Woman faces the glass ceiling, from “Women’s History” on

Last week I attended Challenging Inequality: A Workshop for Women Historians at UK Universities. Although I was listed as speaking about inequality in Oxford specifically, what I mostly talked about were the particular problems facing women early career researchers. The day was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, since many participants wanted to be able to talk about their specific experiences of institutional sexism and would not like those disseminated further.

This morning one of the participants circulated an article she’d read online about Australian women historians, which has the incredibly optimistic title “How women historians smashed the glass ceiling.” The article itself is a little more circumspect, but overall has a positive impression of the Australian academy’s gender parity:

Compared to both the male-dominated STEM disciplines, and other social sciences like philosophy and political science, Australian history has been remarkably feminised.

This was the conclusion of a recent ANU enquiry into the status of gender in the social sciences. The results, published in 2014, found that history was “the discipline most changed by feminist scholarship.” When it came to “improving the participation of women” and “mainstreaming feminist approaches and gender scholarship,” history departments were judged “impressively successful.”

The image of the glass ceiling is in many ways a problematic one. While it’s a useful way to visualise a systemic barrier to success for women, it suggests that the only real problem is women moving upward, and if they exert enough pressure they will eventually break through it. I noticed when googling the term that stock photos of it are always of white women in business attire either wistfully pressing or aggressively smashing against the barrier, beyond which there are fluffy clouds – suggesting if they break through that, the sky’s the limit. But women historians have been HoDs and vice chancellors now, and it hasn’t “fixed” sexism. Many women historians are likely to feel that the glass ceiling is actually a box, exerting pressure from all sides and potentially isolating them, too.

Which is one reason the Challenging Inequality day was useful – while in some senses it was exhausting hearing so many accounts of systemic sexism – from being passed over for jobs to microaggressions in the common room to outright harassment and abuse – it was also, I think, reassuring for many of us to reiterate that these are serious issues and we do have a right to be angry about them. There was a lot of anger in the auditorium that day – as well as plenty of knowing laughter and sympathy.

Two of our speakers were involved in the production of the Royal Historical Society’s gender equality report, and they spoke about how the report came into being and what the results said. Over the course of the day many people reiterated how important the report had been in convincing colleagues that sexism is still a genuine problem in the discipline of history. As many of us know, it can be easy for our personal experiences to be dismissed; cold hard statistics are a little more difficult to discount. So we were grateful for this data. 21% of the historians employed in the UK responded to the survey, which makes for a very good sample group.

History has a roughly equal gender balance among school and university students, but more than 60% of academic history staff are male and, according to the latest HESA figures, only 20.8% of history professors are female. … The situation is far worse in some sub-fields of the discipline, where careers are made (or not): the Economic History Society, which has been tracking the problem for 25 years now, reports that not only their membership but also attendance at their events routinely divides 75% men to 25% women. Although cultural history usually has a better ratio, intellectual history or international history often has an even worse one.

The report has some very sensible suggestions about how to embed a culture of equality, from recruitment (addressing invisible bias in shortlisting and interviews) to daily departmental work/life balance (work on integration back into the department post-parental leave) to promotion (redefining success not just to reflect publications but also service and outreach). It unfortunately does not really address questions about disability and race, and there is very little about robust responses to sexual harassment cases (which is sorely needed, judging by this Guardian report). But it does provide a sort of baseline for what women should be able to expect within the academy – a “meets minimum standards” sort of mark, I suppose, for what we should hope for within our departments, but which many women have worryingly reported they are not receiving.

There was also a lot of discussion over the course of the day about a need for more radical change. My gut feeling is that there need to be concrete, specific changes made within the academy to help level the playing field further: but that also we need to consistently, insistently protest against the appearance of the playing field. Maybe we’re making it easier to get into, but it still stays much the same old playing field even if the players have changed. History as a profession needs to reshape itself to incorporate its differently abled, mixed gender, racially diverse bodies; it needs to treat all of them as human beings with innate dignity and value, rather than trying to remodel them to fit an old-fashioned norm of what a historian “looks like”. Its public and private faces need to reflect a diverse profession, not replicate hegemonic norms. We are not all alike; we aren’t all “leaning in” to become alike.

While the narrative of the glass ceiling suggests we smash boundaries, what really happens with circumventing the glass ceiling is usually that we “lean into” conventional practices, co-opting them so that we succeed. If we really want to break through the glass ceiling, we need to fundamentally change the values of history departments in the UK from relentless focus on publications to an appreciation of the multiplicity of “soft skills” modern academics can bring to the table, which we’re all supposed to acquire and yet somehow don’t make much of an impression at interview or in promotion panels. We need to celebrate the different gifts historians have – as talented teachers, marvellous managers, co-operative collaborators – rather than saying all those matter but only really looking for 4* publications. We need to actively strive to increase the diversity of our departments, not just hope it happens by seeming friendly and making sure a token woman or person of colour gets added to a shortlist. We need a kinder academy, but one that does not lack courage. And this is not a journey minorities can take by ourselves; when I talk about a kinder, braver academy, I mean all of us, together.

By @deonnawade