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Weinstein, Wilkinson and Whitton: addressing the injustices women face in the academy

Monday, 6 November 2017  | Erin Martine Sessions

In the wake of recent revelations about Weinstein and Wilkinson and, in the theological world, the renewed revelations about Barth, Tillich and Yoder, we’ve reached a watershed moment for women’s equality. Women are speaking up and speaking out about sexism, harassment, abuse, assault and misconduct, and we’re demanding equal pay while we’re at it. But is there a connection between sexual harassment and women not receiving the wages they’re due?

We know that Harvey Weinstein has long wielded the power to make or break careers. And a recent article from Overland explores the very real economic consequences of #metoo and a way to collectively combat the economic and cultural systems that produce sexism. So, what does this mean for the (predominately male-monopolised) Ivory Towers of academia and, particularly, theological academia? 

If we look to historical examples, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Karl Barth’s ‘secretary’, is an interesting case. While the spate of recent write-ups has tended to focus on how we are to appropriate Barth’s dialectical theology in light of his ‘ethical indecisiveness’, it’s barely touched on the power dynamics at play and what effect it had on von Kirshbaum’s career. One simple, yet telling, thing to note is Barth is respectfully referred to by his surname, which is common practice, yet writers persist in referring to von Kirschbaum as Charlotte or Lollo. What makes this double standard even more troubling is that von Kirschbaum knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew, she gave lectures, and she wrote her own theological works. She, too, was a gifted theologian. But the record is curiously confused as to just how much she contributed to Church Dogmatics (and whether she received proper compensation for her work). And we seem to be uninterested in her career trajectory or how it was affected by Barth’s ethical and (presumably) sexual misconduct.

If we then look to the more than one hundred women John Howard Yoder abused, many of them were his students or women he met at academic conferences. Once again, the articles seem concerned with whether a ‘bad person can be a good theologian’, rather than the violation of the basic rights and safety of over one hundred women! At least The New York Times article mentioned that the women received no monetary settlement. But what broader economic effect did it have? What effect did it have on their careers? Yoder had power over his students, he preyed upon young women who showed promise and, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, Yoder would attempt to seduce them intellectually in the hope that it would lead further. Who knows what brilliant theologians the world has been deprived of because of Yoder’s ‘experiments’?

It is clear now that Yoder’s superiors at Notre Dame and Goshen Biblical Seminary and in the Mennonite Church knew there were allegations against him, but allowed his career to continue nonetheless. It is clear now that the relationship between Barth and von Kirschbaum was not only deeply problematic, but also rarely discussed. It is clear now that the industry in which Weinstein worked was complicit in the cover-up of his decades-long harassment and assault. And we are forced to ask why, so often, does it take an overwhelmingly large number of women speaking up before allegations of sexual misconduct are taken seriously? And what implications does this have for today’s theological academia?

I recently wrote about my own experience of sexual harassment in the academy. In my relatively short career, I have taught, lectured or presented in 6 higher education institutions across 3 continents, and I have experienced sexism and harassment in each. I had spoken up about sexual harassment in only two instances: one was dealt with satisfactorily; the other was not. Women don’t speak out because there is a fear we won’t be believed. Women don’t come forward for fear of it negatively impacting our careers. That fear is valid: it is estimated that 75% of women who speak up about sexual harassment will face retaliation. Women don’t speak up because, unless there are sufficient numbers of other victims and witnesses willing to talk, telling the truth to power rarely ends well. How do we ensure that women in the theological academy aren’t casualties of an economic system that enables sexism, harassment and inequality to thrive? Instead of expecting women who aren’t in positions of power to risk speaking up, how about we collectively combat the system that keeps women from not only being able to speak up, but also from those very positions of power? Perhaps women will be better placed to speak truth to power if that power is a woman who has experienced the ubiquitous reality of Weinstein and Wilkinson.       

The first step in changing the system is recognising where it lets women down. A Berkeley research team has spent over a decade investigating why women rarely make it to the top of the Ivory Tower. One of the main findings is that family formation negatively affects women’s careers but not men’s. Children are a career advantage for men and a career killer for women. Another finding reminds me of the well-known (and perfectly caustic) quote from Charlotte Whitton: ‘Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.’ Except, it is difficult. Time and time again, women have to be better than, not equal to, men to receive the same opportunities. Research also shows that women, especially women who are married with children, are relegated to the academic under-class of contingent faculty. This base of typically female part-time and adjunct faculty – supporting those (mostly men) above them – is now the fastest growing sector of academia. There is no shortage of talented, qualified and gifted women in theological academia; I have the privilege of working with many of them. This should mean more women climbing to the top of the tower but, unfortunately, what it has meant is more cheap labour. And, to add insult to injury, this cheap labour threatens to displace the tenure track system. Our own cheap labour imperils the very jobs for which we are striving.

If we want to begin to overcome the overwhelming cultural, structural, sexual and economic injustices facing women in the academy, then men and women must work together to dismantle the barricades preventing women reaching the upper echelons. Thankfully, I have seen that change can be brought about when good men who want to make a difference work together with women but, since women don’t always have a voice, it can be difficult to discern the depth of the injustice. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Listen
  • Believe
  • Continually analyse and critique the systems in which we operate
  • Take action
  • Be flexible

Women must be listened to and believed when we speak up (because we do not do so lightly). If a woman reports sexism (or worse), diligently follow due process. If you know a woman is not receiving equal pay, bring it to the attention of her superior. If you think a woman is not receiving the same formal or informal opportunities as a man, work to address those inconsistencies. Academia has a rigid career track and penalises women for time out; let’s recognise that women continue to fall behind men in rates of promotion and tenure because of this, and seek to redress this error. What women need to flourish is ‘relief from grossly inadequate support systems that deprive them of real choices and a fair shot at successful careers’, as Eileen Kane explains. Until we work together to transform the culture, women will continue to disproportionately populate the division of disadvantaged, disrespected and underpaid contingent faculty. What women need is support, equitable conditions, and men and women who recognise, understand and empathise that this is the reality.

Erin Martine Sessions is Associate Academic Dean and lectures at Morling College. She is a poet, working toward her PhD, mother to one internal and one external child, and bends space and time to watch Netflix.


Christine Sharpe
November 8, 2017, 8:13AM
I wonder if analysing and critiquing our operating systems should include changing the language we use. If we continue to talk about towers and climbing we continue to be stuck in a hierarchical and competitive framework. How can we re-imagine family, work, intellectual pursuits and every other thing of value so that we work together for the good of the human race? We need an enormous shift in perpective for that to occur. One shift might be to recognise that to be equal does not mean having to be the same.

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