Getting Schooled for My Sexism

(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in the Academy)

When I was a brand new assistant professor, the chair of my department put me in charge of the department’s speaker series.

This was actually a good thing.  Being in charge of conceptualizing and executing an innovative speaker series, and inviting senior scholars from around the country to our university, was invaluable opportunity to extend my own professional reach in the field, and around the campus.

I got to be on a first-name basis with many senior scholars in my discipline, and I learned how to find the on-campus funding for things I wanted to do.

But that doesn’t mean it all went smoothly.  I was barely out of my Ph.D. and had no idea how to interact as a colleague with the illustrious scholars I invited.

One lesson stands out.  I was on about my third guest (the schedule was about one per month).  She was a Berkeley senior professor of archaeology,  well known to my archaeology colleagues, and highly influential in the field.  Meeting her at the department on the morning of her talk, I told her that I’d arranged a “pizza lunch” for her to meet with the graduate students in the department.

She looked at me quizzically.  “Do you arrange a pizza lunch with graduate students for all of your visitors?” she asked.  I stopped, and thought.  “No, you’re the first one.”  “Am I your first female visitor?” she continued.  “Yeees,” I said, sensing danger.  “Yes,” she replied, “I thought as much.”  She continued, not unkindly, “Let me give you a little heads up.  I’ll do the pizza lunch, no problem. It’s not a bad thing. But I want you to be aware.  Aware that women scholars are routinely asked to do things like this — meet the grad students, be accessible, be a role model, do a little “extra” teaching — wherever they go.  And male scholars are not.  Be aware that you simply *assumed* I’d be ok with this kind of thing and scheduled it without checking first.  Be aware that you did not make that assumption with the male scholars you invited.”

I gulped.  Blushed.  Stammered.  She was a famous scholar, a terrific person, and an honored guest.  And I’d fucked up.

She looked at me kindly. “It’s ok,” she said. “I understand.  I know you didn’t *intend* that.  But you did it.  Just be aware.”

I’d been SCHOOLED.  Schooled in my own internalized sexism.  And I was a young feminist scholar.  Shit.

I never forgot what she said.  I was aware.  I made a point to start noticing what women and men were expected to do in the academy, and what that meant for their time, their reputation, their stature.

I started noticing how women were assumed to be available, to be nurturing, to take time, to take on service tasks.  I noticed that women had trouble saying no, and ended up shouldering an enormous burden of the responsibility for keeping the graduate students “cared for” and the department running.  While men blithely cruised in and out, keeping their office doors closed, “too busy” to be bothered.

I’ve tried to mentor women undergraduates, grad students, and junior faculty to recognize and resist the call of “doing more” and “pitching in” and “helping out.”  I’ve tried to teach them the virtues of selfishness. But I wonder….  does the message get through?  Or do they just have to be schooled themselves, like me, the hard way?


Getting Schooled for My Sexism — 11 Comments

  1. Hmmmm… okay. Don’t disagree with your assessment, and fully agree that it is subtle enough, entrenched enough in our own attitudes, that we don’t notice it unless it’s spelled out for us. But does this mean we should aspire to more like men who “blithely cruise in and out?” I think service and care are good things; maybe the guys need to pick up the slack more?

    • Laura, thanks for reading and commenting. You raise a good point, one that plagues me, and that I always discuss bluntly with the women students and faculty I work with. In an ideal world men should care more, not women care less. Absolutely. Caring, generosity, a shared investment…. these make for healthy programs and healthy people.

      But. I want to see women succeed professionally at all levels, get the good jobs, get tenure, and break through the glass ceiling of full professor…. In many humanities and social science fields, women make up close to 50% of new assistant professor hires. But then the numbers dwindle at tenure and dwindle more at full professor. And the reason is, women’s energies are dispersed into so many “caring” causes when their competitors, often male, are focusing theirs on the publishing that is in the end, the SOLE criterion for advancement.

      (The same thing happens at the graduate school level, where oftentimes women TAs are devoting endless hours to their students and classes, with little to show for it at the end).

      I try to be explicit with women I work with that I take an “ends justifies the means” approach! Take care while a grad student and an assistant professor to guard your time and be selfish. When you have tenure…. you can do all the good work you desire.

      Again, I’m cognizant of the problems with this, but given that people come to me for career advice, and not spiritual guidance, this is the message I feel compelled to deliver.

  2. Great article and I loved your response to Laura. As someone who worked as an administrative assistant/secretary at a university for 5 years in several different departments I witnessed first hand what you spoke of in your blog. The female professors were treated differently, as were the grad students and TA’s. However, those who were in my Women’s Studies classes, who took or taught those classes and were feminists like me were less likely to tolerate the males “assuming” they’d be okay with the things they put out there. Thanks for making the world more aware!

    • thanks for reading, dee, and sharing your experiences! The degree of sexism in higher ed is not often acknowledged or even recognized because a lot of the highly educated men at this point know how to talk a good game and refrain from saying too many explicitly sexist things. It really has to come from watching what people do, rather than listening to what they say. Complicated by the fact that a lot of academic women strongly identify as feminist…. and don’t always recognize when they’re falling prey to unequal workloads…. and that includes their workload at home too.

    • thank you, Z! Pizza lunches with grad students are good things, for sure. In the end, I just made sure to schedule them with ALL visitors!

  3. I had the same comment as Karen. I really like your response, but I’ve found that many women in academia (and I am in a STEM field where women are even scarcer) actually end up leaving because the parts of academia that they feel are the most important to their spirit – though not their career – don’t count. They get advice that they should do less of those things (good advice in the current system), but if they follow that advice they experience a moral dilemma, and some lose their love of the academy. So perhaps instead of teaching women to be more like men, we should change the system such that men need to be more like women and such that things like service, teaching, mentoring count for more.

    • thanks for commenting, DMB. You won’t hear much argument from me about what is the greater good. But, I always tell female junior faculty, they can have more impact on the academy with tenure than they can in 5 years without tenure and then out on the street. I want them employed first, with benefits and a retirement plan. Then they can fight equity battles.

  4. This is a slight reach – but this is the closest post to the question I have. I have a question about equity/diversity forms. These are usually online, sometimes by mail, usually (but not always ) voluntary and ask things like gender, sexual orientation, race/indigenous status, disability, etc.

    In the UK applications they sometimes guarantee interviews for people with disabilities who meet the minimum requirements.

    Here’s the deal. I have a mental illness. It is generally well managed, but has absolutely impacted on my time to completion. Sometimes these questionnaires ask very specific questions, including mental health and specific issues like concentration and memory. I understand that ostensibly these questionnaires are for my benefit, and allegedly they aren’t connected to hiring, sometimes the info is considered confidential.

    To date, I either answer ‘no’ to these questions, or if the option is there decline to answer. I’ve been advised, that answering yes would do more damage than good. I’m not particularly comfortable disclosing what I consider to be confidential information that could be used against me, before I even have an interview. However, it is also possible that at some point in the future I may need some form of accommodation (also possible I won’t). What do you advise? Am I held to what I put on these forms?

    Also, on postdoc applications, etc. there is often a page where you can describe any extenuating circumstances that have affected your timeline (such as illness or child rearing, etc.). I should finish within a roughly average length of time (in the neighbourhood of 6.5 years), and I’ve just been leaving this blank. Should I say anything? Or would it look like making excuses?

    • I had a UK client who asked this same question last year. She did disclose her mental illness on the form, and did get an interview. (She didn’t get the job.) I feel ambivalent on all fronts—i think you should not feel compelled to hide a mental illness, especially when it might impact time to completion. At the same time, I feel that there is enough bias in the world against people with mental illness that you’d be better not mentioning it, esp. since your time to completion doesn’t actually need any excusing. I doubt you’d be held to what’s on the form if you were ultimately hired. My worry is entirely about whether or not the stigma would be so great that you would not get hired. I realize this is not an answer, just a restatement of the dilemma. Basically, I don’t know. Sorry.

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