Book Review (ish) Sexism Ed by Kelly Baker

Book Cover Sexism Ed by Kelly Baker

I can’t quite call this a book review, because I ended up having additional thoughts.

I went into this book of essays with hope and a fair number of reservations. What kind of hope I was looking for, I’m not sure. That perhaps we’re starting to make progress? My reservations, however, felt exhaustingly confirmed.

Baker presents a compilation of essays written over the past four years, addressing aspects of academic faculty sexism. Topics include the challenges of interviews and teaching when colleagues and students focus on your appearance, your child, and your spouse, and your voice as opposed to your research or pedagogy. Baker highlights the research on assault during fieldwork, done by a colleague here at my institution. These blog-post sized essays are quick to read through and circle around familiar themes that will come as little surprise, though they may renew or reinforce frustration.

I bought this book the day it came out because I want to see books like it succeed. I think we need books and writers that address this chronic ailment in the academy. But I was also curious to see if she addressed the vast amount of supportive labor done by academic staff and specifically whether or not she addressed librarians and how as a majority female profession we are treated (frequently as a doormats or as checkbooks who also are supposed to turn students into critical researchers in 50 minutes).

Here Baker disappoints. She mentions librarians once, citing the ALA Code of Conduct and Andromeda Yelton’s excellent article about why we need it. It was nice to see that nod, but our banishment beyond that to the shadows was frustrating. And while she writes eloquently about the relegation of women to contingency faculty positions, her focus solely on faculty misses broader sexism that plays out across how staff are treated. As many academic librarians are in staff positions, but still frequently led by men in director or Dean positions, this made the collection feel unfortunately shallow.

Two particular essays did speak to me: one on the motherhood-penalization and one on men “performing” ally work while not actually being allies.

The former raised familiar concerns about why several friends, expert and accomplished researchers in a variety of disciplines, have struggled to get academic interviews. They still face assumption that they will leave for motherhood, for their spouse, that they don’t care as much, that they’ll demand a spousal hire.* Despite CVs that rival or exceed their male peers, they are often not considered for positions beyond adjuncts. Several of them have seen all of this and, despite wanting very much to be educators and academic researchers, have looked elsewhere to find stable employment.

The latter topic is a harder one and addressed here only from the binary gender aspect but was, as always, infuriating. Baker talks about men expecting and getting cookies and kudos for pronouncing how they are amazing allies and are here to show women how ally-ship to other women is done right. Over the past decade, I’ve seen this often in librarianship: men so busy promoting their own names and brands that they never actually assist the women they claim to be raising up. Men whose top-of-the-hierarchy-status is continually reinforced as they escalate into leadership/management positions based on the oft-unfounded expectation that they will be capable and the assertion that they are brilliant [a word Baker points out is almost never applied to women].  It’s hard to call out this behavior — if one does, the response is that it is just sour grapes or jealousy that you didn’t get that position, grant, paid keynote, or invited columnist position. Meanwhile the women doing the interesting work and moving the field forward are smacked down with tall poppy syndrome, given fourth authorship, invited to do more behind the scenes service work, and told to stay in their place.

As I read through the essays I found myself increasingly numb. While individually and with topical context, the essays felt as though they would be impactful additions to a syllabus or as a targeted reading, as a full book it became draining and simply seemed to reinforce that this won’t get better. I also struggled to understand who the audience was for the full text.  I can’t imagine that the various upper administrators or tenured male faculty around me will sit down and read it, less that they might act upon it. The narrative of frustration carried through, but without any sense of actual opportunities to address the issues at an individual, departmental, institutional or disciplinary level.

It is difficult to articulate what I had hoped for by the end of the book: perhaps a larger call to action than what I might see in a series of individual blog-post style essays; perhaps a more ambitious closing essay. Whatever it was, at the end of the text I was just irritated.

Overall, an unsatisfying read.

 

*This one always amuses me as I see male Deans, Provosts, Chancellors, and Presidents regularly require spousal positions in the academy and that’s “how we recruit the best” where best apparently only = men. Why wouldn’t you expect your candidates to potential inquire for help connecting their family with jobs when you’re asking them to completely relocate?