Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gender, Success, Academia

So you should all check out this post over at Historiann's from yesterday, along with the comments. This is slightly off-topic from her discussion, and so I thought I'd write over here, rather than leave a lengthy and off-topic comment over there. First, let me say this: I don't aim to discount anything that Historiann or her commenters have noted about gender bias in their professional lives. Gender bias is a part of every woman's professional life in one way or another, I think, but I do think that it plays out in different ways at different institution types.

So first, let me give a very reductive summary of some of the assertions in the comments that are inspiring this post. In hiring situations, as well as in advancement along the tenure-track:
  1. Women are punished for appearing too ambitious, too prepared, or too qualified. (Bitches)
  2. Women are punished for any sign of lack of preparedness, lack of qualification, lack of focus, or lack of a penis. (Ok, I added that last part because I'm being funny. Nobody said that, but it really is the bottom line, isn't it?) (Lightweights or Incompetents)
Now, I do not think that these two things are in contradiction, actually, and I do think that in many contexts both labels, which I've inserted parenthetically, can coexist as challenges that women, whether as job candidates or as faculty, face. But in thinking about my own institutional context, and the ways in which sexism plays out within that context, I think that women are potentially evaluated differently (and in some ways benefit from that differential evaluation) according to the very same criteria. Let's note that what follows is in no way less sexist than what Historiann says when she writes in a comment, "Women job candidates are either overprepared Tracy Flicks who “intimidate” others, or they’re total lightweights or incompetents."

Ambition, Preparedness, and Qualification for Female Candidates at My Institution

I think that at my institution, female candidates or faculty who appear to be ambitious, prepared, and qualified often do better than male candidates or faculty with those same qualities, or at least can be regarded more favorably. I think that this has to do with the fact that as women, they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as not threatening the Old Guard with their ambitions, preparation, or qualifications. I mean, they're just women, after all. Instead, they are perceived as people who will be good work-horses within the department and university, and as people (especially if they are married or have children) who will never leave. This, at least, is what I have felt about how (some) colleagues have regarded me, as well as how I perceive the ways in which other of my female colleagues, both senior to me and junior, are regarded.

Now. There are benefits to this. It means that we've hired many awesome women in my department (4 women fairly recently before me, 4 women including me - though two of them have left - in the year that I was hired, and 6 women since I was hired, including those hired in this year's searches [so 12-14 women]; compared with only 5 hires who were men over the same period of time). It means that it's fairly easy for an awesome woman in my department to go about her business and to Achieve Great Things without anybody retaliating or being an asshole to her.

But, there are also fucked up things about this situation. There is a pervasive sense that it doesn't MATTER what you achieve if you're a woman in my department, that all that really matters is that you do more than your share of the service and that you keep your mouth shut about any accomplishments that you might manage in addition to that. (Or at least this is what I've felt, when I'm feeling less than generous and positive.) In other words, the fact that I was a really strong candidate did work in my favor here and has done throughout my time here, but it's only after 7 years here that I feel like I really have any sort of real respect. And honestly, I think that what respect I've gained is not about the fact that I published a freaking book before tenure with a 4-4 load, or even that I've been an amazing teacher, but rather that I slaved revising not only our major's curriculum but also the university's general education curriculum over the course of the past 18 or so months. And nobody gives a shit that it's been my students who have won our department's Outstanding Major award in the majority of the years since I've been here, or that it's my students who are winning our Outstanding Writing award, or winning any of the other book awards or other awards that we give each year. What people care about is that I will do committee work that is miserable. (Of course, their blindness to my Total Domination contributes to My Grand Plan to Rule the Universe, so they are stupid, but whatever.)

This culture of not giving a shit about what women faculty do other than "serve" contributes to many of my colleagues just giving up on doing anything other than serving. I mean, research isn't rewarded, and teaching isn't rewarded, so why not just slave away at service, because at least people seem to like it if you do that, right? Except of course, the majority of our male colleagues don't fall into that particular trap, even if they're not achieving anything of note in research or teaching either. The men in my department can be mediocre in all areas. That's just the way of it. And nobody blinks. The women in my department? This is much less the case. But still, nobody (at least as far as I'm aware) thinks I'm a bitch because I'm ambitious, because I'm prepared, because I'm qualified, and because I produce. No, they see me as their meal ticket. Because I exist, the men can slack, and nobody will be the wiser. (This is totally ungenerous of me, but it is how I feel in regard to many of my male colleagues. I want to note, though, that this is totally not universal, and I have many great male colleagues - it's just that they are not in the majority.)

Lack of Preparedness, Lack of Qualifications, Lack of Focus, and Lack of a Penis at My Institution

In this area, women here are perceived positively as well. You're not prepared? Students will connect with you! You're not qualified? But you're so enthusiastic! You're not focused? Well, it's hard to focus with a family, but at least you'll never leave! You don't have a penis? Well, then your penis cannot be bigger than any of ours!

I know this section is much less thoughtful and expository than the one preceding it, but that pretty much says it all. And even if (or especially if?) you lack all of those things? You are Woman and you shall be a workhorse for the department and the university! You will serve - on search committees and task forces and whatever - oh my! And even better - you'll never even try to leave, and you'll never try to get promoted to Full Professor or to wield any real power at this institution! And you'll be stuck in terms of salary for the rest of your professional career, which is a real money-saver in these tough budgetary times! AND you'll just be grateful to have a job - any job! And that's just fine with us!


So heres' the thing. Sexism. Institutionalized sexism. It works in lots of different ways. At many institutions, and in many departments, it shuts women out almost entirely, and it doesn't even give them a fair shot at a bite at the apple. Whatever they do, they are bitches or incompetents. But at an institution like mine, we let women in. Maybe even more frequently than we let men in. We like letting women in, because they'll take one for the team when a comparable male person wouldn't. And part of that is about the kind of institution I'm at (non-research university, regional, known in the area for its lack of rigor, high teaching load for faculty).

On the other hand, at an institution like mine, it is possible for a woman to do really important and powerful work without facing any fucked up retribution for doing so. It is possible to achieve, to thrive, to produce without that being held against her. It is possible that she will even have a better chance than a male colleague of the same caliber or pedigree, if only because nobody really takes her very seriously or pays very much attention to her. You won't be labeled a bitch or an incompetent. You'll just get screwed.

Is that better? Is that less sexist? No. But it doesn't corroborate the narrative of women's lives in the academy that we see over at Historiann's either.


Historiann said...

Dr. Crazy--thanks for this. You should understand that that thread was in part a response to chapter 9 in the AAUW "Why So Few" report on women in science, which detailed what it called the "double bind" of women at work being perceived as both competent and well-liked in male dominated fields. It presents a great deal of research on the bias women face, which suggests that women can achieve only one or the other (competence or likability), and that because of this "double bind," women's advancement at work is compromised.

I would argue that this dynamic is still in play in your department, even if it's not deployed at the moment of hiring. The situation you describe is very troubling--although I understand why you appreciate being left to do your own thing, you're not being recognized or rewarded for a great deal of the work you do. In your department as you describe it, no one is really rewarded much for research or teaching, so the terrain for demonstrating competence (service) is fairly limited. And, you and the other women in your department have decided to go along with the departmental values as you found them, and you do a lot of service. What would happen if you or some of the other women said "no" when it came to service assignments? I think your likability might be compromised, and there would probably be a price to pay.

I think you raise really important issues here--especially because they're critical to women's advancement in particular to the full professor level. As that MLA study showed last year, a big issue now for women English professors--and in my observation, women in general in the humanities--is getting stalled at Associate.

PhysioProf said...

OK, I take it back. You aren't fucking lazy. But you *are* procrastinating!

I keed! Isn't it amazing how we can totally procrastinate professional writing forever, yet just whip out eloquent and well-reasoned blog posts like nobody's business?

citronyella said...

You have just described my experience as a mechanical engineer who happens to be a woman. This is how it is! and its not changing! almost 30 years on, its still the same. And if you dont have children, then you just get to work more night shifts and cover hours for people with *real lives*. Because I have stayed, I guess I have let them do it to me.

FrauTech said...

Great post Dr. Crazy. I definitely agree with both parts and love the bits about lacking in male genitalia. I've had female colleagues tell me partially in jest but mostly for real "well no, that's not going to happen, because you don't have a penis."

I've also seen it vary by profession. The admins in my department who do some amount of technical work but obviously are mostly secretarial; their competence and likeability seem to go hand in hand, with likeability affecting perceptions of their competence. And I know one supervisor who wouldn't hire a guy who was applying for an admin role because he didn't want a "male secretary." I'm not sure whether that guy intended to make a career of that job, I know he was former military and likely an admin role would have led in a few years to something else more manly for him, but found it interesting he wasn't even given the chance. I'm not sure if we ended up hiring him in another role or not.

Janice said...

Ah, I fell into the service trap and am now working to resurrect my research career enough to make the application for Full. Don't fall into my trap, young(er) grasshoppers. Yes, service can be important and even rewarding (it's for the good of the students, discipline, institution, etc.!) but when push comes to shove, nobody gets promotion to full without either the research chops or, well, you know, something else important that I'm never going to be able to produce, being a woman and all.

Historiann said...

Janice--I've long wondered about the gendering of service, and the extent to which it's a feminized thing may help explain why it's not rewarded (although it's theoretically a part of our jobs, all faculty jobs anyway.) But, I'd have to know more about how advancement worked before 1970 to think about it historically. My sense is that at most unis, the male faculty of midcentury got promoted without such a heavy emphasis on research as there came to be after 1970 or so. (This is all related to the collapse of the job market after the massive expansion of higher ed ended, too.)

My sense is that the hierarchical ranking of service last, and the expectation that women faculty will do the service, may be a relatively newish thing, one related to that larger tendency for sex-integrated work environments to invent more elaborate hierarchies for keeping the dominant/majority class on top. (As in medicine, in the way that the arrival of women MDs contributed to the gendering of family practice, pediatrics, and primary care as women's subspecialties, whereas the subspecialties that require more training and/or surgery and/or power tools became the guy subspecialties: surgery, orthopedics, cardiology, etc., which are also the highest paid subspecialties.) Thus the workplace can be integrated, and yet still conform to dominant cultural values.

PhysioProf said...

Thus the workplace can be integrated, and yet still conform to dominant cultural values.

One of the scientific societies that I am a member of has had a decent number of female presidents. However, almost all of the Treasurers have been men, and almost all of the Secretaries have been women.

Dr. Crazy said...

Physioprof - I laughed when you said I was fucking lazy, actually, so no worries :) You know what's funny, though? My level of productivity actually correlates positively with when I'm blogging consistently and substantively. If there's radio silence on the blog, it usually means that I'm *really* procrastinating, and so busy not accomplishing anything of note that I am not "allowed" to blog.

Ann - I'm definitely with you that sexism is still in play at my institution, but I suppose that one of the things that frustrates me about reports on sexism in "the" profession generally or even in "the" field of English is that institutional contexts like mine are pretty much left out of the conversation. It's not that women are saying yes to service disproportionately to men at my place, and there are women who say no. The women who say no, however, are just seen as dead weight, just as the men who say no are seen as dead weight. It's not that women who say no are bitches or seen as less likable, or that men are seen as legitimately protecting their time - they're all just totally powerless in any real conversations about the institution because everybody thinks that they're totally checked out, clueless, stupid, or lazy.

The primary difference as I see it between men and women at my institution regarding service is that men disproportionately hold positions of real power in service settings - they are the ones chairing the important committees, holding important offices on things like Faculty Senate. In contrast, women are tracked into invisible service like directing programs where there is little administrative support or funding, "soft" service that has to do with student or alumni outreach, etc. All kinds of service are necessary, but we all know which kinds are more recognized. And I suppose this last point does fit quite well with Physioprof's last comment.

PhysioProf said...

Everyone knows that you ladies are all organized and good with notetaking and stuff, and we men are all good with the fucking BENJAMINS!

Dr. Crazy said...

Physioprof, you hurt my feelings because any reference to money as "benjamins" immediately makes the song "All About the Benjamins" begin playing in my head, and that is a very difficult song to get out of one's head once it's there. I curse you!

Doctor Pion said...

I am tempted to suggest that you and your female colleagues should just keep quiet and stick to your knitting, letting the men think you are happy in your "place", until that hiring pattern means you can take control as soon as one or two key people retire. They will never know what hit them.