Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Being a Woman in Academia

I've wanted to write this post, and about 15 related posts, more times than I can count. Some recent conversations I've had, and some recent media on the topic, have convinced me that now, finally, is the right time. There is so much to say on the topic of women in academia; I cannot cover all I'd hope to say in one post. So I'm going to post on a narrow topic: sometimes, everyone can win.

Disclaimer: Much of what I want to say has to be made anonymous. Yet very little of what I'm saying singles out any one job I've had in academia, and as such, very little of this singles out any particular university, department, or individual.

Aside from the recent media discussions about gender in academia, I'm motivated by a recent email conversation I had* with a male assistant professor who I've known for some years. He sent me the following, of which I have removed only identifying information:

Men and women are different, and I'm not a sexist for saying it. The social values and cultural norms of some minority groups leave their sons and daughters ill-prepared to take on the real problems in the world, and I'm not racist or elitist for saying it. Though correct, these are thoughts that can't ever be uttered among educated, upwardly-mobile people....In reality, I avoid these subjects. There's no winning....It's more that there's no not losing. There's no socially-acceptable way for any such conversation to conclude, except for the white man to agree with whatever a non-white or non-man or non-white-man is saying.

Now, there's a lot going on here, and several points of response would be warranted. In the interest of being constructive for my colleague, I chose to send some suggestions of how everyone can win. Here again, I'm editing my response only to veil identifying information.

Let's discuss. "There's no socially-acceptable way for any such conversation to conclude." No. I feel pretty strongly that there are a lot of things men can do to improve the situation, you probably just don't realize they are happening. I could start sending you recaps of the instances where my gender affects the way I am treated in the workplace. You'd tire of it quickly. Imagine how sick of it I am. But without doing that, and more rooted in research on the topic (and some of my own experiences), here are everyday things you can do:
  • Take advantage of your university's parental leave policy if/when you have children. I attended a symposium by the authors of this book (http://www.amazon.com/Do-Babies-Matter-Gender-Families/dp/0813560802) and this was one of the key findings they discussed. Parental leave policies stigmatize women unless men legitimize them by also using them. Don't have time for parental leave? Neither do women. And if men "don't have time" for parental leave, women feel stigmatized for having to "take time" for parental leave. 
  • Women, and especially women of color, are presumed incompetent in academia (http://www.amazon.com/Presumed-Incompetent-Intersections-Class-Academia/dp/0874219221). I realize that this seems easy to wave off, but it's true, and it manifests itself in many ways. Here are ridiculously common things that happen, and solutions:
    • I have often been given less time to speak during committee and faculty meetings than have male peers, even when the male peers are unprepared or junior to me, and even when I have important things to discuss. It is maddening, and I've had to believe that these men assumed that they were being given lots of time on the floor because they were brilliant. It would be wonderful if just once someone would realize that this is happening and say something like, "but, I've taken up too much of this group's time already and need more time to prepare a more finalized product for your consideration. Jill had less time on the floor for a topic that seems well developed, so I'd like to make sure we're giving that enough time, and I'll ask for a time slot at our next meeting to more fully present my agenda item." Or some such thing. 
    • I've sometimes found out about various opportunities later than have male peers because the senior, male faculty members assume that they will be interested and capable of pursuing those opportunities. As you find out about cool things, just take a minute to make sure your female peers are also being invited to the conversation. 
    • Women work harder to achieve equal status in academia. Just be aware of it. I don't have anything more practical here. Read this: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/i-didn-t-want-to-lean-out
  • There's all kinds of evidence that women are given higher service loads. When you realize that a female peer is on 4 more committees than you are, offer to sub in for her on even just one of them. 
  • When personnel decisions are being made, I've too often seen men praised for style rather than substance, and women criticized for it. Object to this. Make sure candidates are being evaluated for the things they have actually achieved, and not for their ability (or inability) to present a glossy veneer. Stick, firmly, to what they have actually achieved. 
  • True story, I once heard the need for male breadwinning given as a reason to hire a particular candidate. Object to this. 
  • I once attended a reception at an exclusive, formerly-male-only social club. A university development director wanted to engage the crowd in billiards, but knew that it was outside the social rules of the place to be so forward. Had a male offered to break the first rack, she could have pursued all kinds of networks (and possible funding) that the social engagement might have opened up. Watch for situations where women are confined in ways like this, and offer to be that gateway. Break the rack for them. 
I wanted to share this list not only to get it out there, but also because my colleague's reception of it was telling: at our next in-person discussion, he angrily informed me that he'd deleted the email without reading it because it began with the word "no". What was that meant to communicate to me, besides an unwillingness to try some solutions? Talk about no way to win. 

*  I do not relish making public what was a private conversation, but after much reflection believe that in this case, that is outweighed by the ethic of calling a spade a spade, and of getting what I hope is helpful, practical information out there in a way I was ultimately unable to do privately. 

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