Less power does not mean we are powerless: Facing gender inequities with kindness and solidarity
Updated: Mar 22
Kathleen Bortolin, PhD
Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Specialist, Vancouver Island University
I had a baby a few years ago. And when I did, I took advantage of every maternity benefit my university offered me: a one-year leave, an optional unpaid leave after that, a pile of accrued vacation after that, and then an optional 6-month part-time leave when I finally returned. These benefits enabled me to spend time with my new baby and the rest of my family without worrying about money or whether or not I’d have a job when I returned. I think about this when I remember my own mother giving up her Masters degree to raise kids. We’ve come a long way, baby. But baby, we have a long way to go. Despite the gains, many academic women still feel that we are in a net loss situation when it comes to gender equity.
It took me longer than most to discover the double-standard that exists for women in higher education. I still remember tilting my head at the hard-core feminists in my grad classes, wanting to ask, What’s the big deal, ladies? It’s not so bad, is it? And the mat leave benefits, amirite?
A late-in-life awakening to gender inequity in the workplace has robbed me of developing solid strategies to use in the face of trouble. But awakening, I am—to the still-precarious, at times unsafe reality of being a woman working in higher education. And my awakening is not wholly based on being roughed up a bit by a system whose traditions have been built on privileging men over women. The awakening is based as well on the stories I’ve heard, often in the safe spaces created through my educational development work where teaching and learning is enmeshed in labour, equity, politics and pain. It appears that despite gains like maternity benefits and a (slow) increase in women in leadership positions, lack of equity continues to create barriers that negatively affect women in higher education (Allen et. al, 2021; Eslen-Ziya & Yildirim, 2021). We are these women.
Inequity showing up
How we react to experiencing or observing inequity varies. At times, it’s a simple eye roll when male colleagues are celebrated and promoted for putting their shoes on the right feet, while female colleagues go unnoticed, invisible despite their accomplishments and service, prey to long-held biases against them (Cundiff, Danube, Zawadzki & Shields, 2018). It’s a deep sigh when we notice who takes up the most airtime in meetings, and a resigned shoulder shrug when we quietly observe whose ideas are most valued, and whose are consistently passed over, or repackaged under someone else’s banner.
But the reaction becomes more embodied, a visceral sort of melting inwardly, when we see remarkable, hard-working and worthy female colleagues passed over for promotion, tenure or opportunities (Elsen-Ziya & Yildirim, 2021; Timmons, 2016; O’Hagan et al., 2019). We sink a little deeper when we watch how these women handle it with class. But then hustle even harder for the next opportunity. Who among us hasn’t wondered what would happen if only we just worked a little bit harder, stayed a little bit later, said yes a few more times? Our institutions reap the benefits of unseeing many of our most engaged colleagues.
Worse still is the fear, the stab of insecurity, when we discover male colleagues showing up with a clumsy (or not so clumsy) lack of integrity or professionalism, but who are never really held accountable. Their actions can be normalized, swept under the rug, and at times defended, like we saw in recent events at Harvard University (Cho & Kim, 2022). In these situations, aggressors appear invincible, protected by what Hurren (2018) refers to as “secret codes" and power dynamics. All the more painful when we simultaneously call to mind female colleagues who are side-lined, silenced and shamed, at times aggressively, for far less egregious offences. Beaten down when they are transgressing “prescriptive norms by enacting agency, even if it is to succeed in a traditionally masculine domain” (Ruddman & Phelan, 2008; Caldini & Trost, 1998). There is a palpable double standard, and we feel it.
Showing up inequity
Our lived experiences in the gyres of gender inequity are a common reminder of our lesser place. But for many women these disadvantages are subtle enough to be tolerated. We trade it all in for a paycheck, a pension, or a mat leave. In this way, we swap a bit of our dignity and psychological safety to be more financially secure and to have time for our children, a choice some of our mothers didn't have.
But even though we have less power, we are not powerless. And for many of us our side-gig is figuring out how to use what power we have, not only to protect ourselves but to reshape our spaces and support our colleagues, especially our most vulnerable ones.
Our power is the ability to show up for the women in our spaces, with integrity, support and empathy. We have the power to see ourselves and our colleagues when we are invisible in the eyes of a system that can thrive on inequity. We must persevere to celebrate and value female colleagues, at all times, but especially when they are silenced and tossed aside. When the narrative is that they are simultaneously “less than” and “too much.” These powerful narratives can get into all of our heads and influence our actions, consciously or unconsciously, often reifying structures and systems that alienate victims further, and protect their aggressors. We must counter these narratives.
I’m not saying that we are going to change the system by being kind, by seeing and celebrating, by listening and collectively rolling our eyes. But we can help one another feel slightly less alone for a little while. And there is power in this. Consider who has stood with you, and how that has made you feel in your most difficult times. As well, we can share our own stories so others know that this privileging, that can feel oppressive and nonsensical, is systemic and historic rather than personal. We can be in someone’s corner when the actions of others have made them feel alone, alienated, vulnerable, and scared. We can endeavour to protect colleagues when they show up at work from a place of fear, exhausted from the act of trying to protect themselves. We must continue to design safe spaces, and invite our colleagues into those spaces, to tell their stories and to give them a voice.
The university is a system that does not always feel safe, for faculty, staff and students alike, and many are silenced and disabled by this lack of safety. We have to continue to find solutions to make universities safer and gentler. If not, I fear that we will see even more remarkable women leaving academia, developing mental health issues, and giving up on themselves and this work. We all need to consider what power we do have, and we need to use it.
Showing up with your power
I challenge you to walk through your days, your departments, your classrooms, reflecting not necessarily on the power you don’t have, but on the power you do have. Where is your power? And in what ways can you use that power to empower and protect others? Who can you show up for today? And how will you do it? Who needs your help the most?
I also call on women in leadership, the same women cited by institutions and individuals when they rave about how far we’ve come, to find ways to sponsor and support vulnerable women below. When powerful women rally behind women who are struggling, it can be an effective deterrent to brazen inequities and the people who enable them.
We may have less power. But we are not powerless. I encourage you to find your power, focus on it, and find ways to use it to reshape our spaces and to heal us all a little bit more. Kindness is a power we all have; let it be your power, your act of solidarity. Let kindness be your middle finger in the face of inequity.
Allen, K., Butler-Henderson, K., Reupert, A., Longmuir, F., Finefter-Rosenbluh, I., Berger, E., Grove, C., Heffernan, A., Freeman, N., Kewalramani, S., Krebs, S., Dsouza, L., Mackie, G., Chapman, D., & Fleer, M. (2021). Work like a girl: Redressing gender inequity in academia through systemic solutions. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 18(3). https://doi.org/10.53761/188.8.131.52
Cho, I.B. & Kim, A.H. (2022, February 4). 38 Harvard Faculty Sign Open Letter Questioning Results of Misconduct Investigations into Prof. John Comaroff. Harvard Crimson. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/2/4/comaroff-sanctions-open-letter/
Cialdini, R.B., & Trost, M.R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D.T. Gilbert, S.T. Fiske, G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp 151-192). McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.
Cundiff, J.L., Danube, C.L., Zawadzki, M.J. & Shields, S.A. (2018). Testing an intervention for recognizing and reporting subtle gender bias in promotion and tenure decisions. The Journal of Higher Education, 89(5), 611-636. DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2018.1437665
Eslen-Ziya, H., & Yildirim, T. M. (2021). Perceptions of gendered-challenges in academia: How women academics see gender hierarchies as barriers to achievement. Gender, Work & Organization, 29(1), 301-308. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12744
Hurren, W. (2018, July 10). Breaking the code of silence on sexual harassment within the faculty. University Affairs. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/breaking-the-code-of-silence-on-sexual-harassment-within-the-faculty/
O’ Hagan, C., O’Connor, P., Myers, E.S., Baisner, L., Apostolov, G., Topuzova, I., Saglamer, S., Tan, M. G. & Çağlayan, H. (2019). Perpetuating academic capitalism and maintaining gender orders through career practices in STEM in universities. Critical Studies in Education, 60(2), 205—225. DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1238403
Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2008). Backlash effects for disconfirming gender stereotypes in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 28, 61–79. doi:10.1016/j.riob.2008.04.003
Timmons, V. (2016, September-October). Closing the Gender Gap at Canadian Universities. Policy Magazine. http://www.policymagazine.ca/pdf/21/PolicyMagazineSeptemberOctober-2016-Timmons.pdf