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?