When You’re Not a ‘Gentleman Academic’

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Wednesday, January 25, 2023
By Michaela Edwards
Photo by iStock / Ika84
Women shouldn’t have to act like men to be successful in academia—how business schools can do better at supporting the women on their faculty.
  • Sexism and racism in academia lead to many individuals earning lower salaries, receiving fewer promotions, and not having their contributions taken seriously.
  • Women who dare to speak out against sexism and racism are often labeled as “emotional” or “aggressive,” or as not being team players.
  • Business schools must improve their policies and reduce microaggressions in the workplace by taking steps such as surveying staff about their experiences, scrutinizing hiring and promotion criteria, and offering training to raise awareness.  

In the 1996 film The Associate, Whoopi Goldberg plays Laurel Ayres, a Black woman trying to get ahead in a man’s world. Having found it impossible to have her brilliant ideas accepted, Laurel memorably disguises herself as an older white man to succeed. For many women, this film still reflects the culture we live in today.

In our October 2022 paper “I am not a gentleman academic,” my co-authors and I reflect on the myriad experiences of sexism—and, in some cases, of racism—that we and many others have experienced or witnessed over our careers. We draw stories from six paired interviews, writing the paper as a collective of women of African, Asian, Swedish, white, and mixed ethnic heritages.

The incidents described range from distasteful to outright shocking. For example, it’s natural to be appalled by the story of a woman whose co-workers took it upon themselves to judge their colleague’s appearance. She recalls that they asked her, “’What’s with the sexification of your look?’ I was supposed to comply and submit to their emotional judgment or remarks as ‘compliments’ or ‘humour.’”

Or by the story of sexual harassment by someone who should have been a trusted mentor: “Three months after my viva, my examiner made sexually explicit remarks and advances to me. My confidence dipped; I doubted I deserved my position in these hallowed halls. I was there because somebody found me sexually appealing. I lost papers and networking opportunities because I couldn’t work with a man who was supposed to be my mentor without fearing inappropriate sexual approaches.”

Or the story of a woman whose co-workers made her body the subject of public comment: “When I became pregnant, my privacy was public, and my body was public property. People felt free to comment on my hair, clothing, and age. Women and men felt entitled to touch my stomach, to comment on my growing body, to say how well, bad, or tired I looked, to make articulated lorry reversing sounds when I left a room, to assume I was emotional when it was convenient for them. It allowed them to dismiss my thoughts in meetings.”

These incidents will likely capture the attention of readers, but they are not the only shared experiences that caused us deep pain. Just like Goldberg’s character Laurel Ayres, academic women must often engage in serious mental and emotional gymnastics to navigate their own workplaces. These are the stories that business schools must enable us to share more frequently and openly. These are the stories that need to be heard to inspire change.

It’s Time to Drop the ‘Aggressive’ Label

In some cases, sexism and racism in academia are apparent not in what happens, but in what doesn’t happen. Some women find they are not friends with the right contacts or that they are not having drinks with the right people. Others don’t hear about the important career opportunities, or they do not have their contributions taken seriously.

Some, just like Laurel, watch as perfectly mediocre men are paid higher salaries and/or are promoted ahead of them. Here’s another example from our collective story: “I found out I was being paid less than my equally qualified white male colleague. I felt lonely, isolated, worthless. A thoughtful professor tried to get me to challenge my salary, to seek equal pay. I was too frightened; I felt apologetic and stupid.”

Women who have been treated poorly and dare to speak out are often accused of being emotional. Unfortunately, many institutions respond to their objections with a combination of defensiveness and hand-wringing, often noting something along the lines of, “We have promoted X women to senior positions. We don’t have a problem.”

But if you’re a business school administrator, you need to ask more nuanced questions. Yes, it’s important for you to ask how many minority ethnic women you promote. But then, more questions must follow: Do your promotion and hiring criteria implicitly favor men? What must employees do and how must they behave to succeed? How old are these successful employees? What hours do they work? Do they have children or other caring responsibilities? Are they part-time?

Many institutions respond to reports of gender inequity by saying something along the lines of, “We have promoted X women to senior positions. We don’t have a problem.”

Then, go even further: Do you hold key meetings at school drop-off and pickup times? Do you have an overtime and weekend work culture? Are your senior men promoted earlier in their careers than your senior women? Do you still ask about previous wages when hiring, thereby perpetuating a deep, persistent, and patently unfair gender pay inequality?

And, finally: Do you see our demands as aggressive? Or do you see them as reflecting firm and visionary leadership?   

Academic and business organizations often dismiss driven and assertive women as losing control of their emotions or failing to be team players. But it’s time that women—particularly minority ethnic women—are freed from the “aggressive” label. It’s time that their legitimate complaints are not just heard but addressed.

Let’s Redefine ‘Excellence’ in Academia

Frankly, if emotion was given more credence in business schools, we might all find ourselves working in more caring and thoughtful environments where fresh ideas and different perspectives are appreciated. But to create these environments, we all must truly embrace difference, not only among our staff members, but also in our fundamental understanding of what academic work is and what it’s for.

Our school administrators need to engage in continuing professional development on ethical and humble leadership. They should take part in an ongoing reflective practice in areas regarding allyship, awareness, and behavior. As an academic community, we must rethink which types of research and teaching practice we value and which we don’t. Embodied work, for example, is currently actively discouraged in a system in which such work often is discounted or incredibly difficult to publish.

Here's an experience that reflects this reality: “I am still subject to an approach that idealizes white male dominance and alleged efficiencies in the research excellence framework and the metrics by which I am measured. The journals I want to submit to, the ones that are enthusiastic about embodied work, are often of a lower rank, and those of a higher rank attract everyone and are fiercely competitive. I am at a disadvantage.”

Experiences such as this can help business school faculty and administrators recognize the structural failures in how academics are audited. Academic leaders must question both how decisions about excellence are made and who makes them.

Our Nine Recommendations

How can business schools improve policy and mitigate microaggressions for colleagues? We share our recommendations below:

  1. Ask human resources (HR) to survey the school’s staff annually to identify the prevalence of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and intersectional microaggressions, as well as gender-based violence and harassment. Department managers should use the survey results to rate incidence type, frequency, and level of severity; develop corresponding actions to address these incidents; and measure the institution’s progress in eliminating them over time.
  2. Ask HR to create, promote, and, most crucially, ensure that line managers act on an anonymous reporting mechanism for incidents of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviors, and microaggressions.
  3. Pursue awards such as the United Kingdom’s Athena Swan Charter and Race Equality Charter Award. Such benchmarks provide frameworks through which schools can conduct and identify issues and develop progressive actions to advance gender and race equality.
  4. Ask university stakeholders to conduct equality impact assessments on all new strategies, decision-making, policies, practices, and external partnerships. Consider how university partnerships may indirectly discriminate against diverse staff through lost opportunities or promotion options, and ensure all partners share a commitment to active allyship concerning sexism, racism, LGBTQI+ discrimination, ageism, and ableism.
  5. Assess the talent pipeline to eliminate barriers to progression for people from underrepresented or marginalized groups. Ensure equal representation of diverse groups on the faculty, in senior roles, and on governance and executive boards. Consider that representation of junior colleagues on committees and boards can enrich strategic direction and decision-making.
  6. Carry out nuanced demographic reporting at the department and college levels. Capture not just how many women are in senior positions, but also how many people are from different age brackets; represent Black or Indigenous people, or people of color; have different physical, intellectual or neurodiverse abilities; or identify as LGBTQI+. Then, publish the findings.
  7. Ensure that both HR and line managers scrutinize hiring and promotion criteria and practices for ableist, gendered, homophobic, transphobic, and racial bias.
  8. Provide mandatory, annual face-to-face behavioral, awareness, active bystander, and gender-based violence training for staff at every level. Continuously evaluate training to ensure it is having a positive influence on awareness, behavior, and organizational culture.
  9. Finally, listen up! Have meetings where the senior team members are there not to speak, but only to listen. Be open to reverse mentoring from more junior colleagues and recognize the value of their experiences. Equip and encourage senior leaders to be allies, advocates, and sponsors for colleagues from underrepresented and marginalized groups.

We acknowledge that there will be challenges to implementing these recommendations, including but not limited to cost, time, priorities, and engagement. Even so, a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion is not a “nice-to-have” policy—EDI is essential. In fact, in the U.K., various aspects of EDI are protected by the Equality Act 2010, as well as health and safety regulations.

The buy-in of senior leaders is critical because these individuals are often the ones called upon to respond to both formal or informal complaints—or worse, they can be the source of the most damaging microaggressions.

Addressing EDI issues is vital not only from a business perspective, but also (and this is the important bit) from a social justice perspective. Having said this, if your budget is low and your time short, concentrate what funds and time you can spare on getting significant buy-in from deans, associate deans, heads of departments, line managers, and other senior leaders.

Such buy-in is critical because senior leaders can effect change and model desired behaviors. These individuals are often the ones called upon to respond to both formal or informal complaints—or worse, they can be the source of the most damaging microaggressions.

Breaking the Masculine Mold

To return to The Associate, the film ultimately revolves around the idea that all Laurel Ayres needs to do to be loved, successful, and appreciated for her ideas, which are no less valuable than those of her male counterparts, is to look and sound like a white man.

However, more than 25 years after this film premiered, women need to be able to break the masculine mold and have their ideas heard and taken seriously. Women need to feel welcomed and appreciated for precisely who we are, not who someone else wishes us to be.

In other words, we need to make it safe for women—and in our case, academic women—to bring their authentic selves to work. Although we might find it uncomfortable to embrace our differences, those differences bring a depth and perspective that can be gained in no other way.

More to the point, it is not up to those who have been discriminated against to justify inclusion or to challenge standard business metrics of productivity and efficiency. Rather, it is up to every business school to find and cement its commitment to social justice by getting its own house in order.

Impact starts at home. Build the diverse business school of the future, and do it now!

This article was written with input from my co-researchers Laura Mitchell, Catherine Abe, Emily Cooper, Janet Johansson, and Maranda Ridgway.

Michaela Edwards
Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School
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