Feminist Mentors Can be Misogynist Colleagues
I am appalled to admit it, but when I was in college I was one of those young women who actually said “I’m not a feminist.”. I had two reasons for this. First, I saw no barriers to my future career path. Second, I really did not know the definition of feminism. Had someone asked me, do you believe in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes? I would absolutely have said yes. I just felt we had arrived already at that point. Looking back, it’s laughable how naive I was. I also wonder how much my naivete may have protected me and kept me in STEM – I wasn’t aware and so I wasn’t attentive to interactions that I can now, retrospectively, understand as problematic. How did I manage to get through college absolutely confident that I would become a professor of biology despite never having a single female science professor?
Part of that was that I had a whole series of male professors who were fabulous mentors. They gave me so many opportunities. They promoted me endlessly. They wrote what I was later told were obnoxiously long and glowing letters of recommendation for me. Oh yeah, and for several of them there were rumors about affairs and stories about mistresses taken on field trips and relationships with graduate students…. but those seemed like old news. They made the occasional off-color jokes and sometimes commented on what I or another woman in the lab or classroom was wearing but we just kind of shrugged that off and laughed about those old guys and their outdated ways.
So I win a prestigious fellowship and I go to graduate school at an Ivy League school and again, here, I have all these brilliant mentors. Most of them are men and they really are good mentors. They challenge me, they make me feel like I am (or at least soon will be) an intellectual equal, they throw opportunities my way, they promote me in all sorts of useful ways. Sure one of them dates several and then marries one of my fellow graduate students, but that’s just a unique situation…. Here in graduate school, I gain some female mentors as well. They have different stories to tell. They have war stories to share. I am very interested in these stories, I am very full of gratitude to these women. They were trailblazers. They fixed everything for women like me that came next. Right?
(Yes, female readers, I KNOW what you’re thinking…what the hell was I thinking? or NOT THINKING?)
I finish my PhD, I get a plum postdoc position. Again, great male mentor, treats me like an equal, throws opportunities my way, expands my network, puts me up for prizes. Yeah sure there are rumors, but my experience is great. That must have been a distant past thing, these days are much different. I also gain some more female mentors, hear more war stories, feel more gratitude to them for fixing everything.
I apply to faculty jobs. At every interview, even though it’s illegal for them to do so, I get asked if I am married, if I have kids, what my spouse does…. yes, I am married and my spouse is also in my field. Here is where reality finally catches up with me. Wait – none of my male PhD friends are getting asked this on the interview. That’s not fair!
(Yes, female readers…I know at this point you’re saying, FINALLY…you may even be rolling your eyes…go ahead, I deserve it.)
I get an offer; actually, I get several offers, and thank goodness because I use up all my bargaining power to arrange spousal accommodation. Even though the multiple offers prove I’m a really competitive candidate, my starting salary is really, really low. My startup is also pretty low. I don’t know this and I’m just glad I’ve got a great job and my husband and I have at least temporarily solved the two-body problem. I’m super happy about this. We decide to have our first kid.
For a few years there I’m a new PI with a baby and things are a blur. I hope readers of this essay will forgive me for being oblivious to all kinds of things at this stage. But now the number of “that’s not fair” moments really begin to pick up. I find out the discrepancy between my salary and those of men hired around the same time (>$20K!!!). I discover that staff members tend to blow off my requests while responding promptly to those of my senior, mostly male colleagues. I get asked to a dinner with a famous visiting speaker…and am flattered. When I say yes I am told thank goodness because they need a woman and I was the last one on their list to ask. I coteach with men and always get lower teaching evaluation scores. In spite of putting my heart and soul into the work of teaching and having students send me letters about how much my class meant to them years later, I am labeled as a subpar teacher. I hear through the grapevine of a colleague telling others that I am only where I am today because of the famous men who trained me. (That’s true, of course, but not for the insidious reasons implied.) I win tenure, I win prizes, I write a ton of papers. As I am gaining prominence, I find myself expected to be nicer and more accommodating and more efficient than my male colleagues in pretty much every situation I encounter. I get told I am mean for asking hard questions at exams. I get asked to be quiet when I raise concerns about sexist remarks in faculty meetings. As my career progresses, even as I gain power, it is becoming harder, not easier, to be a woman in science. Early in my career I had a few very active promoters. Now I have some prominent detractors.
And as the years have gone on I have watched with increasing understanding as a number of the men I have worked with, men who I know are wonderful, amazing mentors to brilliant young women, are hypercritical of women who are their colleagues, and actively cruel to women who are their superiors. I watch them throw praise and opportunity at the women they train. I watch them throw shade at the women they work with.
These men love to promote women whose brilliance reflects well upon their own, they find it challenging to admire the brilliance of women peers. They can be particularly vile to women who challenge their authority or who are in positions of authority over them. They will be very careful in their language and they will profess to base their critiques on objective criteria, but they will hold their female colleagues to different standards of behavior and merit. Any attempt to call out this inequity will lead to a highly aggrieved defense, often leading to the “caller out” labeled oversensitive or a bitch.
I am fully convinced that I got to where I am in large part because I was an oblivious idiot and a bad feminist. Since being a feminist means believing in and advocating for the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, feminists are not going to be comfortable in the academy. So many of the young women in the academy are less oblivious than I was. They see how unfair the academy is, they are highly likely to leave.
We need to change our expectations of behavior for senior scholars in the academy. Being a good mentor to female students does not make you a feminist any more than being the father of a daughter does. Similarly, being protective of your female staff, women who work for you, does not make you a feminist. These are wonderful things to be, but this is not enough. Being a feminist means that you support, respect and treat your female colleagues as equals and, when their efforts or job descriptions merit it, your superiors.
I understand that now. Better late than never. I’ve come through this by actively wanting not to see what has been right in front of my eyes.
And so perhaps more than most of my women colleagues, I actually do sort of understand where the majority of my male colleagues are on this issue. Most men in the academy are feminists who are unintentionally complicit with the kind of misogyny that rewards women who support the status quo and punishes women who challenge male dominance. Most men don’t see what is right in front of their eyes.
And this year, while arranging several discussions about sexism in the academy I encountered several young women scientists who felt it was unnecessary to have those discussions, that we needed to focus on racism since sexism was an issue of the past. I saw my own college naivete in their words. We need to talk about both, because the dynamics are very similar. We do need to get much, much better at promoting and supporting and resourcing young students of color. But we also need to make sure that progress isn’t ultimately limited by having all those wonderful, brilliant scholars of color being “put in their place” as soon as they reach positions of influence and authority. We need to reject the authority of the senior gatekeepers, no matter how diverse their underlings.
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