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Academic excellence is not a purely male prerogative

By Karabee Batta, December 4 2020—

When I read the news of Andrea Ghez winning the Nobel prize for physics this year, I was very happy to see her name among the other male recipients, and even happier when the laureates for the Nobel prize in Chemistry were announced: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. Two women making a breakthrough in their field without any male contribution. 

But this also got me thinking, why is it that even now, in 2020, the fact that a woman achieved something without a “man’s support” is celebrated more than what her achievement actually entails. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be happier for what these amazing women have accomplished  but I find it problematic to label and judge their work on the presence — or absence — of male contribution.

This is not without any reason. Academia, like most professions, has been systematically biased towards womenfolk. Right from the wage gap to the laborious and unjustified journey to prove their worth to men, academia isn’t a forgiving place. The higher up the ladder you are, the more pressing this is. And it’s not just true for the scholastic bailiwick.

The societal structure has been patriarchal for as long as society has existed in most places. While the macho man was expected to go out and be the breadwinner and the protector, women were expected to take up gentler roles like taking care of the family and staying at home. There is nothing wrong with any of these but the problem came when women attempted to break out of the four walls and venture out into the world. Work like taking care of a household was not considered intellectually challenging, hence most women were not expected to study a lot of maths, sciences or humanities. Rather they were sent to finishing schools where they were trained for entry into high society with the primary goal of finding a husband.

Still, there were a few women who managed to put some cracks in the glass ceiling. Marie Curie’s double Nobel prize and all her phenomenal achievements were like a tight slap to the faces of all the men who had deemed her unfit to join university simply on the basis of her sex. The male gender has been (wrongly) attributed to being the smarter one since ages and that’s primarily because there were abysmally minimal opportunities for women to venture into anything that the society deemed unladylike. Ironically, multiple studies have suggested that women outperform men academically more often than the opposite.  In ye olde times, it was not entirely unheard of for a woman to don the guise of a man to get into an educational institution that didn’t allow female students, or for female writers to publish their work under male or more gender neutral pen names to prevent gender stereotypes from clouding their work.

Curie was the first woman to win a first Nobel prize in Physics, in 1903. She won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in 1911. She was the first person, and the only woman to this date to win two Nobel Prizes. More than 100 years later, only 59 women have been felicitated with the award as compared to the 866 men. Even the Nobel committee is dominated by men.

When Donna Strickland won her Nobel prize for physics in 2018, she didn’t have a Wikipedia page. A submission for the same was rejected on the grounds that her research wasn’t “significant” enough to entail a Wikipedia entry. While Gerard Mourou, who shared the Nobel prize with her had had an entry since 2005.

This pattern isn’t an anomaly when it comes to rewarding women’s work in academia, it’s unfortunately, a norm. The cognoscenti have never been kind to women, and it hasn’t been deemed to be much of an issue until the very recent times.

The increasing disparity and discrimination aren’t only negatively harming the esteem of current female academicians and all the young girls who look up to their remarkable albeit limited role models, but also subconsciously making us women feel we fundamentally lack something to thrive in the field. This unjustified sense of inferiority also leads to researchers citing works by male peers more frequently even though similar work by their female peers might be more relevant. Women are often put under much tighter scrutiny than men when being considered for a job in academia because sooner or later, they are expected to leave, and prioritise and fulfil their domiciliary duties.

A man would never be expected to leave his job after the birth of his child. Something like this wouldn’t even be the first thought for most people.

Most female academics at some point or the other have been told to  “study twice as hard as men” and “publish more papers” to achieve the same professional status as a male peer. It is sickening how their worth as a woman researcher mainly orbits around them not being a male researcher. On top of that, unsafe work environments and fear of being emotionally or physically harassed at their workplace often discourage many women to continue their work. When the #MeToo movement finally reached academia, it was a testament to just that.

A recent study showed that during the period of home quarantine, significantly fewer papers were published by female academicians because an increased time at home meant they were expected to invest more time in household chores and taking care of their children.

This constant rigmarole of having to justify your worth at every step in their career causes a lot of women to experience burnouts at earlier stages and drop their scholastic pursuits. Another repercussion of this is an increasing number of women suffering from impostor syndrome. Constant doubt and criticism of a woman’s contribution to her field no doubt leads to her low self-esteem and increased reticence to put forth new ideas and realize them. It puts added and often uncalled for pressure on them to be perfectionists and gives them a lower tolerance for their own mistakes. We don’t need that. The patriarchy has made sure that we have ample self-doubt for a lifetime.

But while I write on and on about when academia has done women wrong, it would be unfair on my part to not recognise the marvellous women who have managed to shatter the glass ceiling and how. Right from Hypatia, one of the world’s first female polymaths, to Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, to Jane Goodall to Esther Dufflo to Priya Natarajan, the XX chromosome has carried genius all along. And these are just the famous ones. So many more have gone unnoticed. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen anymore. Let’s raise our glasses (and pens) to these all mighty women of academia, and to all those who follow lead. This is not just me making a case for women in academia, it’s a pertinent burning issue for women in all professional domains that needs an urgent remedy.

Talent has no gender or sex and thus should be acknowledged for exactly what it is. Pure, uninhibited potential to change the world. Academic excellence is not a male prerogative and it is high time we make our peace with that.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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