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International Women’s Day and the distance not yet travelled

Photo of a woman doing scholarly work by Keila MacPherson.
Photo of a woman doing scholarly work by Keila MacPherson.

As a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario, I regularly conduct research related to my interests and areas of study. For a graduate research seminar, part of my research project takes a close look at the role of women in leadership, specifically the women leaders we find in academia.

This is an obvious topic of interest to me, as both a woman and a young scholar orienting her way through the jungle that is the academy. However, in exploring the topic of women scholars and their experiences as leaders in these institutions, the breadth of knowledge on the topic is (not so) surprisingly scarce.

I sit in front of my computer screen wondering why this is. Surely there are women in positions of power in the academy. One has to look no further than online media to find an excess of initiatives related to equity in the academy, equity in the workforce, and equity in the home. So why is it that there is a vast and undeniable void of research conducted on women in positions of academic leadership?

In response to my inability to find any salient information on women leaders in the academy, I do what any good researcher would do: I ask my supervisor and mentor for tips on where to find this information.

This lovely woman points me in the direction of a slightly dated research project undertaken in the early ‘90s, entitled “The Chilly Climate for Women in Colleges and Universities.” The report contains within it several accounts of women explaining the pain they have felt by being excluded and undermined in the work environment. This report, and sentiment, is echoed in the few articles I have been able to discover on my topic: that the environment for women in the academy is a chilly one, in which the glass ceiling is still a very real and persistent obstacle.

The information available regarding women leaders in college and universities, at least in my limited findings, tends to take the form of discourse analysis. That is, women provide narrative accounts of their lives, their experiences, and the way that they feel about their positions, and the author (or coauthors) analyze the information that they collect.

In light of my shortage of findings, I wonder if the problem lies with the lack of women willing to come forward and provide their testimonies; or, if the act of narrating and discussing personal experiences is deemed invalid in an academic setting. Or perhaps it is simply an unsafe or unwise decision for the women leader, in such a precarious situation, to make waves.

But where would we be, as women in the 21st Century, without a little turbulence? On the brink of International Women’s Day it is important that we recognize not only where we are as a movement, but also where we have come from.

In the past, the women’s rights movement has been accused of being a particular kind of middle-class white woman’s feminism, excluding women of colour and transwomen in their calculations. This suggestion, most definitely accurate in the 1970s onwards, is still amazingly accurate today. The struggle for gender equality is a struggle for human equality; in alienating women based on their differences, we do exactly what has been done to women historically. A woman’s rights movement that fails to acknowledge all women is simply no woman’s rights movement at all.

It is important now, more than ever, that the movement for equality takes a good hard look at its initiative and direction moving forward. The Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver released a study called “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States” in October 2013, explaining that in 2012, women on average earned 81 cents on every dollar earned by men.

Further, women CEOs earned only 57% of the wage earned by male CEOs. The Colorado Women’s College President Dr. Lynn Gangone stated that “It’s a labor of love. This isn’t just numbers. It’s about a system that is unwelcoming to women and people of color” (“Women: over-performing, under-represented, underpaid.” 2014).

The statistics are clear and persistent: women make less than men for doing the same job, and they will continue to do so until there is a systemic upheaval. What chance do women have if they do not continue (or begin) to recognize, understand, and oppose the injustices that they are faced with daily? How can we make the changes that are necessary for educational, occupational, and personal equity?

How can we mobilize such changes? The solution is not as easy as identifying the problems. First of all, it is important that we get involved in women’s movement groups, political and otherwise. Secondly, take part in mentorship (either as the mentor or mentee) in your workplace or campus. I can attest to how helpful it has been as a mentee to receive personal and professional support from my mentors throughout my academic and professional journey.

Next, we must build alliances— don’t give fuel to the incredibly misconceived argument that feminism is a man-hating movement. The Women’s Rights Movement is a struggle for equality, not domination, as most feminists are tired of explaining. Finally, don’t be afraid to make waves. This last point is easier said than done, but to be powerful and autonomous women we must learn to be comfortable standing up for ourselves in the workplace. This element of comfortability can be aided by the support of a good mentor, as well as the support of other feminist groups that you may belong to.

The point I want to make is this: while International Women’s Day allows us to recognize the progress that we’ve made historically, it is crucial that we realize that there is still so much to be done.

Feminism is not dead, it is not a thing of the past, and it is not something we can forget or let others do for us. We must make an effort to get involved, to support one another, and work towards creating an all-inclusive movement that does not prioritize certain ideals over others. We have come a long way, and we still have so far to go. We can’t stop now.

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