Women in Academia, Sexism, & Internalized Bias

It is exactly one year ago that, as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across the RuG’s post on the celebration of International Women’s Day. What struck me the most was the similarity between the women that were celebrated in the post, who were all white, above forty, Dutch, and with a non-stereotypical feminine dressing style. What I clearly did not see was the celebration of diversity not only in ethnicity, but also in personal style and age, and work position. 

This upset me. A lot. What I wished to have seen posted for such an iconic day was a wish to all women belonging at the RUG, whether students, staff members, or docents. For as much as the University of Groningen wishes that sexism does not exist behind its wall, it is still present, as is unpunished sexual harassment, discrimination, and symbolic pink quotas. 

This piece aims to give a different insight on the reality of being a woman in academia and shine a light on less obvious patriarchal systems of discrimination, which come both from students and teachers, and from men and women. 

What are forms of Sexism at University?

Men are considered the default gender in academia; they will be addressed as “academics” while women will be addressed as “female academics” to stress their membership to a different, distant, and inferior category separated from the “normal” male-fitted agenda.  Women often “remain extra visible as women and invisible as professionals/managers/leaders” in the academic work environment, therefore “their authenticity is judged through the lens of gender, as women and as bodies against a male ‘norm’” (Rees).

Women professors experience microaggressions directed at their gender throughout their academic careers. One of the most common aspects of sexism comes with online student evaluations. Research has shown that students give lower ratings to a professor with a female name —even when the actual professor was a male under a female pseudonym (Camden). Student course evaluations are generally used for determining promotions and tenure, so the stakes are high and women are often judged unfit and less likely to get a promotion due to these ratings.

Why do women teachers score less than their male counterparts? One of the most common answers to this is that, whether implicitly or not, students tend to expect women at Universities to perform according to the patriarchal normative behaviour associated with their gender. Instances of these are to smile constantly, to show a great display of kindness and a motherly attitude, and to take up tasks such as comforting students. When women professors do not meet their gender expectations, they are judged unfairly as “unapproachable,” “rigid”, and “unreasonable” for the same behaviour that earned male professors the label “organized, though but honest”.

"Another study explains that female professors face more student demands for favours like extra credit or re-doing work for a better grade. Furthermore, students are more likely to be upset when a female professor (versus a male professor) refuses those demands. Students expect women professors to be more lenient and nurturing and judge them more harshly when they do not conform to these stereotypes. These biases disproportionately burden women and create a climate in which it is harder for females to advance in their academic careers” (Camden). Students seem not to meet deadlines on time more often with women professors and believe that excuses such as personal or relational problems –areas generally associated with women – will easily lead them to an exemption.

Can Women Be Sexist Towards Each Other? What is Internalized Sexism?

The short answer is yes. This is called internalized sexism, i.e. when women display sexist behavior towards themselves and other women. To give an example, alongside these lines is the “pick me culture”.  In the work environment, this phenomenon has been called the “Queen Bee Effect (short. "QB"), a term coined by Staines, Tavris, and Jayaratne in1974, or in more appropriate terms “self-group distancing” (Faniko et al., 383).

Klea Faniko, Naomi Ellemer, and Belle Derks researched whether successful women in male-dominated professions such as academia are actually ready to support women in early career stages or whether they present internalized bias and sexism towards their own group (383). To do so, they based their research on a previous study conducted by Ellemers et al. in 2004, which gave them the opportunity to focus on a comparison between generations of female academics (384). 

Ellemers et al.’s study reported that female faculty members were more likely than their male colleagues to underestimate the career ambitions of starter female academics, despite the fact that there was no difference between male and female Ph.D. candidates in the self-stated ambitions (384):

“I have the impression that my female doctoral students are spoiled. They are not available to work on evenings and the weekend. They are busy with their boyfriend. For my male doctoral students, the career is everything.” (Anonymous woman professor)

However, female candidates described themselves in highly stereotypical masculine terms, which would indicate how success in academia is determined by a “masculine” gender performance (384). In fact, even advanced and senior female academics “reported a gender identity that was equally masculine as their male colleagues” (384). Ellemers et al. had finally argued that the reason behind the self-group distancing and the "QB" behavior are the responses caused by personal negative career experiences in a sexist and male-dominated workplace (385).

The “self-group distancing” effect seems to have had more space to develop for older generations of female academics, as the newer generations have seen a huge increase of female academic employment, women on high ranking positions in academia, and a disparity in favour of women in terms of university enrollments and graduations (385). However, there is evidence of "QB" responses still existing, which can be related again to negative career experiences that women go through in academia (385). Following this, it is still important to observe this phenomenon even after 15 years from its first study, trying to understand why there is still a hostile –and sometimes hindering- attitude between women who seem reluctant to support each other in the workplace and in career advancements (385).

Faniko et al. research focused on two hypotheses:

  1. The generation hypothesis:

This hypothesis supposes that the "QB" phenomenon is no longer visible when comparing the data from Ellemers et al. (2004) due to mismatched results between the data from the prior generation of female academics and the data from the current generation of female academics. According to this, the QB phenomenon no longer affects female academics (388).

2. The academic experience hypothesis:

According to this hypothesis, the "QB" phenomenon is still present as women still go through negative career experiences. The new study showed that "QB" responses result “in differences between the way men and women at advanced career stages view male and female early career stage academics”, thus confirming the study conducted by Ellemers et al (2004) (388).  

Faniko et al.’s study showed the same pattern of result that was described 15 years ago, which is visible in the way that female and male early career academics indicate similar levels of career commitment in their self-reports. Yet female advanced career academics perceived female early-career academics to be reliably less dedicated to their career than men did at early career stages (393).

Besides showing that we are far away from having a healthy and supporting environment between female academics, the study results suggested that characteristics such as assertiveness, career commitment, and organization equate to a masculine trait, which is close to saying that masculinity is the key to career success. Following this, the results seem to furtherly suggest that women can only be successful when they present themselves as stereotypically masculine in academia, a still male-dominated environment (394).

Students at University Experience Sexism Too…Even from Women Professors

In my experience and that of my peers, I have witnessed sexism coming both from men and women professors. Here are testimonies from students in Groningen who have experienced sexism from both genders at University:

“I was a first-year law student when a senior professor randomly invited us to watch the movie adaptation of Princess Sissy. He did not have any hesitation saying that it was a story only for girls and that whether we thought of him as ‘old-fashioned’ he would not change his mind about it. He was not ‘old-fashioned’, he was purely sexist”. (Anonymous)


“I had taken several courses from this professor. She was teaching some of the most important courses in my field of interest. I thought my bad grades were due to my lack of preparation. I didn’t realize it was something of an ad-personam attack until I gave a presentation with another girl from my class. This professor is not stereotypical feminine, but kept a “tone down” appearance (no makeup; no skirts, no “girly” colors); my peer for the presentation had a similar style. I did not. I was the one who wore pink skirts. I finally understood her look of distaste and her eyes scrutinizing me during class, especially if I was wearing a dress. My presentation-peer scored a higher grade than I did for the same amount of effort and the same delivery. The professor never gave me a reasonable explanation for this. I ended up choosing a thesis group in a field I did not spend 3 years of university preparing for fear of having my grade lowered due to my appearance”. (Anonymous)


“During my Bachelor, I had a male professor who was way too friendly with the female students in his class. I didn’t give it much thought back then, I just thought he was being friendly and light-hearted. It took me a while to notice that he would be friendly with very good-looking girls and incredibly mean with the others. He would give out cute nicknames to them while ignoring the rest of the class, I didn’t understand how wrong his behaviour was, but now I know it was also part of his sexist campaign.” (Anonymous)


“I was doing my MA while teaching Bachelor students. There was a young woman who was finishing up her MA in law. She also designed clothes and had her own line. She was incredibly handsome and for those reasons, nobody believed she would go on with her studies. She exposed us all to our sexism graduating with a cum laude.” (Anonymous)

Why Is Appearance the Sexism Key-Factor When Evaluating a Woman in her Academic Career?

What female academics and female students wear is under constant scrutiny and criticism. Women in academia risk being seen as too “feminine” even if they wear simple jeans, while their male counterparts would be seen as “casual”. This environment would not easily forgive women displaying the so acclaimed “power-dressing” (a term that reveals implicit sexism as men who wear suits are wearing the “normal”, while women with a suit are wearing the “power” outfit, i.e. a normalized male-wear). However, in the end, it does not matter what women would wear or not, their appearance would always be under scrutiny. As Emma Rees explains: “women who occupy public spaces will inevitably attract comments based not on what they do but rather on how they look while they do it” (Rees). While men are seen as casual and relaxed for wearing jeans at a conference, women would be considered a “slob”, or lowered her status appearance from “teacher” to “student”; yet, if she wears heels she is “trying too much” or gets “slut-shamed”. Men in academia who opted for the casual dressing style are considered more interesting than the rest, however, if a woman should do this, she will not be held in the same high regard. Yet, at the same time, she must look “interesting” or her research ideas would not be considered interesting either (Rees). On the other side, showing a stereotyped “feminine” appearance, such as wearing skirts and colourful clothes, well-done hair, make-up, etc. would also be considered negatively. A wide amount of women in academia have been addressed by their male colleagues in regards to their clothing choice, advising them to “tone it down” if they wished to be taken seriously both by their students and their colleagues (Rees). In short terms, it does not matter what a woman professor would do, she will never have a win on the appearance.

Trying to impose a modest appearance, which on one side can be viewed as a strategy to proceed with an academic career, while on the other hand, it reinforces a patriarchal idea that a woman to be worthy needs to be modest. While I do understand that strategies are the quintessential skill to learn to advance someone’s career, I cannot comply with the latter, i.e. reinforcing a patriarchal stereotype of women. Yet, the idea that a female academic should dress modestly is not only coming from men but also from women themselves, due to their negative experiences in a male-dominated work environment. As Emma Rees reports: “in the experience of my Scottish interviewee, “women will criticise other women for looking too smart and ‘professional’, particularly if they opt to wear heavy make-up and/or high-heeled shoes. This is seen to be pandering to ‘the male gaze’” (Rees). However “pandering” the male gaze is also telling women how to dress or how to act, therefore displaying the idea that they have neither free will nor alternatives than doing as they have been told.

As I explained before, the “self-group distancing effect” is only a way of reinforcing the idea that academia is for men, and if women want to be part of it they should perform, act, and display what has been decided to be stereotypical normative male behaviour, which also includes a modest and casual clothing style and appearance.

So, as we celebrate the 8th of March we must stay vigilant to less obvious patriarchal systems that continue to pose barriers in having women fully included and adequately represented in academia. That is also why it is simply not enough to only add bigger numbers of a certain social group that has been so far excluded from participation. Apart from accessing positions of influence and power, women and marginalized groups need a leveled playing field that aims to dismantle systems of oppression and create a representative “normal” within which one functions. 


Rees, Emma. “Clothes do not make the woman: what female academics wear is subject to constant scrutiny.” The World University Ranking, 5 April 2018, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/clothes-do-not-make-woman-what-female-academics-wear-subject-constant-scrutiny.

Morgante, Camden. “It’s Not Easy Being a Woman Professor: Subverting Sexism in Higher Education.” CBE International,4 Sept. 2019, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/its-not-easy-being-woman-professor-subverting-sexism.

Faniko, Klea et al. “The Queen Bee phenomenon in Academia 15 years after: Does it still exist, and if so, why?.” The British journal of social psychology vol. 60,2 (2021): 383-399. 

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