Gender in Academia, The 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room


In case you are unfamiliar with the above image, this was an ad campaign run by The Gap, trying to make us female professors look put together or something. Needless to say, it has gotten a fair bit of attention from actual female professors. Because, after all, we get respect based on how we look, right?

It is very likely that this will not be the last post on this topic. And as I posted earlier, I am not trying to represent every single woman on the tenure track in this blog. All I can do is talk about my experiences. So this will be the first of potentially several posts on this subject.

I have frequently had comments made to me about how rare it is to find a female faculty member in engineering, much less in nuclear engineering. It is true. It is a rare thing…so rare in fact that in 2012, somebody thought it would be a good idea to post this. Really, in 2012 this is not something you should be proud of or advertise. If I have to explain to you WHY this is not something to be proud of, then maybe you are not ready to read my blog.

But I digress.

When people comment about the scarcity of women in tenure track positions in engineering (regardless of the flavor of engineering), they are really talking a numbers game. There are more men than women. A lot more. Revolutionary observation, right? This is well known and well documented. But what bugs me is what academia thinks the fix is: just hire more women. In fact, frequently a department that is looking at hiring a female gets a serious bonus for doing so. This can include getting a second hire approved on the same ad so long as the first hire is a woman, having the university pay at least some of their startup, etc. Departments are strongly incented to hire females (as they are minorities, but since I am not a minority I don’t feel qualified to blog about the added complications there…please send me a link to your blog if you are blogging this issue!).

Here is the thing though: you are actually HURTING yourself and women in STEM if you just treat this as a numbers game. You can’t just hire them and not have systems in place to make it such that they actually can work there.

There are so many things that come to mind on this subject and I won’t be able to get through them all. So let me just hit on a few, and I will base them on actual things (direct quotes, when possible) said to me during my time on the tenure track.

“It is a good thing you had your children before going on the tenure track.”

This one was said to me by a senior, male faculty member from a different department in my college. He assumed that I was actually done having children at that point. This comes with the corrolary, said to me by a male full professor from a competitor university about a female faculty member who had recently had a child: “Well, now she has a kid so…you know…there goes her productivity.”** Yeah…both are total douchebags. (You read my note about having a potty mouth, right?)

So what this hits at is this wonderful thing known as the biological clock that male faculty members do not have to contend with. Women can only reproduce during a limited age range in their lives, and this range happens to correspond to when most are working on finishing their PhDs, postdocing, or working on tenure. So what is a women to do? She can’t wait until she has tenure, because that might take her beyond the range of being able to have children. And yet, she is also penalized for having children while trying to manage the process of tenure in her life. I met one female colleague in engineering who was having a really hard time going out and doing the so-called “talk show circuit” (the necessary stage later on the tenure track when you need to go hit up as many other universities as possible to advertise your skills to potential letter writers). This particular professor was a single mother and was not able to figure out how to manage child care while also doing the talk show circuit. I don’t know if she is still a professor today, but I doubt it.

“I will never hire a female graduate student because they just go and get pregnant and then you miss all of your deliverables with your sponsors.”

Yes, male colleague. Our role as women is to make you look good and we deliberately will do crazy things like go and get pregnant just to screw you over. The thing that was truly ironic about this one was that he said it directly to me, a female, who had clearly gone through graduate school while managing to not get pregnant thus destroying my advisor’s ability to meet deadlines. Yeah, because female graduate students are calculating, vindictive bitches.

Something that happened to me

I had gotten in to a prestigious summer program to train people with PhDs in STEM to become data scientists called The Data Incubator. I loved this program, and I needed it because I had just landed a bunch of funding to do data science stuff in my field, but that was not a skill set that I yet had. Here was the kicker: the program was 7 weeks in Washington, DC. But my husband was working in Illinois as part of a spousal hire program. He did human resources for the college. A few weeks before the program we found out that my university had no leave without pay program for administrative professionals. So my husband was given a choice: keep his job or quit and go with me and our daughter to DC for 7 weeks. What the hell kind of choice is that? My daughter, at the time, was 4 years old. And in case you have never tried to find child care in DC, let me just say that it was not an option to take her with me without having my husband there.

So I started talking to my boss about this and was told that it was the policy and that he could try and fight it, but he would likely lose. (See my previous post about how sometimes it is worth fighting things, even if you know you will lose.) We heard that sentiment echoed around the college. He couldn’t come, and so my daughter couldn’t either. And so I spent 7 weeks withouth them, putting a tremendous strain on our relationship and family.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, so many of my male colleagues kept talking to me about how great academia was in that my family would be allowed to do this great thing in DC for the summer. When I told them of the policy, none of them would believe me or could understand it. And, by the way, this meant that I would NEVER be able to take a sabbatical – one of the key perks of academic life – EVER for the very same reason.

My husband did eventually wind up quitting his job because my travel schedule, necessitated by my job, put too much strain on the family. Yes, I am fucking bitter.

The bottom line

If you do not have systems in place to allow female faculty members to be successful, they will leave. It doesn’t matter how many you hire. And in their leaving, you are doing more long-term damage to your university than had you just never played the numbers game and hired them to begin with. But there are some simple things that male colleagues can do that might make a difference:

  • Recognize that there is a huge difference between the experiences of male and female faculty members. This is especially true for the many (primarily older) colleagues I have had who had stay-at-home wives.
  • There are simple policies that can be altered that would make a huge difference in the lives of your female colleagues (hell, ANY colleage with young children). And if you happen to be reading this and are a Dean or above, this is the time where you need to put on your big girl pants and actually do the job of managing that you were so desperate to get.
  • ASK your female colleagues about their lives and their situations and actively FIGHT to make the tenure track something than can work for them. Yes, this requires you to actually ask and listen to what they have to say.

I know I will have more to say about this subject in the future, but this just gets the ball rolling.

Written on July 31, 2017