Wimminz in Academia Panel the Second I

Hermitage is once again hosting a blog Q&A by female academics.  Last years can be found here.  I agreed to answer 4 questions and because I go on a bit I’ll do it in two posts!  Some of the questions confused me as I hadn’t really experienced that stuff personally, but I’m always happy to wade in with a bit of opinion.   I shall answer the following questions here (below the fold):

 

1. Are there any suggestions about how to look professorial as a young (and young looking and smallish) TT faculty?

3. What can we do when other women deny there are problems being a woman in science?

1. Are there any suggestions about how to look professorial as a young (and young looking and smallish) TT faculty?

My first and flippant response is to ask if someone can define what ‘look professorial*’ actually means.  In my field the stereotypical professor is an old white dude with facial hair and a lab coat, so I guess I don’t stand a chance of looking like that without major surgery. My second (and still flippant response) is that I am a lecturer therefore I guess I look like one regardless.  But neither of these responses address the real question being asked.  The question is probably asking ‘how do I deal with people who say/imply I’m too young to be a lecturer/assistant professor?’ and ‘can I dress in a way that avoids the really awkward moment when someone assumes that because I look young (and female) that I’m a student/member of admin staff/anything but academic’.

A lot of new academic staff choose to dress more professionally than their more established colleagues: no jeans, nice shirts, no trainers, even ties, suits and other conventional trappings of authority.  I’ve noticed (and have done it myself) that this particular phase seems to last approximately 1 academic year at my institution before the clothes they actually want to wear: jeans, nice shirts, trainers, whatever, make regular appearances.  I’d say that you can wear what you like but clothes that would look better on a scarecrow are never appropriate, neither are clothes marketed at children or those who frequent dubious nightclubs with less-is-better door policies.

A better idea is to develop an attitude and series of answers for dealing with those ‘are you a secretary or student’ moments.  I often get asked if I am a student or told I look too young to be a lecturer, particularly at recruitment events by parents caring about their kid’s best interest. Generally these questions have two possible assumptions: (1) I’m genuinely surprised that someone who looks as young as you can do the job you do**, and (2) you do not have the experience necessary to do the job you do because of how you look.  I find that (1) causes quite a bit of embarrassment to whoever says it, and it often comes from mothers.  (2) is insidious and plays right into the stereotype that age is wisdom and other such clichéd bullshit.  Having once been asked ‘what qualifies you to teach my offspring’ by a set of parents who caught me on a cleaning out the lab day (think bleach splattered jeans, t-shirt, hoodie and trainers), I calmly listed my qualifications indicating that I was older than they estimated and far more qualified they were expecting.  There was no follow-up question but their attitudes changed dramatically at that point.   So come up with polite answers that address the issue not necessarily the question asked.  I don’t find responding with your age helps, but neither does trying to dress older – you end up looking like a kid playing at dress-up.

Wear clothes you are comfortable with, that make you feel good, and that are appropriate to the days tasks.  A professorial attitude will fix the rest.  Seriously, it’s the mindset not the clothes.

* For those of us in non-assist/assoc/full prof institutions, professorial means look like a lecturer/senior lecturer/reader/professor, i.e. an academic.

**a lot of people will follow this up with ‘but it’s a compliment, what are you complaining about’.  Well I tend to answer by stating that if someone said to one of my older, senior colleagues something like ‘you look too old to work’, it would not be a compliment but a rather grievous piece of age discrimination.  Why should the opposite not be equally discriminatory, and equally unacceptable?

 

3. What can we do when other women deny there are problems being a woman in science?

Accept that not everyone wants to be a flag bearer for equality in science and move on.  There is nothing more objectionable than evangelical people of any description: women in science, crème brulee aficionados, religious types.  Don’t try to convert them to your way of thinking, state that you disagree if it’s come up in conversation, perhaps give a little evidence to back that up and move on.  Not everyone wants to participate in conversations and correct ‘policeman’ to ‘policeperson’ or challenge implicit assumptions regarding the role of women in science, or try to smash glass ceilings.  It simply doesn’t matter to some people: they’re probably picking their battles and focussing on what is more important to them.

Find an appropriate forum to discuss the problems but don’t focus on the problems and complaining about it, come up with tangible solutions that will work (slowly, these things work on near geological timescales) for you and make a difference. If you can, try to include the menfolk in such gatherings from time to time – sometimes pointing things out leads to blinding revelations about various simple acts of idiocy.

For what it’s worth, you will get to points in your career when you can challenge these things at work, head on and make a difference.  They may be small moments where you enlighten one colleague or the chance to sit on some committees and deal with the really big stuff.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Wimminz in Academia Panel the Second I

  1. **a lot of people will follow this up with ‘but it’s a compliment, what are you complaining about’. Well I tend to answer by stating that if someone said to one of my older, senior colleagues something like ‘you look too old to work’, it would not be a compliment but a rather grievous piece of age discrimination.

    Excellent point! I am totally stealing that response and using it from now on. I’m enjoying reading your responses ^^

  2. It’s true you cannot forcibly convert the willfully ignorant to feminist enlightenment, but there’s no way I am giving up on my crème brulee crusade.

    One of the other respondents to this question noted that basically nearly everyone denies there are problems being a woman in science – it’s not just the other women. But I think it stings more when the denial comes from other women in science. One expects them to express some solidarity, or at least to be somewhat cognizant of their own condition, or at the very very least not to be actively functioning as apologists for the oppressors. But if the U.S. Republican party is able to muster up enough gay members to create a subgroup called Log Cabin Republicans, then it ought not to surprise any of us that some women in science will remain – even throughout their entire careers – stubbornly, actively, willfully ignorant of the real facts on the ground for women in science in general. The question for me has always been, in what way is that denial functioning for them? What purpose does it serve for them? When I was in denial about the situation for women in science, that denial helped me think of myself as really unique – one of just very few women able to do this d00dly science stuff! And since I was so unique, why, you could hardly call me a woman at all – I was really more of what you’d call an AlmostD00d. Which was far preferable to being a woman. The denial also helped me keep on loving and admiring ALL the science d00ds around me, since I identified so strongly with them. So, to sum up: denying there are problems for women in science facilitates d00d-worship and belief in the self as an AlmostD00d, both of which stem from disparagement of women and loathing of the self for being a woman. Note that a healthy relationship with other men as human beings does not involve worshiping them as d00ds, but does involve getting to know them as individuals and liking them or not as individuals. What can you do when other women deny there are problems being a woman in science? Feel sorry for them.

  3. Hermitage – I’ve used the line once, in jest, and to make the point. It went down…uhm…not too well 🙂

    Zuska – agree, I think I read the question differently. I took deny to mean those women who don’t actively stick up or advocate for women in science and call out BS when they see it, rather than those who actively disagree that there’s an issue. I’ve never encountered one who actively denies there’s an issue, but have met plenty who never raise the issue (same thing?).

  4. Hmm, maybe not exactly the same thing. Someone might believe there is an issue but be unwilling to speak up about it, versus someone who vocally insists that there is no issue. I have encountered those who deny that there is any issue, and was one of those myself, in the past. I expanded on my comment above in a blog post, What Function Does Denial Serve? and linked back to your post. There are lots of reasons why someone who sees what is going on might not want to speak up about it, one good reason being that they feel relatively powerless and fear retribution. Or they don’t know how to respond. Or they doubt their own mind, doubt what they are seeing, because patriarchy tells them it isn’t really what they think it is. And so on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*