The revolution is not over yet

Posted on Mar 29, 2011 in Everyday Life, Ordinary Madness of Academia

I generally keep up on news and research on women in academia, regularly speak with female colleagues and mentors about issues that affect university women, and keep a notebook of critical reflections on my own experience as a female academic. But I’ve been thinking a lot more about these things since reading a couple of recent articles on the successes of MIT’s gender equity efforts, and their unintended consequences.

For example, the NYTimes reports that enormous strides have been made in the past ten years, but broader societal biases against women make particular attitudes more resistant to change. For example:

“While women on the tenure track 12 years ago feared that having a child would derail their careers, today’s generous policies have made families the norm … [N]ow women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one. As Professor Sive said, ‘Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast’.


And stereotypes remain: women must navigate a narrow ‘acceptable personality range,’ as one female professor said, that is ‘neither too aggressive nor too soft.’ Said another woman: ‘I am not patient and understanding. I’m busy and ambitious.’ Despite an effort to educate colleagues about bias in letters of recommendation for tenure, those for men tend to focus on intellect while those for women dwell on temperament.”

Although I don’t have children I can fully empathise with the first point; it would annoy me too. But the second point really gets under my skin.

When I was a child, this was the attitude that compelled people to remind me that I am prettier when I smile. (I may very well be, but why is prettiness or the appearance of happiness more important than what I actually feel?) As I grew older, this was the attitude that prompted people to ask me what was wrong, when I was simply sitting quietly and thinking. (God forbid I enjoy the life of the mind!) And now that I am a professional academic, this is the attitude that has allowed people to feel justified when they’ve said things like my teaching and service are more important than research (why can’t they be equal?) Or that my personal interests should follow the interests of the group (why must I come second?) Or that I should be more supportive (what if I don’t think something should be supported?) and less critical (why can’t I have a position of my own?)

It remains that many of the qualities that get male academics acknowledgment or promotion are ones that too often get female academics a reprimand. In fact, Inside Higher Ed reports some research in this area that might help explain why women still do not tend to get promoted as quickly as their male counterparts:

“[P]eople of both genders automatically favored male authority figures over female ones — even if they professed to hold the opposite view. Their subjects associated men with high-status traits, such as being competent or competitive, and women with communal ones, such as kinship and nurturing. They also tended to reject or dislike women who vied for authoritative roles.”

And when women’s academic successes are actively acknowledged and supported, some men and women still doubt that they were due to actual merit:

“The perception [remains] that hiring and promotion standards are more relaxed for women than they are for men. ‘In discussions I hear others saying “oh, she’ll get tenure…because we need to have women”‘ … Some women found themselves questioning whether their own hiring was due to their sex and not their abilities. ‘I felt I was invited to interview because I was dazzling,’ one said, ‘but now I wonder…’.”

This situation is all the more tragic when we consider that the opposite is actually happening:

“If anything, women are held to higher standards, said some who were interviewed. ‘I always feel that female candidates are not treated the same,’ one MIT professor related. ‘People give male candidates the benefit of the doubt. The demands for women candidates are higher, they are more scrutinized’.”

“No one is hired without what Marc A. Kastner, the dean of the School of Science, called ‘off-scale’ recommendations from at least 15 scholars outside M.I.T. … ‘No one is getting tenure for diversity reasons, because the women themselves feel so strongly that the standards have to be maintained,’ Professor Kastner said.”

I know that we’ve come a long way, but we’re still not where I–and plenty of others–want to be.

Related: Reading: “a sense of belonging to herself”