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From the admin chair

Speaking out on the inequities in academia

In order to disrupt ongoing gendered discrimination, it is critical that we expose it. This is not always easy.

BY SHEILA COTE-MEEK | AUG 27 2020

“You really aren’t university material and shouldn’t think about going,” said one of my high school teachers to me. [Me: feeling like I wanted to slide down in my desk and disappear.]

“You, you shouldn’t even be here at this meeting, you’ve nothing to contribute,” said a senior professor to me at a meeting. I was pre-tenure. [Me: feeling like an imposter.]

A group of people are talking at an important meeting. I raise my hand to ask a question – ignored. I interject and ask the question again. Ignored. [Me: feeling invisible.]

These are just a small sample of some of my personal experiences. If they were one-offs, you could likely shrug them off as benign. However, these messages are often perpetuated within the system more often than not. I have heard numerous stories shared with me about women’s challenging experiences in the academy.

The latest edited book that I’m involved with, Critical Reflections and Politics on Advancing Women in the Academy, documents narratives from a broad sector of women in the academy. The book sets the context for women’s struggles in academia by highlighting the various barriers and challenges they’ve faced, but what I really find amazing is the sheer strength, courage and resilience of women. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I sometimes wonder how I’ve managed to be here. In my experience as an Indigenous woman, it isn’t even about breaking the glass ceiling, it’s about what Sara Ahmed describes in her 2012 book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, as “banging your head against a brick wall.” That’s how difficult it is to break down the norms of institutions.

The messages we have been told as women are not only challenging to navigate but they can also have lasting effects on our careers as well as our emotional well-being. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, which points to the different ways that race, class, gender and other identities intersect with one another. The intersecting layers of multiple identities further impact how people are viewed and treated in society and in the academy.

For example, women who are also Indigenous, racialized, live with a disability or are LGBTQ2S experience the world differently. It is important to understand, for example, that an Indigenous woman’s experience is different than that of a woman living with a disability. In terms of addressing inequities, we still have a way to go to close the gender gap in academia. Women should be represented in all areas of the academy. Indigenous women, racialized women, women living with a disability and LGBTQ2S individuals must also be represented in all areas of the academy.

In order to disrupt ongoing gendered discrimination, it is critical that we expose it. This is not always easy. Writing back and talking back to systems, while needed, also takes a lot of courage. However, this is an important step in beginning the process of challenging systems to bring about change.

This is what motivates me to write and speak out about issues relating to inequities in higher education. I leave you with a few strategies to challenge systemic inequities as it relates specifically to gender:

1. There has to be an acknowledgement that oppression and discrimination exist. It is extremely difficult to mobilize if there is no acknowledgement of a problem.

2. Develop strategies to resist further practices that contribute to disempowering women. Be an ally, advocate and a source of support.

3. As women in the academy it is important to surround yourself with people who care and are willing to do the work of change.

4. When given an opportunity to write and amplify women’s voices, take it! Use your experiences to lift up other women including the next generation.

5. Remember intersectionality matters. Amplify the voices of women who experience multiple layers of oppression.

In closing, I have been honoured to write for this column and to share my experiences. I want to thank University Affairs for offering me this opportunity. It is now time for me to hand it over to someone else. Miigwech, merci and thank you!

ABOUT SHEILA COTE-MEEK
Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is vice-president, equity, people and culture, at York University. Her column appears in every second issue.
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