My Life Confronting Sexism in Academia

June 10, 2013

Anne Fausto-Sterling (left) and Debbie Weinstein / Pembroke Center


Prologue: In national politics these days it sometimes seems as if we re-litigate battles won decades ago, and at times I wonder whether those 20 or 30 years younger than I even know what happened back in the day. So here are some snippets. Although specific to my time at Brown University, similar things happened in the same time frame at institutions of higher education all over the country. So, dear reader, yes, do generalize.

1968: As a graduate student in biology, I was the first in my department to wear pants instead of dress, heels and stockings to the lab. I refused to serve tea at the reception for our guest speakers because the rule that the male grad students showed the slides (anyone remember slide projectors?) and the few female grad students served the tea and coffee seemed wrong to me. Take turns at these jobs, I said. Let the women learn how to operate the technology and the men how to pour without spilling.

1971: Now I’m a postdoctoral fellow. My department chair disinvites me to lunch with a prominent visitor who had the potential to positively influence my career in biology. The reason? They planned to eat at the University Club which did not admit women nor allow them on the premises. It took another decade for the University President to refuse honorary club membership and ban the conducting of university business at the club.

1971: Five of us, all assistant professors are huddling in the Faculty club for lunch. Éminence(s) grise(s) wander by and ask if we are plotting against them. This seems amazing since there are five of us and hundreds of them. We are in the lowest ranks and they the highest. But also, yes, we were. We were plotting how to bring more of us into the professoriate and how to keep some of us there through tenure and beyond.

Plot 1 (1971–1977) Get more women: first, we thought, get our facts straight. How many of us were there really? Oh, nobody knew. The provost and dean did not keep track of such things. No need to. We are objective academics. We don’t “see” gender, or race either, for that matter. Why count? The only way we could find out was by going to each department and asking if there were any women working there. Our one feminist, and female, dean helped us out by getting her secretary to call. Here are some of the numbers from those early days: 3 full professors, 15 assistant professors, a larger number of instructors and non tenure-track women for a total of maybe 75. Overall faculty size was about 400. The above numbers are from memory. The reports we wrote yearly in those days are in Brown’s John Hay Library for anyone who wants total accuracy.

The plotting thickens: We learned that mathematician and former dean of Pembroke College, Nancy Duke Lewis (1910–1961) had left money to endow a chair designated for a female professor.  But the university had just plowed the money back into general funds. When confronted, the then Provost said there wasn’t enough money in the endowment to hire a professor. When confronted again, he said the terms discriminated against men! Through the efforts of powerful Pembroke alumnae we raised enough money to complete the endowment. Through tough negotiations, we figured out a non-discriminatory wording (“a senior scholar in any field who is distinguished in an area of gender studies”), and in 1980 we hired Joan Wallach Scott as the first Nancy Duke Lewis Professor.

The plotting leads to a game-changing law suit: Assistant Professor of Anthropology Louise Lamphere was denied tenure in 1974. She filed suit in 1975, and in 1976, with a class action lawsuit under active litigation, I became one of a cohort of 5 women granted tenure, more than doubling the number of tenured women at Brown. But, we were assured, our promotions had nothing to do with the suit. Louise won that suit and the university operated under a court decree for 15 years, while it cleaned up its act. It took many more years of negotiation with administration and faculty governing groups to incorporate fair hiring, retention and promotion rules into its personnel practices so that finally, we could take a stab at this fairness thing without court supervision.

Plot 2 (1972–Present) The Women’s Studies Plot: We heard, “That can’t be a serious topic,” “there is no scholarship about women,” “students won’t be interested,” “It’s just a fad,” “We don’t teach basket-weaving at Brown.” A group of us offered the first women’s studies course at Brown as an extra, i.e. over and above our already full time teaching duties. I figured if I didn’t mention it to my department and I did all my departmental obligations without complaint I could get away with it as an extra load. I wonder if an assistant professor in today’s corporate university could help to start an initially despised field of study and successfully fly under the radar long enough to get tenure? Today we have a Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, an undergraduate major, and very modest monetary support from the university.

Plot 3 (1971–Present) Child care: How could women take a full role on campus without a safe and affordable place for their children. None of the 3 existing full professors had children, but the new generations wanted a more complete life. Sorry to say we failed on this one. This year (2013) I attended a meeting at which yet another report on how to provide child care for Brown staff and Professors was discussed. Good will gestures got approval, but not a commitment to develop an affordable center for our community. Forty years, but still no positive result. I guess there is still some unfinished business to pass on to the next gen(s).

Plot 4 (1974-mid 1990s) Develop and Enforce Rules Against Sexual Harassment: This piece of the puzzle seemed to take forever, but finally fell into place after some especially egregious behavior led to parental complaints and the firing of two faculty members, one who actually had tenure.

1972: Avuncular senior historian invites me to lunch in an evident effort to encourage me. His opening gambit: there were no women scientists before your generation because of all those barriers. But now the roadblocks have been removed, there will be many of you (and only yourselves to blame if you fail). He meant well, and he was an historian, but could that really be true?  Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists In America didn’t come out until 1982. In the meantime I started noticing and collecting snippets—on Beatrix Potter who pioneered mycology before she wrote Peter Rabbit. On Nettie Stevens, who discovered the role of the Y chromosome in sex determination, on Maria Mitchell an astronomer who discovered a comet and many more. What truly amazed and energized me was that there were lots of women who scientifically explored the world despite the barriers.

2013: Thoughts some 40-odd years later.  In 2009, Brown recognized some of my accomplishments by honoring me with the Nancy Duke Lewis Chair, which, after a short five years I relinquish when I retire in 2014. I am gratified by that. And the exhilaration of struggle and pride in social accomplishments is strong. But so too is the hurt of rejection and marginalization. I think for my generation such pain lurks just under the surface. Pioneers get wounded; that’s all.  Still, these days I get to travel all over the world and it is a thrill to work, however briefly, with women in Turkey, or France, or Sweden or elsewhere as they bend feminism and gender studies into shapes appropriate for their national and university contexts. Largely due to the force of the Civil Rights Act, feminism, and viewers like us, when it comes to equal representation of women the United States leads the pack, in pretty much all sectors, including academia. But of course, leading the pack still doesn’t mean we have crossed the finish line of equality.

Read more: 


How DO you identify the pioneers?  
By the arrows in their backs.  
Started university in 1957.  You should have seen what we had to climb over then, when classified ads for jobs were still segregated into  "men's jobs"  and  "women's jobs."  You can guess which column had interesting jobs that paid more than a pittance....

You realize that your method of identifying pioneers is unintentionally, I assume, racist.

everyone uses arrows dumdum

I've heard of dumdum bullets, but never dumdum arrows, a fascinating concept. 

You comment is paranoid. As a long time feminist and academic I am well aware of the blades that have been stuck in my back by patriarchal men and their women who climbed up the career ladder on my back and those of other women who remained active feminists working in the spirit of sisterhood across racial and other divides by dialoguing and trying to combat the whole sexist agenda. No need to insult anyone by being disrespectful or dismissive and using a "race" card to put them down. It's shabby.

1) somebody unreflectively employs the old saying that "--you can always tell a pioneer by the arrows in (their) back."
2) somebody else points-out that this saying is actually somewhat racist-- given that the narrative chain of reasoning assumes that the arrows must have been shot by native americans, who thereby cast as being the antagonists of "pioneering", which we imply to have been "progress" in the positive sense.  
3)other persons rush to the defense of the old saying, arguing that "everybody uses arrows" (billy the kid used arrows? ) or that pointing-out any other dimensions of victimhood, in a forum dedicated to the specific victimhood of "academic women", is "shabby". 
4)interesting that nobody stops to imagine that the person who may (or may not have been) offended by the old saying may have had "personal cause/experience for grievance"; that among the set of all american (or international) persons who might have posted that specific view-point, it would not be extraordinary if the person in question was, in fact, a native person. 
5)regardless of the identity of the person who was offended by the old saying, their observation of the saying's racist overtones was essentially true and relevant. 
6)the vehemence and self-righteousness with which that observation has been attacked, suggests that narcissism and selfishness are not qualities strictly limited to the patriarchy. 

As an undergraduate at Brown in the early 1980s I never got to take a course with Anne Fausto-Sterling, but her example was an inspiration to me and dozens of people--mostly but not all women--whom I cared about. I then met her she served as the "defense lawyer" for me and the rest of the "Jabberwocky 13" (now that's another story) helping to keep us from being disciplined for a political protest. Much later, as a tenured professor directing a Gender Studies program at the University of Notre Dame, I read and taught her work--notably "The Five Sexes"--and it blew me (and my students) away. 
So, while those younger than Professor Fausto-Sterling may not know everything that happened "back in the day," and we don't feel all the wounds that the pioneers experienced, we know that we are building on their accomplishments and benefiting from their struggles. And that there's  much work still to do (yes, child-care!). 

Louise Lamphere, whose memory is way better than mine, reminded me that the first NDL Professor was Rosalie Colie, who tragically died in a boating accident in 1972. It was after her death that the Provost decided not to refill the chair. Here is a link to a brief biography of Professor Colie.
I have asked the holders of the web site on the NDL Professorship that I used to refresh my memory to correct this as well.

I read Anna Fausto-Sterling's essays, particularly her work on Sarah Bartmann, the "Hottentot Venus," which inspired me to research the topic and write about it, both poems and a scholarly essay. Why is it that we continue to read Stephen Jay Gould 's admittedly beautiful essay on the "Hottentot" but not Fausto-Sterling's? The circulation of women's contributions remains quite restricted, in my view, and I've just retired from a thirty-nine-year career as a professor of literature.

thanks for the comments above. If anyone wants to see what I am doing in current time please check my website:
To access publications go to ResearchGate.
Now that I am half time and en route to full retirement I have more time to think and write, so please expect more scholarly work from me in the coming years.

After 34 years as a professor in academia and with all 11 of my Ph.D.s women (not by design, it was just that the men never completed the degree) I am saddened that we have made little or no progress on the primary restraint on women's success - reproduction.  Of my 11 students, one has successfully continued in academia and has no children, two explicitly left academia to raise their children, two left academia for industry or government partly because it was more compatible with having their children.  Three others with children have marginal academic careers (adjunct professorships or similar).  Three are still at an early stage in their potential academic career, having gotten their Ph.D.'s in the last three years, and have no children.
Over my years of advising women graduate students, the issue of children has often been a concern of my students; when could their career allow them to have children?  They looked at the senior women in their department and saw that, with few exceptions, they had no children. They hesitated to discuss with me their desire for children (I am a man) because of their sense that I would consider them less committed.  That was not the case and I have always encouraged my students to pursue what excites and engages them, whether it is research or parenting.  What I saw with my students is that they were grappling with an issue that male graduate students didn't have to.  “Do I want children and if I do how will that affect my focus and commitment to scholarship and how will it affect my career?” Simply having to think about this question is a burden that women carry, but which men, with few exceptions, are exempt from. 
What saddens me as a mentor and a professor is that I see few colleges and universities that have addressed this issue and I see little evidence that academia even acknowledges the issue.  Sure some institutions stop the tenure clock for having children, but in the interests of nondiscrimination we apply that equally to men and women.  The end result of our focus on gender-neutral policies is that a child becomes a leg up for a man (he is rarely as full-time a mom as is his wife), and a slow-down for women.  I know of a male pre-tenure assistant professor whose record was marginal who produced a burst of publications during parental leave that would have been unlikely had he not been given a chance to stop the tenure clock.  I do not see that this issue can be solved in a gender-neutral fashion as the load and consequences are not distributed across men and women in a gender neutral fashion.
I am disappointed that feminists of both sexes have not pushed for realistic accommodations for women academics that take into account that only women get pregnant and that many women experience an incredibly strong desire to have children and are strongly bonded to their children even if it damages their career.  As an example, one of my Ph.D. students, an NSF fellow and an outstanding student in all regards, had her first child as a graduate student and balanced her dissertation work with motherhood with aplomb.  She went on to an excellent post-doc, but came to me after a year saying that she couldn't stand missing most of her (now two) children’s development and realized that rearing her children felt like the most important job she had ever done and she wanted to leave her post-doc.  I advised her to follow her desire and tried to help her mask leaving academia by continuing to publish during her children's early years, which she did before finally leaving academia altogether.  Now her children are all of school age and she considering how she might get back into academia, which is not impossible, but also not easy. 
Academia has to change in ways that we have not even considered if we are to give women a level playing field.  We have to recognize that children are a gendered issue for academics and that we need to change academia so that women don't have to choose between being parents or professors.  Yes, many women have done both, just as there are people who have won Nobel prizes.  Women who have done both are remarkable women of incredible energy and talent, but they should not be the model for women in academia. There is no reason that women academics have to carry a reproductive burden. However, I now know that change won't happen in my academic career and I despair that it will not happen at all.  I don't see people having the sort of blunt discussion that is necessary to make progress on this issue.  Childcare is just a beginning.  The discussion has to start with an acknowledgement that many women want to have children and that children and a commitment to parenting jeopardizes their academic careers.

Professor Kim, thank you for these words.  I was a PhD student at Harvard in the late 90s-early 00’s and got married and started a family at the same time.  I was completely naïve about academia’s discrimination against motherhood.  The first time I became pregnant, I shared the news with my professors. Each professor had such a grim response, it was as if I had shared that I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Their responses confused me at the time, but I came to understand that while I was not dying, what was dying, in their eyes, was the possibility of my having an academic career. I also came to understand that pregnancy was looked down upon.  So the second time I became pregnant, I told no one and hid my pregnancy under a puffy down jacket.  Thank goodness for New England winters.   I am now a full time mother of five.  I love being a mother.  But I hate that after all my experiences and many hours of reading and thinking about the issue you discuss, I have no hopeful advice to offer my daughters.  I finished my degree and I felt then and still do now that I would have been a good professor.   It didn’t happen.  I remember the first day that I realized what I was up against – I had my colicky infant in the baby carrier, and I was walking laps around the brick paved sidewalks of Cambridge to try to soothe her when I ran into a classmate. He was wearing khakis, a tweed sports coat and matching cap and was on his way to present a paper at a conference. We briefly chatted about things, including his wife and new baby.  I watched him go off to give his paper and then I continued to walk with my infant.  All wanted to do was take care of her.  And all I wanted to do was participate in the conference.  It was as if there were two people inside of me. One wanted to stay with my baby, the other wanted to follow my classmate to the conference. I remember thinking that it didn’t seem fair that my classmate could go to a conference while I could not just because he had his own nanny – okay, technically, his wife, and I didn’t.  I remember briefly wondering if string theory could help me out with my dilemma --  because I truly felt as if I had two full selves who simply needed to be at two different places at the same time. This sense never left me and in time I understood that in order to try to be the kind of mother I wanted for my children, my academic self had to die. The death was very long and spiritually painful; but in the end, my professors were right – I did have a terminal illness of sorts.   I am grateful that I am able to stay home with my kids.  I also homeschool and I think it’s pretty great.  Nevertheless, I don’t want my daughters to have to face the same choice I did.  I want them to be able to let the passions and aspirations of their pre-parental selves live in concert with their newly formed parental selves if and when they start their own families. I want them to have immensely satisfying (and paying!) careers and spend gobs of time with their babies year after year as they grow. I don’t know how all this can happen for them.  But a blunt discussion about the burden of motherhood in academia is an excellent place to start looking for answers, and I am very grateful to you for sharing your experiences and for speaking up on this issue.

This was a truly wonderful piece. I have been reading Professor Fausto-Sterling's brilliant scholarship since my years as an undergrad and I now assign her work in the courses I teach. But I'm struck by one dimension of this article that doesn't quite seem to rise to the surface: race. Were any of those approximately 75 women at Brown individuals from underrepresented groups or were they all white? If they were all white women, what does that mean? And when we fast forward to the present day, have female faculty from underrepresented groups benefitted in the same ways from the struggles discussed by Professor Fausto-Sterling? Have they experiences the same gains of which she speaks? Asking such questions are useful in understanding how much academe has really changed for women more broadly...

There were a few, i.e. 3, women of color in those early days. There are, proportionately, a few more now, but progress in hiring faculty of color is VERY slow. Worse, the suspicion with which scholars of color are often met, and the challenges they face in terms of having to prove their very legitimacy, to get proper mentoring and more are huge, far worse than for Euro-American women. So, yes, here is still a long way to to go on this score, and i appreciate that this reader has noted the issue.

Sexism in more subltle ways still continues in academia. Women get long leave during fertlity and then after child birth, therefore they have less chances to be appointed in campus. Both women and men have their moments of stupidity in class room, in seminar, in meeting. But they expect in private talks that there will be less number of women speakers talking intellectualism.

Alison Lombard, a character in FLYER BEWARE, a novel by Adrianne Aron, couldn't stand it any longer, and figured a way to bring Henfling, the obnoxious sexist academic, to an accounting.  The story is a modern version of Tolstoy's THE KREUTZER SONATA, in which an aristocratic Russian had to kill his wife because she was playing duets with an attentive violinist and wasn't even doing the laundry anymore!  The judge understood: what else was a neglected husband to do?  In Aron's revival, the villain dies of poisoning, and the wrong person is convicted of the murder--a woman, of course!  Those of us who lived through those Good Old Days of academia (and survived to tell about it) will see that Alison Lombard, wild and over-the-top as she is, nevertheless knows her stuff.

I don't think you actually read The Kreutzer Sonata.

lol  I had the same thought.

An interesting article, but one sentence gave me pause: "None of the 3 existing full professors had children, but the new generations wanted a more complete life."   For people who want children, a life without them may well seem incomplete.  And of course a workplace or a system of professional rewards that makes it harder for women than for men to have children is unfair in two ways -- both in making it harder for scholars to have what they view as a complete life and in having a disparate impact on female scholars.  But people who don't want children obviously can have a complete life without them.  One of the prime victories of the feminist movement was that, in giving women control over their reproductive capacity, it has ernabled women who don't want children to have complete lives without becoming mothers.  I don't know who the three female full professors at Brown were in 1971, if that's the year to which Prof. Fausto-Sterling is referring, so I can't comment on whether they thought their lives were "complete" without children, but I know many women inside the academy and outside the academy who have quite consciously chosen not to have children not because of a lack of adequate childcare but because they affirmatively don't want to be mothers or because the tradeoffs even in an egalitarian culture would be too high.

A lot of specialists state that personal loans help people to live the way they want, just because they are able to feel free to buy necessary stuff. Furthermore, some banks offer bank loan for young and old people.

This society pays lip service to families but offers no real help.
For all of us, and especially for people who earn less than professors, universal child care is not a feminist issue; it is about providing all children the care they need and deserve.

According to my exploration, millions of people all over the world get the business loans from various creditors. Thus, there's good possibilities to get a auto loan in any country.

this guy/father/husband thinks that a truly civilised society would provide financial support for mothers to stay at home with their children for the first 5 years of their life, with no loss of tenure or seniority at work. They would be seen as valuable/essential contributors to the wholesomeness of society and the future wellbeing of the citizenry. Raising children would be valued as a credit not a debit.
I don't think the real probem is male sexism as much as it is the demands of a free market capitalist society in which the only good citizen is a working citizen. Even your male tenured full professors had to jump thro hoops not of their own making...but having suffered thro it, they do not want any body else to suffer any less than they did.

Agree with you that the demands and philosophies of current global economics (willingly or forced to be free-market) are an important factor. But, being an Indian, cannot say that sexism and flourishing patriarchy are lesser factors :( :( It is quite bad here in terms of everyday gender-in/justice. We are debating and pushing and fighting and it will eventually happen, but it's a long way away. Secondly, we do not have a good public-funded university system so private institutes are an important option, particularly, for people in social sciences. But those institutes - at least the newer ones - have a very different view of what higher education and academics is about. So the 'working citizen' is what they demand and so does the tending-to-be-free-market state (even if we like to pretend that we are pro-people through ill-conceived populist measures).
I have been going through Fausto-Sterling's works because I am working with a professor on a gender and science paper. This interview was a great read, and all the issues raised here (including in the comments) - particularly the one regarding women's burden of havint to choose between parenting and academics - are indeed thought-provoking.

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