Profs. talk about women’s issues
Faculty share their experiences in the workplace as women in a male-dominated field.
From sexual harassment to difficulty upholding a work-life balance, female professors face many gender-specific problems in their academic careers. GirlUp Brandeis sought to call attention to these difficulties in its Cupcake Gala on Friday, where students ate cupcakes and listened to a series of panels in which female professors spoke about issues in their fields. The professors’ experiences varied, but all accounts shared a common thread — normalized sexism in academia.
One panel was about general issues related to gender, and students could ask questions about any subject; it was led by Profs. Avital Rodal (BIOL), Jennifer Marusic (PHIL), Melissa Kosinski-Collins (BIOL), Eileen McNamara (JOUR), Maya Eden (ECON) and Alice Kelikian (FTIM). Maurice Windley ’19 asked about social issues the professors face in academia. Kelikian began by saying that she was a graduate student in the first co-ed class at Princeton University and the first woman in Brandeis’ History department. Despite this, she did not have to fight to be accepted in the department, she said.
The professors also spoke about balancing their personal and work lives. Kosinski-Collins said that she tries to understand what technology and issues her children are exposed to so she can take them into account when she teaches. “If that’s the world you’re in, then that’s the world I need to be teaching in,” she stated, going on to say that if she continued “to teach the way [she] did when [she] started 12 years ago,” her past teaching style would not be helpful to her current students.
Marusic discussed the challenges of having children while in graduate school and during the early years of professorship, stating, “The years in which you’re in graduate school and the years in which you’re trying to get tenure are usually the years in which you have children, and that’s sort of an extra challenge.” She added that graduate and postdoctoral students face significant “financial burdens,” and often must work the hardest during those stages in their careers. She noted that female professors often do not have adequate maternity leave, telling the audience that Brandeis did not offer paid maternity leave until just 15 years ago.
Another audience member asked if the professors worked differently with other women than they did with their male colleagues. While most said no, some professors stated that there are small differences in how they need to behave to subvert gender norms. Rodal stated that with her male colleagues, she must think more about her statements, making sure to use “assertive” language instead of phrases like “I think that…” so that she does not “behave in a way that hurts [her] goals.” Kelikian added that personality is extremely important as well, explaining that it is difficult to juggle her more aggressive tactics in dealing with film industry personalities with the hat she needs to wear at the University.
At another panel about sexual harassment, panelists discussed the process of reporting sexual misconduct and the changes brought about by the #MeToo movement. Windley, who also attended the sexual harassment panel, asked about the panelists’ experiences with the University handling sexual harassment. Prof. Maria Madison (Heller) emphasized the importance of knowing about resources for reporting and helping victims “in the moment.” She said that when a victim comes to you with allegations of sexual harassment against another person, it is vital to “validate any emotions or validate and collect perspectives of what’s happening right then,” because “if you don’t respond, you’re saying that [the sexual harassment is] okay.”
Prof. Emeritus Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) declared that the sexual harassment today is a “relic” of what it was many years ago, and that when she had confided in her colleagues in the past about being sexually harassed, they gave her no advice and believed that she could handle it on her own. Now, she said, her department is “impeccable” compared to its state at the beginning of her tenure at the University, helped greatly by student activism in recent years. She stated that students and faculty hold offenders accountable in public, but that individually, “people still say the darndest things.”
Addressing the #MeToo era, Prof. Adrianne Krstansky (THA) said that the recent wave of activism has started a good conversation on calling out bad behavior. She said the expectation used to be that women could “enter these male spaces,” as long as they did not “cause any waves” and acted “meek, humble [and] kind.” With the #MeToo movement, however, people are starting to recognize that these stereotypical expectations “actually [limit] the amount of expression and contributions that women can make, that people of color can make,” she said.
Krstansky also recalled her time as an actress and the unwritten rules that women on sets followed to avoid sexual harassment. She said sexual misconduct was normalized, and that speaking up could “cost you your career.” Krstansky and Campbell acknowledged that it is often extremely difficult to start a conversation about sexual harassment because many men have been socialized to think that certain behaviors are acceptable. For people dealing with sexual harassment, Campbell stated, “it is important to remember that you have a huge store of resilience.”
A third panel focused on gendered expectations in the workplace. Responding to a panelist’s statement that women have been socialized to take more time to react to a question, attendee Ashley Kamal ’22 asserted that women often feel the need to be perfect. “The two or three seconds is … making sure that they’re right and that this opinion that they’re gonna voice is the right one,” she said, adding that she will not say anything if “there’s some sort of doubt that it could be wrong.” Campbell said that allowing women “these extra seconds” will give them a greater ability to speak up, and people will hear voices that they otherwise would not hear.
Violet Fearon ’21 said that women are raised to care about “the ways in which they are liked,” and are more self-conscious, whereas men “seem to not care as much” what other people think of them. Kamal added that women often fear being called pushy or “a bitch.” Prof. Laura Miller (SOC) said that “in most academic fields, you’re really rewarded for being pushy, and so … the women who aren’t pushy … are gonna be invisible.”
The panelists said these gendered expectations are also present in their research. Miller pointed out that many people assume that she does research on gender because she’s a woman. Campbell echoed her statement, saying that many assume she can replace another female professor who’d previously taught about feminism. In addition to teaching, Miller explained, women do the “scut work,” or undesirable administrative tasks, because men have a sense of “learned helplessness” that causes them to feel inept when asked to do these tasks, which she says is not malicious, but is a “burden” and frustration to women.
Aaron Finkel ’20 asked if the professors’ gender held them back during their careers. Prof. Ruth Charney (MATH) replied that her gender never held her back, and that though she did not write as many papers or do as much math because of starting a family and pursuing other hobbies, she would make her same choices “all over again.”