine, accepted, and condoned. The insidious nature of sexism in academia is staggering when I look back at it from outside.

I didn’t escape from academia because of sexism. I left because the job market was a nightmare, and I was tired of struggling to make ends meet as an adjunct with no job security or benefits. Part of me wishes I had left in a blaze of righteous feminist glory, naming names and calling out all of the sexist bullshit. But mostly, I just wish someone had told me that it wasn’t normal, and it wasn’t okay, and it shouldn’t be the price I had to pay to do what I loved.