By Jen Thorpe
Once, when I was completing my Masters in Politics, my supervisor said to me: ‘you should be at Dress to Get Laid parties, not write about them.’ When I responded that I was far from interested, she looked at me scornfully and said ‘Sure you’re not.’ This conversation is one of the few I remember having with my supervisor, a female professor with scores of published papers to her name. I remember it, because its intention was purely to disrupt, to disconcert and to dismantle my sense of myself as a researcher able to critique a culture to which I could belong, but didn’t.
Once, when I was completing my Masters in Politics, my supervisor wrote on my weekly submission ‘this lacks meaning and substance’. When I responded that the fourty pages I had written had taken me two weeks, and contained some of the primary literature for my thesis, she did not respond. Instead she gave feedback on her male supervision students’ work, and only reviewed mine months later. This feedback is only some of the belittling and destructive feedback that I remember from my supervisor, who in my earlier years at university fundamentally changed the way I understood race, class and gender.
Once, when I was completing my Masters in Politics, I attended a public seminar conducted by my supervisor. In an auditorium full of people, I heard her present a paper. When people asked questions she couldn’t answer, I raised my hands and answered them, because this was my field of expertise. Someone afterwards came and said that they’d heard she had used my material, and that it wasn’t the first time she had paraphrased a student for her own academic career.
I graduated with distinction, but it was not my supervisor I wanted to thank in my acknowledgements. I avoided the issue by saying that ‘there are no words to describe the supervision’ she gave, which there weren’t. Only a string of questions.
These questions were concretised for me when I heard Yvette Abrahams of the CGE talk at a Wolpe Memorial function last year. We also heard from an empassioned staff member that she was sick of facing economic discrimination, poor support, and lack of developmental space in her department and was thus leaving. She had been made to give up by a system of social disincentives for women’s academic success. Women are prevented from succeeding academically as women.
Abrahams stated that only 12% of professors in South Africa are women, and that often women take on male characteristics in order to get ahead in their academic field. This means that they don’t develop other female students, but often find a sympathetic male colleague who will support them and their quest for glory.
They certainly should strive for academic success, become professors, heads of departments and deans of their faculty. They should produce research that is of the highest quality – in fact there are now more female graduates than male graduates at most universities in South Africa. So what’s going on? Why must women lecturers alienate female students in order to further their own career?
Perhaps it is the prevailing and pervasive patriarchal culture that still pervades many academic institution. There is still very much an old white male mentality in many faculties which is certainly not a form of cultural capital that many young women in SA today possess. So is it a case of us and them? Must we simply push and push, until we assimilate and become ‘acceptably feminine’ or ‘acceptably feminist’, or is there a space in academia for real feminist organisational culture? There certainly wasn’t when I was a student, perhaps we should just give up now and go ‘Dress to Get Laid?’