Earlier this year, as I stepped into a cool classroom holding one of the many interdisciplinary seminar series I take part in, I was surprised by the number of men in the room ““ there were three of them! Every other such interdisciplinary event was marked by the complete or near complete lack of men ““ even having 1/7th of the attendees be men was a huge jump towards equal demographic representation. But why is that? Why are these interdisciplinary meetings so dominated by women?
I’ve always been a big supporter of interdisciplinary collaboration. When dealing with problems, in my case, when dealing with environmental issues, the types of ideas and solutions that come from interdisciplinary discussions provide more depth and are more comprehensive than those that come from people solely in one field. Each field and academic area gets put in perspective: participating in these seminars and discussions feels sort of like zooming out of the small, highly specialized world of thesis/dissertation work and seeing that work get placed within a larger picture. It feels relevant, and that leads to a lot of genuine enthusiasm and action on the parts of the participants.
There’s a growing movement towards interdisciplinarity within and outside of academia. Interdisciplinary majors and minors are getting introduced frequently, working groups within academia often call upon people in many departments across the whole spectrum of schools, and even funding agencies are looking to endorse with cash money interdisciplinary efforts. The value of multiple experts working together on creating new research and addressing existing problems is quickly being recognized.
But even as the value is being recognized, there is still an undercurrent of, I’m not sure how to put it. Since interdisciplinary work is often more applied, so it tends not to have the same cache as pure research and it tends not to be as sought after an experience for people dedicated to continuing with academic careers. That’s definitely not true for everyone, but the intense “R1 or Bust” scientists by and large prefer to focus exclusively on their, often heavy in theory, research. Participating in interdisciplinary work is often something encouraged for those looking outside of academia for jobs.
It’s not a bad thing that there are so many women involved with interdisciplinary work, but here’s the thing, the people most interested in these interdisciplinary seminars and meetings fall into two categories: people looking to leave academia after they complete their degree, and people who are dedicated to including a large outreach or community involvement component to their academic careers. Invariably, those two groups are mostly composed of women.
That’s not really a surprise, but it’s also not great. Academia is not the most welcoming place for women, so the number of women interested in pursuing non-academic careers points to that issue. And the idea that women academics are more involved with outreach and community involvement is again not a surprising one, but it is a disappointing one. Women feel a unique pressure to extremely well-rounded academics, and so take an interest in activities that are generally dismissed by many hardcore theorists. Further, those activities are strangely feminized. For example, outreach is seen as heavy on cooperation a trait that has arbitrarily been deemed “feminine,” but it also requires a great deal of leadership, an arbitrarily “masculine” trait. The feminine aspects are played up, and the masculines ones are down played.
So the future of interdisciplinary programs on campus should not be guided on how to attract men. That’s fundamentally flawed. How interdisciplinary work is viewed and the merit it’s given needs to change. How traits associated with interdisciplinary work (cooperation, for example) are viewed and gendered needs to change. It’s the same thing I keep referring to in these posts ““ a shift in perspective must happen and the only way I see it coming about is through a shift in who makes up academia.