grad skool rulz #19: words for women
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Graduate school is tough for everyone, but in different ways. A few weeks ago, I asked female scholars and graduate students to share their thoughts for the benefit of women working their way through the academic system. Here’s what they said….
- Spouses: A common theme was that women have to really work extra hard to manage their partner’s expectations. Sadly, a lot of men seem not to support their spouses in the academic track: “My talks with others and my own experience suggests that, in general, male non-academic partners are somewhat less supportive of grad school than female non-academic partners. For everyone, being partnered to someone who is not in grad school is difficult but women grad students seem to struggle more with this.” I think this really underscores what I wrote here about family before. Women have to go the extra mile to make sure that their partner knows what an academic career is about and they have to be willing to stand by you 100%. If they don’t “get it,” then you have to sit down with the partner and have a serious talk.
- Family Planning: The unfortunate truth right now is that having children is a career penalty (see this ASA report). So when should someone have children? The ASA report says there is no “right time,” though multiple people have suggested to me that the time is between course work and the job market. I’ll leave it to the readers to assess this claim for themselves. However, what can be agreed upon is that the career hit can be lessened with the use of institutional, social, or financial resources. So seek out your university’s policies regarding funding and children, look for inexpensive quality child care, import relatives for help. Maybe your country, state, or city(e.g., Europe) has child care resources. Resource planning seems to be the issue here.
- Confidence: Numerous respondents addressed this issue. Academia is often a game of seminar room aggression. Many scholars said that women graduate students need to learn that they are not “impostors” and that you have to assert yourself in class and at conferences. Good words: “Women often walk a fine line between being considered too nice or sweet and being pushy, arrogant or bitchy when giving critiques. Graduate school can be an excellent laboratory for figuring out how to be assertive yet constructive.Use seminars and talks as a chance to watch how others give constructive feedback and express their opinions.Figure out how to assert yourself without being arrogant/condescending or without backing down when someone disagrees with you. This is not an easy thing to do – but it’s worth spending some time on.”
- The Old Boys Network: Another issue that men are much more common in many in subfields and it can lead women students to feel out of the loop, even if it is unintentional. Sometimes, women will be excluded from social activities because it might seem inappropriate (e.g., going drinking after seminar). First, as one respondent wrote, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be left out of everything. UItimately, you are judged on your research and teaching. The person who raised this issue even commented that she has succeeded quite well, but it was extremely awkward for her. Second, you can actually show up to these events most of the time. Unless it’s a personal 1 on 1, you can crash most quasi-academic events (snacks, drinks, etc).
- Being the Listener: Students treat their female instructors like their moms or like a free therapist. One correspondent wrote: “Female teachers are more likely to get students who tell them very personal stories about themselves and, in general, look to the female faculty member (or TA) for nurturing. This is really strange if you’re not expecting it and difficult even if you are..” I’ll actually add my own strong opinion here. You don’t have to become the department therapist. Many campuses actually have paid therapists students can go to. It’s not your job. I’d suggest that you kindly listen to the student’s issue, wish them the best, and if they need more help, ship them to the right office.
- Harassment: I’ll add my own view here because it’s actually pretty cut and dry. The university department is like any other workplace. Co-workers and bosses should talk respectfully to each other and keep their hands to themselves. If a student is harassed (rude talk, quid pro quo for sexual favors, a nasty work environment), document it immediately and talk to a knowledgeable third person who can help you. Do not tolerate boorishness and, if possible, truncate relationships where one person is clearly expecting something other than academic work. Also, do this in a respectful way so that you can continue and complete your degree. You’ll learn by consulting with other trustworthy people. Finally, exercise some judgment – sometimes it’s best just to ignore the person if the behavior is harmless.
- Paternalism: A number of people mentioned the fact that many older men will still call their adult female students things like “honey,” “sweety,” etc. I really don’t know what else to add, other than to say that you should beware. If that’s all, maybe you can let it slide. But if it’s coupled with other behavior, you should avoid them.
- Your team, network and Mentors: Many people emphasized the need to build networks and find a mentor. Get more than one friend or mentor to give you a variety of opinions. One person emphasized that it’s important not to insulate yourself with your network. A cohort of supportive female doctoral students can help each other deal with the program, not become a substitute for the program. Help and support are what’s needed, not isolation.
I’ll end with these insightful words: “You didn’t get to where you are because you played according to gender stereotypes, which, as you know, are socially constructed and wrong even if they have a pervasive, pernicious lingering effect. Read bell hooks and Paolo Freire (critical pedagogy), and Power, Race, and Gender in the Academe by Shirley Geok-Lim. Feel empowered. Feel (some) responsibility. Be a good student and institutional citizen by speaking up in class, going to office hours, going to paper talks, presenting your own work, forming the networking connections you know you’ll need now and later, and competing for those plum teaching assignments and fellowships and post-docs. Try to ignore the imposter syndrome. You deserve it, and you owe it to yourself to believe in yourself. That said, recognize that you are human, that sometimes institutional factors and lingering stereotypes and subtle discrimination can hamper even the best of our efforts. So, don’t blame yourself if you can’t get everything, can’t get everything done, and can’t do everything. You don’t have to be a super human, much less Superwoman. You don’t have to believe yourself responsible for all of womankind in ___ discipline.”