1This is a book of proceedings from an international conference on women in academic institutions held in March 2015 at the University of Paris 13 and organized by the University of the Sorbonne Paris-Cité with support from the Institut Émilie de Châtelet and the European Union TRIGGER project. The fact that it was selected for the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development is proof of the Union’s support for research on these topics. This general context, more favourable than previously though there are still some points of vulnerability, made it possible to hold such an ambitious three-day conference.
2The book contains a considerable proportion (13) of the contributions to the 2015 conference along with three short sections summarizing the 36 papers. Some of the papers had already been published. The volume is divided into three parts: pioneers, current academic careers, institutional changes and the levers thereof. But the chapters can also be subdivided into historical studies, sociological studies and personal accounts. The nature of the contributions differs considerably. Some present archive findings, others original surveys, and then there are more or less personal narratives. The volume focuses primarily on France but six of the thirteen chapters discuss a foreign country or province: Belgium, Germany, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Quebec and Switzerland. The disciplines represented are quite diverse: history, sociology, psychology, philosophy and educational science. This geographical, disciplinary and historical variety, together with the different scales studied, ranging from the individual to the structure, evidence the strong ambitions of the conference, and the volume is quite complete. The three examples of pioneering institutions and groups of women academics – female medievalist historians at the École Pratique des Hautes Études of Paris, Toulouse universities from 1912 to 1968, and medical and scientific faculties in Paris from 1869 to 1939 – were all drawn from French university history. They reveal three situations. First, being a foreign female student made it easier to gain admission to these institutions. Second, the fact that a woman established a precedent in being hired did not mean another would be recruited for a comparable position; often it took many long years. And third, being endorsed by a man in a high position within the given institution was a major advantage – the mark of an essentially patriarchal system.
3Part II is more sociological and examines the mechanisms at work in greater detail. Drawing on data from the European Union GARCIA project, Nicky Le Feuvre offers a detailed account of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in this research field. She begins by observing slippage over time from an argument formulated in terms of social justice to one emphasizing women as a factor for efficiency in academic institutions, and she stresses the need for attention to context and taking into account status and pay differences between universities of different countries. The impact of having a child is not the same everywhere either. The author’s review of the international literature covers individual and social factors of inequality but also institutional ones. In this connection, she mentions the importance of identifying “gatekeepers” who filter information and the positive impact of raising their awareness.
4Drawing on qualitative interviews with Belgian post-doctoral researchers of both sexes, Pascal Barbier and Bernard Fusulier describe the tensions between parenthood and the demands of this particular professional world. They distinguish between reinforcement (parenthood experienced as a factor that improves research work), the positive effect of shifting priorities toward the family, and conflict between the constraints of the two spheres, a conflict reported only by the mothers in their sample.
5Alban Jacquemart and François Sarfati explore data from an internet survey on how university personnel feel about their work. Despite a general sense of being socially useful, women have a more negative attitude toward their work than men. And administrative staff and technicians have a more negative view than academics.
6Sophie Lhenry draws on survey data to discuss the question of the “masculine success norm” among teacher-researchers. Using Howard Becker’s concept of career, she deconstructs the dominant perception that the academic institution is egalitarian and meritocratic and that any and all problems concern individuals. The fact is that only women are questioned on how they balance private life and work. As it turns out, women’s ambition is readily stigmatized, and being available for the institution gets turned against mothers, who are generally expected to take care of their children. The standard of success is therefore heavily gender-specific.
7Anne-Sophie Godfroy also focuses on the gender aspect of university excellence norms, this time drawing on data from the EU GenderTime research project. Meanwhile, Marguerite Akossi-Mvongo and Hassan Guy Roger-Tieffi’s study of the University Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, confirms Lhenry’s analyses, despite the doubts the authors express at the outset about the relevance of applying Western analyses of inequality to non-Western situations. Women began to win approval for studying science in high school and attending university as early as 1965 and particularly after 1980. But they are still concentrated at subaltern levels and social roles are intensely gendered. It is true that women now work outside the home (the housewife model is currently viewed as “exotic”) but they are still expected to do the domestic work. Families are therefore reluctant to support female doctoral students in an activity that draws them away from domestic tasks, and once those students become researchers they do not have the same amount of free time as male researchers.
8The last chapters come close to being personal accounts. Francine Descarries observes that despite the vitality of gender studies in Quebec since the early date of 1965, their legitimacy is constantly called into question. Meanwhile Danièle Magloire points to the low number of second-level university term papers on these themes at the State University of Haiti; gender studies only began to be taught there in 2009 and the course is not offered every year. Meike Hilgemann and Jennifer Niegel cite data from triennial reports on the gender situation in academia in Germany. Hiring procedures there are opaque and tend to reproduce a situation of masculine homosociality. The authors conclude that the “black box” of hiring needs to be opened. Farinaz Fassa, meanwhile, emphasizes factors of real change by further developing Le Feuvre’s analyses of the GARCIA Project. Policies in Switzerland emphasize detecting and accompanying women of high potential (targeting, mentoring) as well as making it easier for them to balance family and work lives through provision of day care facilities and work schedule flexibility. These measures do not call into question either the male-centred “gender regime” (see Raewyn Connell) or the general emphasis on excellence norms.
9In her conclusion to the book, Catherine Marry is critical of some aspects of the proceedings and sees the findings as disappointing. She is against calling the issue of professional life/motherhood reconciliation “cursed” and against its being a constant focus of research because, as she points out, women’s careers develop more slowly and are not as “accomplished” as men’s whether they have children or not. Moreover, she says that fixating on the idea of reconciliation or balancing has the effect of leaving academics’ life partners out of the research, “in this work as in most of the publications mentioned”. Marry’s text is less of a conclusion to the book than a critical assessment of the last fifteen years of research on the subject.
10At this point I would add that neither the contributions nor the references they cite and on which the demonstrations are based really discuss the implications of the extreme variety of academic institutions, at least in France. There are implicit hierarchies between disciplines and universities and between universities, professional schools and elite training institutions, and work contexts in those different institutions vary. There are also hierarchical distinctions between political science institutes and technological institutes, two types of structures attached to universities in France (with the exception of Science Po, Paris). Likewise, it is in high school facilities that students in France take classes préparatoires (preparing them to apply to elite training institutions) and earn degrees in technical disciplines; i.e., their teachers there are officially secondary school teachers – and were recruited at that level – though they are in fact training students for post-secondary levels, a situation that makes the skein of hierarchies and hiring channels even more complex.
11This is of course a welcome work, as the subject is not handled very frequently in French-language social sciences. It stands at the intersection of sociology of gender, science studies, and the field of gender-related occupational inequalities. The proceedings of a research day jointly organized in 2007 by the Association Nationale des Études Féministes (ANEF) and Efigies (an association promoting solidarity among male and female students and researchers doing feminist, gender and sexuality studies) and entitled “Les femmes à l’université: rapports de pouvoir et discriminations” [Women in the university: power relations and discrimination] already took up the question of structural actions and provided figures on the situation. Contrary to the work under review, the 2007 conference did not take into account foreign countries or pioneering groups or institutions, but it did examine the relations and attitudes toward the institution of female doctoral students – a specific category of researcher with unstable employment – and included two papers on sexual harassment. All these research studies – wide-ranging EU projects and individual research studies alike – continue to be pursued. Moreover, several of the organizers and contributors to the 2015 conference took part in the 9th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education held in Paris from 12 to 14 September 2016 – proof that the dynamic is still going strong.
12The book itself runs into two stumbling blocks, due in part to the delicate exercise of publishing conference papers. The first is that fewer than half of the papers are included, which is often the case when talks are not assessed for publication before the conference. Second, many chapters are quite brief, corresponding to the length of time allotted for the talk; while this makes it possible to cover several topic areas quickly at the conference, it deprives later readers of precious details. These two problems often arise at conferences, and they indirectly reflect the difficulty of raising funds for scientific assemblies. Barbier and Fusulier’s chapter, for example, is actually a synthesis of an article submitted before the conference and published since in Sociologie et sociétés. And Alain Chenu and Olivier Martin’s paper on the trajectories of female teacher-researchers in the disciplines of sociology and demography was not included in the book but published instead in the journal Travail, genre et sociétés. Last, the substantial file on gender and work/life interferences in scientific careers, co-edited by Bernard Fusulier and published in Spring 2017 in the European Educational Research Journal, has no equivalent in French; it comprises 14 articles, only one of which focuses, and only partially, on France. Clearly the gap between French and international production has not been filled.