Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Where Are the Lines?

I’ve noticed a troubling trend. Well, a troubling trend in my own behavior, not so much a troubling trend as a whole. See, the longer I stay in academia, the more I forget how different things are here compared with the experiences of the general public.

I’m not claiming some sort of academic exceptionalism – other fields will see similar skews in their averages compared with the general public. But academia, like those other fields, is different in its own way. Faculty skews male. Scientists in particular skew heavily towards atheism. Everyone is dragging around multiple degrees. Faculty are, on average, whiter and better off economically. And while I believe that applying critical analysis and thought to the structures of academia using information based in the rest of the world is appropriate and should be encouraged, I definitely can’t say the opposite.

What I mean is that thoughts and insights about issues and movements like feminism and anti-racism that from the general culture should be brought into and applied to academia, but insights from academic culture cannot be applied to the general culture in the same way. Academia is not somehow magically immune from the issues of sexism, for example, no matter how “enlightened” some people claim this place to be: the things we see in “the real world” are the same things we see locked up in this ivory tower.

But now, I’ve spent enough time here that sometimes, I catch myself thinking about academic culture as general. I start to think that the way issues can be addressed here can be applied outside of academia as a rule. That’s absolutely not true. Yes, there may be cases of broad applicability – I do not mean to deny that. But overall, what serves as a rebellion or as an act of defiance in this particular subculture does not necessarily serve the same purpose outside of these walls.

I’m not sure how to end with this. The boundaries between academic culture and general culture are real, but pervious. Acknowledging the limitations of our experiences, their lack of universality, is crucial. And I’m not sure why it’s sometimes so difficult to do so.

12 replies on “Women in Academia: Where Are the Lines?”

I’m lucky to be in a field (art history) that is very close to the 50/50 divide on sex, and there are many well know and well respected female art historians. Race is a different issue, but I’m thankful that I don’t really have to face sexism in my professional life.

It’s probably counterproductive, but a small part of the reason I went into academia is that I can’t stand being in the “real world.” Ignorance makes me incredibly angry, especially willful ignorance. And I think that part of the reason that academia is so different from the general population is that most people are willfully ignorant of a lot of things.

I have been noticing more and more the issues between “real” world and academia and the boundaries between. As a master’s students seeing the struggles my female professors have and the ways in which many of them have taken on the belief system of the old boys club in order to survive the day-to-day grind of their job, and the ways those who refuse to do this either leave quickly, are pushed out, or are marginalized–especially those who try to bring in some of the perspectives from outside academia, or the privilege that exists in our ivory tower has made me really anxious to leave academia and pursue a career in applied sociology (which in my area seems to be looked down upon).

I work at a public library, but my father was a professor and my mother was a librarian. Two weeks ago, during a discussion of whether it was appropriate to address a letter to Mr. & Mrs. <his name>, I was informed that I was only against it because I was from the super-liberal bastion of academia. I was good. I didn’t slug her…

Anyway, you have a point. Academia is its own little world with its own problems. I do wish though that the academia habit of, god forbid, looking up your facts before proclaiming them, would carry over into the “real world”.

I can definitely see this. It would probably be an act of rebellion if I went and made myself up and dressed in extremely currently-fashionable clothing in academia, because, as a woman, it’s almost as if I’m encouraged to put myself out there as somehow sexless so men can “focus on my work rather than me” (/eyeroll). But that wouldn’t be a rebellion in “regular” society at all.

A couple of friends and I did a panel on women teaching English, and though we didn’t really end up in that area, the sexless clothing was actually the jumping off point from where we got the idea. I can’t tell you how many older instructors, both male and female, that have told my friend and I that if we dressed more “professionally” (i.e. sexless) that we wouldn’t have problems in our classrooms with students. Now, let me tell you, I don’t roll in to class looking like Ke$ha. In fact, most of the time I wear a dress with tights or leggings and boots. But it wouldn’t matter if I walked in wearing a three piece suit, students would still see a 27 year old instructor, though they usually guess much younger.

I can so relate to this! I lost track of the number of times earlier in my career when visitors to my department mistook me for a secretary, a librarian or a student. But I learned to take the fact that I “passed” as a normal, non-academic woman as a compliment, and made a point of sticking with my own self-identity. It’s worked for me over the years, and helped to keep me sane in times of stress.

And you absolutely don’t need to dress in a sack in order to establish authority in class. It’s all about demeanour in the first few sessions: serious confidence, rather than oh-please-like-me winsomeness; no self-deprecation; zero tolerance of cheek (kick ’em out of class if they’re rude or otherwise disruptive); well developed strategies for fielding questions designed to catch you out. (For instance, Smarty-pants says: “But what about X?” Though you want to say, “How the hell should I know?” Or “Shut up, smarty-pants!”, you say: “Well, let’s think: how would you research the answer to that?” Briefly open up the discussion about how to solve the problem to the rest of the class, and set S-p or the whole group to report back to you next time.) You can relax as the course goes on, but it really does help if you start off by performing tough.

Of course, I am now well over 40 and old enough to be my students’ mother, but I’m damned if I’m going to dress like it! I wear what I like, and my research and teaching record speaks for itself. Two of my female departmental colleagues are pretty hot dressers themselves, while my closest collaborator is utterly indifferent to the clothes on her back. So I like to think that I too can look past my co-workers’ fashion statements — though the massed frumpery at conferences can be hellish depressing sometimes!

Most importantly, I am never short of brilliant female PhD students and postdocs, so I’m obviously not alienating anyone with my clothing choices but perhaps even showing that there’s a range of options out there, and that we shouldn’t be inhibited by the apparent judginess of others about our appearance. For some, we’re always going to be a threat, and for those sad losers there is no right way for academic women to dress (apart from in a MacDonald’s uniform, perhaps). So there is no point in second-guessing what the “correct” level of sexlessness is. Fuck ’em and wear what you like….

Hmmm… I am sure I understand when you say that you tend to consider the people surrounding you in academia to be the general public. I have felt the same way, when multiple degrees, multiple languages and in many cases, a mixed-culture upbringing are nothing special at all. Some views that are generally accepted in this area are definitely NOT the norm. Sometimes I am baffled at this.

Then again, for purposes of the article, it would have been helpful to me if you had some concrete example to show me if I am thinking in the right direction, or if I am projecting my own experiences on what you wrote.

Was there a particular incident that made you recently consider the differences between academia and the “real world”?

As a college English professor?  I totally see this.  My “favorite” whacked-out habit of male colleagues is when they make a syllabus with all the ODWG (Old Dead White Guys — think Milton, Melville and Twain) and then throw in like ONE “subversive” thing, i.e. lady author, text about ladies (passes the Bechdel test, anyhow), a minority author, or a text about minorities (horrifyingly, this text is often by an Old Dead White Guy, so, you know, less helpful than one would hope).  You confront them and they get all blustery, quote things from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and mutter about how you just CANNOT teach ALL the literary perspectives.  Yeah?  Well, try more than just one perspective, asshats.

/file under:  Pet peeves, rants and raves


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