First Ladies of the Academy

The last presidential election cycle in the United States raised many, many questions. One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?”  When the incoming First Lady didn’t do exactly as her predecessors had, or as many had decided was traditional, many thinkpieces were written and hot takes had.** While it can seem like a laughably lighthearted question, the kind of thing relegated to the lifestyle section of national newspapers, I’d argue it’s more important than ever – and incredibly relevant to academia.

Cultural norms are often only visible after they are broken, and this has been true for the perceived (in)actions of the current first lady.  Consider this passage from a Huffington Post piece:

In February, Melania Trump broke a longstanding tradition that the first lady accompanies the spouse of a visiting foreign leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, was alone during her visit to Washington. The White House claimed Melania Trump’s absence was the result of a scheduling error with Abe.

Brower called the White House’s handling of the visit “embarrassing.”

“You’re being a rude host, really,” Brower said. “Part of the job of the first lady is to escort spouses, men or women, around Washington, and you kind of just suck it up and do it, even if you don’t want to.”

The first lady is expected to do a bunch of hostess work, despite not being a paid employee and/or elected official. [The focus of this post isn’t really on the presidential spouse, so check out one primer on the ‘traditional’ role of the first lady as conceived of by the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum.  Or check out the whole website of the National First Ladies Library. ] And as the “embarrassing” quip shows, her behavior apparently reflects on the president (her husband) AND the country as a whole. Moreover, the end of the passage demonstrates that opting out of this role isn’t, actually, optional.

So, what does this have to do with academia? Well, this industry is rife with first ladies. Most university presidents are men, and many of those men are married to women. Those women are expected to play the role of first ladies for the university – and the expectations for the role are very similar, including hostess duties, fundraising, appearing at public events, and acting as an all-around ambassador of the institution.

A 2011 study by the Council of Independent Colleges on the spouses of university presidents found a wide range in the amount of time first ladies (and spouses) spent on university business and whether/how much spouses were compensated. Compensating spouses of presidents comes with its own set of debates (as it should) – especially at universities that otherwise do not have partner hire programs for staff and faculty. The 2011 study found two-thirds of spouses of university presidents have some kind of formal appointment with the university, yet I highly, highly doubt as high a percent (or the same universities) do the same for the rest of their employees and their spouses. Doubt may be the best I can do, as good data on these policies is sparse.***.  Seems important to look into further, especially as most faculty and staff probably work for a university longer than a university president does.

The US still hasn’t decided how it feels about the role of first lady and what to do if someone doesn’t want to take it on. I’d say the same is true for the academy. I am certainly not the first person to raise this question about what the role of spouses of university presidents and whether it should be compensated. One thoughtful piece, framed as a two-sided debate, about this question in academia was published online by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges back in 2013 [read it here].

BUT, and this is a big caveat, it was written by two men. Even though the writer arguing *against* compensating university spouses is the husband of a woman university president****, it is very likely his experience as the spouse of a university president – and the expectations of him by others – are vastly different.  I can only hope that the organization revisits the topic with (at least) two women contributors, including a university president and a spouse of a university president. Of course, since both of these roles are seen as institutional spokespeople, likely no one in a current role would be able to speak openly about this topic.  And it shouldn’t just be decided by people who have benefited from, and want to participate in, the status quo.

So let’s take it to the comments. What do you think the role of first ladies in the academy should be?  Should it be compensated? Is it fair to formally hire spouses of university presidents at schools that won’t do the same for the spouses of other employees?

 

** In fact, if the other candidate had won, the country would have seen just as many thinkpieces, as the “first lady” would have been a man for the first time in the history of the country. The question is broader than, and outside of, political persuasion.
*** One article mentioned that a study of 360 deans said that “80%” of them claimed their institution would “do something” for the spouse of a faculty hire. That hardly counts as a policy or evidence, and without a policy it’s not clear it would be (or has been) applied evenly to faculty and spouses, regardless of gender of either.
****the man arguing for compensation for spouses of university presidents is a university president himself
Further reading:
2016 report (~150 pages) from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities “The Lives of Presidential Partners in Higher Education Institutionshttp://www.aplu.org/members/councils/presidents-and-chancellors-spouse-partners/presidential-partners.pdf

I am here, despite it all

The elections have taken over everything. It’s been the dominant topic of conversation I overhear in the streets and on the bus; it’s what my colleagues and students talk about over breaks and occasionally in the classroom; and it’s all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People are rattled and they are truly afraid. Too many posts have been written about this at this point for me to even try to link to them all.

I want to use this post to offer a slightly different perspective. I am a foreign scholar, currently on a temporary contract and looking to find permanent employment in the United States. A few months ago I applied for a Green Card, and I’m still waiting for that process to run its course. This post is about what it’s like to decide to adopt a country that seems to have decided it may not want to adopt you back. I say this despite the fact that I know not a single person who’s expressed this thought to me, but clearly those people are out there. So while my American friends are talking about despairing and even leaving the country, I am working hard to become a member of their community. I’ve had several conversations with them about why I chose to come and stay here, and what my other options might be. Their desperation seems commensurate with their awareness of what things are like outside the United States,* so this post is my attempt to explain my own thinking on this topic. Continue reading

Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Continue reading

One kid? Fine. 2? 3?! Well, maybe not.

Care work of all kinds (self care, elder care, child care) is often not valued by academic institutions –at least in terms of letting students, staff, and faculty use time, money, energy for those tasks while having the resources to continue excelling at their jobs). And that’s unfortunate, because care work (+ other kinds of unpaid labor – emotional, organizational, and physical) is still highly gendered and stigmatized.   Recognizing the common threads between these kinds of care work that women do can help workers better organize together and institutions create policies that recognize all the forms of care demanded of women, not just childcare of babies + infants and not just for tenure track faculty.

[And having no kids (or elders or pets) to care for can still be held against women in the workplace, as managers can expect them to be workaholics (“put their career first”) or potentially even cover for folks who have care responsibilities. The 1-body problem is real, in multiple ways.]

But today I want to specifically talk about the penalties women in the academy occur for having multiple children.

It’s like the patriarchy up and decided “fine, ladies, you can have a kid and still be considered a working professional – but just this once” — as if choosing to have a kid again is abusing the supposed privileges that come with it.

Continue reading

More than a scientist

Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting.  The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab.  He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.

I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change.  I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities.  And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science!  But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?” Continue reading

Guest Post: UC Postdocs Demand Paid Parental Leave

I am a postdoc researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, which is widely regarded as the most forward-thinking university in the country. Berkeley’s progressive reputation and more broadly the reputation of the University of California as a whole would suggest an academic institution on the leading edge of promoting gender equity in science. Indeed, UC administrators consistently emphasize the importance of keeping women in academia.

However, the solutions suggested are often superficial and fail to address the real structural issues for women in their careers. For example, a recent “Postdoc Newsletter” produced by University of California administrators offers the trite advice that female postdocs “accept the challenge” and not be “discouraged or waylaid by hurdles.” Wow, that never occurred to me!

UC’s lack of commitment to improving gender equity in the academy is evident not just in the superficial nature of its rhetoric, but also in its failure to act on its stated goals. In the past several years, University practices have led to our union filing discrimination grievances after postdocs were fired or laid off following pregnancy leave. There is no defense for this practice, and yet at all turns UC has resisted efforts to remedy these injustices. Continue reading

How do you find the time?

In graduate school, I took up crafting — knitting, sewing, embroidering, quilting, making magnets and sock monkeys and jam? I tried them all. I’ve always liked working with my hands, and the grass roots, eco-friendly nature of the DIY movement was really appealing to me. I also enjoyed learning more about what have traditionally been women’s activities. Embroidering science quotes on pillows felt subversive and oddly empowering. I made me feel closer to my grandmother. It gave me something to do. It was a creative outlet. I met new people, and saved money on holiday gifts. My grad student friends and I would meet for weekend stitch-n-bitches and support each other through tough times.

Crafting also helped my mental health. Watching an episode of Buffy or Alias at night to unwind, I’d find myself unable to relax until I discovered that crocheting silenced that persistent little voice saying “Why aren’t you working?” Because I was working! I was making something! My overachieving neurotic brain was just as satisfied by stitches as by words. I was able to relax, and concentrate on Sidney Bristow kicking ass instead of the pervasive feelings that I wasn’t good enough.

When I started my faculty position, I stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t intentional, it’s just that self-care is one of the first things to go when you’re busy. Continue reading