Researchers launch platform against academic sexism


Flemish researchers and non-profits have established several online platforms to expose sexism in the academic world

Figures back up testimonies

The government of Flanders instructed universities last year to take action against existing gender inequalities in their institutions. And there’s still a lot of work to be done, if the stories on Sassy are any indication. This new online platform offers researchers and professors a space to share their experiences with sexism in the academic world.

The Sassy platform (Sharing Academic Sexism Stories with You) was launched on International Women’s Day earlier this month. The site, in four languages, was founded by an independent group of volunteers from Belgian academic institutions and NGOs who wanted to provide an online space for stories that are otherwise only shared in private conversations.

Contributors can choose whether they want to mention their name in their post, but the names of perpetrators are always omitted to avoid libel issues. The international website of the Everyday Sexism Project served as on one of the inspirations for the Sassy platform.

Some of the testimonies document explicit forms of sexual intimidation, while others are very subtle, with vaguely disapproving remarks about, say, pregnancies of researchers.

“Implicit bias is a huge problem,” says co-founder and spokesperson Anya Topolski (pictured), who works at the Centre for Ethical, Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven). Implicit bias comes in many forms, from assumptions that women no longer have career ambitions after becoming mothers or that they’ll clean up after a meeting.

Moving from Montreal to Leuven in 2002, Topolski says she experienced a huge culture shock. “I was almost the only female researcher at my department and on many occasions felt restrained,” she says. She mentions that a colleague persistently treated her unequally. “There were several small incidents, like not involving me in decision-making or leaving my name off of publications,” she says.

Determined to make a difference

About five years ago, Topolski left KU Leuven for the Netherlands, where she says the work environment was more open-minded. When she returned to Leuven about two years ago, she was determined to make a difference via initiatives like the group Woman & University at KU Leuven and the Facebook page Vrouwelijk talent aan unief niet verspillen (Don’t Waste Female Talent at University).

By not providing women the same opportunities, Belgian universities are losing a lot of talent

- Sassy co-founder Anya Topolski

The figures back up Topolski’s feeling that the Flemish academic world is lacking in gender equality. According to news website, the European Commission found in 2012 that only 12,2% percent of the professors in Belgium are women, while the European average is nearly 20%. Only two countries show worse statistics. This is particularly notable as KU Leuven produces more female graduates (58%) than male.

“This phenomenon is often explained by the more difficult work-life balance for women, but there is much more to it,” states Topolski. “By not providing women the same opportunities as men, Belgian universities are losing a lot of talent.”

To stop this brain drain, Flemish innovation minister Ingrid Lieten and education minister Pascal Smet last year ordered all Flemish universities to create a gender action plan. The government also enforced a quota – a minimum of one-third of the members of the boards of directors at universities have to be women.

 “These are steps in the right direction, but there should be more focus on awareness campaigns, education and research,” comments Topolski. “Because women can also have implicit bias, increasing the number of women in charge is not enough to change the whole culture.”

Another measure that could help is the foundation of the Master’s degree in Gender and Diversity, a one-year programme at all five Flemish universities. The Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Organisation approved its start for the next academic year, but the Flemish government still has to take a final decision.

“Again, this is important progress,” says Topolski, “but there should also be, for example, Bachelor’s degrees, to give this research field the attention it deserves.”