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.  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

Ageism Goes Both Ways

I recently got into an argument with a friend and former colleague about ageism in academia. I insisted that young women professors experience regular, persistent, and pervasive ageism in the workplace. I couched this claim in my usual “the personal is political” mode and emphasized my own recent experiences with what I would call ageism. My friend shot back that ageism, like racism, can only go one way. Young people are the privileged workers of the academy. At the time I capitulated. Was I advocating reverse ageism? How embarrassing! But recent experiences have caused me to return to the question.

I do not in any way want to argue that academia is more or most discriminatory towards young faculty. Given the well-documented discrimination against older faculty who remain in temporary and adjunct positions with little chance of a full-time hire,  it would be ridiculous for me to participate in a discrimination competition. Robert Mckee has a great piece on this exact topic. I do want to argue that ageism is a complex and nasty monster that intersects with gender, race, class, sexuality, and other axes of oppression to close doors and make the workplace uncomfortable if not downright hostile to young women faculty.

Let me give you some recent examples from my daily work routine. Continue reading

Nobody wins microaggression Bingo

I was recently at a workshop where I was one of two women (out of ten).  I’ve generally had a really great experience in working groups, but this once quickly morphed into a Bingo card of sexist microaggressions. With the plethora of recent articles on how there is no sexism problem in science, and how talking about microaggressions is the greatest threat to our universities (and not, say, funding or the adjunct crisis), I think it’s worth sharing this experience.

This workshop had it all. My female colleague and I were routinely interrupted, talked over, and ignored. One senior male participant stood up and gave a spontaneous presentation on something that “he’s never seen anyone mention before,” despite the fact that I had just shown the exact slide and mentioned the very point he did, not ten minutes before. Participants in very different fields mansplained our research to both of us, or in some cases dismissed our entire fields outright. They responded with hostility or patronizing tones to our questions or contrary points, but accepted the same criticisms with good nature from their male colleagues. The men asked one another questions that the women were better-suited to answer based on what we do, but we were talked over. During meals and coffee breaks, the men clustered together in groups and didn’t socialize with us.  Continue reading

The troll down the hall: what do academic comment sections reveal about our colleagues?

If you spend twenty minutes on the internet doing anything besides looking at videos of baby sloths getting baths, it’s almost impossible not to discover some kind of abuse, and odds are it’s going to be in a comments section. We know not to “feed the trolls” (a philosophy I actually find really unhelpful, because trolls are like asexual autotrophic amoebas that don’t need chum to reproduce). We remind ourselves and each other not to read the comments– to NEVER, EVER read the comments (and then we always do anyway). Because comments sections are cesspools where discussion and nuance and respect go to die, buried under a mountain of abuse and inanity. Continue reading