Stopping the Underrecognition of Women

As we close out Women’s History Month, we discuss the relationship between sexism and women not receiving appropriate recognition for their work. Recognition comes in many forms and affects many aspects of women’s lives, from women not being properly credentialed by others to gaps in pay.

Reflect: Why Does (Under-)Recognition, in all its forms, Matter?

When we think of recognition, it’s important to remember that recognition goes beyond credit for a project or idea (though that is an important piece). Recognition is a form of evidence that your presence, contributions, and future potential are respected and desired within your field. It comes through formal mechanisms like performance reviews and pay as well as more informal means like our everyday conversation with and about women. Under-recognition/devaluation of women is a symptom of societal sexist attitudes about women’s capabilities, particularly as an institutionalized form of benevolent sexism. It’s also important to recognize that this is a similar narrative/experience in other systems of oppression and is made more complex when these systems intersect, such that highly accomplished Black women like Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson are targets for racist, sexist attacks to their expertise (Mystal, 2022). Think of a time you went unrecognized and/or undervalued for your work and expertise. What kind of effect did that underrecognition have on your mental state? How might that effect change if it occurred over a lifetime?

Learn: Just How Widespread is the Devaluation of Women in Higher Education?

The most immediately recognizable ways that women are devalued often happen at the everyday, interpersonal level. Women PhD holders are less likely to be referred to as “Dr.” than men, both from students and colleagues (Files et al., 2017; Suarez & Hannigan, 2021), diminishing the work that they have accomplished and their expertise. Women are also interrupted more than men in everyday, classroom, and professional conversations (Hancock & Rubin, 2014; Jacobi & Schweers, 2017). When women do speak up, even on the higher leadership levels, they are perceived as harsh and less competent (Brescoll, 2012). Service work in higher education, an area where women are disproportionately overrepresented (Guarino & Borden, 2017), is undervalued when compared to research and teaching despite supporting overall functions of the university. The proliferation of “manels” in academia (Else, 2019), panels with only male speakers on a topic when there are more than enough women who are also experts, also show an undervaluing of women. Just like the under-citation of women (Budrikis, 2020), the low rates at which women are invited to speak can have lasting consequences on career outcomes such as tenure and promotion (Weisshar, 2017), especially in STEM where women are already underrepresented (Murphy et al., 2021). These career-level effects reflect larger systemic issues that arise from the devaluation of women and their work. A systemic example is the persistent gender pay gap, in which women receive 20% less for the same jobs and women of color receive roughly 40% less (AAUW, 2021). Pay and promotion gaps are even worse in academia (Mullen, 2021), with fields that have an underrepresentation of women frequently earning more than those with equitable representation of women (Jaschik, 2016).


  • Challenge the interruption and devaluation of women: It takes time to recognize the little (and big) ways that women are devalued. Correct people who do not use the correct honorific for a woman (e.g., “Dr.”) and be mindful of how you introduce women in professional and informal settings, ensuring that you give them the same level of formality. Make a concerted effort to engage meaningfully and enthusiastically when women speak in meetings, such as by showing non-verbal signs of approval like nodding. Create equitable guidelines for allowing everyone to contribute in meetings; hold people accountable when they interrupt women or take women’s ideas and pass them off as their own. Start conversations about how you compensate women in your department or office, as well as the ways you compensate women who provide work to your office (e.g., invited speakers).
  • Deconstruct the language you use to recognize women: Though the undervaluation of women is important to address, sometimes we can accidentally contribute to marginalizing gender roles by how we decide to praise and recognize women. For example, in texts drafted to support the work of women such as performance reviews or letters of recommendation, reviewers (of all genders) were more likely to use bland, lukewarm praise as well as feelings-/caretaking-related language (Dutt et al., 2016; Huston, 2021; NCWIT, 2010). This kind of language is used all over to describe women, including when they are introduced in settings related to their professional success. Take time to inventory how you and those around you speak about women (tools like this calculator can help you catch when you use stereotypically “feminine” terminology). Do you focus on more emotionally-oriented traits? Do you give the same intensity of praise to women?
  • Use your privilege and space to (p)raise the work of women: One of the most common ways to support the recognition of women is by increasing the number of citations and references you make to the work of women. This not only exposes you, your colleagues, and your students to women in your field, it also supports the professional success of women in your field. Going a step further, advocate for your office, conference, and field to work on setting up mechanisms to promote parity in speaking engagements, particularly if you’ve found yourself invited to a “manel.” Networks like WomenAlsoKnowStuff host a long list of women experts to consider.