Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Electronic Literature Organisation (ELO)’s annual conference, held at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Electronic literature (e-lit) encompasses a broad range of “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” and, as such, sits at the intersection of the humanities and technology. While the topics of the various papers presented at the conference showcased e-lit’s interdisciplinary nature, the conference was also, in the words of attendee and ELO Board Member Caitlin Fisher, “explicitly feminist in an unprecedented way.” This emphasis on highlighting female researchers and feminist scholarship is especially important for the humanities as a whole, given the current widespread “obsession” with pushing university students and graduates towards the STEM fields, often at the expense of the humanities. A cursory glance at NPPSH’s Twitter feed echoes this point, with tweet after tweet of scholars and researchers warning us about the potential peril of ignoring the humanities in favour of the sciences or technology. Certainly, there is no shortage of articles or opinion pieces attempting to explain academia’s sway towards the STEM disciplines, but it’s hard to ignore data suggesting the humanities are undervalued because they are, culturally, more traditionally associated with women, while the STEM fields are dominated by men.
In the HEA’s National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions report (released in June 2016), the survey found that university staffs are “reasonably gender balanced,” with women and men each comprising approximately 50% of the staff. When that data is broken down by discipline, however, the balance shifts. Women routinely outnumber men in the humanities, while in contrast, women are vastly underrepresented in the STEM departments. Moreover, the positions women fill are less likely to be senior posts. The HEA report found that, as of March 2016, “only 19% of the heads of Irish HEIs [higher education institutions] were female” with “the highest proportion of women employed….in non-academic core-funded posts” when compared to academic and/or research staff posts. To date, there has also never been a female president at any of Ireland’s universities.
With women disproportionately concentrated in the humanities and underrepresented at the senior levels of academia, “the devaluing of the humanities” becomes “bound up with a larger, cultural devaluation of women’s work,” as this recent article in Quartz pointed out. And there is research to support that claim. In a 2008 article for the Perspectives on Politics journal, entitled “Gender Equity in Academia,” a team of researchers from the University of California Irvine identified the trend of “gender devaluation” – a “subtle process by which administrative positions lose their aura of status, power, and authority when held by women. These positions often become treated as service or support roles until they are reoccupied by men.” Additionally, research has shown that gender devaluation and gender bias is evident in student evaluations of lecturers and in the discrepancy of pay between female and male academics.
Given the intense focus on “saving” the humanities and narrowing the gender gap in academia, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that many professional academic organisations and associations in the humanities are actively trying to showcase, discuss, and wrestle with feminist-centred questions. This was certainly the case at ELO 2016. ELO is currently led by a female president – Dene Grigar – and this year’s conference included a number of featured papers and keynote presentations from female academics, on specifically feminist topics, from Anastasia Salter’s talk on “Brogrammer Culture in Games and Electronic Literature” to the opening day keynote panel discussing feminist perspectives on the wargame narrative. One theme that threaded through all of the panels and presentations was the call for female researchers to define their own work, on their own terms. During her talk, keynote speaker Christine Wilks from Bath Spa University spoke about the idea of using computers as a digital “room of one’s own,” updating Virginia Woolf’s idea for the twenty-first century and encouraging women to claim their own space in the digital environment. Meanwhile, Salter’s paper highlighted the masculine ideals often associated with coding, and urged academics to rethink the “call to code,” asking us to consider why we value technical achievement over content (bringing to mind, again, the gender devaluation of the humanities). Panelists for the “Feminist Horizons” session on the last day of the conference expressed similar ideas and sentiments, with participant Caitlin Fisher asking why we don’t appreciate what women already do, and arguing in favour of building, creating, writing, and reading pleasurable texts.
Throughout all of the various presentations during the conference, these female researchers emphasised over and over again that the work women do – in the humanities, and academia as a whole – is valuable and worthwhile on its own. As Salter pointed out at the end of her featured paper, “we don’t need a pink path to programming. But we do need to create a community where people want to land.” Whether that community is in the humanities or a STEM field, female academics deserve the same recognition as their male counterparts. The overt and enthusiastic support for female researchers and feminist research at ELO 2016 is definitely a step in the right direction, but as the HEA report indicates, we still have a ways to go before we can close the gender gap in academia and reclaim the value and importance of the humanities.
(Note: an audio recording of the full “Feminist Horizons” panel from ELO 2016 is available on SoundCloud and it is well worth taking the time to listen the panel in its entirety.)
Meredith Dabek is a PhD Candidate in the Media Studies Department at Maynooth University and an NPPSH Organising Committee member. Learn more about her.