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.”

Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2008 at 12:07 am

9 Responses

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  1. I’ll actually add my own strong opinion here. You don’t have to become the department therapist.

    While I agree with the idea of channeling students to proper resources, the amount of emotional labor and time that it takes to do just that can be substantial, especially depending on the institution. It’s tough to imagine, before you’ve experienced it, how taxing it is to listen to stories of students who have been raped or are currently being stalked. Even if you’ve already researched the campus-specific options for students (if they are there), and even if you don’t walk across campus with them or make that first phone call while they are in your office, it will still throw your productivity off for the day (at least). Strong boundaries are essential, but this is a really tough part of the job that is rarely counted as part of the job.



    April 29, 2008 at 11:33 am

  2. Tina, I definitely agree with that. Just getting students to the right place can be an effort and creating strong boundaries is the correct solution. Just keep the campus phone book handy for these situations.



    April 29, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  3. This list certainly resonates with me. I feel very lucky to be married to an extremely supportive and understanding academic husband so the “spouse” thing is not an issue for me. However, several of the others do apply. I still have a ticking body clock and will likely end up having kids at an inconvenient time (though apparently I should have them now, even though I don’t think we’re ready.) Working in two male labs, the unintentional good old boys network has definitely been a problem. As for being the listener, I haven’t yet had students open up to me with extremely personal issues like tina, but my students definitely see me as far more approachable than my male colleagues. I enjoy this because I love teaching, but on the other hand I spend a huge amount of time on it as a result. While my office hours are flooded and I have additional separate meetings with students, my male colleagues use their office hours for their personal work. I also write about two letters of recommendation each month and many of my (male) friends say they’ve never been asked.



    April 29, 2008 at 8:43 pm

  4. Today i’ve read a very similar article on women and how they should change their female stereotype behaviour to get ahead in their career. It makes me enormously uncomfortable to be told to stop “acting nice” or being “more aggressive” as most of this advice goes against a lot of things I deeply believe in.
    Well, it takes courage and also a vast amount of unhappiness to talk to your teacher about your personal problems and I would be devastated to receive an answer like “oh i am so sorry. But oh well, I have better things to do, cheerioh!. Maybe male colleagues don t get asked because they seem cold. People are more important than work.



    April 30, 2008 at 5:40 pm

  5. Thanks for this. I actually don’t feel touched by any of it (yet) except the impostor bit, which I suffer from mightily. I try very hard to ignore it, but so far that has just lead to pent up fears popping out at inconvenient moments. But I’m working through it. Actually my internet network has been amazingly helpful by both alerting me to its existence and helping me through it in indirect ways.

    Regarding the prof/TA-as-therapist thing… I’m awfully torn. I actually had my first experience like this just the other day when a student who was upset by his grade on a paper started telling me a lot of personal things by way of explanation and, apparently, in order to try to get me to change his grade. Frankly, I don’t think it was because I was a woman. Some of the male professors I know have had similar experiences. I’m not saying there is no gender effect with this issue, but I don’t think it’s universal.

    Also, while I agree with Sora that people are more important than work, I also think that it is inappropriate for a professor or TA to take on a personal advice-giving role. I think that 10 years ago I would have been completely drawn in to my student’s story and would have engaged him about it. Nowadays I realize that I really don’t have access to “better” or more valid knowledge about how to live one’s life, and yet — even just as a TA — I am an authority figure to these students. So if I were to dispense some sort of life advice, they may take it to heart more than advice from some one else in their life. For this reason, I do not think it’s cold to send them to the counseling center. Especially if you do so warmly. I really do wish them the best, but I realize that my area of expertise does not extend into the realm of their emotional life.

    This is not to say I won’t listen, and maintain a warm attitude if the story is a tough one… it’s just that I will not attempt to fix it, or engage with the student beyond listening to them. It’s probably not what they are looking for, but I do think it’s best for both parties.


    kristina b

    May 1, 2008 at 2:57 am

  6. I want to echo and expand on what Kristina b said. The most important thing to do when a student has big problems is to humanely and kindly and firmly get them into professional hands. Of course you listen first and respond warmly. You don’t brush people off with lines like “I don’t care about your problems, no exceptions.” But you don’t try to play therapist and you don’t try to evaluate whether the complex tale they are telling you is real or bogus. You route them for help for anything big or anything that requires a big accommodation from you.

    I had the good fortune to learn this young. My spouse had serious problems with his parents when in college. The first person he talked to was a (male) prof, who encouraged him to go to the counseling center for help. He needed the therapy. The first time I had a troubled student and was not sure what to do, my spouse told me his story and urged me to advise her to get counseling. He said it really helped to have the prof take him seriously and urge him to go get counseling. Taking this advice was the best thing I could have done for her, especially because she liked me a lot but needed to drop my class to deal with her stress, and she would not have been comfortable talking through those issues with me.

    Over the years, I have often picked up the phone and dialed the dean’s office or the counseling center, identified myself and told them I had a student who needed help right now, and then handed the phone to the student. Other times I’ve called for advice about how to deal with a situation. I’m not saying the pros do it right every time, there have been a few dropped balls, but over the years, this has by far been the right course of action. If a student requests a big accommodation on the grounds of some big problem, I have the same response: “If you talk to a dean and explain your problem and then the dean calls me, I’ll work with the dean. But I won’t do anything unless you talk to a dean.”

    I agree with Tina that sometimes even being the first responder can be draining and difficult, but it helps a lot if you get to know the folks in the deans office and the counseling center and learn whom to call, because then often they can help.

    But everyone, male or female, should try to avoid being a jerk. I did once have to call a professor about a student whose cancer surgery had been scheduled on the day of an exam. The professor would not even listen to her explanation of why she could not take the exam, just kept repeating the “no makeups” policy. When I called the prof, she said, “Oh, of course, yes I’ll give her a make up.” As in, duh! We do have a “circumstances beyond the control of the student” accommodation policy. There was no need to even be stern or threatening to the prof: once she heard the story, she realized the student needed accommodation and offered it. She just would not listen long enough to the student herself to find out what the deal was. Of course the student should ideally have been savvy enough to know that the person who should have been asked to make the call was someone in the dean’s office, not another prof. And I could have routed her to the dean’s office for the help. But that one I handled on my own.



    May 1, 2008 at 4:37 am

  7. […] and one more thing… I found this insightful post after I wrote this text, it’s peripherally related… but I wanted to link it somewhere […]


  8. This was really helpful. I just started grad school and am the only female in my subfield in the past 3 years. It sucks and the men are very much “men’s men.” I dont really get invited to many social events…At least I’m not the only one experiencing this.


    Forced to be part of the old boys club

    October 25, 2008 at 1:02 am

  9. My advise to the not getting invited to the “boys events” . Try to befriend one of the guys. I found that one of my male colleagues that is respectful of me as an academic made a great friend. He would be the one to extend the invite, do the introductions and give me the inside scoop on what was going on. He has also made a great advocate as well as support.


    Not one of the boys

    September 17, 2011 at 1:52 am

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