Women in Academia: What do you think are the biggest issues?

Last week I talked about the areas of overlap and divergence in the experiences of women in academia. In both the cases of overlap and divergence, some things are trivial and others are much more important. I mean, we could spend weeks talking about different coffee habits, coffee houses, coffee discounts, and other coffee-related differences and similarities across and within institutions. But that’s not particularly helpful (though, to be honest, now I am seriously craving a big cup of coffee). So today I wanted to talk a little about which of these areas are worth exploring further.

[pullquote3 quotes=”true” align=”right” variation=”red”]Instead, academics (students and professionals) feel alone in a sea of people who feel similarly alone.[/pullquote3]
I guess that talking about issues facing women in academia in a rank order scale is not necessarily helpful since it implies pitting issue against issue. It seems ridiculous to argue about whether adequate mental health services/support or creating breastfeeding areas is more valuable. But for me, this is where various backgrounds are so helpful – what may be the biggest issue in my department to my perspective may not be relevant to someone else. By using our backgrounds and perspectives as a framework or context for placing these issues, we get a better understanding both of what the issues actually are and the people who are facing them.

Furthermore, by talking about how our institutions are succeeding and failing, we can look for solutions. The shroud of silence academia likes to wrap itself in can really hinder forward progress – if people keep pretending issues and problems do not exist, then it is impossible to ever address them. Instead, academics (students and professionals) feel alone in a sea of people who feel similarly alone. It is the ultimate in counter-productive.

I’m sorry that lately I have been writing about so many vague, big picture things. I know it can be harder to read and think about – not through any fault of you, dear readers, but in my own inability to properly discuss and specify what I am talking about. It’s just that I’ve been writing this column for over a year now (yeah, wow, I am surprised, too) and I feel that I see the same things over and over again. I see them in real life, I see them in your comments, I see them in other blogs. I feel like there is so little movement forward and I am starting to wonder about how effective or helpful these conversations are.

It’s easy to point to the problems, but then, after they’re pointed to, what next? I expected progress, depth, and development over time, but I feel like I am still pointing. I want there to be a way to really find movement forward, to integrate experiences into discussions of empirical problems, to feel that these conversations move us down a productive path. So what are the biggest issues? And is there anything to do to address them?

Man, this turned into a mildly existential crisis version of the women in academia post. It feels mildly meta to be feeling this way about a post that generally covers issues that make me feel this way.

4 thoughts on “Women in Academia: What do you think are the biggest issues?”

  1. It’s easy to point to the problems, but then, after they’re pointed to, what next? I expected progress, depth, and development over time, but I feel like I am still pointing.

    This is why it’s so easy to just shrug after another show of lack of progress, and of course this is why we shouldn’t stop pointing. I can’t help you, I can only say that I feel the same. I wish that for once I could be surprised by people picking up things and things happening instead of ‘Yeah, yeah, good one. We’ll think about it.’
    So I guess I’ll just continue to point.

  2. Increasingly the sort of prejudice against women with relationships and families–even sort of unspoken–but not men with the same obligations has been bothering me. A huge percentage of my department is pregnant and our faculty and staff are very supportive, but it’s a huge deal with your work/funding/how serious you are perceived as being, not even at the institutional level, but among faculty members who did it differently and think you should too, maybe? I am just sort of increasingly curious about how to navigate those things.

    Also other hobbies and work as balance. Some people–like a lot of the people advising us–managed to do 10+ years on 10k/year and no hobbies/social life, and they seem to think we (current grad students) should similarly be able to devote 100 hours per week to this and only this and not need a second job or to travel for weddings/family stuff/friends/sanity.

    I guess balancing a personal life and being perceived as serious and committed and competent is my major concern these days.

  3. I am working my way up academic ranks (staff to who knows) and what I’m noticing is that more and more, administrators are hiring people with advanced degrees to do staff/administrative functions and making them professional faculty members. Not only does it make it more difficult to hire a diverse population (minority women especially) but it  devalues the advanced degrees of others–professors, advisors, instructional designers, whatever–and creates a huge divide amongst the staff (“us versus them”).

    I could talk for hours about the insane preferential HR practices that go on at my STATE university & generally benefit white men.

  4. I know, I feel like the issues I dealt with years ago as a lady in the field are pretty damn similar to the issues I still face (substantial personal changes to things, but similar professional stuff. okay, and a lot of the same old personal stuff, too, but a lot of that is just part of my head/personality). Most of the time I just have to remember that change takes time- especially when it deals with women’s roles in a/my highly male dominated field. For context’s sake: 28yr old, fairly small woman in my third year of my phd work in fisheries ecology where there is a lot of time spent in the field. I am still the only woman in my lab section. There is still the slightly misogynist guy who is almost done with his phd (soooon, I hope!). There are the off-color jokes (not about me) in the lunch room, in the field, in the truck driving to the field. There is the also the overwhelming sense that, as the only woman, I could pretty much ask for and be allowed to do almost anything that is woman necessary/specific (if I had a kid and wanted to bring him/her to work with me, I probably could in a way that my male colleagues might not). I already get some opportunities that other phds in the lab don’t specifically because I have lady parts (yay government required sex ratios of professionals in workshops!). I suspect I get some other perks, but not that anyone would say it’s because I’m a pretty, diminutive female.

    So my biggest issue at my institution? At my lab, it is the noticeable lack of other women. It’s strange how much of a difference it makes just in having another woman (dare I say women?) around, or not, in ways that I can’t even describe without putting myself in a funk. But there’s nothing I can do to change that – women aren’t applying to the rare positions that do come open at the lab. My lab advisor recognized it, too, and we’ve actually talked about it. He’s looked for women to collaborate with, but like I said- it’s just a really male dominated field. At my university, though, my issue is the hypocrisy- the lipservice to being all gender-equal, but feeling like I have less freedom to be myself, and feminine, and whatever else parts that are integral to my life in that community of abundant women than in my lab community where I am the only woman. I think the difference in the university is that nearly all the positions of traditional “power” are also male dominated and many of the positions of women at the university are not very strong. They’re included, but still subjugated.

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