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 One of them was: “is the role of the first lady outdated?”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 Institutions

Academics and Deplorables

As an academic blogger, I hoped to never write the words Donald Trump, but I need to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the ubiquitous threat that men like Trump and his apologists pose to women’s wellbeing in the workplace and the world. Since the video exploded all over my Twitter feed on Friday evening, I have been troubled by how familiar Trump’s words are to me, and to the many talented women whose work I read on the internet. Kelly Oxford solicited stories of women’s first assaults. The resulting thread is agonizing in its chronicle of casual violence against women and girls.



Anne Helen Petersen pushed back against the tendency of many men to challenged Trump’s definition of “locker room talk” with their own stories of male only spaces where women are respected.  Continue reading

Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading

Guest Post: On being productive and reproductive at the same time

Today’s guest post is by Megan Rivers-Moore, Assistant Professor at the Pauline Jewett Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton University

  1. PhD, Post-doc, someone give me a job please

When I’m about to go start fieldwork for my PhD, my academic advisor says “why don’t you have a baby? Everyone trusts a pregnant woman.” Now, I’m not saying I know for sure, but this seems like pretty terrible advice.

When I’m in the field, the women I’m interviewing find it baffling that I am in a long-term, happy relationship but don’t have a baby yet. As we get to know each other, as the mutual trust develops, I am regularly asked if there is something “wrong” with me, if I can’t get pregnant. They cannot conceive of any other reason that I wouldn’t have a baby. I say something vague about trying to finish school first, get a job, and then we have many long conversations about the complexities of work-life balance in the Costa Rican sex industry.

I get a post-doc in Toronto, the point of which, I’m told by several people, is to have a baby and get a tenure track job. Well, ok then.

I’m pregnant. I actually eat soda biscuits while I’m lecturing so that I won’t retch. I’m pregnant, but I’m also bleeding. I use the bathroom before class and then I realize there is the possibility that I will actually have a miscarriage at the front of the room while my eight-five students watch. I get my first cell phone, because my partner insists that I need to be able to call someone if this happens. I think about what the order of the calls would be: first my partner (guess what, honey?), but who would be next? The department administrator (I’ll be ending class a little early today)? Maintenance (there’s a bit of a mess in my classroom, sorry! Do you have any of that sawdust, like when kids barf at school)?  This is not at all funny, but the only way I can face the possibility of my body coming apart while I teach Feminist Studies in Sexuality is by making myself laugh, imagining trying to make it into a teachable moment. I haven’t included a section in the course on reproduction, but I imagine announcing “one aspect of sexuality we haven’t discussed is pregnancy. Many, many, many pregnancies end in miscarriage, as you can see. We don’t tend to talk about it, it’s not supposed to be a big deal, so people often feel isolated. And deeply heartbroken. You know how important it is to relate our academic theorizing to the real world? Well, this is me unravelling before your very eyes! Don’t forget this when you fill out your course evaluations.”

As it turns out, this time around I don’t have a miscarriage. I am seven months pregnant and travelling to Texas to interview for a tenure-track job. Right after I arrive, I’m taken out for tacos by a lovely couple who spend the whole dinner trying to get me to drink. “This place is famous for its margaritas. Why don’t you try one? Are you sure you don’t want a cold beer to wash that down? Irish coffee for dessert?” Either they haven’t noticed I’m pregnant or else things are really relaxed in the south. As the epic marathon of a multi-day interview goes on, there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to mention my pregnancy. I am seriously out of breath during my job talk, gasping a few times as the fetus decides to push my internal organs up into my lungs. I avoid touching my belly at all, I watch people avoid looking at it. We all pretend it isn’t there, except for the head of department who says “I’ll put you on the waiting list for the campus daycare.” When I finally waddle back to the hotel room at night, my fetus and I spend a long time poking each other. Hello, you. Sorry I ignored you. How’s it going in there? Do you want to move to Texas? I’m killing this interview, I think I’m going to get this job.

I don’t get the job. I can’t help but notice that the guy who does get the job may well have triplets on the way, but he didn’t wear them under his sweater at the interview.

Continue reading

It’s not you, it’s your environment

I recently had a conversation with a male friend at another institution. While he is successfully advising graduate students of all genders, he was concerned because two women students had quit after their first year and he’s not had a man quit. My friend told me that they had good reasons for quitting, unrelated to his advising, but he just didn’t like that pattern and feared that maybe he was also doing something wrong that made it harder for women to succeed in his lab.

Having watched my friend in professional settings and knowing that he’s pretty plugged and conscientious about issues of women in science, I don’t think my friend isn’t doing anything egregious. In fact, I’d like to believe that he’s one of the men exemplifying how our society is changing for the better. Nonetheless, it probably wouldn’t hurt my friend to review Acclimatrix’s “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” to up his game.

But knowing my friend and knowing his institution (having spent a few years there myself), my response to my friend’s fears was “It’s probably not you, but it might be your environment. Look around at the climate for women in your department and university.”  Even if my friend is running a great, supportive research group and doing a superb job mentoring students of all genders, that won’t completely counteract a male-dominated, sexist broader environment. Continue reading

The dreaded question period

The Q&A – arguably the most angst inducing part of one’s entire talk. Inevitably someone will raise their hand and ask a question which the speaker did not anticipate and which they are not prepared for. But who is that someone? On occasion, it is a young scholar, itching to make him or herself known by asking a smart question. Often, it is the senior (male) academic who is sitting in the front row and raises his hand after each talk. Where are the women?

At two recent conferences, I kept track of who was in the room: who were the presenters, what was the proportion of men to women in the audience, and who was asking the questions. The first, a small conference of about 50 participants, had a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the audience with only a handful more men than women. There were 12 male speakers and 12 female speakers. Across the different Q&As, there were a total of 66 questions asked by men and 25 questions asked by women. The second conference was larger, with roughly 150 participants, with a more skewed audience with only 35-40% women. The talk distribution similarly reflected this makeup of the audience, with 14 male speakers and 9 female speakers. The Q&A then featured 73 questions by men and only 13 by women. In both cases, the majority of questions were asked by senior scholars, the majority of whom are men. When young scholars raised their hands, roughly a third of the time, they were overwhelmingly men, as well.

While anecdotal, these numbers speak to a current trend in my field. Conference organizers are generally aware of gender biases and do a decent job of accepting both male and female speakers at encouraging numbers. They also almost always make sure to have both male and female invited speakers.* And yet clearly there is still a problem. 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