To Be Seen, Not Heard at the Boys’ Table: Sexism in Academia

The following guest post is by a doctoral candidate in sociology at a public research university in the United States. In this post, ze reflects on experiences with sexism at academic conferences.


The systemic problem of gender inequality is often a driving force behind individuals’ decision to specialize in sociology and, more specifically, in the areas of sex and gender. Doe-eyed graduate students, such as myself, believe academia is where merit and opportunity are derived from hard work and meaningful contributions to science. A place were females, males, cisgender, and transgender individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexualities or social class, are accepted by their peers and discrimination is checked at the door. Academics, certainly those in sociology, would never discriminate against minorities and those who are different. Right? Wrong! So wrong, unfortunately. As a first year PhD student in sociology, and also a female, I have already experienced evidence that the boy’s club is still alive and kicking in academia.

For instance, I have been counseled multiple times that it is in my best interest this early in my career to abbreviate my feminine-sounding name on scholarly publications. The second and probably more disheartening sexist experience took place during an annual sociology conference; ironically, the theme of the conference was gender. I feel compelled to share my experience as well as the experience of my co-author (who is also a doctoral student in sociology) during our paper session at this particular conference in the hopes that others can read this and know that they are not alone. Our experiences as minorities deserve to be shared in hopes that they will act as a wakeup call to our more privileged peers.

Nobody Wants to Hear a Female Talk Longer than 6 Minutes

Although I had previously presented at this particular conference when I was a master’s student years ago, this was my co-author’s first time presenting at a sociological conference. We were both excited and bit nervous to present our paper among more seasoned academics. However, our enthusiasm was quickly stifled by the patronizing demeanor of the moderator during our session.

Our session was scheduled to begin at 11:00 am and end at 12:15 pm. This was a fairly small paper session with five presenters and only five audience members, so the moderator decided to start the session at 10:58 am. The moderator asked the five audience members as well as the presenters if any of us anticipated having questions at the end of the session. When one member said yes, the moderator decided that the presenters would have 12-13 minutes to present their work in order to leave sufficient time at the end for questions.

The first presenter was a female professor of sociology, who, mind you, traveled several hours by plane to present her research. About halfway through her PowerPoint presentation the moderator abruptly cut in to tell her that she needed to bring her talk to a close. Flabbergasted, she quickly attempted to finish her presentation while insisting that she was not given the 12-13 minutes promised. Dismayed by this, the first female presenter headed to the back on the conference room and began timing each presentation.

The next person to present was a male who was also giving a PowerPoint presentation. This presenter was politely and unobtrusively shown a written three-minute, hand-written warning by the moderator. The male presenter was then not only permitted to talk for those three minutes, but beyond that time as well, enabling him to complete his presentation in full.

Next up, my co-author and I, both females, were scheduled to present. Unfortunately, I forgot to start the timer on my phone, but the first female presenter had her timer going. Besides, I was confident that my co-author and I would not go over our 12-13 minute time limit. However, we were only about five minutes into our presentation when the moderator interrupted me, mid-sentence to tell us that we needed to conclude. He did not offer a three-minute warning as he had for the previous presenter, instead I was brusquely cut off from speaking. I fumbled to collect my thoughts and wrap up our presentation. The female who was timing us also feverishly waved her hands and stated that we were only given five minutes to talk, but it did not matter. Our time was up – all the practicing and nervous anticipation for five damn minutes!

The next presenter, a male, had time to complete his presentation in its entirety without interruption or suggestion from the moderator that he needed to “wrap it up.” And yes, his presentation took all 13 minutes. The moderator presented his paper last and adhered to the 12-13 minute time limit he set at the beginning of the session. When the moderator concluded, the time was 11:48 am. As the session began at 10:58 am with five presenters, it is obvious that not every presenter received an equal amount of time to convey their research, averaging around 10 minutes each. It was also quite apparent that the two presentations given by females were the two (and only two) that were cut short of the promised 12-13 minutes.

But it does not stop there. The remaining 25 minutes were devoted to putting each presenter, one-by-one, in what the moderator called “the hot seat,” inviting audience members to question each presenter. During the other female presenter’s “hot seat” time, the moderator challenged her in a condescending tone rather than engaging her professionally. He provoked an argument with her rather than a discussion and disrespectfully dismissed her responses to his questions. Finally, this awful, degrading paper session came to an end a few minutes early. The moderator quickly offered a general apology for cutting the session short and insisted that it was important for the audience to be permitted to have ample time to ask questions.

However, the moderator’s hollow apology was not directed at anyone in particular. As graduate students, we spent a great deal of time practicing and preparing our presentation to ensure we did not exceed the anticipated 10-15 minute time slot. Besides the frustration of only being allowed to speak for six minutes, the fact that this clearly only happened to the females and not the males at a sociology conference focused on gender seemed especially terrible.

It is in these very moments where I feel like throwing in the proverbial pink towel and walking away from academia. But, I am stronger than that. I have to remind myself that I earned my spot at that conference table and I will not allow sexist, close-minded individuals to make females (or anyone, for that matter) feel any less deserving. So, fellow minority grad students, let us beware: while we study the systems of inequality outside the walls of academia, the frontline of social injustice may still lie within.


8 thoughts on “To Be Seen, Not Heard at the Boys’ Table: Sexism in Academia

  1. I have a piece of advice. Next time this happens, write a complaint about it to the President of the Association. No regional, nor ASA, tolerates rude and discriminatory behavior. The moderator in question would not be asked to moderate again …. and such information is often passed on from Program Chair to Program Chair…. In fact, if it was at the conference on gender recently held in the Southerns, I would personally like to know who you felt treated you this way….Leadership of most regionals these days are women, and feminist women at that…

    • Thank you the advice Dr. Risman, and we will make sure the author of the post receives this information.

    • Thanks very much for your support, Dr. Risman. Southerns is one of our favorite conferences and it’s comforting to see such a fast response from a SSS leader at the possibility of this type of thing at any of our conferences. We’ll definitely make sure that our contributing blogger receives your advice and the chance to share her experiences with leadership at the conference she attended. Hopefully we can make conferences positive experiences for all from start to finish…we are looking forward to it!

  2. Thanks for telling this story, and being willing to keep fighting. This does remind me of my life in the early 1990s at conferences. So interesting how age and status can help counteract the miserable sexism that exists. Barbara is right — the moderator should be called on his behavior, and the data collected by the first presented might mean a joint letter? So sorry for your experience.

    • Thank you for sharing Dr. Misra and sorry that you ever had to have similar experiences. We see the student’s experiences as a reminder of just how much fighting we still have to do.

  3. Wow! So disturbing!

    Barbara’s advice is good advice.

    But I’m wondering if it would be possible to do something in the moment. If the author of this post is ever in a session with me and something like this happens, get my attention and I’ll happily call that asshole out in front of everyone. I’m tenured and would happily do that. Won’t hurt my career.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for sharing Dr. Cragun, and please do call out this type of thing anytime you see it – this is fight we all need to be involved in as best we can.

  4. I’ve received permission from the poster to contact the leaders of the conference in question on her behalf. She would like to remain anonymous to protect herself from potential negative response and I respect her decision so I will be reporting the incident to the proper authorities as Dr. Risman suggested. She also wanted to express her gratitude for the responses as she tries to do something positive with a negative experience no scholar (regardless of demographics) should have to deal with in the first place.

Comments are closed.