Behind the silence and silencing of academic women

The underrepresentation of women academics in the most senior ranks and leadership positions in higher education is an enduring social justice issue. We would like to think that universities are at the forefront of demonstrating a commitment to diversity and inclusivity, but they remain ‘bastions of male power and prestige’ almost 30 years after the Hansard Society Commission in 1990.

Why women remain globally underrepresented as academic leaders is highly complex and multifaceted. Family remains a dominant discourse in explaining why women ‘fail’ to move through academic hierarchies. We might well question, however, the positioning of family as the most significant factor in explaining women’s underrepresentation as academic leaders.

Research indicates a wider concatenation of gendered assumptions that combine to negatively impact upon the career trajectories of women in the academy. For example, in a profession where research is the pathway to academic promotion, and therefore seniority, there is evidence to suggest that family is not, in all cases, adversely affecting women’s research productivity. Workload might well be a stronger explanatory factor.

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Could a new conceptual dimension – the silence of, and silencing of academic women – further our understanding of how and why women academics experience the higher education profession differently to their male colleagues?

Feminist scholars have long emphasised the sociopolitical nature of voice and silence and my research is suggestive of the ways in which academic women remain silent (and why) and how they are silenced. My two-part conceptual framework puts forward the notion of internal and external silencing.

Internal and external silencing

Part A of this framework refers to internal silencing. The inner voice refers to those ‘internal barriers’ that manifest themselves in academic women in a variety of ways and in turn have a silencing effect: an unease in saying no, a lack of confidence, a fear of failure and a sense that women should remain quiet.

This internal silencing is a consequence of socialisation and gender stereotyping and can play a significant role in women’s sense of themselves as academic leaders. In addition, internal silencing refers to silence as an inner strategy.

Academic women are consciously making the decision to remain silent, even when subjected to discriminatory comments and behaviour. Not speaking out, not speaking up, is taken as a strategic decision in order to safeguard future career prospects. Being too vocal is associated with risk.

Part B refers to external silencing – the consequences of speaking out. When academic women do not remain silent, they are in turn silenced. Examples include women not being allowed to express their views, being interrupted, having their views ‘attacked’ and their ideas attributed to male colleagues.

Women who are not silent are positioned as ‘aggressive’ or ‘bitches’, which is why asking academic women to ‘lean’ in is highly problematic.

A further dimension to external silencing is silence by exclusion; for example, from significant decision-making committees and panels (for instance, those related to recruitment, promotion, research and the distribution of monies), from consultation and ‘informal’ conversations and from certain disciplines.


‘Micro-inequities’ are central to our understanding of why academic women remain silent and how academic women are silenced. Micro-inequities (first discussed by Rowe in 1990) are ‘small’ events, which are hard to prove, covert and often unintentional.

Research indicates, however, that much of the discrimination women academics experience in the academy is subtle and almost intangible, thereby positioning the study of micro-inequities as an important part of gender equity work.

At the level of the individual, the cumulative effect of micro-inequalities can damage self-esteem and potentially lead to withdrawal. Rowe points out that micro-inequities exert influence by walling out the ‘different’ person and making the person of difference less effective. A common response to micro-inequities is to give alternative explanations and to position the individual as ‘sensitive’.

Individual instances of micro-inequities may seem ‘trivial’, but their cumulative effects can account for large-scale differences in outcome, including a lack of academic women as leaders. And herein lies the case for not viewing each act individually, but studying the aggregate effects that are important to further our understanding of bias and discrimination.

The expectation to fit in

The notion of academic women being silent, and of being silenced, set within the framework of micro-inequities, suggests that the organisational culture of higher education continues to expect women to ‘fit in’. Normative expectations of how women should act in turns opens up the space for micro-inequities to be let in, with women struggling to negotiate how they should act.

Paradoxically, women’s silence is both an enabler and a barrier to their career progression. Despite legislation, policies and initiatives – albeit not in all international contexts – there remain ‘sticking points’ where women academics are not reaching the most senior ranks and leadership positions. Given this, there is a strong case to be made for taking micro-inequities in the academy far more seriously.

Dr Sarah Jane Aiston is senior lecturer in education studies at the School of Education, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. She can be contacted on

The author will be speaking at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Friday 22 March. The title of the workshop (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK) is 'Why are women missing from higher education leadership in Hong Kong and what needs to be done?' For further information contact