During seminars, while noting figures I could use in my own talks, I keep a running list of Odd Things People Say. This spring I compiled them and found a series of comments made by academics, to academics, complaining about controlling behavior by the speaker’s husband. These were all said in front of multiple academic colleagues, some at group dinners and some to rooms bursting with over 100 listeners.
“My husband has trained me very well: he’s taught me I’m wrong all the time.”
“My husband gave me permission to come out tonight.”
“My husband finally stopped complaining about my travel when I brought home a large honorarium.”
“If I stay on this conference call any longer, my husband will divorce me.”
“My husband has limited my travel to two trips per month.”
“Sometimes my husband will drop me off at work but mostly he tells me to stop being lazy and take the bus.”
“My husband didn’t seem angry when he talked to you, did he?”
JUST KIDDING! Take every instance of “husband” above and replace it with “wife”. Take every “he” and replace it with “she”. The original quotes were all made by men in academia about their wives. In a professional context. To a group of academics.
Apologies for the heteronormative nature of this post, but hearing these statements from my male colleagues really gets my goat. Why? Because I rarely discuss my family in a professional context…because I’m worried that then I will be viewed as a woman/wife/mom first, and viewed as an academic second.
I know having women openly discuss all aspects of their lives (professional and personal) would make academia a better place. But my fear is confirmed by titles like this : Being married helps professors get ahead, but only if they are male (Atlantic Monthly) And we’ve all read about studies that show men with children are more likely to be promoted in academia than women with children (pdf) and both sexes prefer male job applicants (based on name alone) in academic job hiring (pdf). I was recently in a mock grant review panel where a female assistant professor wanted to decline to state her gender on an NSF grant application to get reviewed fairly.
My husband and I work at the same academic institution and have overlapping research interests, so I am asked about my family in professional situations and I keep those exchanges positive and work-focused. I actively work at separating my home and the people in it from my work and the people there. I find I’m not alone: I have another female colleague who shares my predilection for sending social emails from a personal email account and emails scheduling work meetings from her .edu account. Sometimes this means we email each other from both accounts in the span of a few minutes.
This separation of the home from the office is probably heightened for women with children. At our fall department retreat last year, two faculty members who married to each other gave talks (which are informal and focus on what we did over the summer). The husband began his talk with a photo of their six-month old saying “This is what I did this summer.” The wife showed no family photos and spoke only about research; and, sadly, she told me she felt guilty for not talking about her new baby after seeing her husband’s talk. When I was pregnant, I taught students for an entire semester without mentioning my pregnancy. The baby was due two months after the semester ended, and I felt it would be a non-sequitur to mention the pregnancy amidst course material. I gave an invited seminar at another campus when I was very pregnant and, interestingly, multiple female students told me they appreciated that I “made being pregnant seem normal by not drawing attention to it.”
My male colleagues often talk about their kids and partners to explain cancelling a meeting or missing a work social event. I, on the other hand, give little information when I need to reschedule an appointment; I frankly think it doesn’t matter why I can no longer make a meeting, but I also don’t want to draw attention to the fact that I have personal appointments and obligations. Many of my male colleagues make comments like the ones listed at the beginning of this post, which would sound scary to me if the gender roles were reversed. I think of these comments as “comments about the little woman” or “stories about the ball and chain”. I blame Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew for popularizing this kind of talk. Somehow, it’s acceptable for men to portray their wives as shrill and controlling, whereas it would be somewhat frightening to hear a woman make similar comments.
Is the solution for women to make the same kinds of comments? Do most people think nothing of hearing a colleague make jokes at his/her partner’s expense? The way I see it men truly get to have it all. I don’t mean having a career and a family. I mean being able to gripe about having it all without being viewed as a shrew.