How about the only woman in a meeting being asked about tea and cakes or, perhaps a slight improvement, being called a “clever girl”? What about a professor saying: “Sorry about all the women in this laboratory, but at least they’re good to look at”? Women in senior positions are not exempt either – it’s not uncommon for women professors to be introduced as so-and-so’s wife. These stories are from across the UK, Europe and North America and, needless to say, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
If universities truly intend to reform themselves, university leaders need to lead by example. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Involve female students and staff in discussions about sexism in your university. Remember that informing them is not sufficient. Listen to what they have to say and act on it – their experience of sexism is more valid than any understanding of the issue you might have.
- Don’t wait to act until something big has happened. If you’re hearing murmurs about sexism or other kinds of discrimination, take it seriously – you’ll stand yourself in good stead if you’re proactive about it.
- Treat complaints about your star professor the same way you’d treat complaints about students – being a staff member, even an excellent staff member, does not excuse discriminatory and offensive behaviour.
- Attend equality and diversity training sessions – don’t think you’re above it. You’re biased like anyone else is and these sessions can help you understand and mitigate your own biases.