#BLM, White Male Privilege and Sexism in Academia

The tragic, heart-breaking death of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests on both sides of the Atlantic, have dominated my reflections for the past week.

As I am a representative of two institutions that are often charged with systemic racism (the Church of England, and the academic guild), I have been spending time reading more deeply into the topic. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The thing that has struck me more strongly than before is that (my) white male privilege tends to be invisible to me.

My lived experience is the touchstone around which I create a mental concept of what is ‘normal’. Thus my whole paradigm for how people relate and behave is built on concrete examples of how they have related and behaved in relation to me as an individual.  That brings with it a bucket-load of idiosyncrasies where the particularity of responses of other people are discernible to a greater degree. But it is also predominantly built on my experience of being a middle-class white male, which is so fundamental to my experience of life, that I cannot really ‘see’ it.

Where I do begin to see it, is in contrast to the experiences of others. So, for example, I have not ever been mistaken for a taxi driver, or assumed to be an assistant, or expected to make the coffee, or rejected from an opportunity on the basis of my accent. These things don’t happen to me, but I don’t see them ‘not happening’ – and thus am oblivious to my privilege. Moreover, there are probably certain positive, as well as non-negative, aspects to my privilege that I am also oblivious to, no doubt naively assuming that the opportunities I have had in life are down to merit or luck. It is easy to hypothesise a ‘value-neutral’ explanation for effects of which we do not know the cause.

Alongside these reflections, I continue to be shocked by accounts of everyday experiences of sexism and racism. (Much social media is a tough read at the moment, but surely it is good that lived experience can always find a direct, public voice.) The very fact that I am so shocked emphasises how privileged I am – that I should have so little such experience that I am surprised to hear about it.

I am still in the ongoing process of working out what to do with this. At the very least, it tells me that simply avoiding any discriminatory behaviour of my own is not sufficient. Positive action has to be taken to redress the imbalance of privilege. (As a member of the Common Awards Management Board, I have been involved in extensive ongoing discussions over the last two years about what this can be in theological education.)

I don’t have any direct exposure to concerns about systemic racism in academia, but I do as regards sexism, and it might be worth describing them. In recent years, two fellow members of an academic society have expressed concern about its ingrained sexism. On both occasions I was quite taken aback – thus highlighting my obliviousness to male privilege. In fact one of those comments arose in the context of trying to do something positive. After giving a paper to the society, I was taking questions/comments from delegates selected by the chair of the meeting. I could see a certain person eager to say something, but not invited by the chair to do so. I therefore approached her over coffee later, to acknowledge that she had been keen to respond to my paper and ask her if she still wished to do so. She did, but also commented ‘You wouldn’t believe how hard it is as a woman to ask a question at these meetings.’

I was taken aback by this partly because my own perception of the society’s meetings had always been one of welcome and equality. But my colleague’s comment gave me strong reason to interrogate the extent to which I was seeing things only through the lens of my own privilege. So I decided to try to make a more objective assessment.

At the next meeting of the society, I did a count in a coupe of sessions, and by my reckoning the delegates were split by sex fairly evenly, 50-55% men and 45-50% women. I then made a note of the sex of the people who were invited to ask questions or make comments at the end of each paper. Over the course of several sessions, 13 men had spoken before any women did. By the time I left the conference, there had been 20 comments/questions from men to 4 from women. So here was some prima facia evidence of some bias in favour of men.

Two contextual observations are also important here: the sessions were being chaired by a woman on that occasion; and there were several long pauses during which nobody was indicating a desire to speak – in fact the chair, after an awkwardly long pause on a few occasions, made a comment of her own ‘in order to get the ball rolling’. So in other words, there was no outward evidence that any woman wanted to make a comment but was prevented from doing so.

I was left wondering (and still am): was this evidence of internalised effects of chronic sexism (i.e. women are so used to not being asked to speak that they don’t even try)? Or counter-evidence that perceptions of sexism are in fact misconstruals?

[This latter possibility plays on my mind because of the subjective nature of some perceptions of bias. Students regularly tell me that they feel ‘out of place’ or ‘in a minority’ in their class. They often imply, or state explicitly, a belief that they are disadvantaged as a result. I took one class where, by the end of term, the majority of its members had told me they felt they were in a minority.]

There must be other possibilities and factors too. For example, I tend to feel that personality type is a significant factor in how/when a delegate might want to comment immediately after a presentation. But I find it hard to believe that the extrovert/introvert personality types would be so differently populated across the sexes.

So that’s one aspect of the cutting edge for me as regards addressing institutional/systemic discrimination. What do I do next? Polite/constructive comments welcome.

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2 Replies to “#BLM, White Male Privilege and Sexism in Academia”

  1. Thanks Simon. That’s really helpful in encouraging me to see ways of questioning my own privilege. One comment on the issue of women/men asking questions. As a woman I am often nervous of asking a question because I fear I am going to be judged as I ask it. It might reveal I missed something the lecturer already said. It might reveal my own ignorance of something everyone else knows. I might phrase it badly and be misunderstood. I might end up remembered as being the person who asked a silly question at x event. Although that may be unique to me, I think it’s related to impostor syndrome – which is more commonly felt by women than men.

    1. Thanks Harriet. I recognise that phenomenon very clearly. The next question it begs for me is why women feel it more than men (if that is indeed the case). Is that of itself evidence of discrimination (perhaps the long-term result of it) ? Or, going to the next level, if it is the case that women experience it more than men, then is an acknowledgement of that but a failure to do anything positive in response, a form of systemic discrimination?

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