Leveling up: does sexism get worse as you advance?

Editor’s note: Tenure, She Wrote is back! If you’re just joining us, we were a pretty happenin’ blog space a few years back. I started this collaborative blog with Dr. Mellivora the summer before we both started faculty positions. Then pre-tenure life caught up, we all got busy, and TSW went dark, except for an occasional post. There was a part of me that thought that maybe we didn’t need this space anymore, too. That we had made strides towards gender equality in academia, and things were on the uptick, and that we’d outgrown the need for this content.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, #MeToo, the National Academy’s failure to address convicted sexual predators in its own ranks, and heck, my own lived experience, I’ve realized that I was so, so wrong. We need these spaces — outspoken, intersectional, unapologetically feminist spaces — more than ever. So I’m excited to announce that we’re back, with a mix of fresh voices and seasoned (salty?) veterans. Stay tuned for their posts in the coming weeks. 

Anniversaries are always good times to reflect. Our first post, on July 1st, 2013, was about mentoring — I was just starting to think seriously about what it would mean to lead my own lab. This was before I’d even stepped foot on campus; before I’d met many of my colleagues, before I’d really seen my lab space, ordered equipment, or even met one of my chairs. Five years later, I’m in the last push before tenure; I’ll submit my package later this year. So much has happened since I wrote that first post: students have defended, papers have been published, grants have been acquired, classes developed and taught. I’m really confident in my performance, despite a lot of hardships — some of which I’ve written about here, and many things I haven’t yet been able to write about.

It’s really striking, though, to think of who I am, and my relationship to this job, as I approach tenure, in comparison to who I was when I started this blog. One of the biggest things is that sexism and harassment in STEM were largely intellectual ideas for me, then. I’d experienced micro-aggressions, sure. But the worst offenses were ones I’d seen my friends and colleagues go through, not me. And while I’ve still been spared some of the worst experiences, my experience of sexism in academia as institutional, rather than personal (i.e., something that has affected me personally), has changed. 

One of the things that’s been striking to me in recent years is that, as I’ve gotten more successful and stable in my career advancement, I’ve experienced more sexism, not less. I’m a young-looking person (I still get mistaken for an undergrad), and I always imagined that I’d be the most vulnerable when I was just starting out. I hadn’t proved myself yet — no grants, a couple of strong papers but nothing under my own leadership yet. I was ready to be mistreated, talked down to, belittled, ignored. And yes, some of that happened. But the majority of my peers were supportive, encouraging, helpful, and welcoming. Including the ones who later ended up being the worst offenders.

I’ve found that, as I’ve climbed the ranks and been more successful, I’ve experienced more hostility from male colleagues. I’ve been overlooked and snubbed where I was once invited or encouraged. I’ve been talked down to or belittled where I was previously lifted up. As someone who plays video games, it reminds me a bit of how the bosses get harder as you level up.

Let me be totally clear: my experience has been more positive than not, and at least one of my departments is really collegial. I have mentors and advocates. I like my job and I’m mostly pretty happy — I’ve come to terms with a lot of things that frustrated me early on, and come to value a lot of things that weren’t on my radar when I was just starting out (low cost of living, collegiality, support for interdisciplinary work, opportunities to integrate with state or agency initiatives near me). Leveling up comes with a lot of perks, and most of my adventures have been good ones.

But I’ve been surprised to see the sexism coming out of the woodwork as the years have gone by. I don’t know if this is because I’ve been a vocal proponent of diversity issues, and this has rankled some of my colleagues. But it could also be (and I’m inclined to lean this way) that as I’ve risen, I’ve become more of a threat to my male colleagues who see science as a zero-sum game. My grants, my opportunities, my resources, my platform? Maybe that’s put a target on my back.

One reason I’m inclined to think this is the nature of the comments, which often seem to reflect an insecurity on the part of senior male colleagues. Why is my lab not citing them more (I’m not kidding)? Why have I not asked for their advice on a particular issue (not offering advice, but chastising me for not asking for it when I didn’t need it)? Why did I choose to teach a course differently than the emeritus who taught it before me? Why was I not at the talk they gave? Why didn’t I send the journalist their way, instead of talk to them myself about my own work? Why did I decide to do fieldwork outside of my state, when I should be doing it in my state? Why did I decide to do fieldwork IN my state, when emeritus professors did fieldwork in my state in the 1980’s?

It’s more than just the questions, of course. But the nature of the questions reveals a lot about what’s going on. Other women in my male-dominated department have had similar experiences, I’ve learned. The friendliness turns to paternalism, which turns to hostility. The more successful you are, the more threatening.

I share my experience not to paint a dour picture of what to expect as you climb the ranks — one of the positive aspects of feeling like these challenges started emerging later is that I actually feel much more secure in handling them, and I have a strong network of mentors and advocates who have helped me through. But I’d love to hear if other people have had similar experiences — especially because, as you go up the ranks, there are fewer and fewer women in the room. And, I hope that by talking about this, it will be less of a surprise if it happens to others. My expectation was that things get easier with time; that’s been true for some things, but I wish I’d prepared myself for the sexism to scale with my career stage. I’d have started working on my armor earlier.

Recently, I was talking with a colleague about how I have so few senior women role models. I don’t have anyone I can reach out to and ask, “is this a thing, and how did you deal with it?” I’m going to reach out to my university’s ADVANCE program, which pairs you up with mentors outside your department, and explicitly ask for this. Because one thing I have learned in the last five years is that advocates are important, but you’re often the best one you’ve got. And as I prepare to cross that tenure threshold, I’ll be leaving my “early career” behind, which means I’ll be in a position to be that mentor for other junior faculty. And I’ll be damned if that door isn’t wider when I pass through it.

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14 thoughts on “Leveling up: does sexism get worse as you advance?

  1. I’ve observed as I moved up through the ranks (I have tenure now) that we are “allowed” to be their admiring students, their sisters/buddies, their ever-patient listening wives (aka emotional labor) or the departmental mothers. But never, ever their competition.

  2. I think this type of process occurs to all of us who are passionate, successful, and slightly inspirational as we build our own independent professional identity that becomes a force with the capability to create fundamental change. Change is feared. The fight to be better than before has always garnered oppression from those who created the past. Your smile, while the change is occurring, is one of your few rewards. Enjoy each derogatory injustice as if it were a badge of honor because its a sign of success in academia.

  3. Good to see you back and hear about the development of your career – I hope we can catch up with others too. RE “not needing this blog any more” HUH? I thought that at the end of the 60s, that the advances we had made then in enabling more equitable opportunities for all, particularly women in my case, would mean we didn’t need these discussions any more. I WAS WRONG (shouting intended). I am sorry you young women need to keep fighting, all I can say is that we tried our best at the time.

  4. Speaking as one who has made it (tenured full professor) it does not actually get easier even when you have grabbed the final rung. What I have is a opportunity to ignore most of the sexist stuff, but at cost, as many people view me as harsh, or bitchy, or, my personal favorite, such a “force to be reckoned with” that I have to be careful not to scare people. Oddly, I’ve found the university president more tolerant of me than my peers. What I have ALSO gained, however, is far more time spent actively being the voice in the room who can raise the serious issues, speaking for others yet to make their full climb, people using that “force” to help them with their issues. There are fewer women (and although I am not, women of color or LGBTQ, or…) in the room and fewer still that can use their voice. So, a lot more of my time is spent responding to those who request my voice or intervention or the metaphorical slap up side some male’s head who is behaving in inappropriate ways.The cost of having achieved my security is ensuring everyone else can get there too. Because what else can you do?

    • Thank you for continuing to speak up when appropriate, even of you perceive it to be at some cost. May the Force always be with you. I hope you achieve some satisfactory results and get some support for yourself so you don’t get (too) disillusioned. It is amazing how many others come forward once an issue is identified and thus legimised.

  5. As a woman who just made full almost 10 years late (and waaaaaay after many males who started after her) I agree 1000%. They’ll condescendingly support you early on, but later when It’s clear you never needed their help they decide that they’re not so sure you’re worthy after all.

  6. Yes! As I read your essay, I wondered if there was such a thing as sleep-writing where you write a personal essay and don’t even remember doing so. Your experience captures so much of my own. Thanks for committing to mentoring other women. And I’m happy you are blogging again.

  7. As I’ve become more senior, I’ve realized that the sexism against younger colleagues is usually confined behind closed doors. Women job applicants can be excluded for trivialities during meetings or email chains, but they may never know that they’ve been discriminated against. It only comes into view when tenure or promotion time rolls around, so we perceive it as new.

    I have been told by some of my senior colleagues that the closed-doors discussions about me, as a pre-tenure professor, were full of sexism, both the benevolent and the toxic kinds. A few of my senior colleagues became very insecure when I surpassed their abilities at work and didn’t need or want their advice. I didn’t realize the extent of the toxicity until I received the department’s vote on my tenure case. Although those folks were a minority, I refuse to go up for further promotion if they’re going to evaluate me with the same sexist criteria they used during my tenure.

    Even now at 5 years post-tenure, some of my colleagues tightly control their fiefdoms and won’t allow me to do my job. They love me when I play “Department Mom” but they constantly attack my methods in supervising students and teaching.

  8. Wow, this is exactly what I am going through now. I had a second child mid-TT and thought it was because of that initially, as there was an almost instantaneous change. But as I go further along, I’m feeling more and more isolated within the department. I just don’t get this. I have not changed, except that I am a fundamentally more experienced/better manager, scientist, writer and more secure financially. Yet I feel the least influential right now among my departmental peers. Outside my immediate setting though things seem brighter, within the larger field at least.

  9. Oh so true. To some extent I thought some of this correlated to my transition from being solely in engineering to being between engineering and medicine (because medicine seems more overtly obvious that women stall at a certain state). But am starting to see it in engineering.

    I highly recommend this paper:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17439375

  10. Pingback: Recommended reads #131 | Small Pond Science

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