Thursday, October 20, 2011

An Extraordinary Senior Woman

This is a story told to me by a friend during his final year as a post doc at a department where PhDs can be around, full time, for over a decade without eyebrows being raised. It is also normal in this field to take a few years off between undergrad and grad school. In short, if the women want to have children, it makes sense for many to do so before finishing their PhDs. 

The final meeting of a weekly seminar involved a period of retrospection and anticipation for the next year's seminar. Several people (mostly female graduate students) suggested changing the time for the seminar (currently meeting on a weekday evening) to a time better suited for people with children.

The senior faculty member (SFM), female, who usually runs the seminar (but not this year) objected strongly. She pointed out that this is the way it has always been done, and that when she runs it, it is followed by dinner and drinks (with plenty of soda for observant Muslims). She goes to bed in the early am, but people stay drinking at her house as long as they want. It is her belief that a seminar followed by dinner and drinks was the only way to build a good feeling of collegiality and camaraderie in the department. She followed this with the complaint that this didn't used to be a problem when the department was nearly all male. The time has become a problem only when the department started admitting “women who weren't serious about their work and who had other priorities.” Neither he nor I are making this shit up. He swears that these are as exact quotes as he can remember. I'm watching myself write a parody of a paranoid feminist's worst nightmare used to justify why she shouldn't enter academia. I swear it's true.

My friend (MF), being a good junior male academic pointed out that the time problem isn't just one for women. He was too stunned to be able to fight back on the issue of admitting women.

SFM replied that people should get their partners to help out.

MF pointed out that some people attending the seminars didn't have partners who could help out.

SFM said that if it was such a problem that people should bring their children to the seminar, but that they had to be dedicated enough to attend. Anyway, it couldn't be a gender thing since she had succeeded in academia without anyone doing anything to make her life as a woman easier. WTF!? I can't even begin to enumerate the badness of that response.

I don't know where to start. The bullying? The sexism? The  "I've-suffered-so-you-should-too" attitude? The insensitivity to the fact that some people may not like to drink or stay up after midnight? The lack of understanding of what having a bunch of infants and toddlers in a well lit seminar room well past their bed times looks like? The anger at the other tenured male present, who has children, for staying mum?

Should the graduate students stage a day of "failed child care options" on the day that an important outside speaker is visiting, to embarrass SFM? The under 5's would suffer, but they won't remember it. SFM on the other hand? ....

My friend says that on top of the difficulties in standing up to a person like this, he found it harder to call bullshit on her sexism because she was female. That if SFM had been male he would have more easily been able to ask him to stand down on the sexism. I feel like I would have had the opposite experience. I give my female colleagues the benefit of a doubt if they say/do something that may or may not be ill intentioned because they've been there, and very little leeway if they do something idiotic or ignorant because they should know better. This difference may have to do with our personalities, or be due to the fact that it is easier to call bullshit on someone more similar to you.


  1. Wow, this story is wrong in so many ways! However, I do understand how such a person could exist. Basically, you make a certain number of sacrifices to reach a goal (in this case, you sacrifice having children, etc), then it bothers you that other people could reach the same goal without making the same sacrifices.

    I have also been suffering the seminar schedule times. My colleagues do stop complaining each time I explain that I can't stay for dinner with the speaker because I have a toddler waiting for me at home. The only problem is that I have to explain this pretty much every dinner. And they do have children (but they are older and they forgot about the toddler times).

  2. Wow...I'm just stunned. But at the same time I just think that sometimes people don't think or they don't want to think about other people and they're just too concerned about their own careers.