Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Academic dating

Yesterday, Potnia Theron on Dr. Isis's blog wrote about intra departmental dating. The specifics involved a female grad student dating a male professor (not on her committee) in the department. The ensuing discussion was mostly about why this is not a good idea (and some about Dr. Isis's soccer playing habits).

I'd made a not very deeply thought out comment about the intrinsic sexism in the situation. I'd like to flesh out my thoughts on the matter a bit more here.

My basic stand was, and is, that whether or not a relationship within a department is a good idea, the common wisdom seems to advise women away from such relationship far more strongly than it does men. There is a perception/fear/reality that a woman entering into such a relationship will be plagued in her future with doubts at every step about whether her accomplishments are her own, or due to who she is partnered with. There is also the fear, put forth by Potnia,
My concern is the message to the *other* women trainees – that this is a dept where you get ahead on your back (or knees or whatever…).
So here's my breakdown of various (idealized) relationships that could be occurring in the post (and a few more cases).

Grad student sleeping with a professor who has any sort of power over them (teaching a class they are taking, the teacher for a class they are TAing, advisor/advisee relationship, committee member, etc.) is potentially coersive and universally a bad idea. BAD. BAD. BAD. There is too much of a power relationship in the game. It doesn't matter what the gender distribution is.

At the other extreme is a grad student dating a faculty member in a different field (possibly at a different university). I see no problem with this, no matter what the gender distribution. If the relationship works, and the junior woman gets a job at the same university as her partner, she will be plagued by doubts about her achievements, but the woman in almost any spousal hire situation will have to deal with this no matter what the circumstances of the relationship are.

Then there are the middle cases concerning whether or not the faculty member is in the same subfield as the grad student and whether or not they are housed at the same university as the grad student.
  • Same department, same subfield is a risky proposition for any gender configuration. If the student doesn't have a committee yet, or wants to make changes to it, it limits the people he/she can consider. There is a good chance that the senior person works closely with someone on the committee and the relationship could cause tensions there. In general, the closer the senior person's work is to the junior persons/ junior's advisor, the riskier the proposition.
  • Same department, different subfield is a safer bet. Other than the inherent complications that humans have with relationships once sex enters the picture, I don't really see a problem with two mature adults entering a consenting relationship.
In either of the same department cases, there is a concern of what happens if the relationship breaks up badly. There is a good possibility of bad feelings within the department, but this is true if a dual hired pair goes through a divorce, or two tenure track faculty fall in love. Isis's don't fuck where you eat dictum is just not as simple as it seems. In a relationship where one member is more junior than the other, the junior member is more vulnerable in the case of a bad break up. I believe this is true for any gender configuration, but the advice not to date more senior scientists is doled out to women more than men, which is where my problem with the entire issue comes about.
  • Different department, same subfield is less risky than if the senior person was in the same department. A romantic relationship could interfere with the relationship the grad student has with their committee if the senior partner is a collaborator of a committee member. A bad break up here could follow a person around to conferences and polarize a community interfering with future post doc positions. I feel one can proceed with caution in this domain. It is seen as acceptable to form close personal as well as academic friendships with people one meets at a conference. Since universities are no longer mostly housed in monasteries, I don't see why that can't be taken a step further.
  • Different department, different subfield is very similar to the discussion about dating people in a different field altogether.
I should say a word about Potnia's concern. I think the message sent to other women in the department depends on how many women pass through the department. If there are several women in each year's cohort, (suppose the department has 20 female grad students in it at any given time) one woman having a relationship with a professor isn't going to send much of a message either way. If there is only one woman every few years then it only needs for a female dating a professor to succeed and the following female to fail to get her degree before the rumor spreads to the third woman entering the department 6 years hence that you need to sleep around to get a degree.

This is a deeper problem than what message this one person sends by dating a professor.  I question why a woman dating a senior man is immediately labelled a slut, getting ahead on her back, while a man dating a senior female is not immediately labelled the male equivalent. (The fact that there is not an equivalent word for men with a negative connotation is a discussion for a different post.) Whether one chooses to attack the more global issue of perception of women or the local issue of protecting the woman's and the department's reputation is a personal choice.

No matter what the configuration of fields and departments, I fear that a woman dating a senior man is far more likely to have her work attributed to her partner than in the opposite gender configuration. Any position she gets will likely be rumored to be given to her to keep her partner. But this is true of any academic pair, even those to get together as undergrads and manage to make the relationship work through grad school and post docs. On more cynical days, I fear the only way for ladies to escape this sort of doubt is pair up with a non-academic.

Finally, I have a fear that a junior female/senior male pairings are more likely to lead to the woman not pursuing as active an academic career as her partner. But I don't think the circumstances under which such a pairing was made plays a major role in that outcome.

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