In the hallowed halls of academia, Sexism no longer swaggers about in a wife beater with a Camel no-filter hanging from its defiant lip. Indeed, overt displays of machismo are rare, and all of the carefully crafted institutional rhetoric reflects and promotes principles of equality and tolerance. Our private liberal arts centered university, smack in the middle of a down-home red state, even has a women's caucus. In a stunning display of sheer determination and astounding courage, two of my colleagues (one untenured) swept away the decades-old dust left from the dirty dealings of the old boys' club and created the caucus. Today I am the head of this caucus, which boasts about 80 members of the faculty and staff.
Our most challenging work is finding the language to articulate the workings of an insidious sexism that results in what I like to call the quotidian miasma of discrimination, or the QMD (not to be confused with the chimerical WMD). The QMD is insidious because it is the byproduct of a constellation of factors that, when looked at individually, seem not to target women, but which converge on spaces where we are most likely to find women. This more nuanced version of sexism leaves us without a clear enemy, without the swaggering patriarch to flesh out the sinister intentionality behind the discrimination.
I remember as a grad student trying to understand the Matrix-like quality of the "patriarchal order." I always envisioned a bunch of old white men, semi-reclined in overstuffed chairs, hands clasped behind heads, cigars in mouths, gathered around a heavy wooden table in a locked room marked "Patriarchs." In the upper echelons of my university administration, there are plenty of Patriarchs who meet behind closed doors around heavy wooden tables, but the room lacks a clear label, although in the hallowed hall outside the university’s presidential suite, photographic portraits of trustees fill a wall with mostly male images. At my university, we have a male president and five male vice presidents.
Probably they don't overtly plan the continued subjugation of the second sex in their meetings, but regardless of their intentions, the dearth of women in the upper administration and in positions of power is a major contributing factor in the QMD. Because it is undetectable by the clumsy, outdated sexism radar we are still lugging around from the 70s, the QMD works stealthily and subtly.
So, if it's not wearing its hatred and fear of woman on its sleeve, what is Sexism wearing these days? On my campus, it sometimes saunters around in Birkenstocks, long hair, and maybe glasses. You know these guys. These are the men we went to grad school with, shared apartments with, read Judith Butler and bell hooks with. They eschewed virile formulas of manliness, embraced gender theory and were OK crossing their legs at the knees if it was crowded in the conference room. Now they have grown up and inherited the power positions at universities around the country, and, lacking real world experience as the discriminated, many of them have lost the sense of urgency they once felt about the rights of women and the distrust they once had for the administration.
Now they are the administration, if in a minor key. My friends and I have dubbed the administration "The Men's Caucus." Upon arrival, junior men are immediately and seamlessly made members of the Men's Caucus, invited to the all-male circles of power that spin the narratives of our professional lives in the lunch club, the wine club, the tennis group, Friday night basketball, Monday night poker.
To tell the truth, as I struggle through my Survivor-like work environment, male colleagues often have been my biggest supporters, and at times it was a senior woman colleague who made life miserable for the junior women in our department. She had internalized the patriarchal reward system and aligned herself with a senior male colleague, whose behavior and demeanor sent women around him back to the kitchen to make his coffee and fetch his metaphorical pipe. This aging Lothario was often seen bopping around in biker shorts, no shirt, and a cap worn backwards, or swaggering into meetings 10 minutes late wearing a huge, black cowboy hat. His persona stood in contrast to the values he seemed to espouse in his postmodern, liberal scholarship.
His self-styling, bespeaking a hyper-masculine posture and a desire for stark gender distinctions, emulated three of our most extreme forms of embodied virility: the jock, the cowboy, and the hip-hop gangster musician. My negotiations with the Lothario were always easier and more successful when I honored his role as mentor, protector, patron, father, leader, and Don Juan. He liked to make comments about our secretary's weight, and once he referred to our retired women colleagues as "dingbats." When one of the junior women got pregnant, he claimed in her written department review that her pregnancy had affected her job performance. At one of my first faculty dinners, he tipped back several glasses of wine and asked if I would be dancing on the table.
Unfortunately, our soft-spoken, measured, diplomatic dean did not take seriously the women who came forward with complaints about life in the kingdom of Lothario. Instead, the dean read women as damsels in distress to be rescued and then sent on their way with promises of inheritance, departmental ownership and pats on the head for good measure. But alas, in the end he returned the women colleagues to the oppressor's fiefdom, unwilling to betray the code of male privilege and loyalty that works to keep women distressed and in constant competition with each other for validation from the male power structure.
One wonders what would motivate him in this case. Maybe his loyalty to Lothario is rooted in some repressed nostalgia for the patriarch, or maybe he is overcompensating for his own imagined inadequacies when measured against the absent, yet longed-for virile authoritarian. Maybe sometimes the Birkenstock liberal yearns for a pair of cowboy boots and a Camel no-filter.
I managed to live through years of torment by self-centered, self-important, yet mediocre senior colleagues who eventually did grant me tenure, on the strength of my credentials, but to this day, old men roaming the halls tell tales of how the dean "saved" my job, or of how some other man was instrumental in my rescue. I might as well have been wearing a pointed pink hat and waving a hankie out the window of a medieval stone tower. In the patriarchal grand narrative, I was the damsel in distress. I began to wonder if I could ever emerge from this male tale.
The damsel in distress is a motif in the 17th century plays we read in my Golden Age literature class this semester. In these comedies, the women characters must negotiate their positions in an oppressive patriarchy that defines them as objects to be adored, possessed, protected, and rescued by the men, whose honor, virility, and social status derive form the women-objects they control.
Wait a minute, I kept thinking.... I've heard this story before.... Woman plays to the men in power by assuming roles that highlight and affirm male strength, and by disavowing the facets of her identity that are deemed threatening, irritating, or downright hysterical by the reigning paradigm. We shape each other's behavior by rewarding and withholding, by subtly voting for the parts of each other we like best. With many male colleagues, my damsel in distress routine is their favorite performance -- some wouldn't even call to talk unless there was a crisis on the table.
There is a multifarious and indefatigable pressure to be read as a damsel in distress, and, let's be fair, if women don't recognize our own participation in this system, then we preclude the possibility of creating new roles for ourselves, ones that do not require pointy hats or being tied to railroad tracks. How many of us let our need for substantiation from the powerful (all male, at least in my corner of academia) push us to create problems for our knights to solve? What will my professional future look like if I refuse to play the damsel in distress? I don’t want to play the women's roles we see in the formulaic Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, Maid in Manhattan, or Father of the Bride, but I don't want to end up playing roles like Monster or Thelma and Louise, either. I'm not ready for homicide or jumping off a cliff.
Women's Caucuses around the country must work to articulate the complex machinations of the QMD and to increase awareness about the ways many of us, including liberal men and feminists, are perpetuating it. Let us build alliances with our women cohorts and reject the paradigm that would have us compete against each other for male approval. We must be strategic and deliberate if we are to resist the immense pressure to accept prescribed roles that promise us "success" even as we are systematically excluded from the power structure that defines success and failure.
Phyllis Barone is the pseudonym of an ex-damsel and associate professor at a Midwestern, private university.
I had told him about it, but it wasn’t until I’d been called for an interview that my non-academic boyfriend started to get nervous. I drove myself home from the airport and left messages on his answering machine that night, the next day and the day after that. When he called me three days later, it sounded as if he was calling from miles away. By the time I had put the phone down, he was on his way over to pick up the few things he’d left at my apartment. After I cried, I lay in bed that night, hands and feet unfeeling, staring at the ceiling. I guess I’d known that interviewing out-of-state would put pressure on us; what I didn’t know was that it would immediately end the relationship. Six months of dating was just not enough time to build a relationship that we could both hold on to. I didn’t land a full-time position until 18-months late. In that time, I refused to date anyone.
I simply could not put another kind, interesting, funny man through this horrible process. In the end I landed in the Midwest, with only my dog for company. Although I immediately made friends on-campus and off, I found it difficult to consider dating. First, I was not in a tenure-track position. In my mind’s eye, this meant the same process as before. Three years on contract with this university, then moving on. Why bother starting up something that might end up in heartbreak? Yet close girlfriends here and in my original home state urged me to “get in the game” again -- if only to keep from hiding out. I finally did allow myself a few experiences.
I’ve been on a coffee date with an adjunct in my department. Although we are both in the humanities, our similarities end there. A six-year age difference made me feel ancient. And his constant reference to an ex-girlfriend who wasn’t really an ex- made me wary. Disinterested, I didn’t follow up his phone calls, but e-mailed short notes that bordered on professional instead. He has since drifted back into his muddled long-distance relationship -- although I hear that he recently asked our department secretary about other single women at the university.
Urged by my local lady friends, I went on a movie and dinner date with a man who drives trucks for the garbage company. Nervous, I dressed up too much and felt out of place in the movie theater in hose, a dark skirt and sweater. We chatted about nothing special that night -- a nice thing for a woman who’d been out of circulation for some time, but I could not find much to hold on to. He talked about the Navy and his route; I talked about classes and my family. After long pauses and awkward moments, I had that dreaded moment about halfway through the evening where I wished I’d been at home watching television with my dog. This man’s deep interest in marriage and my transient status didn’t help. By the end of the night, I stepped from his Pontiac feeling a bit sad. On the phone the next day, I got honest and told him that I didn’t think we had enough in common. When pressed, I said that I’d also feel guilty keeping him from his quest for a wife. Later he told friends in common that he agreed it was the best thing to do; he didn’t see that much in me. I smiled and nodded my head. He was absolutely right.
Academics frequently think they’re “all that” as my students like to say. And that sense of entitlement gets us into all sorts of trouble. Many of us, including me, are self-centered. That makes a true peer relationship difficult. If a professor also needs ego-feeding, there will be trouble in their partnership outside the office.
"It’s as if he wanted me to applaud for him every night when he came home," confessed my colleague’s ex-wife. "Believe me, I was impressed by his dissertation, his presentations, his research, his papers -- even his thoughts -- but at some point I had to ask myself, ‘What happened to me?’” She is now dating a corporate executive in the area. "It’s just so much easier," she told me over a latté, “I finally feel like I count for something.” Others I’ve interviewed have confessed that professors have a way of making them feel like “mere mortals” rather than peers. And many of these non-academics have more than one college degree, a vast life experience, and vivacious personalities. Although not shrinking violets, they simply could not make a place with a professional who either were tremendously accomplished -- or had an inflated view of his or her worth.
It seems as if relationships between academics and corporate-types have some hurdles to overcome -- yet a number of my faculty-buddies swear by them. “When I finish my job, I want to leave work at work,” says one business instructor I know. When he was married to another instructor, they talked incessantly about their jobs. A year after their relationship crashed, he confessed that he was only interested in dating “non-academics.” He felt relieved that he could start building a life outside of academia. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told me, “I love my job. I just want to stop thinking about it at some point.” He is currently dating a woman who owns a small business.
An accomplished Ph.D. in English rhetoric married his longtime girlfriend who used to wait tables. “She’s real-life educated,” he told me. Her life experience and intellectual curiosity count for a lot. When he comes home to chat about Deleuze and Espinoza, she holds her own -- and quotes the Dalai Lama, which enriches the conversation. My professor friend has a standing commitment to dedicate Sunday to their relationship (and to her two children of a previous marriage) -- and he keeps late-night grading to a minimum. Although they technically have a “trailing non-academic spouse” type marriage, it feels like a peer relationship to both.
A woman friend of mine who teaches humanities at a community college believes that her non-teaching husband brings something unique to their relationship. Because he is in administration in an academic setting, he understands the general issues. He’s also mastered the art of knowing -- truly knowing -- his wife. When she straggles in from a long, frustrating department meeting with a heavy bag of papers, he often says, "You look stressed. Is there anything I can do?" On other occasions, he trots off to the kitchen to make dinner for them both without comment. Some days, when she gets home sooner than he does, she sets in on the household chores, knowing that he will be tired when he gets home. According to her, they have a match made in heaven.
Another advantage is that non-academics have more regular hours -- which may encourage an academic to adopt a more normal working schedule. Many of my friends, tenured and adjunct, have confessed that knowing their significant other is going to be home in three hours forces them to manage their time more wisely. And a non-academic love often encourages academics to make friends outside of the ivory tower -- which can be a nice balance to a bookish, research-dominated life.
For some, however, this match has problems. A tenure-track professor I met told me she hated dating outside of academia -- if only because she did not feel valued. “I dated a municipal court judge who pitied me the whole time. Even though I was presenting at conferences, lecturing, and publishing, he simply couldn’t understand how someone would work for so little money.” Fighting a feeling of “less-than,” she finally stopped dating him. She simply got tired of defending her career.
“He thinks that when I’m presenting at a conference, I’m vacationing,” a colleague confided. Her husband, a contractor, resented her university-funded travel; this difference of opinion brought much tension to the relationship. She also told me that he does not understand her at-home work. “Oh, I forgot. You’re not working today,” is his comment, with requests to pick up his dry cleaning and grocery shop. The time between semesters becomes a battle as he pressures her to make repairs on their classic Victorian house while she is desperately trying to read new textbooks, rework syllabi, course outlines, and assignments -- all while writing to publish. Unless they have owned their own small business, non-academics may not understand the idea of “working” while at home. And the resulting tension can be devastating to a relationship. This is not the only place where academics and their non-academic spouses do not agree. Making money (or not) and how one defines “success” are big concerns.
A liberal arts professor I know dated a man who worked as a marketing manager with a large, successful printing company in the area. When she complained about having papers to grade, he simply answered, “Why don’t you get a job where you don’t have to do all that scut work?” As she sat there, stunned, a handful of student work in her lap, he continued, “Hell, you’d make more money in advertising or something like that anyway.” Not only did she feel unsupported, but she also sensed that he did not understand that she did not teach for money -- or because she had no other skills. When interviewed, she told me that she chose this field because she wanted to live the values she’d been “spouting for a decade.” After studying Buddhism and considering “right livelihood,” she decided she wanted to work at something that contributed to (rather than breaking down) society. And a sense of being able to give back (rather than take) helped her through some non tenure-track years. For successful non-academics, status may be measured by a bank account -- which frustrates academics. The couple’s value system is simply mismatched -- and it is only with the greatest amount of effort that difference may be bridged.
But opinion about academic and non-academic spouses seems to be split squarely down the middle. I have colleagues past and current who swear by their academic loves. A strong bond often develops among professors -- to some it makes sense to seek a partner who suffers and celebrates the same issues. For most it is not just the idea of “summers off,” but a deeper match when it comes to the rhythm of the academic lifestyle. The demands of the job, combined with research and papers, can be daunting. And having a significant other who really understands can help pave the way to a couple’s success. Academic partners also seem more focused on career -- and often have similar interests when it comes to politics and social lives.
“My first husband never wanted to go out to the theater or to the symphony. And I suppose it could be coincidence, but my second husband [an academic] not only loves those things, but also encourages me to see independent films, visit the local art museum and go to poetry readings.” My friend, a foreign-language instructor, is grateful for a companion on these visits. And although a non-academic spouse could have these interests, it is sometimes more likely that an academic spouse will have them. Academics are big readers, too. Those who read books, papers and publications in their own industry often also read for enjoyment -- or simply to broaden their horizons. Not only can this be a source of inspiration and conversation, but also indicates an interest in things outside of one’s experience.
Understanding and helping manage the pressures of academic become easier when you’re already “in the soup” with a love partner. A history professor I know confessed that even though his wife’s Ph.D. was in another area, she was the perfect partner when it came to timing, workload and hours. “She is able to read my needs just by looking at my face and the stack of papers on my desk,” he told me, “It’s such a relief not to have to explain over and over again why I have to take three hours after dinner to draft an outline for a chapter of my dissertation. She’s already been there.” The academic spouse not only understands at a deeper level, but can provide support in a way that non-academics can’t. Two humanities professors I know are co-authoring a paper; they are husband and wife. One confided that this ability to combine their brainpower in this way makes their relationship “that much more complete.”
Although reading one another’s paper or dissertation does not seem like a common event (or even expected), the support is there. One poet I know often runs his work through his wife before he talks to his editor; although her specialty is social work, she often catches small inconsistencies -- and, even better, she really understands his body of work and how that reflects the man. Having a spouse or loved one at a conference or workshop not only can be a bonding experience, but can also lead to discussions that may result in a much-needed lesson for class, or a paper to be presented at a later conference. With academic couples, the sounding board is already there -- and as a friend of mine likes to say, “up to speed.” In some cases, a comparable level of education can provide a foundation for a successful relationship. Yet there may be tensions. The ABD may feel that their Ph.D. toting spouse is a constant reminder of what they have yet to accomplish. And finding jobs that allow a couple to stay together is a near-impossible task.
A new colleague took a position with our university four weeks before the semester started. His wife, on contract to teach at a campus 2,000 miles away, is now desperately trying to land a position in the same area. My colleague told me that they had been apart for three months -- with another seven to go -- if they’re lucky. Or it may be another academic year before they’ll be able to live together again. “We call every night -- but it’s not the same,” he said, “I love her.” But his voice is wistful and he seems confused. I sense that he feels isolated. Although he has cultivated some acquaintances in his new town, he doe not feel as though his experience is complete without his life partner. Single women academics often don’t feel comfortable socializing with a man who is dedicated to a “ghost-wife,” and he often feels like a third-wheel at parties where academic couples meet. The long-distance academic marriage is often an awkward union at best. At its worst, the situation will literally kill the marriage.
One instructor friend who specializes in distance learning says that personality, priorities, values and ability to communicate are the deal-breakers -- not what one does for a living. I think that she is right. Hasty judgments about who makes the best husband or wife can’t be made. Just as there are some absolute clods in academia, there are some wonderfully accomplished, smart and interesting people working for government or private industry. With friends in and outside of academia, I feel as though I am taking advantage of all that the world has to offer. Cutting one group out seems overly focused and elitist. And in our nation, which seems to value entrepreneurialism and individualism at all costs, narrowing the field of human contact seems unwise to me.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
In my recent article, “Homeward Bound” ( The American Prospect, December 2005), I propose that the low representation of women at the highest level of the American government and economy is due in substantial measure to a steady stream of educated women deciding to leave full-time work. Recent analysis of the opt-out revolution reveals that the only group of mothers not continuing to raise their work-force participation despite economic ups and downs is mothers with graduate and professional degrees. Their numbers are flat and have been for several years. Their decisions matter because their careers, if realized, would be influential. Their decisions are a mistake because they lead them to lesser lives, by most measures, and because these decisions hurt society. And their decision is not freely chosen, even if they “chose” it, as it is made in the context of an ideology that assigns childrearing and housekeeping to women, an ideology that, interviews reveal, they themselves accept.The solution will not come from employers, who have no motivation to change economically productive behaviors, nor from the government, firmly in the hands of conservatives, who believe in the ideology. Instead, I recommend that women start by refusing to play their gendered role, preparing themselves for lives of independent means, bargaining from this position of power with the men they sleep with, only looking for help to more distant sources as a last resort.
The readers of this Web site would largely fall into my definition of highly educated people, even though academics do not normally earn salaries as large as similarly educated people in more conventional market positions. And this site has devoted substantial space to the subject of the advancement of women’s careers and the role of the reproductive family, which also inspired my American Prospect piece, reflecting a widespread debate in the academy. Does my analysis apply to the world of Higher Ed?
Straight off I confess I did not interview many academics or former academics. My data included the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, the media reports of anecdotal evidence, my personal experience as a university teacher, and my interviews with the couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times on three Sundays during 1996, which sample did include a couple of academic women. After I wrote, I reconfirmed my data against the findings of economist Heather Boushey regarding highly educated women, although her failure to break out full- and part-time work makes her findings of questionable relevance to mine. The academic literature, however, includes a rich trove of data about the matter. As one would expect from a world of researchers!
For example, the American Historical Association reported that although in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, 11 years later, as one would have expected some of that cohort to have raised the percentage of full professors closer, if not fully, to 39 percent, the full professor ranks were still only 18 percent female. In 2003 over 45 percent of Ph.D.'s were women, while only 36 percent of the hires at the University of California were women. Judith H. White writes in Liberal Education that “while in 1998 women made up 42 percent of all new Ph.D. recipients, the portion of women faculty in the senior tenured positions at doctoral research institutions had reached only 13.8 percent -- up from 6.1 percent in 1974.”
The same article reports that careful studies out of Berkeley show that academic women having children within five years of their Ph.D. fail at tenure vastly more often than men in the same parental position. Academic women who have children later succeed at tenure just as much as childless women do. But findings from the 2001 Journal of Higher Education ("The Relationship Between Family Responsibilities and Employment Status Among College and University Faculty") also suggest that the employment of women in non-tenure-track positions is attributable in part to their marital status. Although a smaller share of women than men junior faculty are married (67 percent versus 78 percent), being married increases the odds of holding a part-time, non-tenure-track position for women but not for men. This study suggests that married men faculty and male faculty members with children are also benefiting from their marital and parental status in terms of their employment status.
This is very valuable data. One of the hottest debates in gender politics today is whether women fail at work compared to men more because of workplace hostility and discrimination or whether they fail more because of their “choice” to take their financial support from their spouses and tend the babies or the husbands and the home fires. But common sense tells us that something besides marriage must be at work. Nancy Hopkins’ groundbreaking study of resource allocation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifted the veil on an ugly part of what goes on -- plain old discrimination, conscious or unconscious.
In this, I suspect the academy is worse than the world of finance and medicine and the like where my research subjects had worked before they quit. While no sane woman I’ve ever met claims that there are workplaces completely free of sex discrimination (it is, after all, only 85 years since the 19th Amendment!), research on gender reflects that the arena for discrimination is greater where there is not a clear monetary measure of productivity. So the world of the research university is a perfect playground for subjective opinion, including ideas about women’s proper roles, conscious or not, and the powerful lure of autobiography in each hiring committee member’s inaccessible subconscious.
But you already knew that. Nancy Hopkins and all the others have been telling you that loud and clear for what feels like 85 years as well. Is that all there is? I think not. In American Prospect, I did a Larry Summers and said that the male dominance of influential jobs is partly due to elite women’s decisions to devote themselves to childrearing and housekeeping, an opting out that is not new, but has not subsided, either. Most of the Times brides I interviewed didn’t take their work seriously and had been preparing to bail for years before their kids came. My experience in a very liberal classroom was that a lot of the female students were already preparing ... to prepare to bail. And I said it was a mistake for the women to do that and that they shouldn’t be looking for help from Jack Welch or Tom DeLay. Aw, hell, nobody from the Harvard presidential search committee was calling me anyway.
Here again the academy may be different, but in this way, better. Women may not be as eager to leave academic jobs as their well educated sisters were to quit journalism, law and publishing. There are two reasons for this. One, the hours are better. While the business magazine Fast Company reports that a 60 to 75 hour work week is typical for business leaders, ladder rank faculty with children in the University of California study (according to their own self-reporting) worked 53 to 56 hours a week. Second, university teaching is really good substantive work, between the good students and researching things that interest you and making them real, even if just in a book (like some of mine) nobody reads but mom. So it’s understandable that women faculty are pressing universities to make it possible for them to have children and stay on track, through devices like extended tenure periods and the like. Moreover, the effort to extract help from the workplace may succeed better at Harvard than at General Electric, because, when clear, objective programs are proposed, nonprofits like Harvard are not up to their eyeballs in the Hobbesian world of globalized late capitalism, so it’s easier for them to yield a little.
But in the end, it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the gendered family in favor of putting so much emphasis on institutional programs or policies. The University of California reports that young faculty women with children work 37 hours a week on family care; if they are 34—38, they work a self-reported but staggering 43 hours a week on family care. Young dads work only two-thirds as much (25 hours); in the 34--38 age bracket the gap is even higher -- dads work half as hard as their female counterparts. No wonder, when the University of California proposed one of the many initiatives surfacing nationwide of flex time for tenure decisions, 74 percent of women with children supported the policy, but only just over half the men did. The statistics exactly mirror the difference between the dads’ family care hours and the mothers’.
Commentators on the California plan worried about the reduction in faculty productivity, especially in teaching, and the substitution of increasing numbers of serfs from the non-tenure track. Where such policies exist, it is overwhelmingly the women who take advantage of them. Stopping the tenure clock is one thing, but, as one of the commentators also asked, what will the promotion committee do when, years later, it looks at a CV half again as long for the man as for the woman? The women’s own reports of their domestic arrangements clearly show that the main guy in an academic woman’s path may not be Larry Summers after all -- he may be her own husband.
Here’s an answer to the commentators who worried about the reduction in faculty productivity and the length of male résumés. Since young faculty fathers spend two-thirds the time on family care that mothers do, why not simply require faculty fathers to produce half again as much (teaching, scholarship, whatever) at each step of the way that the faculty mothers do, rather than lowering the requirements for the women? Demanding of these pampered fellas that they work as hard, over all, as their female counterparts do would add a salutary dash of reality to their perceived superiority to women in the workplace, level the playing field and create some job opportunities for ambitious women who want to do a little extra. A modest proposal. In the end, I contend, the workplace will never be a substitute for women standing up for what they need in the reproductive family. It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash. As Mothers’ Movement Online’s Judith Stadtman Tucker said in an interview, “Women will take on the worst bastard in the world rather than ask their husbands to help out.”
A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,” “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.
Linda Hirshman retired as Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University.
Comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat, A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thougtfullest.... --Walt Whitman
Academia is my hometown. I was raised to believe in its fundamental fairness. And since I am lucky enough to have landed a good, tenure-track, first job, and young enough that earlier generations of women fought the real battles for me, I had never really questioned that faith. The academic men I have known from childhood through my Ph.D., as family friends and as teachers, have with only one exception taken me seriously. I never had a male teacher tell me, as one friend was told, that women should make babies instead of going to graduate school. Since I am in the humanities, I was never openly mocked in class, as a woman engineering student I taught a few years ago was. No female professor told me, as one told a colleague, that women had to choose between family and an academic career. The only male teacher who ever kissed me also encouraged my scholarship. So I have never felt that I was discriminated against on the basis of my gender.
But at my new job I have just completed two hours of required online training about how to prevent harassment on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., and as a result have been thinking over my experiences. Despite the draconian strictures imposed by the training course, I have colleagues of both sexes who have become good friends, and whom in social settings I am happy to put my arms around. But to the chair or dean who is serious about gender equality in the workplace, I commend the handshake. I realize this sounds crotchety and old-fashioned -- and it is true that I also resent strangers using my first name -- but I object to the prevailing culture of the hug. The handshake is, in my view, the best way to communicate greeting, congratulation, and good will among colleagues.
Consider this: when I had passed the arduous third-year review process at a small university with a nationally-recruited faculty better than most of its students deserve, my female colleagues came to my office one by one and shook my hand. Some then asked, "May I hug you?" By contrast, my senior male colleagues ignored the right hand I stuck out in front of me, and enfolded me in the embrace known as a hug. They were people of good will, whose feelings I did not wish to hurt, and so I said nothing.
It is not so long ago that job candidates at this institution were routinely taken to the Playboy club, but that does not happen nowadays, and my first hint that my gender might matter to someone had come only halfway through my first term. A student having made unspecified complaints about my class, the chair, a self-proclaimed "recovering sexist" asked the senior woman in the department to talk to me, declaring, "This is one for the knitting circle." One day when four department women were heading out together, we twice encountered male colleagues who blanched and turned tail. The new chair saw two of us discussing grading practices and asked jovially, "What are you girls chatting about?"
What does this all add up to? Maybe nothing. My colleagues and the new chair supported my work and were kind to my family. My constant feelings of insecurity as the tenure decision approached were shared by a male colleague on the same timetable in another department. How much should I read into the fact that a window office went to a man junior to me, supposedly because I was out of town for the summer when it opened up? I don't know -- but I do know that I carefully considered what I might lose by insisting on my precedence.
And I know I never had the courage to say anything about the hugs. The gender problems in the department came to the fore when a senior colleague's wife suspected him of having an affair with a graduate student, and demanded that he no longer work with her. Despite the fact that her thesis could not be properly supervised without him, the department -- I heard indirectly, since everything took place behind closed doors -- acquiesced in the demand, and worked out a deal that gave the student an additional year of funding and arranged for her to work long-distance with a comparable scholar at another institution. The department further agreed -- hearsay again -- that the man in question would never again work with female graduate students.
Naturally, the graduate bulletin was not revised, but this would mean that only men could be admitted to focus on a certain period in history, and that women who came to the department hoping to have this eminent scholar on their committee would be disappointed. I was outraged, but my senior female colleague advised me to keep quiet, since I did not yet have tenure, and the matter was never discussed in a full department meeting. Furthermore, the student herself, although an experienced lawyer, told me that she did not want to hurt her former advisor by making a fuss: the same mentality that kept me from objecting to those awkward, unnecessary hugs.
Chairs and deans who are serious about gender equality: I commend to you the handshake. From brief and frosty to warm and two-handed, the handshake is capable of expressing any feeling that should be expressed between colleagues.
Coral Hughes, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches history at a research university.
As a kid, my favorite book in the world was E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics (1937). I must have read it dozens of times by the age of 14. One afternoon, coming home from the library, I could not resist opening the book to a particularly interesting chapter -- and so ended up walking into a parked bus.
With hindsight, certain problems with the book are clear. Bell’s approach to the history of mathematics was exciting, but he achieved that effect, in part, through fictionalization. We now know that embroidering the truth came as second nature to Bell, who was a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology until shortly before his death in 1960. In addition to writing science fiction under a pseudonym, Bell also exercised a certain amount of creativity in telling his own life story – as his biographer, Constance Reid, found out through some detective work.
But another problem with Men of Mathematics only dawned on me recently. I hadn’t thought of the book in ages, but remembered it while reading while reading Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart, to be published next month by Basic Books.
The author is a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick in the U.K. The imaginary recipient of his letters is named Meg -- a nice departure from the longstanding and rather self-reinforcing stereotype of math as a man’s field. The idea that no gender has a monopoly on mathematical talent seems never to have occurred to E.T. Bell. (Nor, consequently, did it cross the mind of a certain young nerd colliding with stalled vehicles during the mid-1970s.)
Fortunately that situation has started to change. And the progress is reflected, in a quiet and matter-of-fact way, in Stewart’s Letters.
A story unfolds, chapter by chapter, as Stewart corresponds with Meg. In the earliest letters, she is still in high school. By the end of the book, she has tenure. It is, in effect, a bildungsroman at one remove. The reader watches over Stewart’s shoulder as the young mathematician turns an early talent into a stable professional identity.
There’s even a moment when, in search of an interesting project to test her abilities, Meg starts trying to find a method for trisecting an angle using only a compass and an unmarked straightedge. This is one of the problems handed down from ancient geometry. People “discover” solutions to this challenge all the time, then become indignant that mathematicians don’t take them seriously. (The proof of why it is impossible involves mathematical tools going way beyond anything available in antiquity.)
But most of the guidance Stewart offers is positive -- and some of it seems useful even for those of us without mathematical aspirations or gifts.
“My usual method for reading a mathematics text,” he recalls about his student days, “was to thumb through it until I spotted something interesting, then work backward until I had tracked down everything I needed to read the interesting bit. I don’t really recommend this to everyone, but it does show that there are alternatives to starting at page 1 and continuing in sequence until you reach page 250.”
The most surprising thing -- at least for anyone influenced by Bell’s romanticized account of the mathematical vocation -- is Stewart’s emphasis on the nuts and bolts of academic life. Letters is full of pointers on academic politics, the benefits and frustrations of collaboration, and how to avoid disaster at conferences. (“Never believe your hosts when they tell you that all the equipment will work perfectly,” he notes. “Always try it yourself before the lecture.”)
E. T. Bell told stories about mathematicians whose lives were shaped, in the final analysis, only by their own creative instincts. They might occasionally win a prize offered by a learned society, or feel driven to some breakthrough by the challenge of defeating a hated rival. But Bell’s men of mathematics were, on the whole, geniuses of the purest vintage. They had inspirations, not resumes. It is hard to imagine anyone trying to give Carl Friedrich Gauss useful career advice.
So does that mean that popularized accounts like Bell’s are something a young mathematician ought to avoid? I contacted Stewart by e-mail to ask his thoughts on the matter.
“I write a lot of books popularising math and science, so I may be biased,” he said in reply, “but when I was in high school I read all the books I could find about the history of math, about mathematicians, and about various topics in math. And those definitely had a significant effect on my interest in the subject. They made it clear that math has a long and fascinating history, that the great mathematicians were real people, not just obsessed geniuses who couldn't tie their own shoelaces, and that there is much, much more to math than the tiny part of the subject that we are all taught at school.”
Well, that’s a relief. There’s something to be said for idealization and hero worship, after all, in their proper season. You then have your whole life to become more realistic, not to say more calculating.
Until recently, the interests of graduate students have largely been ignored by university “family friendly” initiatives designed to meet the needs of women on the tenure track who aspire to be mothers as well as scholars. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Stanford University announced its new Childbirth Policy for women graduate students with fanfare, nor that it was positively received by the national news media. What’s puzzling is how little attention has been paid to the huge gap between Stanford’s aspiration and its accomplishment.
The rationale for the policy is exemplary: “Stanford University is committed to achieving a diverse graduate student body, and facilitating the participation of under-represented groups in all areas of research and graduate and postdoctoral training. To increase the number of women pursuing … advanced degrees … it is important to acknowledge that a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.”
Unfortunately, the policy itself -- which provides accommodation in the form of paid leave, extension of deadlines and reduced workload to graduate students “anticipating or experiencing a birth” -- sends an entirely different message.
While the phrase “anticipating or experiencing a birth” seems expansive enough to cover “anticipating” the birth of an adoptive child, that is not Stanford’s intention. Associate Dean for Graduate Policy Gail Mahood was brutally frank on this point: “The policy does not apply to women who adopt children.… Women can always put off adopting,” she told a reporter.
Apparently Stanford prefers grad students who create families “the old fashioned way,” leaving others to sink or swim without institutional support. So much for the message of inclusiveness and diversity! In creating this restrictive policy, Stanford seems to have lost sight of its original goal, confused means and ends, and conflated biology (childbirth) with social issues (family formation).
Ordinarily, women become pregnant as a means to start a family, not to “experience childbirth.” Other ways to accomplish this goal are adoption, surrogacy and becoming a foster parent. Absent some as-yet-undisclosed study linking female fertility to academic talent, it seems odd that Stanford would decide that only fertile women able to carry a fetus to term deserve institutional support for their decision to start a family during graduate school.
The privileging of birth mothers over adoptive mothers is as illogical as it is offensive to families who have struggled with infertility prior to adopting. Under the literal terms of this policy, whose avowed purpose is “to make sure that we retain in the academic pipeline women graduate students who become pregnant and give birth,” a graduate student who gives her child up for adoption immediately after birth could request accommodation, while the adoptive mother who cares for that newborn could not.
Equally, if not more disturbing, is the policy’s failure to support graduate student couples who want to share the task of balancing work and family, thereby promoting a traditional heterosexual family structure that has proved detrimental to women’s achievement. Recognizing that “[t]aking care of an infant is time-consuming and sleep-depriving so advisors need to have realistic expectations about rates of progress on research,” the policy denies the same compassionate recognition to other graduate student caregivers who might be equally in need of help -- e.g., biological fathers, gay couples, adoptive parents or biological mothers who used a surrogate to carry the fetus to term.
Thus, the only graduate student families who will benefit from the childbirth accommodation policy are those who choose to conform to the traditional gender role model of mom stays home to bond with baby while dad goes to work. This patterning of gender stereotyped roles is unlikely to prove advantageous to the woman’s future career.
One would have expected Stanford’s policymakers to heed the counsel of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist (a Stanford alumnus) on the importance of gender-neutral family leave benefits, in a 2003 case:
“Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied them similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.”
Finally, by excluding everyone but the birth mom from accommodation, the policy may even override the woman’s own preference in the matter: Stanford seems not to have envisioned the possibility that the birth parents might both be graduate students, and that a new mother-scientist at a critical research juncture might choose to return to her lab right away, if only the policy were flexible enough to accommodate her partner’s desire to stay home and tend to the newborn.
Stanford deserves some credit for being the second nationally prominent graduate school to attempt any accommodation for grad students who become parents. (MIT was the first.) But the progressive impulse that spawned this “breakthrough” has been undermined by using “childbirth accommodation” as a proxy for easing the burden on new mothers. If the goal is truly to achieve diversity by increasing the number of women pursuing advanced degrees, surely a Class I research institution can craft a policy more likely to fulfill its intended purpose -- one not limited to the “June Cleavers” in its grad student population, but generous enough to encompass 21st century parenthood in all its diversity.
Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco lawyer known for her expertise in the areas of academic discrimination and gender stereotyping. She is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.