More Women Scholars, Less Public Intellectuals?

by Evette Dionne

Black WomenWhen I think of Dr. Brittney Cooper, Joan Morgan, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, Dr. Tanisha Ford, Dr. Treva Lindsey and Dr. Kaila Story, I imagine the intellectual ancestors smiling down on them. These women scholars are progressing public discourse through their academic work. Their scholarship ranges from hip-hop feminism to fashion as political resistance, but their influence within and outside of the confines of the academy makes their research accessible to those without advance-level degrees.

Though the ladies listed are members of a growing chorus of women intellectuals, a study conducted in Canada found male professors outnumber female professors in media coverage and overall reach. Shari Graydon, former president of Media Action – a non-profit organization that encourages gender equity in media – presented her findings at the Worldviews conference in Toronto.

Graydon said there’s a 4-to-1 imbalance within the public intellectual tradition. Researchers examined the male-to-female ratio in major newspapers, radio programs and television talk shows. They found an extensive disparity between the voices represented through these outlets.

The University World News reports:

“On one level that’s not so surprising,” Graydon said. In proportion to their numbers, women academics were underrepresented even in the expert databases of their universities. Furthermore: “They are often unwilling to come forward.” There were also pressures on women’s time, which needed to be divided between work and, for instance, family responsibilities.

But the problem went deeper. What Graydon had been told by journalists – and this had been borne out by interviews with and surveys of 400 female scholars across Canada – was that when approached for comment on an issue, women were far more likely than their male counterparts to say: “I’m really not the best person.”

“The truth is that male scholars may also feel pressures, may not feel that they are the best person to respond to a particular journalist’s question. But a male expert will rarely if ever say the words, ‘I’m not the best person’,” said Graydon.

“Not because he always thinks that he is, but because he knows that he knows more than the majority of readers or listeners or viewers and, yes, he has a PhD, he has 10 years’ experience in the field, and yes, of course he will comment.”

Both male and female scholars were understandably worried about their words being taken out of context, Graydon added. “They are all concerned about not being able to put complex, nuanced issues into quotable sound bites. They are concerned about being seen as not serious, as doing scholarship that is not popular – all of those things affect men as well.”

However, female scholars were subjected to what Graydon called a “gender push-back” that men do not experience. Operating in a space where they are judged against “graphically and surgically enhanced images of women”, women scholars were judged and found wanting, even if only on a subconscious level.

Frequently, the feedback in online comments was “specific and vicious, and often women scholars are just not willing to go there and subject themselves to that kind of attack.”

Graydon’s current initiative, Informed Opinions, aims to lessen this gap by training women intellectuals in media. This will guarantee better opportunities and more exposure for their research.

“We encourage them when they get a phone call from a journalist to start here: ‘I’d be happy to try to help’.”

“Because there is nothing about this statement that says I believe I am the best person; it just opens the door to a conversation in which they may be able to add value.”

The Internet also presents an excellent platform for women scholars. Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has studied the decline of the public intellectual tradition, but sees a resurgence of brilliance emerging in the digital landscape. Drezner writes:

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, weblogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of the academy – and expand beyond the academy.  Rebecca Goetz observes, “Because I blog I now have contacts, online and offline, with a variety of scholars inside and outside my field. They don’t particularly care that my dissertation is not yet done; the typical hierarchies of the ivory tower break down in the blogosphere so that even graduate students can be public intellectuals of a kind.”

Brad DeLong characterizes scholar-blogging as creating an “invisible college” that includes, “people whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well.”   Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life – including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower.  Indeed, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction.

Similarly, survey evidence also suggests that academics view blogs as a form of public service and political activism.   This increases the likelihood of fruitful interaction and exchange of views about culture, criticism and politics with individuals that academics might not have otherwise met.

The academics listed in the opening graf exchange ideas freely through blogs and social media platforms, but are we undervaluing the importance of their intellect by culturally offering their male counterparts larger platforms and opportunities?

  • DiaporaUK

    What does being a woman add to intellectual discourse in matters not related to being a woman?

    If you have female scholar who is an apologist for the capitalist system how does her being a woman distinguish her from a male scholar who is an apologist for the capitalist system?

    Similarly how is allowing women into the military a win for “women’s rights”? All that’s changed is women have now submitted themselves to the “authority” of an undemocratic institution (the military) and can now be conscripted to go and kill the women of other countries or even the women in their own country.

    Similarly again – how does having “black” faces in high white places giving the orders to bomb defenseless people in foreign countries, strike a blow for racial equality?

    Even if the black faces in high places compromise really did trickle down to benefit every black person I personally would reject it without hesitation. You’d be losing far more than you “won”.

    Plus, don’t want to be like them.

  • Natalie

    You should read the book The Difference by Scott Page. Using game theoretic modelling he shows that a diversity of opinions is important in discourse and problem solving because people bring different experiences and knowledge to the table even if they arguing the same side. Th findings from his work show that This diversity is invaluable. Your comment assumes that just because a man and a woman are on the same sides of an issue they are going to say the exact same thing. There are experiences one has when you are woman that are unique just as there are if you are a minority group or a certain class group. Having more female voices matter because they provide a different worldview due to there experience relative to men.

  • DiaporaUK

    Ok, since you’ve read “the book”, answer these questions

    with elaboration. .

    What does being a woman add to intellectual discourse in matters not related to being a woman?

    If you have female scholar who is an apologist for the capitalist system how does her being a woman distinguish her from a male scholar who is an apologist for the capitalist system?

    And btw, the questions I’m asking are not an attempt to argue for the exclusion of women. In the circles I travel, no one questions the right or authority of women to speak about whatever they choose.

  • http://gravatar.com/solfresh solfresh

    It seems to me, in the beginning of the article, women scholars are being offered media opportunities but are turning them down because they’re self conscious about their abilities. Which is hard to hear because if I’m spending thousands on multiple degrees I would hope to have enough confidence to speak on them. I have a bachelor’s degree and have decided to forgo pursuing a masters in a specialized field for now. I have serious respect and honor for my intellectuals but I’d prefer to just jump into my field, do work and gain experience (I’m in Advertising). As soon as I do get multiple degrees you won’t be able to shut me up. I don’t mind being a professor or writing books but I’d rather have gain 20+ years in my field first. When it is time for me to be a media intellectual, I’ll be damn proud if I do it.

    I love Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry though, she’s a great example. It looks I need to do some more research on the other ladies and on intellectual blogs too.

    My guess with women scholars/intellectuals shying away from media opportunities more than likely stems from how crazy the media can be. How if you’re not careful you can be crucified and damn near lose your credibility over what you say, when you say it, or how you say it. Even if you take a least popular side you may face backlash. I think women scholars need to be more confident in their capabilities if approached by the media and as well the media needs to learn how to respect the intellectual as well.

    Advertising drew me in due to the lack of black, female Creative Directors, so reading the lack of black, female anything always gets me.

  • http://twitter.com/danielleamir danielle

    @diaporauk being a woman, just like being black, puerto rican, or a member of any other marginalized and under-resourced group (in this country) colors a broad swath of life experiences, not just those that are obvious. even if a person possesses a regressive worldview, his or her privilege or lack thereof informs that worldview. i can say personally as a matter of example that my experiences as a woman informs how i look at the crime of police brutality – which disproportionally affects men.

    even clarence thomas can be considered here. he’s a staunch opponent of affirmative action largely because of his experiences with racism at holy cross and in the work force post-law school and his disdain for his gullah-speaking upbringing.

  • DiaporaUK

    I think my point was not made clearly.

    What purpose does racial or gender diversity serve if ultimately it produces the same outcomes as white male homogeneity?

    Clarence Thomas is a black man who serves specific class interests, he’s a Republican appointee to the Supreme Court.

    Who cares what journey led him there?

    His appointment to the Supreme Court hasn’t “diversified” the behaviour of the Supreme Court to make it something different to what it has always been.

    Just as Barack Obama hasn’t diversified (or deviated) from the behaviour of previous American presidents.

    So what use is this cosmetic “diversity” if it only reproduces what went before?

  • http://twitter.com/danielleamir danielle

    absolutely see your point @ukdiaspora but we cannot advocate for diversity and hold those individuals to some sort of litmus test of progressive values to determine their worthiness. diversity has to be the end goal – including diversity of thought.

  • DiasporaUK

    diversity has to be the end goal

    Why?

    I would say the goal has to be to break the white male monopoly control of resources and access to resources.

    Diversity has proven inadequate to that task because it is always implemented on terms which ensure that white (male/female) dominance is preserved.

    Diversity only serves to lull oppressed groups into false sense of “progress”, namely that things are better because we can now speak of the first black or female this or that.

    The reality is that blacks (who I’m most concerned with) are no better off now than we were 50 years ago.

    Diversity is a bust.

    Time for something new.

  • http://twitter.com/danielleamir danielle

    by which metrics are black people no better off than 50 years ago? and how can one expect to overthrow systemic white male hegemony in that matter of time anyway?

    further who says that it is diversity in an of itself that will solve the problem of patriarchy? they are two separate issues that are not on equal conceptual footing. diversity and representativeness is righteous just because it is. it is a step toward overthrowing our endemic centuries long sickness but to me, a tactic in what must be a much broader and holistic strategy.

  • DiasporaUK

    To name two that i’m aware of as a non-American.

    1) Incarceration rates – more black people in jail today than in bondage at the height of slavery, according to Michelle Alexander author of the New Jim Crow.

    2) The wealth gap between blacks and whites remains almost unchanged from Emancipation to now.

    Blacks remain a subordinated, politically disempowered and economically dependent population, under the rule of a racist system.

    Diversity has done nothing to change that, on the contrary I would argue that diversity is tactic used against blacks rather than one that blacks can use to overcome white supremacy.

    Diversity offers only tokenism, and more of the same, with the only “difference” being that the white hand inflicting the harm is now hidden behind the person/s representing “diversity”.

    Quoting you

    . . . . “must be a much broader and holistic strategy.”

    Yes and if diversity is to be part of that strategy it must be accompanied by

    “some sort of litmus test of progressive values to determine their worthiness.”

    I think we’ve reached a level of sophistication where we are able to see that it’s

    not you colour or gender than matters, it’s the class/interests you serve that matters.

    Serve the ruling class and you aint reppin no kinda diversity that interests we.

    That’s how we will be countering diversity advocates. Come correct or step down.

  • http://twitter.com/danielleamir danielle

    couple things. do you honestly believe that life in the us for the average person of color is not better by some measure than it was in 1963? you can offer me a few dry statistics that do hold some merit, but what of quality of life? what of the life of the whole person? my family has lived here for generations during which time there have been sweeping changes driven by activist movements that have made access to quality education attainable and making a living and being a self actualized human being far more possible than ever before. i do not suggest in any way that the structure of racism has been overthrown, but for my mother, who grew up drinking from moldy water fountains and attending the zoo on “special days” when the animals were feeding, I can guarantee you that much has been accomplished in fifty years. it is an anathema and quite frankly a smack in the face of the African American martyrs and revolutionaries who fought for whatever smidgen of progress we have made to suggest that blacks are “no better off.”

    and again, these changes were the result of not the diversity programs that you speak of but freedom movements. i maintain that you are conflating two unequal concepts. diversity programs grew out of, were the extensions of and again i maintain – the tactical application of many of the broad ideological changes that characterized the past 50 – 75 years. to expect “diversity” to achieve anything as monumental is fruitless. diversity enables this change that you speak of by providing ACCESS to resources, ideas and dreams.

    and, in practical terms, how does one apply this litmus test that you indicate, considering that people change attitudinally many times over their lifetimes?

  • http://twitter.com/danielleamir danielle

    couple things. do you honestly believe that life in the us for the average person of color is not better by some measure than it was in 1963? you can offer me a few dry statistics that do hold some merit, but what of quality of life? what of the life of the whole person? my family has lived here for generations during which time there have been sweeping changes driven by activist movements that have made access to quality education attainable and making a living and being a self actualized human being far more possible than ever before. i do not suggest in any way that the structure of racism has been overthrown, but for my mother, who grew up drinking from moldy water fountains and attending the zoo on “special days” when the animals were feeding, I can guarantee you that much has been accomplished in fifty years. it is an anathema and quite frankly a smack in the face of the African American martyrs and revolutionaries who fought for whatever smidgen of progress we have made to suggest that blacks are “no better off.”

    and again, these changes were the result of not the diversity programs that you speak of but freedom movements. i maintain that you are conflating two unequal concepts. diversity programs grew out of, were the extensions of and again i maintain – the tactical application of many of the broad ideological changes that characterized the past 50 – 75 years. to expect “diversity” to achieve anything as monumental is fruitless. diversity enables this change that you speak of by providing ACCESS to resources, ideas and dreams.

    and, in practical terms, how does one apply this litmus test that you indicate, considering that people change attitudinally many times over their lifetimes?

  • Angelique212

    …FYI, “…Fewer Public Intellectuals”. No biggie, but important.

  • sunkissbliss

    What a fabulous discussion! I enjoyed each and every comment. I understand and relate to various viewpoints. I think about where we are today and while we’ve made tremendous gains, what we have lost in the process is very heart-wrenching! I do look at many of the gains, like bones thrown at us and not real change [of infrastructure], but for a few people. We have almost become too preoccupied or satisfied with tokenism, which is easy to do when we see a black president and first lady, Jay-Z and William Buffet on magazine covers, Oprah, Tyler Perry, BIll Cosby, the sistah, CEO at Walmart – Sam’s Club or at IBM and other senior level executives leaning in. Not to mention all of our black inventors and business pioneers, educators and historically black universities, scientists and prize winners and their undeniable contributions!!! I’ve worked in places that I know there was a time, when the opportunity wouldn’t have been possible. Black ski gophers, skiing in Vail, all the Ivy League and Big Ten graduates, moving to communities where we used to get lynched or burned out, we have progressed and have made some important changes and there is more diversity, externally. But, we have yet to crack the deeply rooted enslavement that maintains the system of class and privilege and leaves the majority of power and influence with white men and women, and the poor (colorless) at the greatest disadvantage. Before racial integration, we were business owners in our own communities, we provided for our supply and demand as Hispanic and Asian communities operate today. Our disconnect is wider, along with the progress of diversity; our group consciousness and value system (communities included) has greatly eroded. It is my belief that our “caring” is very limited, we value what others can do for us, rankings, stats and net worth. Our blind ambition puts us into the same group as oppressors (owners of the infrastructure) because of our interests. Special interests (private agendas) rules this world, from my view! This is GREAT discourse and may it continue to flow! Love Clutch!

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