Episode 30: Women in Academia

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time we look at life in academia. To an outsider being a professor can look very attractive – the interaction with the students, all those enlightened colleagues, the flexibility, long holidays. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. It turns out being a successful academic is much more of a man’s game, even today.

“The idea of being a scholar, a true scholar, is very much predicated upon a traditional male model of a professor thinking lofty thoughts and having a stay-at-home wife who takes care of all of those sort of mundane, ordinary details.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

Recently I’ve been intrigued by a few little things friends and listeners happened to mention about their jobs in academia – information that made me want do delve further into life in the ivory tower. But before I got to the personal stories I wanted to get some statistics. So I called John Curtis. He’s director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors. He says the state of women in academia today isn’t as advanced as it should be… 

“They’re more likely to be in part time faculty positions rather than full time faculty positions, if they’re in a full time faculty positions they’re more likely to be in one that is not on the tenure track, in other words one that does not lead to a permanent position. And if they do get into one of those tenure track positions, the percentage of women faculty who achieve tenure is lower than that for men.”

About 35 percent of women have tenure versus 48 percent of men. This might not be so surprising, but he says there’s been a 40-year push to get women academics on an equal footing with their male colleagues. He has a daughter who’s studying science at college…and the sheer number of women students, he says, is partly why this matters.

“Women are now the majority, in fact a large majority of the student population in colleges and universities and they also earn the majority of the degrees at all levels, including at the doctoral level. So we have reached a point where we can’t say there aren’t enough women out there who have attended college or have completed advanced degrees to bring them into the faculty, that really we need to have a faculty that matches the diversity certainly in terms of gender the student population.”

He says if young women at university are seeing more women as adjuncts than full professors, the circle has a good chance of perpetuating itself.   

The reasons behind all this are varied. I talked to Aeron Haynie about some of them. She’s an associate professor of English and director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of New Mexico.  She loves her job, loves teaching… with the students, but she says there’s no doubt one reason academic life is harder for women is because women often have babies – and academia has been slow to adjust to this fact. When she had her daughter ten years ago she was working at a university in the Midwest…

“There was no official maternity leave, which meant in order to take any paid time off I needed to accumulate sick days, it works out OK for me, I had my baby in March and was able to take the semester off with accumulated sick days, but that’s because I had worked for years. I delivered my daughter the day before my 40th birthday. So waiting until one has tenure and has accumulated sick days worked for me but for may women it’s biologically not practical to go that route.”

Then there’s the question of how much goes into an academic career – more than I realized, it’s one of those jobs where you could always be working and still feel you’re not getting enough done.

“One of the things I don’t think a lot of people understand is that we spend a lot of time working hard, but only part of our work is valued, meaning will help us get jobs, help us get raises. So we’re spending a lot of time working but always with that sick, anxiety-provoking feeling that we’re not doing our real work.”

The real work, she says, is getting your research published and getting grants to fund it in the first place – things that make you look good on the outside and get you recognized within the academic community. She says it all adds up, and a lot of women don’t have the energy to do everything it takes to be a star academic, because of all the other work they do….

“To be successful that requires an incredible amount of concentration, right? So you have your teaching and your committee work and all these other things, but in order to really be successful and get jobs, raises and get grants, you have to have publications and you have to be able to concentrate and that requires a lot of time free from any other thoughts. And that means you can’t be thinking about taking the kids to the doctor, you can’t be thinking about how dirty the house is, and that’s where I think the idea of being a scholar, a true scholar, is very much predicated upon a traditional male model of a professor thinking lofty thoughts and having a stay-at-home wife, a stay-at-home mom, who takes care of all of those sort of mundane, ordinary details.”

She says it’s extremely difficult to do both.  That stereotype of the absent-minded professor? Perhaps he could be absent-minded because he had someone at home dealing with the practical stuff.

In case you’re wondering about some of that other work professors do, there’s some interesting research on how male and female academics spend their time. Men, it turns out are much more protective of their research time than women – and remember conducting research in your field is really what gets you recognized and promoted. In one study, male associate professors spent 37 percent of their time on research, whereas women spent 25 percent. Men also spent less time on mentoring, meetings, and being on committees than women…this is what academics call service work – things that are helpful for the community as a whole.

Kate Clancy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She also writes a blog for Scientific American. She says this kind of work can put women in a bind…

“And there’s this way where in order to have authority and in order to be taken seriously, women have this double-edged sword, on the one hand if we don’t play along we can be out grouped. So if we don’t do that cleaning up of the fridge or taking on that extra service requirement we’re far more likely to be seen as bad team players than if it were a man to refuse those things. But then if you do play along then you get on that second tier, it’s a complete lose/lose situation, if you’re that easygoing person who agrees to pick up the mop then you’re also a second class citizen because you’re a mother – you’re mothering or taking care of everyone else. I just had a phone meeting with a collaborator before this interview.  And we were talking about this and what she said was you only have two options when you’re a female PI.”

PI stands for principal investigator, someone who’s heading a scientific project….

“You either are the asshole or the mother. There is no way to be anywhere in between. Because if you try to sort of mitigate the two and be somewhere in the middle it’s just too messy, people don’t know how to respond to it. So if you want to not do all the maternal stuff you have to be a jerk.” 

Kate loves a lot about her job…she says her department is friendly to women and mothers, and she has a young daughter so she likes the flexibility of being able to leave early to pick her up from school and finishing her work later.  She also has a ton of freedom to pursue the research she loves. But one thing she doesn’t like about the sciences as a whole is that they can be rather unfriendly to women.

Now let me give you some background to what we’re going to talk about next, because it gets pretty serious. If any of you work in the sciences or follow scientific blogs, you may know the story of a woman called Danielle Lee. She’s a biologist, she’s African-American, she teaches at the University of Oklahoma and she also blogs for Scientific American as ‘the urban scientist’. Earlier this fall she was asked by an editor at a small online science publication to write something for him for free. She refused – politely – saying couldn’t work for nothing, and he called her an urban whore. She responded in a video online and the story began to escalate. It became about the way women in science, particularly women of color, can be treated by their male colleagues. A lot of the follow-up writing was about sexual harassment.  And here’s what I took away from the many comments I read from women in the sciences who said they’d been sexually harassed – not assaulted, simply made to feel very uncomfortable…they felt they couldn’t say anything because the person doing the harassing was the one person who could help them in their career. More than at a regular organization it seems in academia…there’s often a single person who’s your ticket to the next level of success.

Back to Kate Clancy.  Recently she and some colleagues conducted a survey of scientists from all disciplines who had spent any time at a field site for their work. The researchers asked participants if they’d ever encountered any kind of sexual harassment. The results shocked them and really changed their thinking about the scientific community they’re a part of. Most survey respondents were women – about 77 percent of the total. 60 percent of respondents reported sexual harassment. 20 percent reported sexual assault. 

“So these are to my mind, regardless of how you try to think about how the sample might be biased in terms of who decided to do it, those are enormous numbers, and devastating numbers. And then the stories that accompany them with the interviews are equally devastating. To me the main way in which it was devastating was not just the actual experience of being harassed or assaulted…as a woman you come to expect some of this could happen to you some day. It’s the follow up, that re-victimization, when a woman doesn’t know what to do because it’s your own PI  - who do you report an assault to when it’s your boss? What do you do when that’s the person who raped you, or what do you do if you go back to your university, you withstand an entire field season of psychological abuse, you have things thrown at you, you have your food taken away, you’re not allowed to use the bathroom. You finally go home to your university and you find that there is actually no reporting mechanism for abuse or assault or harassment at your university…and when you finally talk to HR they say you’re a graduate student, you’re not technically an employee, so they can’t help you.”

Which, she says, has happened. It may seem crazy that things like this are going on in the 21st century and in the US – or at least it does to me. She says what made it hard for many of the people involved was they felt they couldn’t say anything…even though technically a field site is considered a university space where university rules apply…

“But people don’t treat it that way. And some of the interviewees reported that one of the first things they were told when they first arrived to the field was what happens here, stays here. A lot of people exploited those times to have affairs, so they’d have an affair with somebody there, a fellow researcher or somebody who lived nearby, and they’d say, ‘What happens here stays here’. And that very clear sense that you are not to talk about what happens in the field once you leave the field, creates a real senses there is no safe reporting structure if something bad happens.” 

She says there’s always less sexual harassment when the rules of an organization are very clear. She says universities need to be a lot clearer on this – especially as the sciences are trying to attract more women.

“You know my collaborators and I, you know how I was saying before, we are forever changed, I mean we can’t un-know this information that we know and we have to carry that with us for the rest of our lives that there are some horrible things our very own colleagues do…that they do under the auspices of science, and that a lot of science that is published that comes out of field sites, not just in anthropology but across all these disciplines we looked at in this survey…all this published research is done on the backs of these mostly young, female graduate students, who are being harassed and abused. And I think that’s the devastating part for me, that this thing that I love…and this is something a lot of the interviewees talked about too, that they feel such grief over the loss of their innocence…they way they’re changed by the experience, by the loss of the science they got to do, by the loss of the scientist they could be. Because a lot of them left, right? A lot of the people who are harassed are likely to leave, at least so far from our preliminary analyses, and even if they stay they’re going to change what they’re doing to stay away from the person who’s been hurting them. So that means cutting off an avenue of something they probably were really passionate and excited about. So I think telling these stores gives these women a chance to heal and it flips the problem we’ve been having where the science has been done on their backs. And it’s time to flip it and actually prioritize the people over the science.”

Kate Clancy. She and her colleagues are still analyzing the data they collected from that survey, they’re going to submit a draft of their study by the end of this year. They hope it’ll be published in an academic journal in 2014.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can comment on this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page.  I’ll be posting a lot of links to things I’ve mentioned today on the website under this episode.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening.