It's Time To Reevaluate What Success Looks Like For Women In Academia

"Sex Education" and "The Chair" explore how patriarchy and staid traditions make it hard for women to gain power in educational institutions.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Netflix/Getty Images

In the last month, Netflix has premiered two very different series primarily set on academic campuses that feature women in leadership positions historically filled by white men: the third season of “Sex Education” and “The Chair.”

Yes, it is encouraging to see small-screen narratives reflect the professional and interior lives of women, especially women of color, who’ve risen through a system against all odds. But the challenges women face in those posts makes you wonder whether this type of success is even worth it.

It’s a demoralizing thought, but one that neither show has any qualms about portraying. Take, for instance, Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke), the new headmistress at Moordale High on “Sex Education.” On the surface, she has landed a dream role. Though she instantly becomes the bane of her students’ existence when she applies conservative and borderline abusive rules to eradicate the school’s radical sex positivity, she seems to have achieved a level of power that is still too rare for women in education.

But “Sex Education” peers behind that unpleasant exterior to reveal this to be a double-edged sword. The amount of pressure Hope is under has, in part, exacerbated her long battle with infertility. In addition, her appointment is tokenized. Her male superior (Alistair Petrie) and predecessor constantly hounds her to enforce the rigid standards previously set in place to restore the school’s more chaste reputation. Whatever individual goals she might have had once gaining this position went right out the window in order to uphold a Tory standard that does little more than support an antiquated patriarchy.

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong and Jemima Kirke as Hope Haddon in "Sex Education."
Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong and Jemima Kirke as Hope Haddon in "Sex Education."
Sam Taylor/Netflix

Hope’s situation raises the question: Which women are often allowed to ascend in academia — and, even more important, which are not? In the case of “Sex Education,” it is the woman who will essentially carry out the initiatives and traditions established by the men before her.

Jessica Maricevic, an English teacher of 17 years at Harrison High School in New York and a doctoral candidate looking to defend her dissertation, recognizes firsthand that when it comes to moving up the ranks in academia, there is an unfair benefit to preserving tradition as opposed to challenging it.

“They’ll pick and choose if there’s any other women within the district that they would like to see carry on, like the example [in ‘Sex Education’],” she told HuffPost. “The system’s rationale as to why they want to keep some in line and others they pluck out is [about] power and control.”

It’s one reason why Maricevic has encountered obstacles along her path toward advancement. She’s been trying to institute a new course at her school, one that could also propel her as a leader in her field and make her a more attractive doctoral candidate, and it continues to be stalled for one reason after the next.

“I asked, ‘Is this the protocol every teacher has gone through to present a rationale as to why this course matters?’” she said. “And you get, ‘Well, every course is different.’ So, the answer is no.”

Still, these hoops that women jump through are the only way they can progress professionally. “If you want to advance, increase your salary or responsibilities, you have to look in leadership,” Maricevic said. “Because you can’t go to a neighboring town and just continue teaching English and start over because you have too many years in. That hurts you if you want to stay in the classroom.”

Maricevic’s experience trying to innovate her students’ education and move up in her career is akin to Yaz’s (Nana Mensah) on “The Chair.” Yaz is a Black English professor seeking tenure at the prestigious Pembroke University. She encourages her students to think beyond the white classics — curriculum her colleagues (Holland Taylor and Bob Balaban) hold dear — and is met with multilevel opposition.

But when her friend, Ji-Yoon (Sandra Oh), an Asian American professor, is appointed chair of the English department, Yaz hopes she can finally accelerate her career now that there is another woman of color in a higher position advocating on her behalf. But much like Hope, Ji-Yoon is powerless in her new role, having to balance the expectations of the older white male establishment with her own goals. As a result, both women’s dreams are crushed.

Nana Mensah as Yaz in "The Chair."
Nana Mensah as Yaz in "The Chair."

Ji-Yoon spends so much time mediating the concerns of her colleagues and trying to protect her problematic white male love interest (Jay Duplass), a recent widow drowning in booze, from sabotaging his career that she ends up effecting no real change. She is rendered ineffective as a leader and must return to strictly being a professor, while Yaz considers accepting an offer from Yale and abandoning her dedicated path at Pembroke.

It’s a glum outcome for a series that introduces both as revolutionary characters. But the events mirror the real-life experiences of women who are compelled to rethink their paths in an academic culture that remains unflappable.

Dr. Amanda López, a tenured associate professor of history, chair of the History and Political Science Department and president of the Faculty Senate at Saint Xavier University, got into academia because she loves studying and teaching Mexican history. But like Yaz, the politics at the college has led her to examine other opportunities, despite being proud of the work she’s accomplished.

“They’re trying to find ways to discredit my voice, and that’s the deterrent for people gaining positions of power in their universities: They are going to be called out,” said López, who is also Saint Xavier’s director of the Latin American studies program. “At a certain point, you’re like, ‘This is not what I got into academia to do. Is it worth it?’”

Her last question calls for a deep reflection of the path to success in education. For women like Hope, it’s headmistress or principal. For Yaz and Ji-Yoon, it’s tenured professor and/or chair of a department — positions that are supposed to provide space for them to speak more freely with less retaliation. But López admitted that “success for me is not ever having to be chair again” and being able to teach.

Sandra Oh as as Ji-Yoon in "The Chair."
Sandra Oh as as Ji-Yoon in "The Chair."

Ji-Yoon ultimately went back to that space, albeit involuntarily, and seemed satisfied and slightly relieved at the end of “The Chair.” But Dr. Tia Sherèe Gaynor, Taft professor of social justice at the University of Cincinnati, has rewired her entire thinking around tenure since recently earning it. That’s in part because of the amount of work that you must put in as part of the evaluation for promotion including doing research and writing articles.

For women of color, that work is on top of navigating microaggressions in their careers. “This is the landscape that we have to navigate. The situation with Nikole Hannah-Jones: for faculty of color and for women of color — I don’t think we were particularly surprised that it happened,” Gaynor said, referring to the University of North Carolina controversy where Hannah-Jones was initially denied a tenured position by the board of trustees.

It's one reason why Gaynor has began to question her own relationship with tenure.

“There is this false narrative about the importance of tenure,” she said. “When I got tenure, I realized that it is this constructed thing that people put value on, but it doesn’t mean that that’s your value as a professional. There are amazing researchers who don’t get tenure.”

Perhaps that’s something screenwriters like those for “Sex Education” and “The Chair” should consider. While it’s great for a series to highlight women in positions of power in academia, it would be even more fascinating to see more redefine what success looks like for women — in education and beyond.

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