The Inhospitable Tower

We’ve come a long way, a really long way. CraftLass recently wrote about traditions and mentalities; excellent pieces examining how she viewed the traditional gender roles and questioning where they came from, and what it means to be a geek or nerd. Questioning is something I understand well and it’s no wonder, because I love the questions so much, that I ended up in academia.

Academia is where we ask why. But it’s also a place where we, as women, have to fight to be for our place there, our place in the Ivory Tower. Not only do we have to contend with sexual violence and harassment on college campuses, both as students and faculty, but we also face even more hurdles should we want to stay in the tower. In the context of academia, women haven’t had a voice for very long. The advent of fields like Women and Gender Studies coincided with the beginning of women breaking into academia in a significant way. Not to discount earlier voices, but they were very much the exception and not a rule. Even today, it is very rare to be in departments with equal representation of women and men. There are places where this is changing, and I have been lucky to have been a part of a few departments in which women have had healthy representation, but this is not normal.

This article highlights ongoing research done by a team at Berkeley on this issue of women in academic careers.

“The most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women’s, but not men’s, academic careers. For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer.”

We can’t have it all, not if we want to stay in the tower. In academia, married men have the advantage, but childless women aren’t far behind. They get hired more often than mothers or single men. The message seems to be that they only way to have it all is to be a married man. The irony of these findings? A lot of positive change in our society has come from the same institutions that are perpetuating systems that support unfair prejudices.

We misestimate. We think it’s going to better but then it’s not. Just when we think we’ve reached a point in our careers as academics where we have equal respect, something happens to remind us that we’re still fighting the war, despite all the battles we’ve won. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve watched a male colleague’s opinion be given more weight simply because he’s male. I’ve been uncomfortable in situations with male professors and colleagues. I’ve felt like I’ve had to downplay my femininity in order to succeed. I’ve been both frustrated and felt lucky to be single, because, at the very least, that gives me an advantage in academia.

It’s exhausting. It’s unfair. Women, and other minority groups, should not have to question the motivation behind every action in academia. Did we get the position because we deserved it, or lose it because we weren’t actually good enough? Or was it just because we walked into the interview wearing a skirt and not a tie? Did the kids at home give the dean hesitation? How is it, after all this time, that we are still made to feel as not good enough by the men in power?

I am tired of wondering. I once dealt with a situation with a professor that intimately acquainted me with the term microagression, and how even smart people miss these small acts of aggression, such as deferring to a man instead of a woman when making a decision, significantly impact the possibility of equality in the Ivory Tower. At first, I thought the professor in question was simply obtuse and a bad instructor, it took three or four separate instances in which the professor would disregard the input of a female student and praise that of a male for me to realize that his behavior wasn’t obtuse, it was sexist.

Eventually, the behavior came to a head in a classroom confrontation that left one of my cohort in tears and convinced me that I needed to speak to the head of the department, who happened to be female. That meeting took place less than a week after the incident, and I found the department head to be very helpful and fair; however, I wasn’t expecting her brush off of my concerns of the professor’s biased behavior toward the women in our class. She instead defended him, saying that in her experience, he wasn’t sexist, just a bit hot-headed. Despite her position as a women in leadership in academia, she failed to recognize what I had seen and experienced from this professor.

I admit, prior to this class, I wavered on my position on the validity of microaggressions. I, like many others, felt that it was possible that people were just being oversensitive. I’ve never denied that there are institutionalized discriminations, but the idea of microaggression seemed to me to be people reading too much into every individual’s actions. After spending a semester in a class with a man who commonly committed small, brief, and obvious acts of discrimination towards women, I finally understood and realized that like the head of the department, I was unwilling to accept what many minorities encounter as their everyday experience – a world in which they are frequently reminded that others see them as something less; not through obvious means, but through ingrained daily reactions to their presence, reactions that aggressors often don’t see as racist, sexist, or wrong.

Like the young black men who walk by intersections and hear car doors lock, I suddenly felt the hostile situation I was in as a women in the Ivory Tower in a visceral way. I was being treated as less simply because of my gender and only because of it. It didn’t matter how much I excelled, the man next to me, who treated his studies in a haphazard and lazy way, would easily garner more respect than I did, solely because he possessed a chromosome that I did not. What rankled even more? These microaggressions didn’t come just from men, they came from women too; women who were unknowingly perpetuating a cycle many thought they were fighting.

It’s a situation repeated in many institutions, not just in academia. It’s the type of behavior that Sheryl Sandberg writes about in business and Hillary Clinton has spoken out against in politics. It’s not just my experience, it’s a universal experience. Women do not live in an equal world, no matter how privileged their world may be.

It’s not an entirely bleak situation and I’d be remiss if I painted it that way. I’ve been lucky; for every disappointing man I’ve dealt with in the tower, I can think of another that has been there for me, whether as a mentor or friend. Not everyone has had my luck, but we can work together to make sure that our daughters and granddaughters don’t have to face the same unequal circumstances that we do. Though the situation isn’t bleak, it is serious. Academia is not a friendly place for women, no matter the individual victories some of us experience.

The Ivory Tower has been the birthplace for many of the ideas that have led to greater equality in this country and others. Thanks to the research done by and attention brought to gender, race, and other important issues by academia, we are living in a better world today than we were yesterday. We cannot allow academia to continue to be a safe haven for hypocrites; we must hold these places of learning accountable to practicing what they preach.

So what do we do?

We recognize the victories. We look at where we’ve been and where we hope to go. We celebrate our allies and we encourage them to advocate as strongly on our behalf as they would on their own. We speak up when we see something that is wrong, and we speak up when we see what is right. We fight against allowing the institutions that spur change to become the institutions that spurn it.  As Hillary Clinton recently said, we “do what is necessary to be resilient.”

One day, we won’t need to be so resilient.

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