Of the New Guard

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

Where I used to work, in my old department, I was actually the second women in thirty years to receive tenure. So that alone tells you a lot. I remember having a conversation with one older male professor. He was sort of a member of the old guard because there was, literally, an old guard in the department. He’s probably not even alive anymore. Most of them are not. I remember him once starting a sentence by telling me, “You know why we didn’t want women here?” He actually began the sentence that way. (Laughs.) That could have been a lawsuit right there! But I knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t really someone I could take seriously. And also, I remember during my first year there, he had me sitting in his office and he was asking me if I could think of any examples of erotic imagery [in my research]. And I was very uncomfortable with the question. He was a lot older, probably in his 60s at the time. I don’t think he ever retired.

That’s just a couple of anecdotes. I think that I was very conscious of the fact that I was the second women tenured professor in my department, and there were reminders all the time. But then when I arrived here, at the University of Richmond, it was very different because I arrived with tenure. I think I want to make clear that when I look back at my career thus far, I’ve had many male mentors in my life, beginning with my dissertation director. I would say that there are many male faculty members that have been extremely supportive of my career and I’m very much in debt to their mentoring. And even one of them in particular, who worked as this other university, he was always a champion of the women. He sort of balanced out that old guard, even being one of them in terms of age and generation.

I’ve seen a lot of things. There has literally been some men who attempted to bring down the department chair who was a woman at the time, there were secret meetings going on…but I haven’t seen any of it at Richmond.

Do you think there is a reason for the difference between the other university and the University of Richmond?

I think it’s generational in part. I think we have a much younger department here and I’m one of the oldest people in the department. We also have a much more diverse department than my other place of work. I also think I have a certain level of stature in the profession and in my field, so I think that I’ve done the work in having acquired a level of expertise that gives me a position to command a certain level of respect. And that’s a given. I don’t think anyone would question it or that anyone would try to subvert it. No one tries to demean me or my work in any way. I’ve never felt any real disrespect here.

Do you see any younger women professors experiencing more disrespect?

Not really, no. I don’t see that at Richmond. Maybe it is a sign of change. In terms of my generation, I remember when I was growing up my mother used to say that it’s a man’s world and that women have to work extra hard. And I did find that to be true at first. I still tell my students this, I still have that attitude. But the truth of the matter is that I do not see it at U of R, which is nice. I also think that at U of R we have an interesting situation because all of the deans now are women and the provost. I think that also is conducive to a different kind of learning environment and working environment. I think that the male administrators are very supportive of women too. We’re very fortunate that it’s mostly a nurturing and supportive place.

But you may have heard tales to the contrary, but I must be oblivious. I know I’m a little oblivious because I’m in a full professor position where I don’t have to be looking for problems. I can live my life in an oblivious way now and it’s a privilege to be able to do that.

Do you have children?

No, I do not.

Did that decision have anything to do with your aspirations for your career?

(Pause.) Probably, yeah. My work requires me to travel a lot and I really couldn’t imagine doing what I do and having kids. But I know that people do it, I know that it’s possible, but I don’t see myself doing it. I think maybe because my mother wasn’t that kind of mother. She stopped working when she was very young when she began having children. She was a teacher but she felt that she couldn’t do both and I think that idea maybe affected me somehow, whether I was conscious of it or not. I’m not one of those women who believes that we can just have it all, lean in and do it all and do it all well. I question that. I don’t think that’s the only reason why I don’t have children but I’m sure that has something to do with it. But I don’t feel a void either. I’m happy with my life. But I never really wanted to live that conventional life anyway. I think that’s partially why I do what I do, why I became an academic, because I didn’t want a conventional 9-to-5 job. I wanted to peruse my passions. It may sound egotistical, but that’s what I did.

Do you feel as though you have healthy work/life balance?

No. I think I’m a workaholic. But I think that as an academic, there’s a very fine line between what’s work and what’s not work. I’m always reading and I’m always thinking and I’m always ruminating about what I love. I don’t know if that’s always work or not, I’m just always doing it. It’s hard to find a dividing line. But sometimes I long to be one of those people that can just say, “Okay, it’s Friday, and I’m leaving my work at the office and I’m going to go play tennis all weekend.” I would like to be one of those people. But I don’t think it’s possible for me.

Have you ever felt discriminated against by a student because of your gender?

(Pause.) I do sometimes think that I would have it easier if I were a male professor in the classroom. I think that for some students, it’s easier for them to exhibit a certain level of respect towards their male professors than towards their female professors.

Are there ways in which you try to counter that?

I, as a women, have felt the necessity to maintain a degree of formality with my students that maybe my male counterparts wouldn’t need to maintain. But I think it varies with every personality. I know female professors who are very involved in their students’ personal lives or have them over to dinner all the time. I’ve gotten to know a lot of my students very well, but I think in terms of my day to day demeanor, I don’t always like for them to call me by my first name because I think that having them call me professor might be a way to create a certain level of distance. A distance that is necessary to maintain a degree of respect. It’s easier for men. And I’ve had male colleagues tell me, “That student believes that he can get away with everything because you’re a women.” The male professors aren’t pushed as much by the students in terms of asking for extensions or other things. I think students believe that female professors are pushovers compared to men, and maybe there’s some truth in that.

Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about speech codes on university campuses. It seems to come back over and over again. We’re been reading about what’s happened in Missouri, what happened in Yale, what’s happened in Princeton, all these different schools. I was surprised that right before Thanksgiving, there was a faculty listserv about teaching the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving and who teaches and who cancels class and what should we do about the processors who cancel class and there was this huge discussion about it. And I was reading the newspaper at the same time about what is going on at other campuses. And it’s kind of embarrassing to me that this is what the faculty is talking about—about cancelling class instead of the issues that are happening around the world.