Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Tell Me I'm Not Set Up to Fail." Poppy from Portland Needs Assurance.

Yesterday I read a first person account of a woman in academe; it went like this
I'm a new, young assistant professor in a department of older, mostly male, tenured faculty members—and I have a reverse superpower. In meetings, I somehow become invisible and inaudible. I do make a point of speaking, but nothing in the minutes except the attendance ever verifies that I was there. Just now, in a meeting with a campus visitor, one senior colleague pointed to the full professor next to me and said, "Oh, and Professor Mighty is on that committee as well"—ignoring me. Later, I said—with much ingenue-like shrugging and laughing so as not to be seen as difficult—"Say, you know, I'm on that committee, too." "Oh, yes!" he said. "You are! And you're very important to the committee because you take such good notes!"
I'm in my second year of a okay t-t job, and in a department of 8 women and 2 men.. I haven't been a party to anything like the woman above reports, nor have I seen any of the casual misogyny that gets reported on this and other academic blogs. Admittedly I teach in a very small department, but I've been interviewing elsewhere over the last 2 years, and suspect I will leave this place one day for a new institution. 

Everyone tells me I'm lucky now, that the male/female dynamic at other schools is way worse than what I experience here.

Q: Is it? Can the women of CM tell me if I should expect to face worse than I've seen? I'm at the start of a career, and I need someone to tell me that I'm not set up to fail just because I'm a woman. Oh, and a lesbian, too. Or is that another thirsty?

A: Post replies below.


  1. I recently changed departments within the one institution, and the difference with regard to being heard in meetings is astounding. I keep making a fool of myself in the new place because I find myself babbling or repeating myself or speaking inappropriately loudly out of sheer disbelief that anyone is listening. But they are! And weirdly, the new department is crap in terms of misogyny in other ways.

    So yes, your experience will no doubt vary depending on the specific personalities that make up your new institution.

  2. It varies considerably. But I have seen women marginalized plenty in departments.

    What always strikes me, however, is that casually dismissive males can be turned around. I've witnessed a change in departmental dynamics over a few days when a young woman simply speaks up, and takes ownership of her role in the department.

    I'd think it's rare that a department is just bad. But I only have my own experience to draw on.

  3. I've taught at several different schools (don't ask) and indeed, it varies widely. I've seen the same thing that Kimmie has -- it can change, when you speak up enough.

    An interesting aside...I'm white. I often find that I receive more sympathetic nods and supportive comments in meetings from minority faculty members, regardless of gender. One of our department silverbacks is African-American and firmly supports me..."we're all marginal together," he says.

  4. It does, indeed, get better, and do continue to speak up. Try to say relatively uncontroversial things if you are untenured and fear the wrath of the silverbacks, but speak in every meeting.

    The great thing is that the misogynist old guys will, eventually, retire. It may take 10 years, but you will find yourself with a relatively high degree of power in your department. The new guys we've hired are a whole different generation, and very used to working with women as equals.

  5. Things are better than they used to be, but still far from perfect. One note of warning -- just because guys are young doesn't mean they aren't misogynistic. They may just be casually misogynistic -- unaware that there is a slanted playing field, or even that the power dynamics of meetings and the nature of men and women in (at least) USA culture means that it's harder for women to be heard than for men to be heard *even if everybody has the best of intentions*. Or, they may even be actively misogynistic. I've seen it with young guys. I've seen it with graduate students. So, yes, the old misogynistic males from the days of the "boy's club" are going to retire before too terribly long, but the attitude isn't going to completely leave with them, alas.

  6. (Or is that "boys' club"? Probably that's the better way to say it.)

  7. Well I'm in the humanities so my department is comprised of mostly women (and the women are in the positions of power in the department.) Instructionally, I also feel that women are respected. Both women and men seem to speak up equally at meetings (women might even speak more.) Many women hold positions of power at the institution. There are of course little things here and there. (For instance, men rarely take the minutes at faculty meetings.....) But overall, things seem good from a gender standpoint. Also, if it makes you feel any better, I have quite a few female friends at various institutions around the country and _none_ of them have reported significant gender issues with their colleagues and/or administration. (Not that gender problems don't exist in higher education. They most certainly do. But I guess I don't think that the problem is so widespread that you have to live in fear about changing jobs.) I would say that I have an occasional problem with male students however--problems that I am positive are gender related. And for what it's worth, my female colleagues at other institutions have also complained about the occasional male student....
    Re: sexuality. I think that would probably be a dicier issue. We have several "out" lesbians on the faculty. And I don't think they feel limited by their sexuality. But still: there is a bit of a "tyranny of the breeder" on our campus. And I think that it uninentially marginizalies those who aren't strictly heteronormative. But that being said, the campus is, I think, safe and welcoming. Anyway, those are my experiences and two cents. Do with it what you will! :)

  8. Oops. Small typo. I meant to say that "INSTITUTIONALLY, I feel that women are respected."--not "Instructionally." Sorry!

  9. I think the issue is a lot more complicated that it seems, because it's not just related to gender. It's related to experience and seniority. New faculty have yet to prove their worth to the department. In general no new hire can come in and expect to be considered the "equal" of the longstanding members of the faculty. There is a lot of attempt to make it seem so, but it's not.

    Academic departments function hierarchically, and a lot of that hierarchy, especially at institutions that don't have "stars" or aren't R1s, that hierarchy relates to seniority.

    Thus the best advice for any new faculty is to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. You never know who you're going to offend. Ask questions that make you seem informed, rather than making potentially incendiary statements. And realize that your advice and input is really not going to be considered equal to the advice and input of someone that's been there 15 or 20 years.

    Even those of us that have 15 or 20 years behind us at an institution may find ourselves faced with a cabal of influence controlled by people that have been there even longer.

    Gender discrimination exists, but it is not that cut and dried most of the time. And the elephant in the room is that it is not only practiced by men. Women in academe themselves can be very territorial, and even predatory when it comes to female colleagues. I'm not sure that's under the aegis of "gender discrimination" but it happens and it sucks.

  10. Stella speaks the truth, there are many jerks in academics. Just cause someone say something stupid to you, don't assume it's a gender or race issue.

  11. I've found it's all about content. I've been serving on committees of one sort or another since I was 16, and if what you are saying demands a response from the room, you are more likely to be included in the conversation.
    For example, if the conversation is about Y, you could point out that no one has mentioned X, and ask the room if there is a reason that it is not being considered. If they say "well no, but" INTERRUPT THEM and briefly put forth your argument for X. If you don't make any impact on the content of the meeting, then there's no reason for you to be acknowledged in the minutes.

    The personal slights are more subtle and harder to deal with. Hopefully once they start seeing you as a person instead of a girl you'll get more recognition.

    (personal stats: female, science nerd, early 30's, queer)

  12. I think Isis is exactly right. Well said.

    From my experience, bullies of any kinds - and often misogynists - are full of air. Prick them once and you'll deflate any power they think they have.

  13. Don't assume it's NOT a race or gender issue, either. I've seen far too many ratty things going on and every single one is given some excuse - "oh he didn't really mean" - "that was only because" - "actually that was more about this other thing" - but you know, if they are all happening to women or other visible minorities, over time I have to say that it begins to look like a gender issue.

    That said, that doesn't mean you want to TREAT it directly as a gender or other visible minority issue. If you aren't getting noticed in meetings, it may well be (partly) because you're female. It will be easier to tackle it from some other angle first, though. As Isis suggests.

  14. In the Humanities, I haven't faced these problems, either as a woman or as a queer. My department has more women in it than men. Where I do have problems, both with misogyny and homophobia, is with my students. I find them far more conservative and backward on both topics than my colleagues are. I do not feel comfortable being out to them. I find myself saying "they" instead of "we" when referring to queers and I wouldn't feel comfortable mentioning the gender of a partner. I am frequently shocked and personally upset by the homophobic and sexist things that they -- male and female -- casually belch out in class. It makes me feel unsafe in some way.

    I also find that my female colleagues expect a kind of female bonding with which I am not comfortable and which makes demands on my time not asked of the men. Spa days, baby showers, gals' night out... that kind of thing. I have no interest in this stuff and feel like I'm not considered "collegial" when I skip it.

  15. I have noticed that on our campus, a woman can say something profound in a meeting and be completely ignored. A man, two seconds later, will say EXACTLY what she just said, and be praised and asked to head up the committee to implement "his" brilliant suggestion. Rarely do women echo what someone else has said without giving credit to that person for having said it, thereby automatically building rapport with the other speaker, rather than trying to 'steal' the thunder (As an aside: I'm not sure why stealing thunder is such a temptation).

    In one meeting I attended, the woman who had originally suggested something (after months of researching the topic), became so upset that she was not given credit for it, that she left the meeting in tears. Everyone seemed to think she was behaving immaturely, but no one seemed to realize that she had just been discriminated against.

    It's not always easy, but it's not going to be any easier in any other field. If htis is what you love, then do it, and be strong.

    In another aside: I do notice that on our campus, very rarely do men bring 'treats' to class for students, but women proffies do so regularly (at least regularly enough for me to notice them offering up their cupcakes and brownies to their classes & snagging one myself as I saunter by). I'm not sure THIS does much to help promote the idea that they should be taken as seriously as the men, but I also don't think it's fair that they be judged negatively for wanting to supply snacks to the hungry masses (read "bribe them into writing nice evals").

  16. I tell my students that I used to bring 'treats' to class but this one time I accidentally poisoned a kid and since then I haven't been as interested in doing it.

    This has disrupted the "woman proffie -- treats' synapse in their meager little minds.

  17. I don't do the treats thing, either, and never have, even though I'm a perfectly competent baker. By the end of the semester, I have zero desire to add one more thing to my to-do list, let alone something as peripheral to the academic enterprise as that.

    But I wonder if the failure to act in a gender-typical way hurts me, especially since, outwardly, my appearance screams "mom" (or, at this point, given my aversion to hair dye, "grandma").

    True anecdote: for some years, the members of a mixed-gender church committee on which I serve have supplied snacks to be consumed during a yearly lecture series for which we do the planning. I'm sure some of the married men delegated the task of obtaining the food item which they signed up to bring to their wives, but I know that some didn't, and two male members who lost wives (to divorce in one case, death in another) kept contributing. Nobody questioned the appropriateness of everybody pitching in.

    This year, the event was expanded somewhat, and another committee offered to take over the food part of the arrangements, to which the committee on which I serve gladly agreed. Subsequently, several of the women on my committee, but none of the men, got calls asking them to bring a food item. The kicker: the people who made the (unconscious, I'm sure) decision that the female members of my committee should contribute, but the male members needn't, were female.


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