The academy as a patriarchal structure

Kerry F. Crawford and Leah C. Windsor

International Affairs
International Affairs Blog


Bias on the basis of gender and parenthood is pervasive at all levels of the academy. Photo of the main chamber of the Old Library of Trinity College Dublin. Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash.

Patriarchy is embedded in the structure of academia. When individuals — or particular groups — face unfair, inequitable, or discriminatory situations in the academy, the infractions are often dismissed as anomalies. They’re not. We counter with the observation that bias on the basis of gender and parenthood is pervasive at all levels of the academy and these ‘everyday injustices’ are rooted in structural and institutional shortcomings, policy failures, and reliance on the historical status quo as a default.

It’s not a pipeline; it’s a winding and interrupted path

As we have discussed, the path from graduate school to the rank of full professor does not look like a pipeline that ‘leaks’ women+ scholars. Instead, the academic profession is akin to the game of chutes and ladders, in which individuals face sudden setbacks and, through mentorship networks and sometimes luck, career-advancing opportunities. Revisiting these two metaphors, we observe that the leaky pipeline conjures masculine imagery: a linear, straight path from beginning to end, with some unfortunate retention issues along the way. The chutes and ladders metaphor recognizes that there are many career paths within academy, that those paths are often unpredictable and non-linear, and that this is a good thing that more accurately reflects contemporary life. With effective support systems, scholars can sidestep the chutes and ascend the ladders. However, there are some caveats. We don’t all start on the same square, some are responsible for many pieces on the board, and some are more fully equipped for the journey.

Patriarchal rules define the game

The term ‘patriarchy’ refers to systems of social order in which men hold the formal and informal power, and define the rules of the game. Not all men hold power, of course; power in a patriarchal structure is reserved for heterosexual men who are members of the privileged race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class. Everyone else must contend with the obstacles imposed by their position in the structure: the yardstick is heterosexual white and male, with everyone being measured by their deviations from this norm. Academia has traditionally possessed the hallmarks of a patriarchal structure, such as expectations of working uninterrupted with a support spouse to care for the details — including the cognitive and emotional labour of running a household and raising children. Change will only come as a result of deliberate efforts to deconstruct the norms that define success narrowly, in terms of the ‘absent-minded professor’ who works idiosyncratically and inefficiently, rather than methodically. The non-linear chutes and ladders path can accommodate life and happiness alongside — and outside — of academia.

As a senior scholar told our Journeys in World Politics cohort of junior women+ scholars in 2011, ‘you can be as successful as a man in academia, but you will have to work 10,000 times harder.’ Why?

We learn, teach, and work in a system that privileges a narrowly-defined few, and takes pride in traditional ways of working. For example, realism is the starting point for learning about international relations, while constructivism or feminism are taught as lesser alternatives. It has traditionally been more difficult to publish feminist theory in top journals than scholarship rooted in realism. For those who fall outside the traditional norms, academia is the Hobbesian definition of ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ It is incumbent on all of us to disrupt the traditions that cause harm and to ensure that the 21st century academy is equitable, accessible, and humane. The ‘men in the middle’ — those with tenure and job security — occupy a particularly important political space because they are able to leverage their secure job status to challenge traditional gender biases in their departments, institutions, and disciplines. They can also create cultural change by demonstrating to their peers, junior faculty, graduate and undergraduate students the many ways that mentors can advocate for fairer learning and working environments.

Daily realities in the academic patriarchy

What does daily life inside the academic patriarchy look like? In our research, we focus on gender, bias, and parenthood in the academy. Our survey research supports what many already understand based on their lived experiences: women and active parents of all genders are at a disadvantage. Academia presumes detachment from mundane responsibilities in service of the life of the mind. But academic parents show up every day to prove that one can be both capable scholar and nurturing parent, especially with support systems in place. In reality, though, something has to give, and its generally self-care. This inevitably leads to burn-out.

To be clear, everything in our profession — as outside of it — is logistically more difficult with children in tow: in-person and zoom meetings, conferences, manuscript deadlines, field work and course preparation all require extra planning when children are involved. In a ‘normal’ year, this may look like coordinating day-care schedules and after school pick-up around class schedules and department meetings. In a pandemic, everything happens under one roof, and some women have faced backlash for being ‘unprofessional’ when their children interrupt class or meetings. Men, on the other hand, do not face this same bias. Conversely, they are often rewarded for being ‘good dads’ and lauded for the same multi-tasking that women do thanklessly, and with a fair amount of criticism. The penalties are even sharper for women of colour.

More broadly, gender and racial bias drive decision-making in many aspects of the academic patriarchy. While the landscape is changing, most administrative positions are still held by men, as women are still tenured and promoted at lower rates than their male peers. Students’ evaluations of teaching and faculty hiring, and promotion practices reflect implicit and explicit bias. Indeed, research shows that women+ and faculty of colour receive lower evaluation scores on average than white men+ faculty. Women faculty also take on the burden of being the nurturing face for students, writing more letters of recommendation, engaging in informal advising, and participating in department and campus service committees at higher rates. In some cases, tenured men who routinely get poor student evaluations also — as a consequence — get lower teaching loads, so they are not the public face of the department.

Women, in short, take care of the academic family. In the academic patriarchy, racial minorities and voices from the Global South are overlooked and omitted. Scholars of colour carry the burden of representing their demographic for students, which tends to result in extra advising above and beyond academic advising, as well as extra service work when committees need to ‘diversify’ their composition. Scholars of colour also take on the too often unrecognized emotional labour of explaining matters of racial injustice and racism — much as women take on the emotional labour of explaining the patriarchy — all while carrying the emotional burden of systemic racism and sexism. If we want the ranks of the professoriate to resemble society and ensure that our profession is equitable, we have to provide the support necessary to help scholars navigate the Academic Chutes and Ladders. If we want the academy to lead the way for positive change, we must make more ladders available to more scholars, lend a hand before people fall down the chutes, and make the landings softer and less finite.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as we and many others have written here and elsewhere, has upended work-life balance, workflow, teaching, coursework, professionalization, and networking opportunities. The pandemic has hit women+ in all employment sectors especially hard, as mothers tend to assume the disproportionate share of household management and childcare. The pandemic has also triggered what we call ‘gender shock’, in which some men+ who have suddenly found themselves in work-from-home arrangements in the past year have become acutely aware of the mental load and invisible labour their partners had previously performed. Further, the pandemic has forced single parents to manage childcare, virtual school, and work — whether fully remote work or hybrid schedules — without vital support systems in the midst of a global pandemic.

It bears repeating that productive academics can be good parents, and good parents can be productive academics. Both endeavours are much more sustainable with support.

Observable outcomes

The daily realities compound to form the observable, macro-level phenomena that create the Chutes and Ladders dynamic. The gender and race gaps in tenure and promotion, citations, and syllabi are all acute reminders of how far the academy still needs to go to be an equitable community and profession. Women+ scholars, scholars of colour, and scholars from the Global South tend to be overlooked in literature reviews, nominations to prestigious positions and leadership roles, or more publicly visible events like media interviews. These omissions shape collective perceptions of academia and contribute to a one-size-fits-all approach to research, teaching, scholarship, and service, with that ‘one size’ best suited to men.

Smash the patriarchy? Restore the matriarchy!

To make the academy a more equitable, accessible, and humane profession, we must all do the necessary work to dismantle the academic patriarchy in favour of an approach to research, teaching, and learning that supports all scholars. This is not a zero-sum game. Men are constrained and harmed by the patriarchy, too, and a more egalitarian environment will benefit everyone. Here, we have compiled a list of four action items, some easier than others, and some requiring institutional investments in change:

1. Cite research by women+, people of colour, and Global South scholars. Read this work, cite it in your research, and include it in your syllabi. Co-author with women+, especially graduate students and junior faculty.

2. Support junior scholars and colleagues through mentorship, especially if you are a man. We’ve written about the importance of our men+ colleagues’ efforts to lean into equality initiatives. It is important for all established scholars to offer formal or informal mentorship (or both!) and pass on their lessons learned, but too often the burden of keeping women+ scholars in the profession has fallen solely on women+ scholars. All scholars should commit themselves to mentorship. Informal mentorship can be as simple as tweeting out an offer to watch graduate students practice their job talks, or highlighting the number of times your work has been rejected so junior scholars can see that the path to tenure is often long and winding but still successful. If informal mentorship is equitable and accessible, it can make a big difference. Formal mentorship efforts, such as workshops that coincide with conferences, are often in need of established scholars who are willing to serve mentors and these opportunities are easy to find through professional associations. Women don’t have more hours in the day than men, yet still women continue to volunteer their time because it is good for the profession.

3. Push for parental leave and accessible childcare on your campus, and health insurance for graduate students. Paid parental leave allows new parents to take time to heal physically from childbirth (if they have given birth), bond with a new child and adjust to a new routine without the pressure of balancing research and teaching. Colleges and universities should offer this benefit to faculty, staff, and students to promote retention and make the academy a welcoming place for scholar parents. In survey of academic parents, far too many respondents indicated that they gave birth or adopted a child and were back in the classroom immediately after. Similarly, access to childcare is a vital support system for parents, and childcare on campus is highly desirable. A campus that offers parental leave and access to childcare is a campus that welcomes — and retains — more scholars.

4. Engage in cluster hires. Many academic job ads include the line ‘women and minorities encouraged to apply’ in an effort to signal a commitment to diversity. A more credible signal is a cluster hire, in which a department or institution hires multiple faculty at the same time and provides resources to foster a supportive network of new faculty. Cluster hires provide scholars of colour, women+ scholars, and other marginalized scholars with formal and informal support systems that promote retention and enable new faculty to thrive.

This list is not exhaustive. There are many other changes we can each make as individuals or collectively as a campus or professional association to create a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible profession. This is a goal that we firmly believe is worth the effort and resources and one that we have been heartened to share with International Affairs for the past year.

Kerry F. Crawford is an Associate Professor of Political Science at James Madison University in Virginia. Her research and teaching focuses on International Relations, human security, gender in war and peace, and parenthood in the academy.

Leah Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis and runs the Languages Across Cultures lab. She studies linguistic aspects of political communication in international relations, and gender and bias in family formation in academia.

Together they co-authored the forthcoming book, The PhD Parenthood Trap: Gender, Bias, and the Elusive Work-Family Balance in Academia, published by Georgetown University Press.

This blogpost is part of the ‘Women, Gender and Representation in IR’ series International Affairs is curating as part of the 50:50 initiative. If you are interested in engaging with this initiative or want to write a blogpost for the series, please email International Affairs’ Editorial Assistant Joseph Hills at

All views expressed are individual not institutional.



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