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until women’s “backs [are] permanently bent forward and still face discrimination, bias, harassment, and more recently, rescinded job offers.”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.


Applying for Graduate School in the Social Sciences: What on earth possessed me (possibly the spirit of Margaret Mead)

I am just going to admit it: I absolutely love school. I love sitting in classrooms, taking detailed, organized notes, engaging in heated debates over metaphysical ethical dilemmas, and that moment when you’re researching a paper you realize that it’s not a bore it’s, dare a say it, fun. Of course, the non-academic scene is wonderful as well, if not better, than the post-college world (especially since I’ve realized that in the real world Thursday night is not a weekend night, and you are expected to come into work Friday functional and not hung-over). Despite that disappointing setback, I do want to attend graduate school for my Ph.D., even if means I must continue to adhere to that ridiculous “Thursday night isn’t a weekend night” rule.

However, any graduate student, professor, or other academic will quickly inform you that you can’t simply apply graduate school because “you love school.” You must have some sort of grand scientific question that explores a troubling short-coming of a specific field while also contributing to the knowledge of the greater scientific community. If that wasn’t daunting enough, your research must also solve some greater global issue and ultimately improve the quality of education, government, society, and life. You are expected to sell your soul to some faceless institution, engage in wicked little diatribes with your cohorts, and try not to feel too stupid when meeting with your advisor. So you can’t just apply to graduate school, an inordinate amount of confidence is required before you even email the godlike, herculean professor who shares your research interests. No wonder I’ve taken a circumspect approach to this whole graduate school business in an effort to focus on how I must articulate what it is I want to do with life. It is during this journey of self-discovery that I’ve realized you must be not only self-assured, but also considerably unhinged to apply to graduate school.

I am half joking and half serious (probably an early sign of some psychotic, double personality disorder brought on my graduate school applications). If you attend a professional school other than doctoral (i.e. medical, business, law school), your path is clearer, but it is still be a difficult one. From what I’ve experienced, jobs in academia are incredibly difficult to obtain. Some opine that students who major in a liberal arts or social science are simply doomed when it comes to graduate school. Others, like me, would like to point out that doctoral programs aren’t a cake walk for ANYONE.  I have always advocated that you must, no matter what your field may be, gain as much relevant experience as possible. From the moment you step onto your undergraduate campus, you must be actively pursuing your interests and take any opportunity you can.  Today, the Atlantic posted an article called “What College Graduates Regret,” outlining a study investigating what college students regret most from their undergraduate experience. One might expect the most common answer to be “majoring in the liberal arts and not a STEM field.” Though that was a popular answer, the study found that the most common answer was that students wished they had gained more work experience and put “their knowledge to practical use while they’re still in school.” If you want to work for a internet start-up, you better gain some experience doing that in undergrad. If you want to attend graduate school, you should try to tackle a thesis project or submit a paper to your campus’s undergraduate research journal. That is all relevant experience.  So I am optimistic that liberal arts and social science students are not completely doomed. Students in these majors simply have to start gaining field-related experience as soon as possible. If their experience and goals lead them down the dark, ominous path (also known as “academia), no matter if they are in STEM or humanities, the journey will be difficult for all.

On a happier note (just kidding, it gets worse), once you do earn your doctorate and land that impossible-to-find job, you are clawing your way up the tenure ladder. You are constantly begging NSF, your department, and local well-to-dos for money. Not to mention you have zero time for an actual social life (and forget long-term, serious relationships, the only one you’re allowed to have is with your research. If you are a professor, the relationship is with some other deranged graduate student who is a shadowy image of you from a decade ago). After years of publications, conference presentations, and maybe a guest appearance on Discovery Channel, you end up teaching some intro class that people take as a requirement for graduation. You invest incredible amounts of time and effort, only to have students skip every class and then ask for paper extensions (whaaa, it was on the syllabus? Bro, can I have, like, one more day?). Of course, one small ray of light remains: you hope that to inspire a bright, ambitious student to use the knowledge you so selflessly gave for some greater good. Or maybe over the years you become disenchanted and you consider it a class well taught when people actually raise their hands to ask question, even if the questions are, “uhhh…is that on the test?” Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

So, my question is this: why do I, and countless others, want to go to graduate school? Is the abysmal job market that encourages us to hide out in an institution until conditions improve? Do we want to justify that pointless degree in Russian Literature and force others to take it seriously? Or do we strive to use academia to achieve some greater good? It is possible that the latter contains some sort of truth to aspiring scholars. Hopefully, all those Ph.Ds will go forth and positively improve and change the world. Or have a complete mental break-down, move back in with your parents, and plan you life around the next happy hour.