(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?