How I Feel as a Woman in Academia

First of all, I feel pissed off that I’m taking the time to write this article.

Then I remember that it might do some good*. So, I sigh, and carry on.


Last week I read Down Among the Women, by Fay Weldon.  I had never read anything by her before, and it blew. me. away. It’s a book about a bunch of female friends, as they grow from being young women, daughters, students, lovers; to becoming older women, mothers, wives, workers, lovers, dead. (Sometimes.) The way their stories are told is amazing in itself; the characters and their lives are sketched out with such nuance and care and humour and wry attention to detail that I felt the best kind of familiarity with these fictional people who were (at least superficially) nothing like me.  But that experience is more-or-less a given, when you’re reading good writing. The other, more pertinent, thing that was so incredible to me about this book, was that it was so clearly About Women, and provided such a Distinctive Female Perspective on the world.

I write those phrases with Capitals and Italics, because…

…well. Because I can’t write like that.


I can’t write About Women In Academia, or provide a Distinctive Female Perspective on psychological science. Despite being a woman in academia, a female in psychological science, a not-very-lady-like lady in her office at a fancy research university.

The proximal cause of this post was a number of threads on facebook and twitter a while ago, about female scientists and our contribution to the ongoing discussion about improving (psychological) science. There are many aspects to this issue (including broader questions of representation; it’s not all about gender, obviously) but I’m going to focus on one: the apparent lack of female contributors to the discussions.

Here is a summarized and somewhat simplified run-down of what happens in my brain while reading one of these social media threads.

  1. Enjoyment at the various topics at hand, the way they are challenging and engaging me
  2. Occasional “like”-clicking (if there’s a particularly good point being made, and I feel like communicating something like “I second that!”)
  3. Even more occasional impulse to add something of my own
  4. Frustration at the tiny screen I’m usually reading/writing on (usually leading to abandonment of post)
  5. Surprise, when somebody points out how male-dominated the thread is. And by surprise, I mean something like this: “Oh yeah, I have been reading just men! And I’m a woman! Huh.”
  6. Impulse to respond, “Well, I’m here, listening-reading”
  7. Frustration at the tiny screen I’m usually reading/writing on (usually leading to abandonment of post (except for this one time, that I now can’t find))
  8. Guilt at opting out of Representing My Gender just because of an annoying screen size
  9. Frustration, at having my FEMALENESS highlighted. “Okay so I’m a woman, but is that going to be my contribution to the discussion? What if I wanted to say something substantive about science instead?”
  10. Concern, because it is actually really important – read Alison Ledgerwood, Elizabeth Haines, and Kate Ratliff’s insightful exploration of the issues here, on Simine Vazire’s blog – she’s also written about it here, in discussion with Lee Jussim
  11. Gratitude, at whoever first brought it up in this particular thread – male or female – because yes, awareness-raising, and prompting men to quieten down and women to speak up, seems to not be a bad start
  12. Curiosity, as to why men are over-represented in these social media discussions
  13. Anger, when someone suggests that lack of involvement in discussion on social media == lack of involvement with the issue (There are other ways to be engaged! In your own time, on your own blog, for example, as this great post by Erika Salomon demonstrates)
  14. Amusement, at Mina Cikara’s reaction “Aint nobody got time for that!” (also on a thread I can’t re-find)- so true!
  15. But, curiosity comes back – so why do the men have time? What are they down-prioritising? Could this have something to do with the dreaded Wife Drought (book, review)?
  16. Confusion, when some people comment really confusing things
  17. Solidarity, when a women writes something that resonates with my experience, or sounds unpleasant
  18. ANGER, when somebody suggests that women are just more shy than men. Fuck off.
  19. Abashedness, when I remember that some of these people are personality psychologists; they probably do know something true about broad gender differences. [Note to self: these are useful contributions, that don’t just involve stereotyping.]
  20. Nonetheless, frustration and exasperation returns. This exasperation is directed at people for thinking they can speak for all of women, but it is directed even more at men, because they are not even women themselves! D’uh.
  21. Exasperation wins, when I realise I’ve written 20 points about engaging with a debate about improving psychology – but only the first 4 of those points were about the actual topic we were discussing! 

So I can’t write About Women In Academia, because I only notice that I’m female at approximately point #5. My Distinctive Perspective is mine, and although the individual feelings above (mostly frustration, by the look of it?) no doubt form part of the Universal Human Experience, I’m doubtful that the list as a whole will resonate with women in general, nor with female scientists in particular.

weldon


I feel like a researcher, first and foremost. A post doc. (That’s taking some getting used to – I was a student for so long!) A friend, a lover, a big sister. (With emphasis on big, not sister, though both my younger siblings are now taller than me.)

And I am so glad and grateful to be living in a corner of the world where highlighting my non-gender identities is okay, for the most part. Where I only sometimes am called on as a representative of my gender, and where I only even more rarely am made to feel insecure or worthless or other because of my gender. If the cost of that world is occasionally having to talk about gender issues, rather than science, it’s worth it.

I want the world to be like that for everyone.

But, it’s hard to see how getting frustrated at discussions on social media would help achieve such a world. When I said that this blog post might do some good*, I was mostly thinking about how I could link to it in future debates, and hence save myself the hassle of explaining. That said, I do firmly believe that reading or listening to other perspectives, from viewpoints that differ markedly from your own, can help make you more tolerant of differences and compassionate towards people who you otherwise might dislike and disagree with. So, go read Fay Weldon. That would be good.


(Oki so the read-literature, read-minds effect recently failed to replicate; at least as a manipulation where you read just a paragraph. But amount of life time reading still correlates with theory of mind, so… just make Fay Weldon part of your life time reading, k?)

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