The narrative of the “Bitchy Sisterhood”

Last month, the Guardian’s “Academics Anonymous” column talked about the “trouble with the sisterhood in academia”. The underlying narrative is a familiar one, I have heard it often: Women, according to it, complain about gender discrimination, but the shocking truth is women are mean to each other, which makes them their own worst enemy. I call this the “bitchy sisterhood narrative”. Sometimes – as in said column – it goes even further: Because women are so mean and judgy, you can’t even speak out about the problem, because who knows what would happen? “Luckily,” the anonymous author writes, “I’m currently on a flight, 12km above the ground, where I feel safe from the judgments that would confront me were I to exorcise this academic grievance at the coffee station.” This is a rather clever device, at the same time reinforcing the “bitchy sisterhood” image and elegantly pre-empting any critical response.

I’ll respond anyway. I think there are several problems with this sort of narrative, and I would like to address them.

A lot of the Guardian column speaks out about the particularly competitive environment that is academia and on how it doesn’t usually bring out the best in people. In this environment, it is hard for anybody to thrive, and bullies abound. This is a  valid point, and one that I am very concerned about. But I don’t think that women react to this differently (and, in particular, more aggressively) than men do. It has been shown in the past that the same kind of behaviour is evaluated differently depending on whether it is displayed by a man or a woman. For instance, women are perceived as talking more than they actually do and successful women are more likely to be described as “selfish” and “not likeable” than their male counterparts. This suggests that even if women in academia are not actually more nasty, selfish or competitive than men, they are likely to be perceived as being so.

Am I saying that there are no female bullies? Of course not. But I don’t have to say this. See, there is a misunderstanding held by many. It goes something like this: Only innocents can be victims. (Basically, the “Cinderella scheme”. It is familiar to us because it is the stuff of so many stories, not just for children.) If that is the case, then it follows that victims have to be innocent. Therefore, if we call out unjust behaviour, we are at the same time absolving the person at the receiving end of this behaviour of all moral flaws. This is of course not true. By saying that women are victims of biases, discriminations, or bullying, I am by no means saying that women can’t be bullies themselves. Of course they can. And, frankly, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has accepted that women are fully formed human beings, complete with flaws and complex characters. But a woman who is a bully should be called out for what she is (a bully), and not taken as a representative of all of womankind.

And more to the point, even if some women are bullies (even if most women were bullies), it does not make any of the other sh*t go away. All the other barriers to women in science are still there: There is still implicit bias and micro-discrimination that makes students rate their female professors and female colleagues as less competent,  and makes professors less likely to hire, mentor, or write stellar recommendation letters for female students. The societal expectations of gender roles still make women in academia (especially in STEM fields) suffer from stereotype threat and impostor syndrome. Attitudes and ideas about partnerships and parenthood mean women are more often following their partners and shouldering most caring responsibilities, and the structure of the academic workplace and career progression within it means that this can be a serious impediment to career advancement. There is  a wide-spread problem of campus sexual harassment, of which women are the primary targets. And in many cases the university sides with the perpetrators because they are, you know, tenured or famous or whatever. And of course there still is good old straight-out sexism against women in academia, as there is in other areas of life. Let me also point out the additional – more than additional – barriers and hostilities faced by women who belong to another minority at the same time: see, for instance, this report about women of colour in academia. (By the way, I have included a few links here, but of course, there is more to read. I have assembled some links on my Diversity in Academia Pinterest Board for those who are interested.)

You are right, maybe some women are bullies in addition to all that (or maybe actually in response to all that). But in general, I don’t think this is the main problem. In fact, in my own career, I have experienced a ton of support and encouragement from other women, both my peers and my superiors.

This is maybe not just personal anecdote, but might actually be a more common pattern. In a paper that’s just coming out, Kevin Bonham and I looked at authorship on publications in biology and computational biology. We found that papers with women PIs (last authors) also tended to have more women in other authorship positions. This suggests at least that there is a positive role for female mentors and leaders (although we cannot speculate on the mechanism).

What am I saying with all this? This is not meant to be a “not all women” kind of argument, but rather a moment of gratitude. I would not be where I am now without the support of an amazing group of kind and kickass women who have been there for me along all stages of the way and continue to be there for me. (Thank you, kind and kickass women! You know who you are. Or perhaps you don’t, but thank you anyway). I literally cannot imagine what my life and work would be like without them.

But maybe you can, Anonymous. I am not saying that my experience is universal. Maybe you have never experienced this kind of support from the academic sisterhood, but nothing but bullying and bitchiness. And maybe some of you who read this and who have read the original post feel the same way. And if that is the case, I am truly, deeply sorry for you. This is not how it’s supposed to be. So, let me reach out. When you get off your plane (or whatever it is you are doing at the moment), drop me a note. Let’s go for coffee, let’s have a chat. And let me introduce you to some awesome women.


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