Too flirty? Too fertile? It's tough to be the right kind of woman in academia
“I wouldn’t do a session with you,” a colleague said at a conference. CC, we can call him. Prior to this, I had met him at a handful of other conferences in a handful of other UK cities. Which is a lot, really, considering I had not been in the UK long. But I guess that’s what happens when you work in a relatively small field that draws the same crowd to each of its events.
At first, I was confused by his comment.
“But CC,” I pointed out, “we’ve already been on a panel together. We have lots of shared research interests. Why wouldn’t you do another panel with me?”
“I don’t mean I wouldn’t agree to be on a panel if you were on it,” he said. “I mean I wouldn’t actually work on a project with you. I wouldn’t collaborate with you.”
Did he think poorly of my scholarship? Of my speaking skills? He was a senior academic; I didn’t even have a full-time lectureship.
“Why not?” I asked unhappily.
“I can’t. My wife thinks you’re a threat,” he replied. “She thinks you flirt with me.”
That I did not expect.
As I pulled my lower jaw up to reconnect with its partner, I considered this claim. OK, calm down, I told myself. There might be a reason this woman, who has never met me, feels this way. Something he has told her has made her think I’m out to ensnare him.
Maybe it’s because…
Perhaps it’s because I smile a lot. This is often commented on, along with compliments on my unBritish teeth.
Perhaps it’s because I am not always appropriate (when I was 36 weeks pregnant, for example, I discovered, at a routine doctor’s appointment, that I was six centimetres dilated. Six! And there I was just walking around with a baby about to fall out of me. I was astounded, and posted it on Facebook. My poor mom had to call me up and say: “Please can you take down your public announcement? All my friends are calling me up to ask about your vagina.”)
Perhaps it’s because when I like people, I am very obvious about it. I might even say: “Hey, I like you!” I’ll seek them out. I’ll text them for no important reason. Where I come from, we call this open and honest. Here in the UK, it’s considered very strange.
But really, what I thought about my colleague’s revelation was: how ridiculous! I laughed. I pointed out how silly it was. When we parted, CC hugged me goodbye, and I thought all was well.
Then I became concerned that I had perhaps been too glib, that maybe this was a real issue in his marriage. So I apologised, via Messenger, that evening. No reply. I wrote again the next day, suggesting he bring his family over the next time they were in town. Still no response.
I was taken aback, hurt, surprised. Weren’t we friends? Or friends-ish?
The penny drops
Finally it dawned on me that I was hurt not just personally but professionally. This man was a senior academic with funding to organise events in my field. He had recognised the value of my research and had offered to put me in touch with a prestigious editor.
He could help me make progress in academia. But instead – presumably because I had smiled and been open, because I hadn’t censored my every word in his presence, because I had treated him as friend as much as professional contact – he could very seriously hurt my career.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I could list for you a score of things that senior academic men have said to me over the past two years that reeked of entrenched sexism. This sort of thing:
“If you take this [very part-time, low-status] job, we need to you to promise to stay in it to the end. Unless, of course, your [high-flying] husband finds a better job elsewhere!”
“Tim Hunt? Oh, well that wasn’t such a big deal. It was just sexism – it’s not like it was racism.”
“Your CV looks good, but the problem is that you had so many kids!”
For the most part, these comments were made by men who have been supportive of my career. But what they say speaks to a bigger picture: professional women are categorised as less important than men in the workforce; sexism is not considered a big problem; being overly maternal stifles women’s careers.
“I think academia is more sexist here,” I once confided, tentatively, to a male academic colleague in my university.
“That’s not fair,” he responded. “In the US, you’ve got rape culture. How can you compare that to the minor incidents here?” (He didn’t say in the US, we had Donald Trump as our incoming president, but how could he know? Who would have imagined it?)
“Minor incidents” have major implications. Sexism comes in many forms. And it doesn’t help that men in academia, as elsewhere, are still the top dogs.
We turn to them as mentors, as colleagues, as friends. The last of these categories is the place where we least expect to get hurt. But I’m sad to say, it is often those men whom we consider our “friends” – those with whom we are warm and open – who hurt us the most.
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