‘Caps off, women keep them on’ is a classic example of sexism

The new UG PhD regulations are supposed to be ‘more inclusive’. But they are not, argues retired professor and gender expert Mineke Bosch, because they make a completely useless distinction: women have to keep their caps on while men have to take them off.

‘Caps off, women keep them on.’ This peculiar phrase from the new protocol for PhD ceremonies the university council will be discussing states that the female professors will have to keep their caps on when seated.

The ‘caps off, women keep them on’ describes the moment the board of PhDs, which enters the auditorium first, sits down in their prescribed seats. It implies that men should take off their caps.

It’s a classic example of sexism, both in writing and in practice. It makes a completely useless distinction between men and women, and the text does it the way it always goes. The men aren’t even explicitly mentioned (‘caps off’). They’re seen as the invisible (genderless) standard in the text, with women reduced to their gender, or even a secondary gender.

This expression originated with Simone de Beauvoir, who coined it in her world-famous book Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), about the misguided distinction our culture makes between the sexes. ‘On ne naît pas femme, on le devient’ (‘One is not born but becomes a woman’).

In my explanations, I always add a list of texts and practices in which that distinction is misguided: legislating, novels, advertising, (university) policy documents, yearly reports, historical works, economic theory.

Men aren’t mentioned, they’re the invisible (genderless) standard

But the list also includes sexual harassment, lists of names that only add Ms. or Mrs. to women’s name, calling women by their first name only while calling men by first and last name or last name only, and pictures of nameless women as opposed to men being identified by their name and job title. 

The list is endless; our culture is chock full of gendered references. Women are constantly ‘made to be women’, confronted with their ‘female-ness’, put in their (second) place.

It’s also peculiar how the protocol deals with the rector magnificus, a role that is currently taken up by a woman for the first time at the UG. The rector magnificus chairs the doctorate board. During the ceremony, the board is represented by the supervisors, the PhD committee, and opponents.

The rector magnificus is often replaced by the dean of the relevant faculty, often (although not often enough) a woman. After the PhD candidate and her paranymphs have been led inside by the beadle, once again according to protocol, and they’ve bowed both left and write, article 12 of the regulations states:

‘The rector magnificus (with cap) rises and says: “Dear candidate, the Doctorate Board of this University, represented by us, has read your

PhD thesis and the accompanying propositions and we are ready to hear you defend it.

Please take your seat.” The rector magnificus sits down and takes off their cap, women keep their cap on.’

Women are constantly ‘made to be women’, confronted with their ‘female-ness’

If she didn’t see it earlier, surely our rector would have noticed this phrasing when she was writing the foreword for the new regulations? Was she not paying attention, or was she glad that, as rector, she’s ‘beyond gender’?

Whatever the case, the addition ‘women keep their caps on’ is ridiculous, because the female professors haven’t even been made to get up. It also validates the so-called genderlessness (which is in actuality the symbolic masculinity) of the title of rector magnificus.

I can’t help but wonder if the regulation writers have simply been hiding their heads in the sand. These changes are being made right here, right now, to PhD regulations that the foreword purports to be ‘more inclusive’.

To be fair, the description of what this entails made me think the worst: ‘In order to make the regulations more inclusive, all instances of ‘he/she’ have been removed.’ This immediately makes me wonder who this text purports to address: is it only aimed at (cisgender) women, or also transgender men, non-binary people, and others? I’m also wondering if the way this is done actually improves inclusivity.

As a former grammar school student (and a gender-sensitive woman), I still have a hard time seeing terms like PhD candidate as gender neutral, and as far as I’m concerned, repeating the word doesn’t erase the text’s male bias.

A professor from Leiden in their recommendation letter for a Rubicon candidate is doing a better job, or at least one that’s more in line with growing conventions of gender-neutral style:

Was she not paying attention, or was she glad that she’s ‘beyond gender’?

‘Now, in producing the thesis Dr. XXX has shown themselves to be a highly autonomous, critical and creative scholar who works extremely hard to achieve targets very much their own. Compared to their peers, I can only but say that both their conceptual and writing skills are absolutely outstanding. During the last two academic years Dr. XXX also demonstrated to be an enthusiastic university teacher whose classes […] were very much appreciated by their students. In that capacity they also showed that they could deal quite effectively with an at times very demanding workload for junior teachers.’

While I was surprised by this particular style of writing, I also got used to it almost immediately. The director of the Faculty of Arts Graduate School told me that phrasing like this is increasingly common in English-language texts. She said that the Irish Research Council enabled future researcher to identify beyond just ‘he’ and ‘she’: ‘Woman’, ‘man’, ‘gender non-binary’, ‘other’ and ‘prefer not to say’.

I hope that the next time the university tries to promote gender inclusivity, it takes the issue a bit more seriously and at least talks to some gender experts. They exist, even at the UG, and they know that gender inclusivity actually means you do have to make the distinction between men and women as often as you don’t.

But let’s deal with this cap issue first of all.

Mineke Bosch is a retired professor of modern history at the UG.


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