On 7 March, Julia, a first-year Master’s student at St Petersburg State University’s Faculty of International Relations, launched a campaign against the sexist remarks of her professors
“The only thing women can hope for on this faculty is to get married”; “We are not preparing diplomats, we are preparing the wives of diplomats”; and “All problems would be solved if women shaved every day like men” — these are the types of professors’ comments that Julia (who asked not to disclose her surname) decided to bring to light in a series of posters that she hung up around the Faculty of International Relations (FMO) on Women’s Day. Having studied at the Faculty for five years now, she says that she heard similar remarks on a daily basis, which sparked her to launch a public campaign titled “#sexism_at_fmo – if you hear it, speak up!” Julia poster’s feature professors’ quotations and the names of their authors. In the day since launching her campaign, her story has touched a nerve across the university and has already been covered by several major Russia media outlets.
The campaign has faced a flood of reactions, including criticism, on social media. Some ardently support her project and recall the times when their university professors made similar sexist comments, while many others condemn the campaign and say that it is an absurd and baseless claim that undermines the status of the faculty. When asked to comment on their alleged remarks, many professors denied the accusations and said that the initiative was a bad joke, the Meduza news outlet reported.
Prospekt Magazine spoke to Julia to hear her side of the story.
Julia, what led you to come up with this initiative and what message are you hoping to spread?
I’m not going to lie, the idea of the project was rather spontaneous, yet it was an outburst of everything me and other female students had to deal with for many years. At some point, you just can’t stay silent anymore and you realise that you have more to gain from doing something – yes, emotional and daring like this – than to lose. I don’t think many professors realise that their jokes are more harmful than they may seem and that hearing them from day one at the faculty can actually negatively influence your confidence, tenacity and motivation. Imagine working hard to get into one of Russia’s most prestigious universities just to hear that all you’ll ever be good for is being a diplomat’s wife. This is simply inappropriate and should be called out.
How did you bring the project to life?
At first, it was just me and the words of my professors that have haunted me for years. Not that they made me believe I’d never achieve the goals I set for myself, but rather seeing many girls underestimate themselves, downplay their achievements and being too scared to dream big. So, I started asking others to share their stories: have you heard anything sexist? Anything that judged female students on their gender alone? Anything that degraded the role of women in science and international relations? And the answers struck me: I learned terrible things even about the professors I’d never suspect of being sexist. It was very important for me to keep the quotes as close to the original sayings as possible. The fact that many professors now deny ever saying things that were heard by many students speaks volumes. I gathered the quotes and made the posters. The original idea was only to put the authors’ academic decrees as references, but then I figured “hey if you weren’t ashamed of saying something like this in front of 20 students, most of whom were girls, why would you be ashamed of it being hung on the wall?” So I posted them late after classes on Tuesday, and on the following day, the posters were still there when I came to class. However, they were taken down quickly after that, but luckily, students managed to take pictures of them and share them online – that’s what really started the discussion.
To be honest, I just couldn’t handle the sexist comments anymore. People say “You should’ve said something sooner, you should’ve done something earlier” but then they also say that there’s no big deal in the words that I posted. So that’s how I feel. I kept telling myself that these words couldn’t harm me or any other girls until I couldn’t any longer. It’s such a double standard to blame a woman for being silent and then to accuse her when she finally finds her voice.
What was the reaction at the university and did you expect such a backlash on social media?
Of course, the professors were furious, but I could tell they were also scared. People heard the staff discussing whether or not it would even be possible to prove the words. As for the students, the opinions split. Many classmates, girls and boys, supported and thanked me and thought it was really brave to do something like that. Others, however, were critical of the way we’d chosen to call the professors out and of the idea itself. They said it wasn’t the main issue our faculty faced, or that we should be grateful for the way things were because there are other places and countries where it’s worse.
One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen is people asking why you didn’t speak up right there and then when the incident occurred? What would you say to that?
Yes, that was another major point of criticism and I can explain it. In a situation like this, not many may have this feeling, but when you know you’re outnumbered, it is very hard to find your voice and speak up. You feel this urge to say something but you actually feel numb. And only by uniting our voices and standing firm together we, as female students, felt strong enough to finally talk about what we’d experienced for years at the faculty. Also, looking at the way the professors react now – denying everything and calling us stupid, whiny and overly emotional – I don’t see how a direct dialogue would’ve changed anything. But this way our actions have caused a huge resonance – the major media has covered our story, the University Board got notified and the investigation on whether the things on the posters have been actually said is being conducted.
Another strong denunciation coming from social media is that the comments are taken out of context; the whole scope is plucked from the air and there are more important issues to resolve. How would you respond to this?
Were many of the things said as light-hearted jokes? Sure. But it doesn’t mean they didn’t have an impact. They stay in our heads for years, often making us second-guess our choices and opinions. And, quite frankly, I don’t see how “women don’t belong in politics” can mean anything else than what it is, taken in context or not. This is another misconception. Of course, there are many other issues that our education system faces today. But why would you use it to silence the voices of those who bring up something else, something only a part of the students can relate to due to their gender? I think it’s important for girls to speak their minds, because if we don’t, no one else will. Moreover, gender equality never has been just a goal in itself. It’s a tool to effectively address pressing issues of today by using the potential of everybody involved.
In the aftermath of the project’s realisation, do you have any views on how the current state of affairs can be changed in a positive way?
To be honest, I am not as hopeful as I had been anymore. Like I said, the administration is very upset and the professors chose to deny everything rather than work on their mistakes. I just want them to know that this project didn’t come from spite, but rather from an aspiration to make the studying environment at our faculty friendly and beneficial for everyone. But I don’t regret doing what I did. Over the past 24 hours, I got so many messages of gratitude and support, that the hateful ones can’t even stand close. Students from other faculties of SPSU say they want to keep the project going, sharing the quotes from their professors and finally finding the courage to speak up. And that’s the best thing about activism – the courage and passion of others inspire you to make your own personal feats. I’m glad I could ignite it, but I am also looking forward to a constructive dialogue with the staff of the faculty to find a compromise and make things better.