Academia and Gender: The Hidden Inequalities

Nafisa Insan, PhD student, Newcastle University, Population Health Sciences Institute

As a public health student, gender studies for me involves researching gender inequalities in health. Life expectancy, disease and mortality rates are often at the forefront of gender data. Although important statistics, gender inequalities are in fact woven into every single aspect our lives which are often not represented in data. I recently read a book titled ‘Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men’[1]and this opened my eyes to the extent to which gender bias exists in everyday life. Let me give some examples which relate to the field of academia. Women are more likely to have career breaks due to motherhood meaning that their chronological (or biological) age is often higher than their academic age. One would hope this shouldn’t impact their opportunities, but many universities put age bars on fellowships meaning that women often lose out on these career progression prospects as they are simply too old. Further, with women carrying out most of the childcare, they don’t have as much time as men to work on their research or squeeze in extra reading. This sadly leads to many women dropping out of academia. The ones that do somehow manage to continue face another set of problems: getting published. In academia, success and career progression largely depends on getting published. This, in my opinion, is flawed in itself, however, we live in a world of material success but that’s a story for another day! Women are less likely to get published than men when articles are not double-blind reviewed. This means that when it is known or assumed that the author is a female, journals are less likely to accept it. There is of course a simple solution to this of ensuring all articles are double-blind reviewed, however, many journals simply do not adopt this.

These are only a few of the many gender inequalities that exist in the field of academia, which play an important role in health, particularly mental health. It’s no surprise, therefore, that women are more vulnerable to mental health issues, such as depression, than men[2]. As a female in academia, it is becoming more and more clear that we have to work slightly harder to be noticed and acknowledged. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t put you off from doing what you love, and research is my passion. My research investigates one such gender inequality: maternal depression and the role of gender within Bangladesh. Women face unique challenges and one of these is pregnancy. This is supposed to be a time of happiness and enlightenment, however, for many this isn’t the case. Determinants of maternal depression include intimate partner violence, lack of emotional and physical support from husband and family and gender preferences for the child[3]. Here we see how gender inequalities play a role not only for the mother but also for the child, even before it is born. Conducting research on this has made me realise how gender inequalities exist regardless of culture, country or socioeconomic status. 

From a critical realist perspective, there is an empirical world which is what we can see and observe, an actual world which we know exists but are not observing and a real world which are the underlying mechanisms that occur within societies which we cannot directly observe. As a researcher on gender studies in health sciences, I have realised that it is this real world which is often neglected in the natural sciences. The natural sciences commonly focus heavily on the empirical findings: the data as we call it. Statistics, percentages and figures on gender inequalities. But as discussed above, there is gender bias in the data itself and this is because we do not focus on the underlying mechanisms. Gender power and family structures are important examples of these underlying mechanisms.  Ideas about the status of women being lower than men, that they belong “in the kitchen” and don’t have authority in making household decisions are still very much prominent even in the 21stcentury. The way that this impacts health, particularly in counties like Bangladesh which often neglect these issues, is crucial to investigate as a researcher.

Coming from a biomedical sciences background, it took me a while to understand the concept of theories and subjectivity. For us it was all about empirical evidence and hard facts. Having undertaken a postgraduate certificate in research training, I have learnt how research in the social sciences differ from the natural sciences and it requires a much more open mind and critical thinking. You cannot just take things at face value and hard facts do not really exist. The social world is very dynamic and when researching it we must understand and consider the many interlinking factors. Therefore, my research involves an integration of both natural sciences and social sciences methods in order to create a holistic overview of the topic. This enables me to utilise what I already know since undergrad but to also incorporate my new learnings and methods within gender studies.  

As a female PhD researcher, it gives me a great sense of empowerment and belonging to be able to able to carry out research on such an important topic of gender. Having seen a lot of inequalities within gender, whether that’s people in my personal life or within my studies, it inspires me not only conduct research, but to also share experiences and thoughts on social media. It is an attempt, even if just by a little, to close the gender gaps in health that exist in this world.    

[1]Criado Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in A World Designed for Men.

[2]Shidhaye P, Giri P. Maternal Depression: A Hidden Burden in Developing Countries. Ann Med Health Sci Res. 2014;4(4):463–5.

[3]Nasreen HE, Kabir ZN, Forsell Y, Edhborg M. Prevalence and associated factors of depressive and anxiety symptoms during pregnancy: a population based study in rural Bangladesh. BMC Womens Health. 2011;11(101088690):22.

3 thoughts on “Academia and Gender: The Hidden Inequalities

  1. Hi Nafisa, two comments on your interesting article:

    1. In the second source cited one reads: “Depression is particularly common among women. Although, depression is the leading cause [PH: something seems to be missing here] for both males and females, the burden of depression is 50% higher for females than males.” Unfortunately the term “burden of depression” isn’t explained, nor is the incidence of depression among women who don’t give birth, both in developing countries and in advanced Western countries. Can you say anything about these (expressly OUTSIDE the scope of your PhD) aspects, please?

    2. You talk about the limitations of empirical “facts” and “natural sciences”, and how they don’t include subjectivity. I actually think the problem is more deep-seated. I just completed a philosophy BA thesis “Embodied sexuality: A critical view of the distinction between sex and gender” in which I propose a concept of embodied sexuality (sexuality understood in widest sense, including sexual difference) based on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology with its concept of the lived bodily experience as an alternative to the (for many feminists) problematic distinction (biological) sex vs. (social) gender and the term “gender” as a purely social concept of what it is supposed to mean to be a woman or a man. Merleau-Ponty criticises all “objective, scientific” thinking, and in particular the natural sciences, because they involve a Cartesian separation between subject and object and between nature and culture. For him, the lived body experience is a combination of nature (biological specificity) and culture (gender norms).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Peter, thank you for comments,

    1. Burden of Disease of commonly measured by Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY’s) which is a measure of the years lived without disability. The prevalence rates of depression in women overall was around 5.1% globally in 2015 from a 2017 World Health Organisation report. Prevalence rates can be as high as 5.9% in the African regions and 4.1% in Western Pacific region. There is a whole range of material from WHO website or the Global Burden of Disease study 2017 if you want to find more information.

    2. I definitely agree with you there, natural sciences and social sciences within gender and sex are huge topics and its definitely not possible to cover the whole scope of this within one blog post, so i provided a very brief overview of the concepts. We are hoping to do a future post looking at gender in the natural sciences and social sciences, do watch out for it!

    Many thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Nafisa, thanks for your answers. “We are hoping to do a future post looking at gender in the natural sciences and social sciences, do watch out for it!” – I certainly will!

    Liked by 1 person

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