CYGNA: Resistance to gender equality in academia

Reports on our 38th CYGNA meeting dealing with one of the ultimate gender topics

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we have had 30 physical meetings. When COVID-19 hit, we moved the meetings online and increased their frequency, offering a full year of monthly meetings. As always, we alternate topics related to gender in academia with academic skills development. This month we dealt with perhaps the ultimate gender topic: resistance to gender equality.

It was clearly a topic of great interest to CYGNA members, with a bumper number of 77 CYGNA members registering of which 48 were able to attend. As common in our online meetings, more than half were from outside the UK, including from Australia, China, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan and Turkey. A special welcome to Anh Nguyen, Ayşe Aydın, Caroline Whitfield, Chiara Succi, Hongyan Qu, Khalida Malik, Ksenia Chmutina, Lena Knappert, Monica Perez, Olga Ryazanova and our presenter Susanne Täuber, who all attended for the first time.


Susanne Täuber gave us a brilliant presentation about a research project she had conducted on resistance to gender equality in academia. It included independent variables such as discrimination, harassment and complaint management and psychological safety and voice attitudes and behaviours as dependent variables, with various demographic variables as moderators. The full slides of the presentation can be downloaded here. It was jampacked with useful references and visuals, but I particularly liked the resistance wheel below (for a crisper version, see the report) and the "owl cartoon" further down this post.

During the presentation, I was torn between despair about the findings and excitement about its research potential, including the very practical and impactful initiatives that might be derived from it. The Q&A ran for nearly 1.5 hour, a clear signal of how much everyone had to share. Among many other things we talked about how country context and not being natives of the country we work impacts on experiences with gender equality. I can see a large-scale research project facilitated by the CYGNA network coming out of this. Watch this space!!! Please do get in touch with us if you are interested in being involved in research in this area.

Experiences from CYGNA members

In our registration survey we asked CYGNA members whether they had encountered resistance to (gender) equality in their work. Nearly three quarters responded affirmatively, with most of those that didn't being in an early career stage. Here are just a few of the responses. They make for sobering reading!

All sorts of resistance in any form that one can possibly imagine. Just to name a few here: treating female academics as less competent researchers and teachers; using female academics for administrative work without acknowledgement; switching to focus on the wrong "tone" when female academics raise their voices that are not in the interest of the other group.

People are sometimes uncomfortable talking about gender equality issues; they deny or downplay their existence.

Small acts of suggesting that females do organisational/administrative work while men do the 'thinking' - in a research brainstorm exercise handing the flipchart and marker to the only woman, suggesting seminar series and expecting the female colleague will send invitation emails, etc.

Diminishing of diverse perspectives and women diminishing their own capabilities in misplaced attempt to gain male approval and advancement.

I am very fortunate my institution is open to gender equality discussions and initiatives but we still face challenges of equality lethargy and women doing the brunt of the equality work.

My department and school do quite well in promoting equality, although I have often thought that perhaps some basic training alerting colleagues to the risks of behaviour such as 'mansplaining', assuming all female colleagues are administrative support and certain forms of language would be helpful to everyone. 

Only ever one female dean in the business school and most of the top positions in the university are occupied by men. Within the faculty, many men get out of service responsibilities.

Covert in the types of work each gender "should" be doing.

Senior female faculty are under higher pressure to be "good wives of the organisation" and assume administrative roles (even though prestigious) such as dean. Women face double bind in academic leadership roles: You are seen to be either competent or "nice"/caring but of course you should be both.  

Fear (of losing privileges), denial, ignorance, individualising existing structural problems.

The first thing everyone (women nearly as often as men) says is: "But I am against quota, we shouldn't compromise quality". It is the persistent myth of meritocracy, which we know is flawed. I find it offensive that the first thing that people think about when mentioning women/minorities is that this will lower quality thresholds as if white men are always superior to these groups. We know from research the reverse is often true ;-)

Different expectations from management, students etc. - that women will be communal, relationship focused etc.


We had a long debrief session in which we discussed how to follow up on this meeting in a way that allows us to support other CYGNA members to deal with resistance to gender equality. As CYGNA is a purely volunteer-run initiative with no financial or other support, we need the support of other CYGNA members to make this happen. So if you are willing to commit your time to help others in this respect, please do get in touch with us.


Susanne shared lots of useful resources, which were supplemented by myself and other CYGNA members during and after the meeting. Here is a selection that are publicly available.

Reading materials

Understanding our biases

We are all biased; we would not be human if we were not. Here are two resources that can help you to understand your own biases.

  • Take an Implicit Association Test. Two professional staff members working on D&I and I recently took the implicit association test. Despite knowing all the research and being fully committed to gender Diversity & Inclusion, we all showed a slight implicit bias in associating men with careers and women with family.
  • Watch this TED Talk by Kristen Pressner: even someone passionately committed to women in leadership can have a bias against women leaders. The presenter also covers the flip-it-to-test-it method with this image.

The flip-it-to-test-it method

Often it is not until we “flip” the situation that we recognise how ingrained gendered expectations are. Here are two examples that may help getting an insight into this. Both men and women are likely to make these attributions.

The same behaviour in men and women is often judged differently. When standing up for themselves, men are typically seen as assertive, women are often seen as aggressive. When talking quickly and animatedly, men are typically seen as passionate, women are often seen as emotional. When displaying individualist behaviour men are typically seen as being ambitious and showing initiative, women are often seen as being too self-centred and not being team-players.

Show people a picture of a man checking his work email at a playground, with his child playing on a climbing rack. Most likely, the man will be seen as being an efficient multi-tasker, as well as a “nice guy” for relieving his wife of caring duties by taking his kid to the playground. When seeing the same picture of a woman, the assessment is more likely to be that she can’t cope combining her job and parental duties and that she is a bad mother for not paying enough attention to her child.

For a daily flip-it-to-test it, follow the hilarious “Man who has it all” account on Twitter. A few recent examples:

ALL MEN! You can choose to be anything you want to be! Don't let your childhood, education, family, friends, books, media, stereotypes, bosses, power or massive structural barriers hold you back. It's about individual choice. YOU GO BOYS!

My mum is a total legend. She once picked me up from school without dad reminding her.

TODAY'S DEBATE: Should men be expected to go running in groups in case women attack them?

In academia, much more is often expected of women – by men and women – in terms of “wives of the organisation” duties as well as administrative work more generally, see:

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