The unequal distribution and valuation of women’s work – in academia and broadly – is a significant feature of modern sexism. For this set of tips, we outline this phenomenon's relationship to benevolent sexism, how unequal work appears in higher education, and what we can do to stabilize the scales.
Reflect: How Can Sexism Influence the Type of Work Done?
Gendered stereotypes, particularly the belief that women are supposed to be communal and caring,1 are fundamental to the unequal representation in different career fields and the work done in one’s office. Gender stereotypes lead hiring officers to make biased judgements of applicants based on their job perceptions,1 leading women to be overrepresented in certain types of fields which are considered “feminine” (e.g., education versus STEM).2, 3 These stereotypes also affect women’s career aspirations.4 Gendered stereotypes also lead to women doing more necessary but undesirable office housework than men, while receiving less career benefit from this work than men.5 Consider the overrepresentation of gender in different fields. How are these fields comparatively spoken of (e.g., STEM vs. education)? How are these fields comparatively compensated? How might gender stereotypes affect the valuation of specific types of work done (such as office housework)?
Learn: Unequal Distribution and Evaluation of Work in Higher Education
The level of devaluation and inequity in work for women in higher education is a persistent problem. Service work in higher education, an area where women are disproportionately overrepresented,6, 7 is undervalued when compared to research and teaching8 - despite supporting overall functions of the university. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened this load,9 creating further gender disparity. The proliferation of “manels” in academia,10 panels with only male speakers on a topic despite the presence of multiple women experts, also show an unequal distribution of “glamorous” work. This underrepresentation cascades into other elements of one’s professional career. Just like the under-citation of women,11 low rates of invited professional speaking opportunities can have lasting consequences on career outcomes such as tenure and promotion12 - especially in STEM, where they are already underrepresented.13 Though these trends focus on women faculty, similar experiences are had with graduate students, post-doctoral candidates,14 student affairs professionals, and campus leaders.15
- 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 evaluating women through reviews or letters of recommendation, reviewers (of all genders) are more likely to use bland, lukewarm praise and feelings-/caretaking-related language.16, 17, 18 This language also appears when women are introduced professionally. Take time to inventory how you and those around you speak about women (tools like this calculator can help you catch stereotypically “feminine” wording). Are you unambiguous in your praise and/or praise women with the same intensity?
- 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.
- Reconsider your policies around work: Because work is unequally distributed and valued, we must reconsider our mechanism for evaluating and distributing work. For any kind of performance review, consider where you can decrease the opportunity for wholly subjective, non-standardized evaluation (e.g., open-ended boxes); when applied to women and those with other marginalized identities, evaluators rely on vague and/or stereotypical perceptions which dampen career progress.19, 20 For example, student evaluations of teaching are more effective measures of bias and grade expectations than they are of effectiveness.21, 22 If this open space is still desired, consider creating consistent reference posts that connect reviews to concrete data rather than perceptions and/or weighing these evaluations in light of susceptibility to bias. If your office or department is distributing necessary labor, consider how you can – reducing the trap where women are asked to do more “housework” tasks than men.23
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book:Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia – This edited volume uses empirical studies and personal narratives to explore the bias women of color face in academia.
- Video:How to Design Gender Bias Out of Your Workplace - Sara Sanford discusses how to address important elements of workplace evaluation perpetuate gender bias.
- Article:Employers and co-workers want Black women's expertise. But are they paying them for it? – Three Black women discuss being undervalued while also being asked to do more work.
- Podcast:The Gender Power Gap (Women are the Business) - In this episode, guest Dr. Jennifer Overbeck discusses how women leaders are perceived differently in the workplace as a result of bias, despite doing the same behaviors that are deemed as normal or successful in men.
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