Sexism in academiaComments related to physical appearance unnecessarily dominate statements surrounding sexism.
A widely circulated recent post on social media questions whether there is a positive correlation between a woman’s looks and her career prospects. This issue has historically remained contentious and does not seem to be withering despite so-called modern education and evolving social liberalism. The assumption that those who have better looks than the rest have achieved quicker ascendancy on the career ladder compared to presumably more capable peers is rather pervasive. In the absence of systematic research on this correlation and an objective view of what actually constitutes a better look, anything conclusive is difficult to argue.
But the perceptive biases among employers, and by implication, its impact on employees’ quest to look ‘attractive’, have largely killed the sanctity of meritocracy and commodified the looks of females. Conversely, the same parameters do not apply to male employees. For example, their good physique is never brought into the mainstream of this debate. Even qualified women who achieved their feat on the basis of sheer merit are not very often credited for the same. Instead, it is assumed that some aspect of attractiveness had something to do with their success.
What constitutes sexism?
The issue of sexism in academia is a completely untoward phenomenon, given the fact that this is the sector expected to transform the social milieu and norms for the better. Comments targeting females regarding their physical build and looks are often made by their peers and bosses. These comments appear to be compliments but are often used to cloak inherent strength by sleek verbosity. But in the case of men, compliments are ‘therapeutic’ and ‘confidence-boosting’ when they have a negative impact on women. Comments related to physical appearances unnecessarily dominate statements surrounding sexism. It is commonplace to receive comments that one looks more like a student than a teacher, or one’s ability to contribute is weighed by the extent of mature looks. It is sad that women peers are equally unsupportive of their juniors who are made targets of such deliberate cornering by others using deplorable sexist comments.
Mansplaining, yet another form of sexism, is pervasive in academia. Males set out with a preconceived notion that their female counterparts need to be lectured on about social issues, economic phenomena and other organisational contexts. The perceptions of ‘self-proclaimed’ male intellectuals are rooted in the outdated preconception that women’s sphere of knowledge is bounded by her traditional roles in the family that give her little time to understand society and world affairs.
Very often, comments are not confined to the workplace but are generally heard in every professional stream beyond academia. Age and physical appearance potentially change the impressions that get created in the minds of others. At times, younger women professionals are also addressed as nani or maiya (meaning a small lady in informal local parlance) rather than by their respectful professional titles by their senior colleagues. However, a similar masculine word would not have been used had the professional been a young man.
There are many such instances where people make every possible attempt to belittle women in the workplace. Despite the fact that such women inspire the full trust of the leadership and enjoy the confidence of administrative leaders through their demonstrated capacities and skillsets, remarks are made with the aim of pulling them down. Even comments such as ‘You look too young for the position of an assistant professor’ are commonplace, though women in the same age group are serving as prime ministers in other countries. There are occasions where female employees working in universities have felt utterly uncomfortable due to the inconsiderate and thoughtless comments made by their male counterparts during informal conversations. Such disrespectful remarks are undoubtedly sexist, and in essence, misogynist in nature. They even go to the extent of commenting on the proposition that ‘it is not feminine to be too ambitious in one’s career’.
The issue gets exacerbated in a society like ours that cares about moral policing, and naming and shaming the victim rather than the perpetrators of a crime. Some of these issues are taken as elitist and are not given the due attention they deserve. At other times, there are instances when women who chose to speak up as part of the #MeToo movement have been simply dismissed. It is rather surprising that none of the universities in Nepal have a sexual harassment policy in place. While many cases of sexual harassment go unreported, those that do get vocalised by the courageous few are muted—because no action is ever taken against the offenders.
As the maxim goes, charity begins at home. Girls, and students in particular, should be taught about ways to counter and deal with adverse sexist remarks at a very young age. For this, it becomes incumbent on the part of the universities to formulate appropriate policies on this issue. Only when they bell the cat can one expect the rest of the institutions to follow suit and bring in an equitable and inclusive social order. This is not simply to imply that a lecture on sexual harassment is arranged. This should involve sharing real issues with the students so that they ponder over and deeply reflect on them.
If we fail in teaching the younger generation to take the bull by the horns, instances of sexism will keep getting repeated. Of course, the onus of addressing and tackling the issue of sexism in workplaces doesn’t squarely lie on women alone. Even men need to feel equally responsible to support and champion this important cause with a sense of felt obligation. This does not mean that people in a position of age and experience should not learn to behave right. After all, sexism shouldn’t encourage a ‘culture of silence’ relegating women to remain tight-lipped about all kinds of sexist remarks. This may lead to a scenario where relatively small incidents escalate into major episodes of sexual harassment.