Ban Bossy in Academia, Female scholars of the world unite!

As a female working towards her Phd, a university career, and respectable academic career, I realize that there are particular hurtles females must overcome. True, women have more opportunities now more than ever. More women hold bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees now than they have in history. There are more women in STEM careers than ever. That being said, there is still room for improvement. Women are still underrepresented in academia. A huge gender pay gap exists in the US, some states even pay women $10,000 less than men on average. More startling, studies have shown that women are less likely to be hired than men, even when they preform the same tasks just as good as, or better, than their male peers.  Sexism is the job market and in academia still exists.

Dr. Kelly Baker of Florida State University conducted an experiment in her classroom. She dressed in traditionally feminine clothing and asked her students to evaluate her on her self-prensetation to demonstrate how pliable gender identification can be. When she asked her students how they visualize a “professor” they said she didn’t fit the description. Rather,”they explained that professors seemed to be male, older (or younger), bearded, and white.”  Even in the 21st century, we are fighting against how people visualize the “traditional professor” in academia. Why is this? Have we simply been bombarded with images of the elderly, absentminded cookie-cutter professor in movies, television shows, and other media? Or have we made these inferences based on what we’ve seen in real-life classrooms? In the aforementioned venues, males are overrepresented in academia. Is that because universities don’t hire women? Are women not applying for these positions? Studies have shown that women are more likely to be adjuncts and part-time professors than men. Yet, like I already mentioned, women hold just as many if not more master’s and doctoral degrees than men. So why is there is underrepresentation of women in tenure-track positions?

Dr. Baker opines that it is possible that women aren’t, as Sheryl Sandberg coined, “leaning in” to their careers as much as they should. However Dr. Baker states that women can “lean in” until women’s “backs [are] permanently bent forward and still face discrimination, bias, harassment, and more recently, rescinded job offers.” There are gender-baises engrained in the system. I agree with her on both accounts.

I’d like to examine the idea that women are hesitant to “lean in.”

In her excellent blog, “The Professor is In,” cultural anthropologist Dr. Karen Kelsky gives amazing advice to women on how to succeed as a graduate student, during the job search, and as a professor. She gives wonderful advice on how to be confident, professional, and how to not self-sabatoage with diffident and passive language. The fact that most of her posts stem from emails she receives from women in academia, I am willing to believe that women sometimes unintentionally hold themselves back because they don’t want to appear pushy, unlikeable, or, dare I say it, bossy.

I believe that women start holding themselves back long before graduate school. Personally, I have witnessed how women held themselves back. Growing up in an area of the United States that placed a particularly non-negotiable value on male superiority on dominance, I immediately realized that  my actions, attitude, and personality were not welcome. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, whenever I raised my hand or called out an answer in class, I was almost immediately mocked by one of my male peers. If I answered a question incorrectly, my male peers would call out, “wow, YOU were wrong?!” I always wanted to be in charge of discusses and projects, and despite the negative feedback I’d receive from my male peers, I loved school too much to care what they thought. What got me through the day-to-day was knowing that I had a clear goal in mind, that I wanted to be the best I could be.  I loved learning, thinking, helping my peers with their work and make them as passionate as I was.  My current location and circumstances were temporary, but my work ethic and determination would stay with me forever. 

In my small town, high school graduation was a big deal, so huge that there was  a special edition of the local newspaper to commemorate the event. There was a blurb about my success (my valedictorian speech, extra-cirrculars, and the top university I was going to attend). But who had the full page story on his success as a mediocre athlete? Who was everyone gushing over? And who ended up dropping out of his university the first year, and changing schools several times over the course of the next few years? That’s right, the best male student in my graduating class. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this bothered me. I let it bother me a little too much. So what did I do? It made me even more determined to succeed. No one was going to forget about me. I was a force to be reckon with. 

My male peers who weren’t accepted into the incoming class of my university said that they were victims of female privilege. They said that schools didn’t want to accept white, middle-class males because too many were applying. There was too much pressure to select girls and minorities. These guys made me feel guilty, like I had taken something from them. They made me feel as if I hadn’t earn my success, I was granted concessions I am female. It wasn’t until years later when I realized that my academic record, essays, and involvement was simply more impressive than theirs.  I was done with being blamed and being told I received special treatment. That makes me, and other females, suffer from impostor’s syndrome–why females won’t attribute their success to innate skill or ability, but rather, to luck and other people’s help–because there are these guys telling us that we didn’t succeed by our own merit.  I no longer have time to listen to those types of people. 

I wasn’t what the males in my region considered to be the ideal female. Quiet? Hardly. Empathetic? If it was a competition, I was prepared to win. I didn’t understand our newest topic in math? I figured it out and was happy to help any one else, even if it wasn’t endearing and attractive to my male peers. Whenever I campaigned for any sort of student government position in my school, I was almost never elected. Was this because I was a detestable person? I don’t think that is true; I was well-liked by my teachers and peers, and was involved in more student organizations than anyone in my grade. I gave my campaign speech, a well thought-out, point-by-point outline on how I would improve life in our school, yet, everyone voted for the soft-spoken, quiet girl who wasn’t pushy or bossy. After that happened, my teachers approached me and said how they couldn’t believe that I wasn’t elected. Maybe I would have been elected if I fulfilled what the school thought “girls” should be. Would I go back in time and be nicer, more polite, less competitive, and less outspoken? Not at all. I realized later that my ability to stand up for what I believed in, to be a figure representing strength and a challenge to the antiquated norms, is far more rewarding, and closer to my personality, than being what guys wanted me to be. 

One event that stands out in my head was during college. I was in an upper level seminar of only 12 students. There were 10 girls, and two males. Part of our grade was a presentation we gave at the end of the semester; each student had to give a 20 minute talk on their final paper topic. Simple. As my peers gave their talks, I noticed a startling pattern. The guys always stood up for their presentations, using the laser pointer to change the slides. The women, on the other hands, always sat down and controlled the powerpoint from a wireless keyboard. The guys stood up and commanded everyone’s attention. The girls didn’t want to be the center of attention so they stayed in their seats. I was blown away. I was the last student to present, so YES, I stood up and gave my presentation. After my presentation, our professor, an amazing female archaeologist and art historian, made a point to tell me that she was glad that I stood up, and wondered why none of the other girls stood up for their presentations. Was it because they didn’t care about the class? Were they tired? Or did they not want to see too pushy and bossy? I’m not sure which option I hope is true. There were practical reasons for me to stand up and give my presentation: people speak better while standing and it was good practice for future presentations where sitting will not be permitted. I truly believed that standing made the room take notice, I wasn’t afraid to be the center of attention, in fact I love(d) it. I was not, nor will I ever be, afraid to own the room when I am speaking. 

Bottom line, attitudes need to change. They are changing, true, but not fast enough. Personally, I plan to embrace my personality and goals, charging forward no matter what changes and what doesn’t. I don’t know what all graduate school has in store for me, but I’m telling you now that I plan to give those presentations standing up.

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