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‘The female postgrad’s brain is geared for marriage’ A student at a university in St. Petersburg papers her department in posters bearing the sexist comments of her teachers

Meduza
“The more a feminist fails with men, the more radical she becomes.”
“The more a feminist fails with men, the more radical she becomes.”
Yulia’s personal archive

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, a student at St. Petersburg State University put up posters all over the international relations department with quotes from the faculty about women, captioned “If you hear something, speak up,” and bearing the hashtag: #sexism_at_the_IR_Dept. Meduza spoke to the woman behind the posters and talked to the lecturers she quotes.

“Women don’t belong in politics”

The woman responsible for putting up these posters is Yulia, a first-year postgraduate student in St. Petersburg State University’s international relations department (who asked Meduza not to use her surname). She says she got her undergraduate degree here, as well, giving her years to hear the faculty opine about women. She says fellow students also fed her some of the lecturers’ quotes that appear in her posters. Multiple students, she says, can verify that teachers actually said what’s written down.

Yulia’s posters feature remarks like “Women don’t belong in politics”; “The brain of a female postgrad obsessed with getting a husband is incapable of grasping post-positivism”; “This monograph on war was written by a woman, just imagine. Amazingly, it's not bad.” The posters also attribute each comment, naming names like Boris Shiryayev (the head of the U.S. studies department), Roman Vykhodets (a senior lecturer in the theory and history of international relations department), and Ivan Tsvetkov (a senior lecturer in the U.S. studies department).

Yulia says she got the idea to start advertising the faculty’s ignorance at a seminar where she and her women colleagues were told that education is good, but it would be better if they just started having kids (at least three!) in this “difficult time” for the country.

“I wanted the lecturers simply to take a dispassionate look at their own words. I wasn't trying to undermine the sacred foundations of my department, or badmouth the faculty, or get even with them — I just want the place I'm studying to support each student's talent and aspirations, and for lecturers to see in each student our abilities, not gender stereotypes," she told Meduza.

“There’s no place for women in politics.” ~B.A. Shiryaev
“There’s no place for women in politics.” ~B.A. Shiryaev
From Yulia’s personal archive
“I want only redheaded beauties in short skirts to show up for my test.” ~R.G. Shamgunov
“I want only redheaded beauties in short skirts to show up for my test.” ~R.G. Shamgunov

In her first year at the department, Yulia says she was told constantly that the road to politics and diplomacy is closed to women, and that the best they can hope for is to marry a diplomat.

“Most of the jokes were about how we’d end up at war if the women in our department graduated and entered politics, because two of us would show up for a Security Council session in the same jacket, and nuclear war would be inevitable,” Yulia says.

She says the department’s students are mostly women, and even half the faculty are women, who lead classes on world politics, history, and economics “on equal footing with men.” Yulia says it’s most offensive of all when the women lecturers belittle women in politics, and she thinks this kind of dismissiveness harms the women at the university by urging them to abandon their own ambitions, principles, and ideas.

The problem, Yulia says, is that men dominate international relations and its study. “In four years as an undergraduate, the syllabi assigned only two articles written by women about the theory of international relations. And when we discussed them in seminar, the lecturer said immediately, ‘Well, they're women, and also feminists,’ as if that instantly erased the value and significance of their ideas,” Yulia says.

“An absurd and inappropriate joke”

Yullia’s posters went up on the evening of March 6, after that day’s classes, when most of the students and faculty had already gone home. By the time morning classes started the next day, she says the posters were still in place. But then they started disappearing. They were nevertheless up long enough for some students to take photos, which they shared on Instagram.

Yulia says many fellow women students are thanking her for daring to raise the issue of sexism at the university, but reactions from the department’s teachers have been mixed.

“Lecturers are naturally angry and a bit scared,” Yulia explains. “They're discussing what has happened among themselves, denying their own words, and saying that nobody will be able to prove anything. But I don't think there's a need to prove anything — all the students who saw these comments recognized them.” She says students even raised the subject during classes, and some women lecturers apparently said they agree that sexism is a problem in the department that should be discussed openly.

“The brain of a female postgrad obsessed with getting a husband is incapable of grasping post-positivism.” ~R.S. Vykhodets
“The brain of a female postgrad obsessed with getting a husband is incapable of grasping post-positivism.” ~R.S. Vykhodets
From Yulia’s personal archive
“This monograph on war was written by a woman, just imagine. Amazingly, it's not bad.” ~I.A. Tsvetkov
“This monograph on war was written by a woman, just imagine. Amazingly, it's not bad.” ~I.A. Tsvetkov

The university’s press office told Meduza that administrators have not been informed of any sexist behavior by faculty. “If a student encounters such attitudes, he is entitled to approach the ethics commission, whose purview includes examining this kind of issue," the university’s representative said.

Meduza was unable to contact Irina Novikova, the dean of the school’s international relations department. According to a staffer in the dean's front office, Novikova was in a meeting the entire day and out of reach.

Ivan Tsvetkov, a senior lecturer in the U.S. studies department, told Meduza he had seen the posters, but didn’t know one of the quotes is attributed to him. He says he doesn’t recognize the remark and has no idea what monograph he was supposedly describing. “I think it's make believe. I'm going by what our female colleagues are saying about these posters. I don’t see any scandal here. Everybody’s basically just having fun, so I think in the [March 8] holiday context this is all a bit of a joke.” Tsvetkov also noted that “someone would certainly be unhappy” if such comments were systematic. “But this isn’t the case in the department,” he says, adding, “Our dean is a woman, what more can I say?”

Boris Shiryayev, the head of the university’s U.S. studies department, described Yulia’s posters as “inappropriate, to put it mildly,” an “absurd joke,” and “obvious drivel.” He assured Meduza that he has never said that women have no place in politics, and such a thought would never even occur to him. “Politics is neither male nor female; politics is politics,” he explained, adding that he doubts any of the other faculty would ever say “such stupid things.”

“It's possible that lecturers may have joked in an informal setting,” Shiryayev confessed. “The dean is angry, all the lecturers are angry, and we will obviously carry out an investigation.”

Story by Olga Strakhovskaya, translation by Peter Marshall