Feminist Spaces: Academia

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?’


5 thoughts on “Feminist Spaces: Academia”

  1. This is an excellent piece, but, as a female academic, I’d like to add:

    – Your supervisor’s behaviour was utterly inappropriate, and I wish that you had laid a complaint against her. I hesitate, though, to read her actions as being symptomatic of wider problems within academia around gender. I think it speaks more to issues relating to supervision and student/staff interaction.

    – You are entirely right, though, to flag the fact that there are so few women in senior roles in academia, and this is a global problem. I really, really, REALLY dislike the point that those women who succeed ‘act like men’ in order to do so – and also the fact that this causes them not to work with younger female colleagues. This bears no relation whatsover to my experience (and I write as one who has been supervised by two incredible female academics). But other than the fact that this is an essentialising notion of what constitutes ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’, it reduces a complex issue to a simple case of ‘defeating patriarchy’. It also seems to suggest that women are in some way responsible for this situation.

    – I would argue, actually, that there is very little that stands in the way of women joining academia. In fact, affirmative action schemes tend to work in our favour. As a young academic myself, I’ve never felt that I’ve been discriminated againt on the grounds of my gender. The problem sets in around promotion, in the middle of women’s careers. Academia – and I think that this is the case for most industries – makes it very difficult for women to have families. Typically, those women who go on extended maternity leave or work part-time to look after their children are not promoted as quickly as those women who do not. This means that it’s very difficult for them to attract research funding and they’re seen as less ‘valuable’ to universities and departments. I think that is an absolute scandal.

    – One way to deal with this situation is to rethink the way in which we work: to allow for all staff members to work part-time when they need to, and to re-arrange work to suit parents, and not force parents to choose between work and family.


  2. I found reading bell hooks “Communion: the female search for love” quite enlightening.
    I would also like to add that your experience with your supervisor is not unique, and when it happens to other female graduate students in this day and age, it’s difficult not to judge the motives of their supervisors as a desire to disempower them. What if it had been a male supervisor making those comments?


  3. I found the article very interesting.

    While doing my Masters I did not receive the same treatment, my experience is on the opposite side of the spectrum. At times I am not sure if I was pressured to speak or to present just because I am a black female. At times it did feel as if I was given special treatment just because of my ‘status’. I am not sure if this is informed by my own insecurities. At some point I wanted to drop out and there was a huge fuss about it, the head of department was called and I was begged. I somehow think having a black female post graduate does wonders for funding.

    I am not sure if this kind of tokenism is worse than being disregarded as a female.

    As at times felt as if my gender and race overshadowed my actual achievements.


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