Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership

Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership

In higher education leadership, women are making substantial inroads, with women occupying about a quarter of university presidencies (Moltz) though remaining underrepresented in critical leadership roles (Dominici, Fried, and Zeger, 2009). Simultaneously, however, the mere presence of recognizable “female” bodies can result in a dismissal of the need to attend to or even acknowledge sexism whether overt, covert, or through microaggressions.  As a result, sexism in the academy can lead women to question the contentious discourse that surrounds them: they may be attacked personally for leading from one direction, while simultaneously recognized and awarded for their leadership from another, resulting in a dissonance that discourages them from further participation in leadership positions. Scholars inside and outside academia have sought to identify as well as strategize for these barriers (Williams and Dempsey, 2014; Solnit, 2014; Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2012; Connelly and Ghodsee 2011). The proposed book will add to this body of scholarship by addressing the sometimes bitter attacks that women face when attempting to effect change, employing a feminist leadership style, or questioning the lip service of equality.  

Academic trade publications like InsideHigherEd and The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly feature news stories documenting how sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal assumptions pervade academia (Jaschik, 2014; Baker, 2014; Mason, 2009) and sexist assumptions in student perceptions of teaching effectiveness and professional participation (Mulhere, 2014; Marlowe, 2012). Nonetheless,   calling out or identifying sexism, microaggressions, or even clear misogyny can sometimes result in 'gaslighting,' where the effort simply to demonstrate the problem exists is as exhausting as seeking to ameliorate it. Women in these roles find themselves belittled, demeaned, and exhausted. They may experience a kind of culture switching between feminist communities that are safe spaces and the broader academic communities--or male-dominated organizational bodies, units, or departments-- which employ hostile, dismissive, or sometimes bullying and harassing strategies to resist change, silence dissent, or reinforce traditions and conformities that reward the usual patriarchal values.

This collection contends that if women are to enter into leadership positions at equal levels with their male colleagues, then sexism in all its forms must be acknowledged, attended to, and actively addressed.  We propose to assemble an interdisciplinary collection--Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership--which we imagine as part storytelling, part autoethnography, part action plan. The authors in this collection negotiate everyday sexism in the academy and offer up strategies for survival.  The proposed collection will 'lift the veil" from the good old boys/business-as-usual culture that, we contend, continues to pervade academia in both visible and less-visible forms, forms that can stifle even the most ambitious women in their careers. We invite chapter proposals that will address the following questions:

  • What does sexism in the academy look like? What forms does it take? How does it oppress (or inspire, or invigorate women?)

  • How best do we address sexism in the academy?

  • What communication strategies challenge or reinforce sexist cultures in academia?

  • How do we work to dismantle the politics of dress, from too “mannish” to too “sexy"?

  • What is the role of survival strategies such as male-identification and co-optation (in which women who advance to leadership roles in the field sometimes adapt by physically altering their bodies or conduct?

  • How have women contributed to sexism by perpetuating the exact same aggressive identity policing that they may have bemoaned in their early careers on junior colleagues?

  • What feminist leadership strategies are supported by evidence?

  • How does overt or coded misogynist language get deployed to "put girls in their places": bossy, loud, hysterical, histrionic,  noisy, nosy, bitchy, uncivil, uncollegial?

  • How do gender non-conforming academics participate in binary cultures that privilege masculinized/male-coded way of leading and trivialize or dismiss feminized/feminine/female-coded approaches?

  • How might race, ability, class, or sexuality shape experiences of sexism in the academy?

The co-editors aim have built a collection that celebrates the renegade who does not hide behind politeness and is willing to take up space, both physically and with her words--by doing more than surviving it alone. We offer this collection as a way to build networks, as a support, and as a guide for feminist academics across disciplines.

About the Editors

Works Cited