academy · equity · faster feminism

Microaggressions and what your university’s home page says about gender and research

This is the page I see when I open a new browser window. It’s the University of Waterloo home page. I open a lot of browser windows, owing to I fart around on the Internet for a living, so I see this page somewhere between 10 and 50 times a day. One of the cool features of the UW home page is that right up at the top, above the fold, there’s a slide-show of profiled researchers. You can click on their pictures or the brief description of their work in order to see a full length profile. I like this, in principle: it’s a great way to showcase, every week, different aspects of the research life of the university, or, less often, some aspect of student life or teaching.

The problem is, since the beginning of September, the stories have all featured men. Oh, and one featured a spiffy new building, that’s mostly filled with male researchers.

Open browser: smiling dude working in nanotechnology.

Open browser: smiling dude working in nanotechnology.

Open browser: back of some dude, talking about quantum computing.

Open browser: extremely expensive room in extremely expensive building, for quantum nano.

Open browser: smiling Twitter founder (dude), coming for a lecture on being an entrepreneur.

Browser after browser after browser, for a couple of weeks, and I was starting to simmer a low grade annoyance on the back burner of my consciousness. Yesterday, I figured it out: I was feeling excluded, as a woman and as a humanities researcher. I was feeling like the university was trying to represent a normative research agenda and researcher, and it was engineering focused, and male. It felt like a personal insult.

It was a microagression. Just a tiny, little inconsequential thing, that over time, and repeated exposure, turned into, well, feelings of unbelonging and stress. Microaggression: it’s the nanotechnology of exclusions.

I wrote to the head of Communications and Public Affairs (because it’s the PR people who get to decide what the university is all about, and how to pitch it to the world, which is another post, probably) and mentioned both that I love the stories, individually, but that I’d noticed what I’d noticed and I thought it should be fixed.

She wrote back to say that feedback is always welcome and my input will eventually be considered.

Um, no.

I think this is important, actually. You know, I featured in one of those stories last year, in the same week as two other female researchers. Some of my other female colleagues–including some humanists and social scientists, have been profiled, too. I don’t think CPA is being deliberately sexist and exclusive. I just don’t think the balance of fields, disciplines, and genders is something they’re explicitly planning for. They should. Because when you leave it to chance, sometimes September is all men and all engineering all the time. Sometimes, when you don’t make a conscious effort at fostering and celebrating diversity (of fields, of scholars, or even of the balance between the research and teaching and service mandates of the university) you replicate the easy inequities of the culture at large. And that feels icky, to at least one female member of this institution.

16 thoughts on “Microaggressions and what your university’s home page says about gender and research

  1. I experienced some small facet of this daily at UW, although I always considered it part of the culture: an overbearing, unavoidable engineering-centrism. Even as a high school student applying for universities, I had the impression that “that's what I'm in for” at UW.

    As a male, (hackishly) interdisciplinary but undeniably tech-focused, humanities student & researcher, I felt generally and inherently peripheral, as far as the university's priorities went.

    I think it will always be hard to get UW to publicly acknowledge the humanities work that goes on there, but that's about the extent to which I can speak on this. Microaggression seems the right word for it.


  2. Hi Mark — yes, you're an engineering-ish kind of humanities student! Who's also a dude! Which means that the message is pretty targeted indeed if you too feel on the outside of the in-crowd, such as it is. Thank you for confirming it's not just lady-literature-scholars who note the exclusive qualities of this kind of representation, field-wise at least.


  3. This is why I am interested in getting into the PR division of the university, to try and get some balance/diversity into the machine that promotes the university. Also, get some humanities voices in there. I think this is one of the instances where HUMANITIES MATTER insofar as we are trained to see these things and understand their impact. Now, if I could just get a job in this area…

    Lee aka @readywriting


  4. This is an ongoing problem with uWaterloo which seems to consistently ignore the humanities in its promotions and even in its development. The male-centric atmosphere is also very, very dangerous as I remember growing up in this town and the super-misogynistic Frosh Week activities which every year were dismissed as “boys will be boys.”


  5. I don't always think the grass is greener on the other side, but:

    – Substitute oceans for computing and you've got Dal's public image pegged;

    – Coming to a liberal arts university [Bucknell]? You wouldn't believe it. They have dancers and historians and literature abroad programs (scientists, too, but — dancers and historians!)

    The PR campaigns are so slick as to be easily dismissed as son et lumiere, but they really do tell you everything you need to know about a place's priorities and power structure.


  6. What's worse is those images of important male researchers are contrasted by the pics below them: female high school student, female graduate student, female college graduate. What does that say about who makes knowledge and who receives it?


  7. This is a great post…and I have the same problem. Thankfully, my institution has a child studies researcher as the banner today, so I'm seeing a woman for the first time in ages. But humanists? Naw, that would be too much to hope for, even when the publicity machine acknowledges us.


  8. Update! I just counted the full archive of home page stories: 96 about men. 28 about women. That's a 3:! ratio.

    Also, depressingly, Waterloo scores at the ABSOLUTE bottom for ratio of women faculty in the U15. We're at 25% and holding, and the next worst school has more than 30% and the best is at just under 40%.

    So is the problem that the stories are so heavily gender-skewed, or is the problem that the institution itself does not seem to be either willing or able or fully committed to recruiting and retaining female researchers?


  9. It's both, of course. One thing that gives me some optimism is that the number of faculty members who are not *willing* to make this commitment to recruiting and retaining women researchers is declining—when someone suggests that headway on recruiting faculty from underrepresented groups will require implementing some new and better hiring practices, you nowadays get more nods than frowns. And Waterloo's strategic plan now has equity concerns listed as a goal. Imagine.

    But my optimism about such things shrivels a bit when I see things that undermine our ability to decide what to commit to. The University Senate recently endorsed a version of that strategic plan. But *after* that endorsement, the Board of Governors changed it, inserting the idea that incremental research resources are going to go to three priority areas (quantum science, water research, and aging), making the document into something even less palatable to many faculty around here (and something that would have received a much rougher ride at Senate). So sometimes what gets declared really important is decided by outsiders who wind up on the BOG for reasons quite other than their understanding of what makes a good university. But anyway, while it's now clear that your research areas and mine are not priorities, and the BOG certainly didn't insist that equity become a higher priority in spite of the good it would do for the institution long term, at least they didn't take the references to equity out of the plan.

    As you can see, my optimism comes in waves. 🙂


  10. But the good news story about Dal is that IT IS THE INSTITUTION with the nearly 40% female faculty complement. Huzzah!

    Also, yay Bucknell. One of our grads just got hired there in an alt-ac capacity that's really exciting …


  11. “is the problem that the stories are so heavily gender-skewed, or is the problem that the institution itself does not seem to be either willing or able or fully committed to recruiting and retaining female researchers?”

    My take is, it's both, as ddvd said above… representation is reflexive. Some of my research has been about university PR and they tend to leave very little to chance. Brand-building and overall official “messaging” is (supposedly) tied to the strategic plan because it reflects a message the university wants to send about itself, which in turn affects who's “recruited” to be a student or faculty member there. All this is fairly heavily policed (at many universities, anyway). So for example if Waterloo is promoting a kind of tech-focussed, research-excellence image (which I think it is) and the tech fields are dominated by men (which they are) then this kind of representation seems like no coincidence, and the same goes for the low proportion of female faculty overall.


  12. Terre, that video is amazing … and it's a spoof of a spoof (Bodyform ad) and it's clever and fun and it's everything the home page is not.

    I just don't know what I think about the video about ladies is addressed to a man.


  13. Microaggression — this is the perfect term that has really helped me understand a period where my university covered our local community in billboards showcasing the relationships students should expect with their profs, in a “meeting of great minds” trope. Every single academic was male. Every academic featured on the accompanying promo video was male:

    Thank you for retweeting this, whoever did, and giving me this chance to put a name to the sense of wordless fury so many of us felt at the time.


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