NOTE: This post was originally written on 26 October 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

Here is an excerpt of the talk I gave the doctoral students in our programme yesterday, 26 October 2021. The talk, intended to be of interest for both language and Literature/culture students, is called “The Long March Toward Equality and Why We Can’t Get Rid of Gender Studies” and in normal circumstances, I would have uploaded it onto our digital repository but that is also inaccessible, as are the personal and institutional websites.

I have called this brief talk ‘The long march towards equality and why we can’t get rid of Gender Studies’ because I am here to call attention to two matters: one, that gender equality has not been achieved yet after 230 hundred years of feminism (if we count from Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792); the other, that for that reason the academic disciplines invented to address this issue are still necessary, though I wish they were not. In an ideal world, Gender Studies would not be necessary because gender would not be an issue. People are not divided into lovers and non-lovers of chocolate and discriminated on that basis, and for that reason we don’t see the need to have Chocolate Studies. But as long as those other than cis-gender, heterosexual men are not treated as full citizens, we need Gender Studies. Regrettably.

Gender Studies has a long history as an academic discipline, though it started with another name, Women’s Studies in the 1970s, and in California, in imitation of Chicano Studies. Next came Lesbian and Gay Studies, and from the 1990s onward Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Masculinities Studies. The labels are still very problematic, and so we have many degree programs calling themselves ‘Women and Gender Studies’, and other problems, such as the fact that Gay and Queer Studies co-exist but do not overlap, or that Masculinities Studies not always has room for gay or queer men. In case you are wondering, Gay and Lesbian Studies tend to follow an essentialist approach, based on the idea that a homosexual identity exists as such, whereas ‘queer’, a word appropriated by academia from slang, refers to the fluidity in sexual identity, though within limits. Queer heterosexuality, which I myself defend as a sign that we heterosexuals are not always normative, has never been really accepted. Here at UAB, by the way, we have a BA in Sociocultural Gender Studies, and an inter-university MA and PhD program called, precisely, Women and Gender Studies. We also offer a postgraduate degree in ‘Male Chauvinist Violence’ (or ‘Violencias Machistas’), which as I have told the organizers urgently needs a new title.

For those of you who are confused about issues now causing plenty of confusion, allow me to say that gender refers to the cultural construction of identity habitually based on sex, which is part of the biological nature of our bodies. In essentialist models, dominant until the 1950s and still in the most traditional view of gender, there is a total correspondence between sex and gender, so that a female is a woman and a male is a man. Today we are in the middle of an immense revolution which has destroyed this model to replace it with a constructionist approach, which denies not only that there are two genders but also that sex is binary. The turmoil is immense as gender identity is combined with gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation, adding to this mix the advances in medicine that make bodily transition if not easy at least quite possible to a great extent. You will have learned of the new laws now guaranteeing, for instance in Scotland and soon in Spain, that a person may legally claim a gender identity different from that of her body; that is to say, I might be able soon to legally register myself as a man but keep intact my female body. This has opened an immense debate, which is overlapping with a growing homophobia even in countries like ours where homosexual marriage has been legal for almost two decades. Many things happening at the same time, creating much confusion.

Apart from my own research, I must note that in my teaching I am following a project-oriented methodology and I have published with the BA and the MA students several e-books on gender (all available from the digital repository of UAB). The two most recent are Gender in 21st Century SF Cinema: 50 Titles of 2019 and Gender in 21st Century Animated Children’s Cinema of 2020, both by the MA students. Now I am at work on yet another volume with the fourth-year BA students in my Cultural Studies course, which is provisionally called Songs and Women in 21st Century Pop. A number of interesting things are happening there: last Thursday a student presented a song by Demi Lovato, who has recently come out as gender-fluid, and she used all the time the pronoun ‘they’ to refer to the singer. The student, Andrea Hernández, asked me whether a gender-fluid person has a place in a book about women, and I had to think hard about this, before I replied that Lovato’s presence will enhance what we are doing together. Students are very savvy about gender and sex, and are far ahead of me in the use of the new vocabulary. Two of them, currently transitioning, have informed me they no longer want me to use their dead name (that is to say, their legal name). Another uses her gender-fluid name, which has made me think of whether calling myself Sare would define me much better than my name Sara. I don’t know yet.

Gender issues affect everyone, including doctoral students. Here are some interesting figures. In 2017-18 there were in Spain 79.386 doctoral students, of whom 39.886 were men and 39.500 women. Good! Spain was, besides, the third country in Europe with the highest number of doctoral students, after Germany and the United Kingdom, but with a much better balance in gender terms. Now, here’s the problem which these figures conceal: the average age for new doctors in Spain is 35 for men and 33 for women (the figures are for 2010, but I don’t think they have changed). The average age for new mothers in Spain is 31,1 (for 2019); it used to be 25,8 in 1985, the first year when statistics were kept. This means that most female doctoral students must be struggling with the decision to be mothers, whereas male students do not face the same problem. In Spain 95% of men under 30 are not yet fathers and there is no data about when men become fathers for the first time on average, but come sense and mundane experience suggest that paternity need not interrupt a man’s doctoral studies in the same way maternity may affect women.

Current statistics, common sense and personal experience, indicate that motherhood is a major obstacle in any professional career. BA and MA women students have often told me that they do not need feminism because they are guaranteed equality by the educational system, and this is basically true. Most BA students in Spain are women, even though it must be noted that some degrees have a big majority of women (85% in English Studies, 70% in Medicine) whereas women’s interest in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is waning. I recently met my good friend Carme Torras, a major robotics engineer (and a science fiction writer), and she told me that in her research group of 60 only 8 are women, despite her example and mentorship. Anyway, the point I was making is that young women are under the impression that there are no boundaries limiting their education but they tend to become aware that the boundaries are there indeed the moment motherhood becomes a possibility. One of my female doctoral students recently told me all her friends are getting married and having children, which makes her feel very odd. Her thesis has become not only something she very much wants to write but a key factor in her private life, which is hardly the case with male students. I myself don’t have children (just for personal reasons, not because I thought they would be an obstacle in my academic life) but I have seen my women colleagues bravely combine motherhood and excellence in professional achievement in ways I can only admire. It must be very hard.

If you are wondering about the Spanish university and what happens once you have a doctoral degree, this is the situation: at the top level, there are fewer women than men who are full professors (around 20%), most likely as a consequence of the difficulties in combining being a mother with being a top academic; at the bottom level, more women than men are being hired but this is happening just when university jobs are at their lowest point in terms of pay and stability. A university full of underpaid and overworked young associates is always a disgrace, but if being a mother in a full-time job is hard enough, imagine what it is like when you are combining two jobs and writing a doctoral dissertation. Sorry if I sound too unfair to the young men writing doctoral dissertations and trying to start an academic career, but even if you are committed fathers, the truth is that pregnancy is still carried out by biological women. There is a certain pretense that this is no obstacle and any woman can carry on doing research until she goes into labor, but this is rather callous and oblivious of what it really means to have a baby grow in one’s body. As I say, I have never had a child but it only needs a bit of empathy to understand that the process must be intense physically and mentally, and not always compatible with a PhD. Of course, universities are not totally blind to this issue and UAB has made the provision of allowing pregnant doctoral students and/or recent mothers to take a break (I’m not sure about recent fathers). This is fine, but still a partial solution since the arrival of a baby will necessarily disrupt the life of any PhD student and perhaps what would be needed is a crèche for these cases. I know that I am sounding more and more utopian, but this is what feminism is for.

It is in a way very positive that the problem I am discussing is how motherhood and doctoral studies combine, for this means we need to think of the almost 40000 women pursuing a PhD in Spain as an established collective and not as isolated cases, as it used to be in the not too distant past. Perhaps a matter we are not discussing in all this debate is why, if a person may obtain a master’s degree by the age of 23, doctoral dissertations take on average ten more years to complete for women, twelve for men. We could have much younger doctors easily if the system offered more grants and in this way both men and women could complete their dissertations before hitting thirty and being ready to embark on parenthood if they wish. There would always be persons who start their doctoral studies past thirty but it would be desirable that they were exceptions. Younger doctors might be intellectually less mature (sorry!) but since having a doctoral degree has become just the minimum requirement to start an academic career, this is an option we need to consider. I know that as academic careers work today, the problem of when to become a mother would be just pushed onto the next post-doctoral phase but that is the stuff of another debate. Or of the same one: all we need are more grants, and a crèche for each university and adjusting to the reality that the persons embarking on doctoral studies and academic careers are adults also embarking on the project of forming families.

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