Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A False Dichotomy

(Photo courtesy of

A few days ago, I was eyeing some of the back-to-school stationary on zazzle. (Because I'm a proper grown up, yes.) For some reason, zazzle sells not just diaries etc, but also some other 'college essentials.' Including this t-shirt. Which irritated me more than it should have done.*

When I sat and thought a bit about this, I realised that the irritation is part of something much broader: I get very irritated at the suggestion that academia (and by extension, intellectual pursuits) are at one end of a spectrum. Woman things (this can be make-up, an interest in clothing, a liking of popular or selfies) are the other end of that spectrum. By misfortune of being academically-inclined, while also being a woman, we must choose. We must choose EITHER selfies OR books. Each choice we make takes us one step closer to the end of the spectrum, and comes at the cost of the other: the only way to read more books is to take fewer selfies.

And, of course, this irritation is partly personal. My own approach to beauty work, popular culture and self-image could occupy an entirely separate (very boring) blog post.** But I'm not annoyed by this shirt because I feel personally victimised by it. I'm annoyed by this shirt because it's an example of the dichotomy I've just described. And this toxic dichotomy matters in an academic context because it's part of the way that academic authority is constructed (and invested) in certain types of people. If you haven't already read it, Rachel Moss sparked a discussion a while back that made this clear: academic authority exists in certain types of bodies - namely suitably masculine, white, able-bodied bodies.

So when we code 'feminine' things (an interest in appearance, popular culture, style, bright colours) as in direct opposition to the 'proper' world of academia (research, seriousness, high culture) we're directly supporting the gendering of academia as [white, hetereosexual, able-bodied] male. And this matters because academia is (like most institutions) rife with inequality.***

And, ok. I get it: for those of us just coming into this game, we want acceptance. We don't know how to be academics: there are no rules. We all feel like frauds and we all want to navigate those feelings and no longer feel like impostors. And so long as academia remains coded masculine and remains male-dominated, perhaps de-emphasising the aspects of ourselves that are coded as 'woman' means we feel like we're gaining more purchase a the system which is still coded 'man'. And perhaps that's a confidence boost that can help individuals navigate a very insecurity-inducing environment. I understand that desire.

But this confidence-boost is shallow, because it isn't based on the quality of your work. What's more, these actions have no long-term material value. For example no woman is ever going to be favoured for promotion or publication purely on the basis that she's never been seen wearing eyeliner. Accepting the dichotomy won't challenge inequality, it just allows inequality to perpetuate.

I feel grateful that the new platforms and online spaces researchers inhabit are challenging this dichotomy. The state of women in the academy is widely researched and disseminated. Alongside the discussions outlined above, the growth in researchers using blogs to talk about the rest of their life alongside their research may help break down this dichotomy. One recent exciting) Sartorial Science (run by Sophie Powell and Dr. Sam Illingworth) invites researchers to submit photographs of what they're wearing alongside a description of their research are.

These individual conversations (and our own individual efforts) have to exist alongside bigger institutional change. And I'm confident that the academy (like most institutions) will become more equal in time. In the meantime, I'll get to work on designing my 'MORE BOOKS MORE SELFIES' t-shirt.


* Not least of all because of the irony of a pseudo-intellectual shirt making a grammatical error.

**Put short, it's complex: I often wear make-up; I rarely shave my legs; I watch RuPaul's Drag Race and listen to Bach; I rarely take selfies. None of these individual things matter so much apart from one characteristic that they share: none of these preferences interfere with my research.

*** Melissa Terras' blog about the representation of academics in children's books has a good round-up of some of the disparities in gender balance across academia. I'm currently looking for more resources on other inequalities in academia.

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