Review by Hannah Lowe
Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Academia (Raven Books, 2018) begins with a very clear statement of purpose. “I started writing about sexism in higher education to figure out what the hell happened to me,” writes Kelly J. Baker (xvii). Baker, who holds a PhD in American religious history, spent years in academia as an adjunct professor and lecturer before leaving to work as a freelance writer. Sexism Ed is Baker’s fourth book, a collection of pieces written for Chronicle Vitae and Women in Higher Education. In thirty-seven essays, Baker relives the dead ends she faced in her career. She writes eloquently about systemic inequality, misogyny in American culture, and her personal encounters with scholastic sexism.
Part one of Sexism Ed, titled “Academic Sexism,” draws on a number of sources relating to gender in higher education, including studies conducted by other academics, social media campaigns, and Baker’s own experience. In each essay, Baker approaches the topic at hand like a professor in class. She presents questions — such as “Is there a gender gap in academic publishing?” and “Why is academia so inhospitable to mothers?” — and guides the reader through explanation to a conclusion (9, 14). The statistics are damning, but Baker is careful not to leave her reader disheartened. For the most part, each essay ends with a concrete way to effect change.
Part two, “Academic Labors and Their Discontents,” delves into the thorny issue of academic labor. Baker addresses concerning trends including the corporatization of universities, the growing contingency of the academic workforce, and the perils of poor work-life balance. From this section, contingency emerges an equal villain to sexism and racism. In the chapter “The Perils of ‘Do What You Love,’” Baker sits down for a conversational Q & A with Miya Tokumitsu, Ph.D., author of Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success & Happiness. They discuss toxic work culture and agree that solidarity is the key to fixing the problem — a common conclusion in the essays of part two.
Sexism Ed concludes with a series of personal narratives broadly discussing sexism in America. Part three, titled “Sexism, Up Close and Personal,” opens with an extraordinary account of Baker’s struggle with sound and silence titled “Listen to the Sound of My Voice.” Another standout is “Being Visible”: in this 3,000-word piece, Baker uses the story of an August 2017 interview she gave about white supremacy to discuss the current political climate, abuse of women online, and public performance of self.
At its best, Sexism Ed intertwines personal narrative and concrete research. Even when Baker is optimistic, there is profound sadness in reading her essays; it’s clear that Baker herself is one of the many women wronged by systemic inequality in academia. She says it best on page fourteen: “Here’s my life, reduced to an unfortunate statistic.” However, Baker gives her reader hope with calls to action and dialogue with other academic women. She references and relates to the work of bell hooks, Rebecca Solnit, and Miya Tokumitsu, among others. In the essay “Teaching As Liberation,” Baker envisions an ideal classroom through bell hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy. Her description of the classroom as a liberated space of “shared vulnerability, mutual respect, and collegial efforts to learn” gives the reader hope that it is possible to make academia more inclusive (131).
Though Baker recognizes her own privilege early in the book — “Academia remains a very white space,” she writes, as a white woman — there are some issues which she does not address in full (xx). Baker handily exposes the structural racism within academia, but does little to address ableism and says nothing at all about anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. Likewise, she begins to discuss classism writ large in higher education, but ends the conversation with “Academia will only exist for those who can afford it” without further elucidation (137).
Despite its specific topic, Sexism Ed has universal appeal. Baker’s use of industry-specific terms — “MOOCs” and “total-institution model” among others — indicates an intended audience of academics, but her conversational, witty prose appeals equally to undergraduates and those outside the ivory tower. Her breakdown of scholastic sexism equips the reader with the language necessary to participate in the conversation Baker has started. In simple, concrete ways, Baker encourages her readers — regardless of gender and level of education — to join her in the fight against sexism.
Hannah Lowe is an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary. She studies history and media, with a particular interest in the intersection of pop culture and American history.