Gender and scholarship (again)

As the School of Divinity’s Equality and Diversity officer, and the person responsible for implementing our gender equality action plan (as part of the Athena SWAN process) I find myself reflecting on the ongoing problems of gender stereotyping, under-representation of women, and harrassment in academia rather more often than I would like. This week several things are on my mind:

Why is it that female scholars are still not getting equal air-time to male colleagues, even now that the gender balance on the academic staff is getting ever better overall (though not necessarily in all fields)? This week the School hosted a conference on power, authority and canon (in Jewish and Christian traditions), which was by all accounts excellent, but had not a single woman in the line-up. My colleague Hannah Holtschneider has reflected on this on her blog. It reminded me of a conference on Early Mahāyāna that I was involved in hosting in Cardiff some years back. Through accident more than design, I trust, I was the only woman with a key role – all the speakers were male (and very good speakers they were too) – and my role involved a lot of running around sorting out catering. While I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, I did wonder what sort of a message we were sending the next generation of female scholars.

Another reason this is on my mind is a story in the Guardian that a former Oxford University postgraduate student is suing the University, claiming that they fail to properly investigate claims of rape and sexual harrassment, and that they are thereby creating an environment that is hostile to women. My own experiences of Oxford’s harrassment complaints procedures were also rather disappointing, though I took no further action other than to finish my PhD as fast as I possibly could so that I could move away and work somewhere with a more supportive attitude towards women. I’ll be delighted if Elizabeth Ramey’s claim results in changes to University policy, though the old light-bulb joke springs to mind:

Q: How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Change? What’s that?

And yet another other reason I am thinking about gender and scholarship again, is that I have been marking essays, and have come across several students using female pronouns to refer to Mahinda Deegalle, the Buddhist monk and scholar who has written extensively on the Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka. I am trying to work out why the students have assumed he is a she, and the best idea I have come up with is that he is advocating an understanding of Theravāda Buddhism as pacifist and non-violent. Is this an idea still associated with women? Or does Mahinda just rhyme with Belinda and lead students astray that way?!

Of course gender imbalance, stereotyping and harrassment are problems outside the academic context too. I am impatient to see how many women will be involved in the inner workings of the next government. Is it time for a female leader of the Labour party? They could take a leaf out of the SNP’s book – whatever else people might think of the SNP it is clear that Nicola Sturgeon is a real inspiration to women!

I take comfort from the fact that things seem to be getting better, but we obviously still have a way to go.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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