Fighting for an education? Damn right!

January 13, 2007 at 4:01 pm | Posted in Thesis | 7 Comments

1500.jpg Yesterday I went to a public academic lecture on the experiences of female graduate students in academia which was both exhilarating and described everything that I already knew. Yet, as highlighted in the presentation, the rest of the world – or the patriarchal ivory tower – obviously doesn’t know or recognize the experiences of women because they are not important.

Surprise surprise.

The amazing Sonya Corbin Dwyer from Grenfell University in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland gave an amazing combination of powerpoint and student monologues in her presentation: Trying to Feel at Home in the Ivory Tower: Graduate Women Monologues . What I was so struck by was the chilly climate on university campuses for women that still exists – and that during the discussion afterwards, the majority of the room seemed still focused on the experiences of female faculty as opposed to female students – which is what the presentation was about.

Female faculty on most campuses now, are unionized, and have some measure of rights thanks to that. I fully believe in unionization – and particularly for women, in climates where there may have previously been no rights at all and sexism obviously allowed through hiring practices, grant distribution, etc – unionization gives women at least a measure of ability with which to fight such practices.

For graduate students however, there is no measure with which to fight.

There is no union for the average graduate student – and female graduate students experiences are significantly different than those of men. We have multiple roles and responsibilities. Often we are mature students, who have families, may be having babies, doing the second shift with our domestic labour. We are paid less thanks to the wage gap (still 71% of what men earn according to Statistics Canada 2003) so it takes us longer to get through school, to pay for school and we might have to work more (again lower-paying) jobs in order to pay for our schooling. The female graduate student subsequently takes, on average, longer to get through her education because of these multiple roles – and when she achieves her education on time there is no comment that the work was more for her, there is no extra credit given.

Yet none of this deters women from pursuing an education. Perhaps that’s because (and this is a stat quoted from the presentation but which I cannot find the correct reference at this point in time) – women who go to university earn 50% more than a woman with a high school diploma – compared to men who earn 23% more than men with a high school diploma. Again – this just highlights the wage gap, and the importance and recognition for women to get an education.

The discussion at the end, unfortunately, focused on female faculty. And while some of the stories told were horrendous of women in the 70s and 80s working on campus in a chilly climate, and who are still obviously fighting sexism as female professors – they have at least an avenue to pursue to fight back. They have union protection. They are employed and have the ability to negotiate.

Female grad students have no protection. No union. No negotation. My friend told a story of a female classmate in Anthropology, who applied to grad school at the same time as him. Because she made a comment to the professor about being “anti-feminist”, the professor moved mountains to ensure her graduate school appliation was denied. Did she have protection? No.

Some interesting statistics (Statistics Canada: Women in Canada: A Statistical Report, 2005):

• There has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of the female population with a university degree in the past several decades. In 2001, 15% of women aged 15 and over had a university degree, up from just 3% in 1971. Women, though, are still slightly less likely than men to have a university degree, although the gap is currently much smaller than in the past.
• While almost as many women as men currently are university graduates, female representation among those with a degree declines sharply among those with postgraduate training. In 2001, women made up 52% of all those with a Bachelor’s or first professional degree, whereas they represented just 27% of those with an earned doctorate.
• The overall difference in the proportions of women and men with a university degree is likely to close even further in the future as women currently make up the majority of full-time students in Canadian universities. In the 2001-02 academic year, 57% of all full-time university students were female, up from 37% in 1972-73. Again, though, women’s share of full-time university enrolment declines the higher the level of study.
• Women also currently make up the majority of full-time students in most university departments. However, females continue to account for much smaller shares of full-time enrolment in mathematics and science faculties. In 2001-02, women made up only 30% of all university students in mathematics and physical sciences, and just 24% of those in engineering and applied sciences.

I live in a climate of women’s studies, surrounded by other female graduate students, other female professors, so have some semblance of protection and shelter from the outside patriarchal ivory tower. Yet it still creeps in. We are punished for performing multiple roles. For being activists. For doing other jobs. None of it is important because its not academic – supposedly. We still take longer to complete our studies and because its a program full of women the entire program gets the blame for having a low completion time as opposed to other programs where the same thing is happening with women, yet there may only be 1 or 2 women in the department.

I wish I could highlight the entire presentation – it was amazing, but this is just my point of view. My thoughts. Feel free to discuss. I’d love to hear the experiences of other female students out there. How do you find your education experience?




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  1. First of all, as someone who will be heading to graduate school in just over a year’s time with the goal of being a professor in the future, I really have to question the notion of professors and indeed professional people in general being unionized. You don’t need a union to ensure men and women have equal rights and indeed I find the very notion of being forced to have someone speak for me and my rights rather insulting. In addition, some unions are continuing to protect mandatory retirement which is something I fundamentally disagree with. What universities should have is an open and transparent hiring process to ensure there is no gender bias and where there is, there should be a portal to launch a complaint of discrimination.

    Now secondly:

    “The female graduate student subsequently takes, on average, longer to get through her education because of these multiple roles – and when she achieves her education on time there is no comment that the work was more for her, there is no extra credit given.”

    I read your entire post and I see the point you are making about this. Having said that, at the end of the day it should be your academic work and only your academic work that should be considered for credit. People’s work should be examined equally with the best work receiving more credit; that is, after all, the fair and equal thing to do.

    Now finally, there is something that always rubs me the wrong way when I hear statistics given about the number of men in a profession compared to the number of women. First of all, I do not think it is possible nor is it even logical that there will be a 50/50 balance in each programme or indeed in each profession. I guarantee you the Women’s Studies programmes have more women than men and you will never have the same number of men as women teaching it. In addition, I don’t think you will have ever have half the fighter pilots in a country be female nor half the nurses in the country be male. The point is to have a policy of non-discrimination (which means no affirmative action as well) and let people decide what they want to pursue in life. If there is discrimination in hiring practices that needs to be fought so that everywhere people, regardless of gender, are viewed equally with hiring based upon skill and qualifications.

    Just a few thoughts.

  2. This is a good informative post, and I would like to have heard Prof. Dwyer’s talk.

    I earned an MA degree in history in the late 1980s. I’d say roughly even numbers of men and women studied in the social history area, but the military history area had more men. I don’t recall much sexual discrimination, but I was not looking for it. I agree that grad students are vulnerable to their professors, and think I was mostly lucky in my professors.

    Still, the majority of professors were men; and as Michael seems not to realise, senior people who make hiring decisions are more likely to be men, and thus are more likely to hire other men. I recall people saying we needed more women to become history professors, and I think the numbers are up; but not enough.

    Michael, if you had ever had to fight for your rights, you might value a union more; the point of it is for people to work together for their mutual advantage. And the men in power have never given women their rights without a long and hard fight.

    You seem to be coming from a position of male privilege; you’ve never been told that your education will be wasted because you will probably just get married and never use it. It’s not so long ago that people took for granted that their sons needed an education, but their daughters just needed to find a husband. Do you have any understanding of that?

  3. Thanks Holly, that was one point raised during the discussion – that the female participants did not observe the sexism and harassment at the time – because as women we are trained for it. We are used to having it, to receiving it, and so when we are asked if we experience it, we don’t necessarily see it in our own personal lives right away. Admitting it is the hardest thing.

    And yet its so visibly apparent that sexism and discrimination is happening in graduate school. Exactly that – male privilege allows one to not see the sexism and harassment because one possesses that privilege. As one woman told during the interviews, she had to come home from being a ta and teaching and studying to prepare dinner for her husband and child – while her male colleague and classmate, went home to have his meals prepared already, to a clean house – lesser housework and no secondshift. Male privilege allows that, but also the power. A woman for example might not be used to speaking up, while a male might be more prone to speaking up in class, allowing for more opportunities.

  4. Those statistics certainly are telling- I found it depressing to see the gradual decrease of women in my programs as I pursued postgraduate work. I started out in my English BA with the students being mostly women and professors mostly men (at least the tenured ones) and somehow the women all evaporated. I miss my female colleagues!

  5. Great post, Artemis! I just finished my doctorate in 2005. I’m not finding post-doc life any more welcoming, so far. The leaky pipeline exists: women ‘leak’ out of the pipe as they move on towards faculty apptmts. I like my male colleagues in medical physics but it’s awfully lonely sometimes.
    My husband is just starting his PhD in compsci. Although there are a few women grad students in his dept., he was floored & dismayed to discover that *none* of the faculty in his dept. are women. Even worse than physics!
    Thanks for writing about this important issue. I enjoy your blog–please keep it up! All the best wishes on your studies etc–GDK

  6. In my department, 30% of undergraduates are women, 15% of master’s students, and 7% of doctoral students. What’s scariest for me is that I don’t know why. I personally have felt very supported and in this program; what’s happening to all the other women? What systemic factor is coming into play?

  7. Many women are lost without being noticed because we are taught not to complain. I recently graduated from my Masters. When a professor offered to sexually assault me at the party everyone but one other person laughed. When the person who did not laugh (a male) said he is really worried about the behavior of that professor the other students (females as well) turned on him saying it “was just a joke” and “just the way that prof is.” The whole year was a horribly sexist experience, but no one complained. And sometimes I fear I will be part of that leaky pipe. Whenever I get excited talking to someone about their research, I then start to think of mine. I then think of how it got to the point where I didn’t even want to go to the grad room. All my will for further studies starts to dry up.

    Then I think about how I could not communicate anymore. I lost all desire for my studies. My studies suffered. And these are the people I would have to go to for references. Thankfully I also took a course outside the department, and it was a wonderful experience where my voice came back. But I still do not feel I can ask my supervisor for a reference, and I often wonder what kind of adverse impact that would have on my PhD applications. Many of my fellow students have no idea why I would not continue on. It is because the experience was hell and when I tried to talk about it I was told I was blowing things out of porportion.

    Unions are needed. Ignoring sexism because it’s form s changed is wrong. Why some men feel that when we are attacking them when we talk about sexism I will never know. EVERYONE practices sexism, and that is why it is so ingrained in our society and why we have to open our eyes and fight it. Not see it as passing blame from one to the other. Its messy though, and few want to do it. And until then little if anything will change.

    Finally, I just want to comment that having someone speak for your rights is not insulting. When you have been the victim of power relations it is very hard to fight back. I have fought long and hard for many people. I have been a feminist advocate for almost 10 years. I have stood up to people in power and told them where and why they are wrong. However when it came to me, and my rights, my voice was gone. Unions fight that and work for you. I will never understand why people are adverse to unions. Except those in a position of privilege who do not want to lose it.

    Thanks Artemis. Because of this post I am going to do what Ive been avoiding for the past month and contact the new Sexual Harassment officer at my university. I know it is not wrong, yet I have been feeling like it is. But being silent means more leaky pipes at a department that is about to burst.

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