Women in Academia: Sub-Discipline Assumptions

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been introduced to new issues that women deal with in academia and one just keeps coming up: people make assumptions about field of research based on gender. Upon reflecting on my experience, I realize that there are assumptions about what women in my field (ecology, to be vague) would study: cute animals, things “working together,” anything that speaks to a nurturing soul. I expect this is a phenomenon that’s more widespread than I had first anticipated, and I know that it’s frustrating on both a personal and professional level.

Women make up 60% of master’s degree recipients and, for the first time in 2009, about half of doctorates. In terms of number of degrees awarded, women have seriously caught up in most fields (engineering, physical and earth sciences, business, and math and computer science excepted).  In many broad scale reports on graduate student enrollment, fields are examined at a very coarse scale, so a lot of the nuance about where the women (and men) are within their broader field gets lost. Well, it gets lost to people who are not in the field: I can completely tell you which things women might be the predominant researchers of within my own discipline, but I have no clue about any other group.

What’s frustrating is that these assumptions about discipline come not only from the facts about where women are concentrated, but from stereotypes based on traditional gender roles. It suggests that people expect women to have a natural predilection for those fields of study, instead of allowing that social factors, strict reinforcement of gender roles (through things like the assumptions that others make about field of study!) play an important role in determining field of research. And boy oh boy, do I resent things, especially assumptions about my work and what I am capable of, that suggest that I have to do things a certain way, that my femaleness somehow gives deep insight into my interests and research capabilities.

On the other side of the coin, if a woman is not in a female-dominated field, it seems like she is constantly in defiance of what is expected of her. People attempt to put her into boxes and she resists their classifications. It makes me feel like I am fighting daily for acceptance and legitimacy. There might be a bit of melodrama in that last sentence, but the feeling of having to prove myself, the idea that I don’t belong gets hit every time those assumptions are made. It’s not a big thing, just, maybe, an unintentional micro-aggression.

More than anything, though, I get the impression that there is a bit of distaste for sub-disciplines that are predominantly female. It’s frustrating because if women do enjoy research that is traditionally associated with women, it seems like any success is being undermined: it only makes sense they’d be good at it, since, well, they’re women.  It only makes sense that women would be good at something that men won’t condescend to do.

I apologize that these thoughts are so scattered and half-formed. I do not apologize for sounding angry or frustrated. This issue was brought to my attention in the comments and I am still working through what exactly I think and know. That’s why I’d love your input. What’s your experience with these assumptions? How has it affected how you see yourself as an academic?

20 replies on “Women in Academia: Sub-Discipline Assumptions”

In my particular department I don’t think there’s a big tendency toward gender-separated fields, but most of the men in our department (and many of the women) are LGBTQ, so that might undermine any attempt at clear divisions. We have a big tendency toward emergent theory in my department, too, which tend to be fairly mixed: queer studies, ecocriticism, and new media studies are pretty balanced. I would say, though, that the faculty, particularly tenured faculty, are definitely reflective of old divisions: mostly men have chair jobs in poetry, medieval lit, 19th cent lit, Modernism, etc. and most of the ethnic and gender studies people are women. But that seems to be changing. We just offered chairs to two women, whose home departments beat our offers, so we just hired two men instead. So we’ll have more men, but the superstars in the periods we were hiring for definitely included some highly impressive women. So, probably elsewhere (well, for sure elsewhere) it’s more divided than in my department, but things are moving in good directions!

Late to the party.

I don’t not think it is coincidental that the “hard” sciences are masculinized and highly valued whereas the liberal arts are “soft” and diminished. Moreover, certain social sciences and liberal arts fields are still made “masculine” — communications, philosophy, history. Literature, history of art, cultural anthropology have high percentages of female students….and are always denigraded as little more than rich girl finishing schools.

MORE IMPORTANTLY THOUGH (all caps cause its so important),
I do think there is a masculinist impulse in many social sciences that promotes a methodological equivalence to rape. Our academic culture has replicated the hierarchy of claiming/uncovering/marking over other forms of knowing and other “post structuralist bs”.

Ironically, ever since the linguistic turn in critical theory, literature (and visual arts) has been the mother ship of theoretical scholarship for the humanities and some social sciences. And yet the bias still persists within the humanities as well — like how Butler is made secondary to Bloom in some departments.

I actually think there’s an important point to be made about the gendering of fields more broadly. Whenever I bring this up people tend to say ‘well STEM fields (ie, the male-dominated ones) are just more inherently valuable’ but I don’t think that argument is in any way sufficient – even leaving aside the very serious question of how we define value. Why is art history, for example, seen as ‘fluffier’ than political history? Why is the current orthodoxy in politics geared toward political ‘science’ – toward highly quantitative, deductive methods derived from male-dominated fields like economics?

Although I’ve never felt held back by being a woman in a male-heavy field, I have been dismissed because my work is quite empirical and inductive (rather than theoretical). While that’s not directly a gender issue, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single female theorist on whose work I’ve drawn. This isn’t to say that no men in my field are empirical and inductive too – quite a few are – but I still think there’s a gender element at play, with many women steering clear of the grand theories in favour of smaller-scale work. I’m not sure why that is – I certainly don’t feel pigeonholed and have actually been pushed to do more theoretical work – but it’s too strong a correlation to ignore.

I actually think there’s an important point to be made about the gendering of fields more broadly.

I agree. I’ve actually been meaning to write a post for some time about the gendering of issues in my field, which is government. (I’ve gotten out of the academic side for the most part and am in the practical arena.) Men still outnumber the women in terms of staff presence, but there are more and more women popping up all over the place. But when I go to a meeting about economic development or transportation, frequently I’m the only woman in the room. When I go to a meeting about education or health care, there are women everywhere. Even making inroads into traditionally male-dominated fields, we’re often segregated, either through choice (women tend to care more about fields like education and health care) or being forced there (the person in charge assigns a female staffer to education or health care because women are supposed to care about that sort of thing).

@BaseballChica03 – wow, that’s really interesting. Education and health care; do you think that’s because those are ‘family’ subjects? Home and hearth stuff?

I’m always surprised and sad when I remember that Christiane Lagarde is the only female finance minister for a G8 country EVER. I’d nearly think some countries are more likely to have female Presidents and Prime Ministers than they are to have female finance ministers – there’s something about that field in particular that reeks of old boys’ club.

@BaseballChica03 – Sorry to reply again but they annouced the new Irish cabinet last night and, lo and behold, where are the women? ‘Children’ and ‘Social Protection’. The latter went to a deputy who has been her party’s finance spokesperson until now, and has been quite well-regarded, so it’s being seen as a bit of a sexist snub. But I immediately thought of your point when I saw that.

It’s crazy what you notice once it’s been pointed out to you. Like, Louise Slaughter is the ONLY woman to have chaired the Rules committee in the US House of Representatives in 162 years of that position existing. Sure, there are women Representatives and even chairs of committees, but they are chairs of committees that it’s deemed acceptable for women to be chairs of.

This is interesting. I’m in a historically male-dominated field (biomedical research), which is in the current position of being evenly split at the graduate student and young faculty level but still male-dominated at the department chair and dean level. At my particular university within my particular department (microbiology), there are actually more female grad students than male. I think, if anything, the assumptions I face are that I am thinking about, worried about, and planning my career around wanting to have children. When we have events geared toward women in science, the theme is almost always “how to balance work and family life.” I find that a bit patronizing, not because it’s unimportant (even for single and/or childless people, balance is key), but it reduces women’s issues to reproduction, when I’d like to hear more about sexism, navigating career advancement (how to get tenure, how to get on committees that matter, how to get involved in hiring and advancement so that I can help push more women to the top, how to advance in the publishing and grant-reviewing aspects of science, etc). So, instead of hearing things like “this is how you can even out disparities in positions of power in science,” I hear, “this is the best time to try to get pregnant.” Many of the same issues apply to medicine (I’m also a med student), and there are a lot more assumptions about subfields/specialities that women tend to go into (primary care, pediatrics, non-surgical, etc). I imagine (and have heard from some female MDs) that male-dominated fields of medicine (e.g. surgery, orthopedics, etc) are still very much an old boys’ club, and this presents unique challenges.

One note on stereotypes from outside of my academic field, I find that men tend to either see me in a white coat or hear me say that I’m in med school and still interpret that as “nurse.”

This is really interesting, and I know that my experiences won’t fit in quite as easily because I’m in women’s studies. Which is NOT to say that there aren’t assumptions/problems/stereotypes/etc in that discipline because there most definitely are. A friend in my program mostly focuses on masculinity studies in a specific context, and people outside of our discipline are usually baffled by it and even people in our discipline are often surprised, I think both because of the subject and because she’s a pretty, petite blonde and they don’t expect that to be her area of study. I think overall, people that don’t know much about women’s studies often think that it’s the same thing as women’s history – a lot of the undergrad students who take an intro class seem to be expecting to learn about all kinds of important women throughout history and are then usually confused when they’re assigned readings on privilege and intersectionality and gender and so on. And outside the discipline I know there are tons of people and departments that don’t take us seriously at all.

I work in two very predominantly female fields (fiber/textile art and information studies- aka library/archival science), and I still face these assumptions. I hear that my work (in both fields) ought to be more about women, more about the feminine experience. I hear that these are the only ways I will ever sell art, or get academic funding. That no one will pay attention to my work unless I offer some sort of female/feminist perspective. Now, most of this feedback does come from outside my fields, but it still comes, and I find it endlessly frustrating.
I see no reason why, especially in a female-dominated field, where there are so many of us, I should be pigeon-holed as an all-about-women person, instead of being encouraged to make leaps and bounds in whatever direction I want to leap and bound in.

This is certainly true in my field, ancient history. Women are most commonly found in areas like social/cultural history, and especially the histories of women and other marginalized groups. While I think that the work they do is really valuable, many women that I know in the field have admitted that they feel pigeonholed into these “softer” fields. In addition, women who do ancient history at all are a rarity in the larger group of people who work with ancient languages – the great majority of women in Classical Studies do literature.
It also makes me, someone who is both a woman and does traditional political and legal history, a total oddity. In a sense it has worked for me – being a non-white woman doing work in a very atypical sub-field for someone of my background has made me attractive to some people. Still, it means that I personally know absolutely no one who works in the field and shares both my gender and interests, which is kind of depressing.

I find myself actively trying to stop people from making these assumptions, probably so that I’ll be taken more seriously as a scientist. I do cell biology research in plants, and I get the impression that people think that botany is a soft option compared to medical research and other sub-fields in biology (you know, because plants have flowers and stuff and they’re pretty, whereas in medicine you have blood and all that serious crap).

So when I describe my research to non-scientists that I know, I always somehow end up emphasizing that it has industrial applications in forestry, etc. This is true, but it makes it sound like a more traditionally masculine job than it really is. …obviously this is problematic, because I do want to be taken seriously, but I don’t want to have to sound like I’m in a masculine subdiscipline in order to do so. The fact that I’m doing science and getting funding for it should show that it’s important enough, right?

Anyways, I’ve been lurking for awhile, and this post finally drew me out. Love this website, and I hope to comment more in the future!

In my field of science (archaeology), I find that the undergrad and grad students are mostly women yet the majority of paid positions in and out of academia are held by men. Granted, some of these men are old and hopefully retiring soon so maybe there will be a shift. Just the other day, I was talking to a coworker about how annoyed I am with what I feel is over-classification of simple items. He shared with me a new class of archaeologists that are coming out that have the same theory/feelings that I do and it made me really excited. Then he told me that his adviser (who is female) said that that theory is sexists because only men use that theory. I wanted to just drop dead in the middle of the street.

I’ve been trying my entire graduate career to stay away from traditionally “female” sub-disciplines. Towards the end of of my career, however, I am finding myself being dragged into that territory kicking and screaming. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t have much respect for the sub-discipline because the majority of results are based heavily on human behavior rather than reproducible data from fixed experiments (thus making studies extremely unpredictable), or if it’s because I dread being lumped in “oh, of course you’d be one of them” field.

By staying away, kicking and screaming, don’t you worry you’re internalizing and replicating those stereotypes?

If there is nothing inherently wrong with those subfields and people just hate on them out of gender bias, then why don’t you be true to your intellectual inclinations?

“I get the impression that there is a bit of distaste for sub-disciplines that are predominantly female.”

That is absolutely true in my field. The female-dominated subfields are considered “fluffy,” although I’ve yet to hear a solitary person define that term. Most people assume women in male-dominated subfields (e.g. yours truly) are doing so with a heavy influence from “fluffy” fields as though intersectionality and/or an interdisciplinary approach are crutches for girls who can’t manage big boy theory. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t – and I’m quite sure that patterns holds across disciplines.

I’m in my first semester of grad school for library and information studies, and it is overwhelmingly female and also seen as kind of a useless degree. Which, libraries. But we’re also talking about universal access to information, privacy vs. safety, literature, child development, community organizing, social justice, management theory…all this stuff that is extremely important. But we’re all women, and the two men I’ve met in the program act like they’re persecuted — the same situation I just left in my undergrad career as an education major, also a heavily female-oriented field.

You touched on this above, but the most annoying thing to me is that because a certain field may be woman-dominated, it is less respected. This, of course, is true for more than just academia, I’m thinking teachers and nurses for two, but I only have experience in academia.

Oh, of course you’re bad at kinetics and biochemistry, you have a vagina…

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