Still Lucky

Have you ever felt discriminated against in the workplace by your gender?

Yes. I would say that I’ve had times where I felt that my gender mattered in the way that people perceived me and who I was and what was possible. And then the question is: discriminated against by who? And therein lies questions of power.


I have felt the most problematic perceptions have been student’s perceptions in my daily life of teaching and mentoring and authority, particularly early in my career. I have felt discrimination about choices connected to my gender, particularly around procreation, rather than my gender, per se. So being female is less of a problem than being a mother.

How do you think being a parent has impacted your experience in the workplace as a professor and particularly as a woman?

The academy is not a friendly place for having children. It is very difficult even though this university has extraordinary parental leave policies. Although this is only compared to the rest of the country. It is one of the 18% of employers nationwide that actually gives more than just the Family and Medical Leave Act. In fact, for female faculty it now grants a semester of leave.  Although, importantly, only for teaching faculty, and not for its staff, because it’s assumed teaching faculty can’t break up a semester. Someone else can’t cover your classes for 6 weeks or 12 weeks.  So that’s the reason why female faculty are given a full semester but staff are given less.

One of the problems is, and this is not just at Richmond but academy-wide, is that your child-bearing years coincide almost directly with the path to tenure. You can take up to a year, which extends time to tenure, but that’s it. It’s like you’re on a missile and you have to do it. And that is a problem. What is generally true is that the majority of male faculty have a spouse that is in a somewhat supportive role. The majority of female faculty, like myself, either have a spouse who has as important a career or are unmarried. This results in a different kind of support system for having children.

I always perceived myself as somebody who was unencumbered, a gunner, ambitious, and never saw that there would be an obstacle. What’s clear to me is that, with children, I can’t compete in the same way. The academy is a place where, in order to get a fellowship, you’re supposed to move somewhere else and live in residency. You can’t do that unless you have a trailing spouse or you’re not encumbered. So those options are closed off to you, and those are most of the kinds of fellowships you need in order to do your scholarship. Another way you get ahead in scholarship is by going to lots of conferences, so if you don’t have a kind of supportive spouse at home—although I do know of female faculty who do have that situation—then there’s a limit to the extent in which you can involve yourself in scholarship.  Scholarship, even at a liberal arts college like Richmond, is still the sine qua non of being the best—even as our central mission is supposed to be teaching.

When you decided to have children, did you realize how it would impact your career?

I don’t think I understood it as viscerally. For me, having children was important enough that I wasn’t going to wait until after I received tenure. Although I certainly have lots of stories of people who were dissuaded in graduate school from having children. They were told that it was not only going to bog down their career but it was a mark of them being less serious. There’s a lot of politics of motherhood that happened there. I definitely waited to have my second child before being assured that I had tenure, that was for sure. I knew that I could not do the scholarship I needed to while also trying to have a second child.

In the same way, I think there are other issues, like elder care, that are similar but not as recognized. It is not only the people who procreate who have other responsibilities in their lives besides work. I’ve had real communion with people who don’t have the children question but are dealing with elderly parents. But there is more recognition of children. My department chair always tells us to bring our children. That’s always been the message. And it’s not necessarily an inclusive one.

Do you feel as though your end-of-semester evaluations by students have been influenced by your gender?

Absolutely, there’s no question. I think there are real questions about how we use evaluations from students and I think that this university and others are not addressing them. At the same time I’m also a pragmatist. We live embodied. I can’t do anything about those kinds of implicit biases. I can only figure out how I can be the best faculty member, how I can present a persona that I am comfortable living with and that students can connect to. How do I defuse that noise? It’s a really hard thing to figure out for anybody, not only for professors figuring out what their teaching persona is going to be. Teaching is a performance. And there are kinds of styles that work for women, and there are certain kinds of styles that don’t.

One of the hardest things is not only figuring it out for yourself, but figuring out how to then mentor junior colleagues. I know the things that were not helpful to me, like when a senior female faculty member told me that my shirt was too revealing. I tell junior women colleagues that you have to establish authority in a class. If you don’t establish authority, that you are there to be the person who is going to help students learn, then you can’t do anything else. You also have to establish rapport; at the same time, it’s a relationship. Authority versus rapport can be very difficult.  It gets easier as you get older.  When I was 27 years old and a graduate teaching assistant it was hard because the students in the room were 22. I’ve always played up how much older I am than my students. There’s a technique, but there are ways in which each person has to figure it out for themselves.

How do you feel as though your gender affects your scholarly work?

I operate in a field that is right now is very male, very male.  There are women who are doing it but I’ve been at a number of conferences where I’m one of two women. Nevertheless, I have not felt that my gender is an issue. Probably much more significant is being from a liberal arts college.  There is a big hierarchy in the academy of people who are primarily researchers and teaching is only 10% of what they compared to those from liberal arts colleges who are trying, somehow, to do both. There is kind of deep misunderstanding there.

I’m also not a shy person; I’m the person who’s willing to raise their hand in a room and say you’re all wrong. So that’s served me well. Figuring out how to say you’re all wrong and how to still have people like you, the “bitch” problem, making sure that you are not perceived that way, there is a scholarly mode of that and there is a teaching mode of that.  Figuring out how to do that, how to come off as an authoritative but friendly is the needle that I think female faculty thread.

It’s really difficult.  What is interesting, though, is that there are women who do it, and do it well.  So one thing that you do, is you watch those who are quite successful at it.  You watch and you observe.

What have you learned from watching others?  What are some of the techniques?

Projecting confidence. Saying things with a smile. A pose, and this works in the academy, of intellectual curiosity. I have a friend at another institution.  She’s petite, Ivy League-educated, and brilliant. It is a kind of confident enthusiasm coupled with friendliness. She appears always genuinely interested in every topic and person, even as she is forthright with her opinions.

Do you feel as though you have a healthy work-life balance?

(Laughs.)  I don’t, but I also think that’s a condition of upper-income professionals in general who don’t, in this country, have a healthy life balance. What you’re constantly doing is your desire for ambition and investment in your work versus other kinds of priorities. The academy is wonderful in the sense that outside of teaching your classes, is there is an enormous sense of autonomy. Studies show, psychologically, that people who have autonomy in their jobs are much, much happier. But that autonomy comes at a cost in that there is no defined time when you are supposed to be working and then not working. One beauty or joy of children is they force you to stop on the weekend.  I have colleagues in the academy who don’t, and they just work seven days a week, because there is never enough.  You can always write another brilliant article, you can always have another fellowship, you can always do more.  How much time should that article take?  How much should you read and research before you start writing for that book? You can just continuously work if you want to.

Actually, if you looked at faculty nationally, I am incredibly lucky to have a tenure-track job in a world where the difference between adjunct labor and its misuse versus tenure track is huge, far more than any gender difference at this point in my field. I’m incredibly lucky to have that. And I teach at a liberal arts college that, on the one hand, makes very strong demands for teaching, service, and scholarship, but on the other hand does not demand that I have to be on the front page of the New York Times. Because I have this tenure, it allows me to decide that I’m not working on Sunday.  I’m going to be with my family. And that is something that a lot of professionals do not have a choice about. Overall, to be a tenured faculty member, when I compare to other kinds of situations of labor in this country, I’m incredibly lucky. Talking about discrimination in the university is difficult because I understand the comparisons. I am so privileged in class, I am so privileged in situation. Of course I want to mentor colleagues who are coming through and of course I want to make this place the best I can, but my passions are for improving the lives of people who are deeply oppressed in ways that I am not.


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