2005:41 R

Covert gender discrimination in academic arenas - invisible, visible, subtle

From an international perspective the Nordic countries were among the pioneers of gender equality, both inside the academic sphere and elsewhere. Even so the traditional imbalance between women and men survives in higher education institutions. Why have there not been larger changes? How is this imbalance reproduced? Covert gender discrimination in academic arenas is based to some extent on letters and interviews with women in higher education in Finland.

The survey reveals that the discrimination of women is sometimes visible but more frequently invisible and subtle. Recruitment to attractive substitute posts is not advertised and lacks transparency, which benefits an exclusive coterie of men. Women are, as it were, forgotten when invitations are extended to give key note speeches at conferences, excluded from male-dominated informal networks or regularly subjected to derogatory and derisive comments. When events of this kind are viewed as processes - not as mere “innocent" episodes - it becomes clear that discrimination is involved, i.e. systematic negative unequal treatment on the basis of gender.

What characterises gender discrimination in higher education institution is indeed its covert nature:

What happens may in fact be that “nothing happens" or that something that should happen during the course of one´s career fails to happen: one is not seen, heard, read, referred to or cited, invited, encouraged, offered support, one is denied validity. (p. 23)

As it consists of non-events, gender discrimination in the academic world can be difficult to discover and to counter, particularly for outsiders. However, women in higher education have developed strategies for survival in the system. Women attempt to negotiate these problems in different ways: they select “appropriate" clothes, speak with a “suitable" voice or use their motherhood to shield them from sexual harassment. Or women attempt to maintain some form of inner balance - perhaps by relativising discrimination or deciding not to give up. What all these approaches have in common is the expenditure of time and energy, additional mental effort alongside research and teaching. Nor do women receive much support from their immediate academic environment. It is rather family and friends that offer encouragement and the energy to go ahead with their academic careers in spite of everything.