women in academia

Why Anthropology Matters (now more than ever)

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Excited chatter echoes down the second floor corridor as a group of middle school girls approaches the door to the osteology lab. The young women file into the lab wide-eyed, curiously craning their necks to see the rows of bones on the shelves and tables. “Are those real?” They ask, pointing to a row of skulls or the complete skeleton on the table, “are those someone’s bones?”

Typically, I begin these GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) workshops by introducing myself and welcoming them to the New Life in Buried Bones workshop. Today, I tell them, you all will learn about the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites and in forensic cases. Using the examples of bones with dental disease and cranial modification, I show these young women how human bones inform us on ancient life. They always love to hear gory forensic cases, so I make sure to include a few examples of blunt-force trauma and gun-shot wounds. For those interested in medicine or biomechanics, I give demonstrations of how repetitive motions to two joint surfaces can result in boney changes and sometimes even osteoarthritis. Every once in a while, one girl will exclaim that she also wants to be a bioarchaeolgist or a forensic anthropologist when she grows up.

Today, this workshop felt as if it would be different. Today, my enthusiasm felt strained. I had spent the last few days deliberating over what I was going to say to these girls. I could not simply pretend that everything was okay. It certainly wasn’t. I could not think of words eloquent enough to express how distraught I felt. Today, it was my job to stand in front of these young women and tell them that her education was one of the most important things she’ll ever have. She shouldn’t feel discouraged when she fails, or when her peers let her down. I was supposed to tell her that the bullies don’t win in the end. Hard work and critical thinking are invaluable. Being bold, imaginative, and fearless is what leads to innovation and discovery. The world is full of its problems, but she has the ability to tackle the most insurmountable challenges. Pursuing science, I would tell her, is one way to do that.

Today, those words felt hallow, flippant, and simply untrue. I should be thinking of ways to encourage and inspire these women, but instead, in light of this week’s election, I was plagued with memories of all the troubles I had when I was their age. I thought of the bullies, male peers who harassed me for answering questions in class or commented on my appearance, as if that had something to do with my value or intelligence. How was I supposed to tell them that no matter how impressive her accomplishments, there will be that person who attempts to discredit her, belittle her, and make her feel worthless? Worst of all, how am I supposed to tell her that all of these problems are simply a phase, and that things will get better after middle and high school? She has a bright future, I should tell her. She would be accepted to university based on her merits. But would always be someone there, a real or fictions demon on her shoulder whispering in her ear that she only got in because she’s a woman, a woman of color, an immigrant, a LGBT? I shudder to think of those who said similar things to me (and I enjoy more privilege than most); those men who said or implied that I took their spot, that being a woman gave me a competitive edge they did not enjoy. Forgot that maybe my successes meant I was qualified. Someone had to be blamed, and I was the unlucky winner.

As much as I wanted to unleash my own frustrations, I knew that was not the best way to proceed. I am sad, I am angry, but I am certainly not going to back down and admit defeat.

Instead, I will look to my greatest comfort: anthropology.

What is anthropology? I ask the young women.

“The study of human bones!”

“The study of ancient societies!”

“The study of artifacts and archaeology!”

“The study of culture!”

You are all correct, I tell them, these are all important aspects of being human and they are intimately interconnected and manifest in infinite, fascinating ways. Anthropology is the science of human beings. We have the tool kit of a scientist: we ask questions, formulate hypotheses, make observations of the evidence, and evaluate our results. Our goal is to understand the complexities of human nature, why humans do what we do. It is during that fascinating, fulfilling, and sometimes frustrating journey that we discover how valuable and rare our open-mindedness and thirst for understanding is in the world.

My fellow anthropologists, all you linguists, cultural and medical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and primatologists, you know this. And it thrills me to call you my friends and colleagues.

But to those who are unfamiliar with what I do, this is for you. Anthropology is not simply an intellectual oddity tucked away in the ivory towers of university campuses. It cannot be buried in piles of jargon-heavy books and articles, though that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried. Studying the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life enables us to understand why diseases spread and why crops fail. This science of human nature allows us to explore why societies commissioned art to inspire creativity or to evoke a sense of the divine. Anthropology explores how empires expand and collapse. It does not shy away from discussions of race, gender, and colonialism; in fact, it confronts these debates head-on, challenging us to critically evaluate our past mistakes so that our future is full of thoughtful, well-informed decisions. To an anthropologist, why early humans migrated out of Africa, over Beringia, and went to the moon seems almost obvious. Humans are wired to look to the horizon, across oceans, and up at the night sky: we want to go beyond our known world to see what lies just out of reach.

Anthropology has comforted me these last few days. Hatred and fear are simply the symptoms of ignorance, and it can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and unchallenged. To be an anthropologist is to understand human similarities and differences. We do not hate the unknown nor fear the challenges of this ever-changing world. Instead, we build connections with our global community and to the past by studying cultures, ancient societies, and their material correlates; we do not build walls. Anthropology is a discipline that has the power to understand who we were. It is more important now than ever that we recognize that anthropology also has the indispensable power to help us decide who we are and who we want to be.

So today, as I looked at those excited, hopeful, bright young women in the osteology lab, I tell them I decided to study anthropology because I wanted to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex, beautiful world around me. In the words of Ruth Benedict, I tell them, “the purposes of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

To be the Brave and Imperfect Female Graduate Student

To Celebrate International Women’s Day, I decided to forgo my typical academic-esque post. I am not one for personal stories, but a recent realization has inspired me to address one particularly significant issue we ladies of academic face.

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed an unsettling pattern in my conversations, particularly with my professors. For the past two semesters I have been enrolled in two classes that have been particularly challenging for me: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Statistical Inferences and Analysis. Both classes have, to put it lightly, tested my patience. There were times in the GIS lab, as a realized I was closing in on hour 6 of time spent on a project, that I wondered what on earth possessed me to follow this particular career. I tend to pick up concepts quickly, be it from an innate ability to understand information quickly or just working hard. Yet, in both of these classes, that immediate, satisfying comprehension did not necessarily arrive in the timely manner I am used to. Instead I struggled. Instead I’d agonize over whether or not I was typing commands correctly in ArchGIS. I’d get frustrated when I did not immediately understand the different types of z-scores. It was not until the other day when both of these professors told me, independent of each other, that the main reason I struggled with these classes was because I was afraid of not doing the assignment perfectly.

 

This struck a cord with me, and it wasn’t a happy tune. Yesterday evening, I stumbled across a TED talk by Reshma Saujani titled, “Teach girls to be brave, not perfect,” in which Saujani discusses how woman have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and are therefore overly cautious. Saujani cites studies of fifth graders found that the more intelligent the girls, the more more likely they were to give up on a difficult assignment, while the more the intelligent the boys, the more likely they were to meet the challenge. Young girls were more afraid of showing their imperfection while attempting to complete the assignment. Saujani says women do not necessarily suffer from a lack of confidence, but it is this socialization of perfection that causes women to take less risks in their careers. If women were socialized to be brave, rather than socialized to be perfect, that could move society forward.

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All graduate students already, shall we say, encounter a daily  crisis-of-self (or maybe that’s just me). Be it from coursework, grant writing, or just the ongoing battle of “will-I-get-a-job-that-isn’t-at-a-banana-stand?” saga (though there is always money in the banana stand), I think there is an additional issue that plagues graduate students, particularly females. I think that many of us were (and continue to be) socialized to strive for perfection.Why are we so concerned with being perfect? Wouldn’t it be more useful for our academic careers to be socialized to take risks, to be unafraid of failure, to be brave?

During my classes, I notice that females are not particularly vocal in class. Maybe we don’t speak out in class because we don’t want to sound unintelligent. In her insightful guest blog for “The Professor is In”, Karen Cardozo also explores this topic, noting that women take fewer chances and risks than men. “For example, in test-taking studies, researchers found that upon closer inspection, perceived gender differences in performances resulted not from wrong answers, but from women’s greater tendency to leave an answer blank when unsure about it (thus eliminating even partial odds of hitting upon the correct answer).  When the experiments were revised to insert the instruction “do not leave any answers blank,” there was no gender disparity in performance.” Furthermore,  studies have shown that males tend to dominate classroom discussions compared to females, possibly because, “women prove to be extremely vulnerable to interruption. Numerous studies have demonstrated that in mixed-sex conversations, women are interrupted far more frequently than men are…Moreover, once interrupted, women sometimes stayed out of the discussion for the remainder of the class hour.” While, luckily, my male peers do not interrupt my female colleagues, I should point out that in order to change the socialization of perfection into bravery, it will take the efforts of both females and males.

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Since I began applying for graduate school, I had multiple professors (all female) ask if I applied for external funding, specifically the NSF. Thinking that I was not qualified, or worse yet, that I would devote all this time to apply and therefore put myself in the position of possibly failing, I didn’t bother. It was not until last fall when I was reading advice on how to write a successful NSF application, did one of my professors (once again, female), ask me what I was reading, and then inquire why I wasn’t applying for the NSF. It is absurd that I talked myself out of applying so many times. It was the encouragement from my female professors and colleagues that drove me to apply for the grant last fall. It took someone explicitly telling me that yes, I am qualified, and even if I weren’t, I should apply anyway.

Regardless of the outcome, I think having the courage to apply for these grants is a personal success. Unfortunately, women are less likely to apply to major grants.  While the social sciences have noted that women are beginning to be more fairly funded in the social sciences (specifically in the UK), there are still issues in gender balance of how many women apply for grants, and the percentage of them who receive them. Similarly, in the job market, Saujani notes that men are likely to apply for jobs when they meet approximately 60% of the requirements, while females only apply when they meet 100% of the requires. With these discouraging numbers, it’s no wonder that women think we cannot apply for grants because we don’t have enough publications, experience, or simply don’t want to risk failure. We need to change the perception of perfection: socializing women to think they are only valuable if they are perfect hinders us more than it helps us.

So in order to remedy this whole socialization of perfection, I think we, female academics, need to socialize our colleagues and peers in the process of being brave. Those of us who spend our field seasons working in deserts, rainforests, and mountains littered with poisonous snakes, bugs, plants, basically all manner of creatures that could harm us, may disagree: to do these things does require bravery. What I am talking about is having the bravery to take risks in our careers. We need ignore that pesky and unproductive manta, “I may fail at this, if I do, I’m not perfect,” and instead replace it with, “I may fail at this, but oh well, I was brave for trying.” To achieve this, it will take a concentrated effort for all of us, fellow female peers and colleagues, not to mention male peers and colleagues, to encourage bravery, and show that perfection is overrated.

On a final note, public outreach is an invaluable tool academics can use to encourage the next generation of women to be brave, so show how perfection is harmful. This past weekend, in collaboration with GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane), I hosted a workshop that taught middle school girls about human osteology, bioarchaeology, and forensic anthropology. I made sure to tell the girls to ask questions, and share their ideas–there were no stupid questions and ideas in my lab. Whenever I asked a question (why do you think female pelves are different from male pelves? When do you remember when you got your first adult molar? ), the girls were not afraid to call out answers, nor were they afraid to answer my questions incorrectly. In fact, they loved sharing their ideas. In other words, they were brave, and did not care about giving the perfect answer. Hopefully this is a trend that continues.

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This week in anthropology, bioanthropology, bioarchaeology, and archaeology

Scientists find that Neanderthals were not less intelligent than modern humans 

DNA tests can trace your ancestral origins back 1000 years 

Interactions between humans and scavengers have been decisive in human evolution 

Dmanisi “single species” claim draws criticism among paleoanthropologists 

Study shows that white, male professors more likely to respond to other white, male emails than females and minorities 

Sa Huynh site discovered in the Quang Nam providence, China 

Excavations in Nashville Zoo reveal Native American remains 

Archaeologists search for ancient temples and pyramids in Sudan 

Stone darts and dismembered bodies shows 5000 years of violence among Central California Native Americans 

What happens when an orangutan and the slow loris meet 

Who majors in anthropology? This infograph reveals that many successful people did! 

The war over science continues in Congress, Republicans trying to push out scientists from peer reviewing 

Desert geoglyphs in the Chincha Valley, Peru, made by Paracas culture to help point travelers to settlements, possible divided by ethnic and kin groups 

A caring graduate advisor is the key to whether or not a graduate student thrives 

Why do scientists ignore female genitalia and sexual reproduction? 

New center in Arizona helps identify remains of people who attempted to cross the US-Mexican border

Archaeologists find 5600 year old tomb in Hierakonpolis, Egypt

 

Excavations unearth Roman basilica in Bursa, Turkey

Looters destroy tomb in southern Turkey

Researchers find chimpanzee have distinct, individual behaviors, similar to humans 

A look at the Penan hunter-gratherers of the Sarawak rainforest, Borneo 

Inca culture in the Sacred Valley includes sites Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Urubamba, and Moray, Peru

Scientists examine carbon atoms found in mummies reveals vegetarian diet among ancient Egyptians

Black death skeleton reveals harsh life of 14-century Londoners

Rice theory: Why Eastern cultures are more cooperative, see also New Scientist 

Ramesside tomb of Egypt’s royal ambasador discovered at Saqqara, osteological remains reveal individual died suddenly at young age 

Someone had to build Qin Shihuang’a terra-cotta army, archaeologists just found their grave, China

You’ve been accepted to graduate school! Now here are some sexist comments

On my computer desktop, I have approximately a bagillion post-its. Some feature inspiration quotes, others a list of songs I need to get around to downloading, and a few lists of books I’ve been meaning to read. In the center of the screen, there is a large post-it reading “Move to NOLA Countdown 84 Days.” I haven’t had a countdown like that since high school. During the final semester I was so completely miserable, mostly because I disliked my classes and I wanted to just get on with my college life already. My current countdown started for several reasons: I’m super excited, I’m ready to get my academic life started, I’m tired of living in this tired town. The main reason, however, is a little more straightforward. If ONE MORE PERSON asks me when I’m settling down, getting married, or having babies, I may scream.

Since accepting an offer to join the graduate program at Tulane, there has been this subtle shift in how some my peers treat me. Notice how I used every font emphasis on “some.” I am completely taken aback, surprised, befuddled, and irritated by some of these comments. Comments came from both men and women. Some of my friends said the comments were made due to insecurity and jealously. Others said I was reading too much into what people were saying. I think the meaning behind these comments is a little more sinister. A little more sexist. I wonder if all women, beaming with joyous success, filled with a sense of accomplishment having just achieved the near impossible, heard these comments when they told their friends, family, and peers their wonderful news. I wish I could say that I was able to write off their comment as snide and uninformed, or even come back with a witty retort, alas, I know myself better: if I didn’t walk away or ignore the comment, I would descend into a rage-filled tirade and probably punch someone in their sexist mouth.

So to you women who are planning to begin the arduous journey to Phd-hood, expect to hear some obnoxious comments from your jealous, immature, sexist peers. In the last month, here is what I’ve heard so far:

“Now that you are starting your PhD, now let’s find you a husband so you can get married and settled down” Oh thanks for reminding me! The whole publishing, research, dissertation, having fun being single thing was getting in the way of what my true goals are!

You got into your top choice? Well, then that’s SUPER WEIRD that *insert male’s name who has less experience than you* wasn’t accepted ANYWHERE. You got in because you went to a good school.” Yeah it had NOTHING to do with EXPERIENCE or GRADES.

Me: “So I’m moving to NOLA” 
Unhelpful person:”That’s going to be a lot of work. If you had a boyfriend with a pick-up truck he could help you move.” Because in 24 years of living, I never learned how to pack and move a box. Is it like tetris but real life?

Former high school teacher: “It’s so great to see you! What are you up to now?”
Me: “I’m starting my PhD at Tulane in the fall!” 
Former high school teacher’s follow up question that wasn’t relevant, like what program are you starting or where do you work now: “So are you seeing anyone?”
Me: “No”
Former high school teacher: “Well don’t worry you’ll find someone”

And, this gem, occurred during an awards ceremony, where I was presenting an award to a student on behalf of scholarship program.

Student’s farther: “So where did you go to school?”
Me: “I got my BA from Vanderbilt, and now I’m starting a PhD program at Tulane in the fall”
Student’s farther: Says nothing

Teacher announces that the complimentary dinner is ready
Student’s farther says to me: “How about you go make me a plate”
Is that your subtle way of letting me know that no matter how educated, poised, and well-spoken I am, my main job is to provide food to the helpless male masses? Oh okay, good, glad I didn’t misinterpret that.

I have been told by a few very wise and very sensible grown-up, mentors, and friends that these comments will never end, especially for women in a “boy’s club” academic field. Some people will never change, but the trick is to let people know, early on, that comments like these are NOT okay. For now, my goal is to set these people straight and let them know that I won’t put up with such nonsense.

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.