13/06/2015 8:44 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Love, Sexism And Academics

Alastair Grant/AP
FILE - A Monday Oct. 8, 2001 photo from files of Dr. Tim Hunt, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, in a laboratory in London. The Nobel Prize-winning British scientist has apologized Wednesday, June 10, 2015, for saying the "trouble with girls" working in science labs is that it leads to romantic entanglements and harms science. Tim Hunt made the comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, according to audience members. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

After a long day at an international conference last year, I sat chatting with a Sri Lankan researcher from Hague over a glass of wine. She was bemused at how everybody in Delhi assumed that she was Indian and began addressing her in Hindi. The conversation veered towards assumptions and she shared how at her workplace, 'guests' would routinely request her to direct them to the facilities. They just assumed that she was an intern and not a senior researcher. She added that while there was nothing wrong in helping the visiting speakers and researchers, the very exercise was a manifestation of everyday sexism in academia. "My male colleagues, even if much junior, don't usually get asked about the loo."

When Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt spoke about his "trouble with girls" recently, I recalled my Sri Lankan friend's agony. While I'm loath to suggest that her skin colour also had a role to play, the idea cannot be discarded outright. Sexism in academia complements racial discrimination and coloured women seem to have it the worst. But that is another story to pursue.

What is most disturbing about sexism in academia is that it often goes unnoticed, or at least unchallenged. An acquaintance from university was dumbfounded earlier this year when she was asked about her marriage plans during an academic job interview. None of us colleagues could fathom how it had any bearing on her capabilities as a professor. Even while applying for adjunct positions, I have been routinely asked about my marital status and "issues" with earnest follow up questions "How will you manage?" "Is it not difficult?" "Won't PhD be impossible now?" My standard answer has been, "I typed my dissertation with one finger while nursing/rocking my infant daughter. Everything is a cake-walk in comparison." Some were impressed, many smirked. Predictably, none of our male colleagues have ever faced such a question.

Neatly packaged in enlightened frills, everyday sexism becomes a norm in academia. It is easy to say things "ironically" and get away with them. Misogynistic remarks about women's performance, commitment and work-hours can be easily justified or cushioned by quoting philosophers and scientists on one hand, and hearty 'friendly' guffaws on the other. We are all enlightened, let us not be priggish about lounge banters.

"What is most disturbing about sexism in academia is that it often goes unnoticed, or at least unchallenged."

Sir Hunt's now famous trouble involved love. He suggested gender segregated labs to take care of that. At the outset, it can be deduced that homosexual scientists do not exist in the heteronormative research space he has conceptualised. Magnus Hirschfeld turns violently in his grave this very moment but let's focus on the heterosexual love in the labs and libraries.

Men fall in love with women, women fall in love with men and when criticised by their lovers, women cry. Because women, in or out of love, cannot be rational enough to take criticism. It is clearly impossible for them to segregate the personal and the professional. Along with the aforementioned assumptions, there is a more damaging one: women occupy the lower shelves in these labs and libraries. Men are at an officially higher position to criticise them. Or do women burst into tears because their junior colleagues, who happen to be men, also criticise them routinely?

Falling in love is natural. It is also scientific. Yes, it can be problematic as we all discover at some point in our lives. What Sir Hunt says about love and labs, however, has a lot more to it. When mentors fall in love with their women protégés, the latter better be reciprocal. If not, they stand in danger of having their professional prospects clouded. That sure is more damaging than tears to science, for which Sir Hunt displays such concern that he willingly embraces the unenviable tag of "chauvinist pig".

Sexism and harassment in academics is a lot more damaging than elsewhere. Firstly, it dismantles the rosy view that knowledge is empowerment. Being leered at or discriminated against by one's research supervisor can be a bigger shock to the young female academic who perhaps sees her degrees both as a reward and a shield in her battle against sexism. The discourse on sexism in society inevitably swerves towards 'mindsets.' How discouraging, then, it is to find "chauvinist pigs" loitering even in the hallowed portals of academia!

"Sexism and harassment in academics is a lot more damaging than elsewhere. Firstly, it dismantles the rosy view that knowledge is empowerment."

Mentoring is an integral part of the research landscape in science as well as humanities. Since women are underrepresented in higher positions in academia, many a young female academics, like their counterparts in the corporate world, do not find an appropriate mentor and therefore fall short in realising their full potential. Yes, some women can be sexist too and make their mentees' lives miserable. This jaded argument, however, cannot be used to naturalise men's patronising and/or hawkish treatment of women under their supervision. If anything, horrible women mentors are an argument against Sir Hunt's idea of segregation.

From the Enlightenment sexism to what Susan J Douglas calls 'Enlightened Sexism,' a lot has been achieved and lost. It is time for the latter, too, to be tagged as 'dated.' Repudiating women's commitment to research, or casting aspersion on their abilities on the basis of gender, or accusing them of causing 'distraction' is neither scientific nor humane.

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