Gender(ed) gaps and our biases of knowledge

By Senthorun Raj

“Why are all the historians male?”

It was 2005. I was in high school. We had been studying the historiography of British foreign policy towards Hitler when I turned to my teacher and asked, “Do women not write about this area of history?” My teacher paused, taken aback by my question, and then responded, “You know, I’ve never really thought of it.”

My teacher was intelligent, kind, and encouraging. Instead of dismissing my question, he pointed me towards Joan Scott and encouraged me to read her work. Yet, the fact that an entire course could be developed, taught, and retaught with the absence of any women demonstrated how sexist erasures can get institutionalised. “Gender gaps” are not just topics to talk about in the context of employment – they need to be addressed in our pedagogies and curriculums too.

Recently, a Victorian school announced that it would launch a feminist curriculum “Fightback” in an effort to challenge systemic sexism and violence against women. Such interventions are enormously important in a year where domestic violence, as just one example, kills close to two women per week.

That said, feminist curriculums should not merely be isolated to special weeks like “Women in World War II” or “Female Scientists” in otherwise phallocentric subjects the rest of the year round. Instead, we need rethink how maths, sciences, and humanities reproduce gender gaps both at the level of how we frame knowledge in disciplines and how such knowledge gets communicated.

For starters, we need to divest from our attachment to mythic canons and classics. Many people defend canons by noting that since inequality was a feature of our history, it is not surprising that white men dominate most (if not all) fields of inquiry. Ignoring authors like Shakespeare or Dickens because of history’s parochialism would be tantamount to undermining a discipline like English. But why is disrupting disciplines a bad thing?

Sara Ahmed writes that centering knowledge around whiteness and patriarchy (even in a claim to its history) reproduces those very systems. When entire courses can be filled with the names of white men “because that’s just the way it is,” descriptive historical statements become normative academic ones. For example, if we orient our philosophical canons around Plato or Kant, it is not surprising that current scholars will reproduce them in their own work. “White Men” are not simply identities – they are citation trails.

Such critiques are not new. Feminist, anti-racist, and queer folks are consistently derided for being “too politically correct” or participating in a “culture war” for making the biases of knowledge evident. It seems that if you write a course citing only women of colour, you are just making a “political statement” but if you wrote a course filled with the words of white men, you are getting “objective theory.”

Instead of being defensive about our disciplines and histories, we should ask ourselves how it is possible to have courses at schools and universities without women included? If a course fits into this category, regardless of the discipline, it is time to rewrite it.

Let me end with a challenge.

It’s easy to study a course without ever paying attention to the background of the writers and the topics they choose to write about. So, start to actively think more about it. If you find yourself reading books in the citation trail of “White Men,” ask why and find something new. Many people are already doing it. Who knows what surprises will be opened up to you in the process.