Background - 20.10.2021 - 00:00 

“What you see, you can also be”

A discussion at the HSG reveals new perspectives on gender bias, discrimination and sexism in academia on the basis of the documentary “Picture a Scientist”. Experts and the audience talked about how universities can become a gender-neutral environment.

21 October 2021. On 19 October 2021, Research & Faculty, Equal Opportunities & Diversity, as well as the non-tenured faculty invited the public to a discussion about gender inequality in academic life. After a screening of the US-American documentary “Picture a Scientist”, Prof. Dr. Julia Nentwich, Prof. Dr. Thomas Zellweger, Vice-President for Research & Faculty, and Dr. Verena Witzig, expert in equal opportunities and diversity, discussed how the challenges of gender bias, discrimination and sexism can be actively fought.

Science implies that it is objective. If their performance is fine, every woman and every man can achieve everything. The fact that this is not the case and many women find that spokes are put in their wheels is impressively evidenced by the 2020 documentary “Picture a Scientist”. Owing to their gender, the three women scientists who are portrayed experience discrimination and abuse. “I only wanted to be a scientist. We were just trying to be scientists. We certainly didn’t want to be troublemakers,” says biology professor Nancy Hopkins in the film.

The higher the ivory tower, the whiter and more male it is

A study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that roughly one in two US women scientists has been harassed once in their careers. Sexual abuse and a working culture that is hostile to women are the reasons why many women abandon their academic careers. The dynamism between women students and their mentors is characterised by dependency and power. “My future was in his hands,” says Jane Willenbring, a geologist and professor at Stanford University. for Jane Willenbring, a research expedition to the Antarctic – alone with three men – developed into a nightmare: as a Master’s student, she fell victim to humiliating mobbing by her supervisor and head of the mission. She acquiesced because she was worried about her career. It was only 17 years later that the scientist lodged a complaint with the university.

The tip of the iceberg

Besides grave sexual harassment, coercion and insults, which constitute the tip of the iceberg, discrimination against women in academic life is usually systematic, often invisible and therefore difficult to define: women are ignored in meetings, subtly marginalised, or obscene remarks are made. “Picture a Scientist” impressively shows the extent to which even such seeming trifles demoralise women researchers. In the long term, such subtle discrimination can have the same effects as one single traumatic experience, explains a psychologist in the film.

Fictional figures as role models

As a woman of colour, Raychelle Burks, Professor of Chemistry and Science Communication, is discriminated against several times at once. “You try to adapt to the picture they have of you. But they don’t accept you even then. You get used to being underestimated. You get used to being invisible,” says Burks, visibly shaken. She had used fictional figures as role models since she had not seen any women of colour as academics anywhere. Burks emphasises how important representation and role models are for more diversity in academic life: “What you can see, you can also be.”

Just don’t make a scene

In the film, it is conspicuous that many women concerned do not even begin to defend themselves, try to accept the situation and put a brave face on it. “Anyone who makes a scene is pushed out of academic life,” it says in the film. Women do not want to be conspicuous and worry about consequences: their worries about their professional future or their fear of being pegged as a hysterical person or even a liar often silence women. The scientific data collected about discrimination against women has become so clear by now that women do not have to have recourse to personal experience. The time when one could say, “I don’t see it anywhere, so it doesn’t happen” is over. Nonetheless, it is still a challenge to address instances of discrimination and to fight them.

Establishing a discourse of outrage

In the ensuing panel discussion, Professor Julia Nentwich said: “We don’t have a discourse in which we can express our outrage.” In the film, Nancy Hopkins puts it like this: “If I complain, I’m the problem.” Dr. Verena Witzig discerned a combination of masculine culture and relationships of dependence in academic life. She emphasised that it was important for women affected by discrimination to seek help.

At the University of St.Gallen, women concerned can contact the Diversity & Inclusion Office. Besides, there are the Counselling and Psychological Services, and grave cases are the responsibility of the University’s Ombudsman’s Office. But how can the male colleagues be reached? Men must be allies if women are discriminated against. HSG Vice-President Thomas Zellweger emphasised that it was important to look for a discourse, for instance by conducting workshops, in order to disclose prejudices and present studies.

Gender bias often unconscious

The participants in the panel discussion agreed that discrimination also occurred at the HSG as in other universities. Gender bias was institutionalised. People with the best intentions tended to have such prejudices since many of them are unconscious. To conclude, Professor Julian Nentwich underlined how important it was for women affected by discrimination and abuse to talk to others and forge alliances. Or as it says in the film: to cultivate a culture of change instead of a culture of silence.

Text: Sabrina Rohner

Discover our special topics