Gender bias: Professor Høgberg knows that students, male and female, prefer a male professor, even when Høgberg couldn’t be better, Ingrid N. Ekeberg writes. Illustration: Øyvind Hovland.
Gender bias: Professor Høgberg knows that students, male and female, prefer a male professor, even when Høgberg couldn’t be better, Ingrid N. Ekeberg writes. Illustration: Øyvind Hovland.

Women who love men in academia

When female professors are doomed to lose the popularity contest against their male colleagues, can we really blame them for getting frustrated?

In March, UiO law Professor Benedikte M. Høgberg started several debates during an incendiary lecture one Friday morning, railing against privileged law students, Jodel, and sexism. In the chaos that followed, the backdrop of Høberg’s speech was forgotten in the podcast- and pedagogic noise. She was spurred to action by posts on Jodel, a social media-app similar to Twitter, where every post is anonymous. The app is in particularly popular among students, and gossip runs rampant. On Jodel, Høgberg and her female colleagues have been accused of being hired only based on their gender.

Our female lecturers are far from being the result of a quota. It took, embarrassingly enough, 176 years from when the law faculty was founded until Lucy Smith was able to enter a professor’s office in 1987. Luckily enough the lecture halls today are full of women, or «clever girls», as white men in their 50s often like to call us. And before anyone dare to bore me with the argument that we have to protect the boys in all this, let me add that women still have a long way to go before we reach full equality. This is a historical problem.

When she lectures for a mostly female audience this year, just like last year, Professor Høgberg knows the women in the hall will prefer a male lecturer, even if she couldn’t be better. We don’t know it ourselves, but when we subconsciously favor men, we stab each other in the backs on our way toward the lecture podium and top job positions, while the guys calmly walk by.

It’s called «gender bias,» a phenomenon where people have unconscious prejudices against one gender. A study from the French university Sciences Po, in collaboration with the University of California, shows that female students who took online courses consistently rated male instructors as better than female instructors, on everything from pedagogy to punctuality.

Regardless if you agree or disagree with the means, Høgberg has taken up arms in the battle for every woman around her.

The problem? The instructors had exactly the same assignments, delivered at the same time. The only real difference was if the respondents thought their name was Paul or Paula. One study with more than 60,000 respondents from UCLA further showed that women were far more skeptical toward female bosses than men were, even though both groups preferred a male boss. When they were asked why, several answered they feared a female boss would be stubborn, emotional; simply a bitch.

The favoritism of men even in the university is a subject we don’t discuss enough. Just take a look at our very own principals. The previously-mentioned Lucy Smith is the only woman who has made it to the top. Several argue electing a principal instead of hiring one is the problem, since more women would have the guts to apply if they could skip the election battle. Isn’t the real problem here that «clever girls» are generally less popular, and everyone knows it?

Maybe we should take some advice from those Jodel posts, and actually allocate a quota of more women to the top floor. It took close to 200 years in the law faculty before a woman broke her way in, and that says something about the sky-high expectations put on women’s shoulders today. It also says something about a group of men who don’t feel good when the door opens for a female colleague. And when we are now also aware of the competent women who are thrown under the bus by their sisters, maybe it’s time to force everyone to think fresh.

Because in the end of the day there’s only one way to crush prejudices: we have to learn our limitations, and we have to get our prejudices refuted. Make sure we bring a Høgberg into every faculty, board, panel discussions, seminar rooms and lecture halls as soon as possible. Because regardless if you agree or disagree with the means, Høgberg has taken up arms in the battle for every woman around her. And if you have a problem with the means, put down your phone and have an eye to eye discussion with her. Høgberg has proven that she’s more than tough enough – are you?