faster feminism · public humiliation · slow academy · women

Who Fills the Chairs

Consciously or not, I’m always aware of how many women there are in the room at academic gatherings. As an undergraduate in English, it was rare to have more than a couple of men in the classroom, excluding the professor–who was, more often than not, male. As a teacher of undergraduates in English, the same went. Beyond the graduate classroom (which had a slightly more equal male-female ratio, although women still dominated) I was struck by what I saw. At department meetings, there are more male professors than female. Conferences I’ve attended, depending on the subject, have often been male dominated, and like the one I presented at earlier this fall, can be profoundly uncomfortable spaces to be in as a woman. Department support staff at my university are almost all female. Department chairs, since I’ve been here, have almost always been male, and upper administration and governance is certainly male dominated. It’s not anything new to note that there is a major disconnect in my field between the gender of the students who enter it as undergraduates, of those who dominate the PhD graduating classes and the gender of those in the positions of highest power. This isn’t just the field. This is the world.
I had a few experiences this week that seemed to suggest that things are changing. In a meeting of the key players behind a new graduate student professional development program in our Faculty of Graduate Studies, I looked around the table to note that most of those people, including the Dean, were women. I’m helping to coordinate a writing workshop for dissertation scholarship winners, and all but two are women, as are most of their supervisors. I’m also the graduate representative on our tenure and promotions committee, and we met earlier this week. The committee is headed up by our new graduate program director, who is, after men heading up the department for the last decade or longer, a woman. Around the conference table, nearly everyone seated was also female. At one point someone asked the committee if we could estimate how much longer we might take, as she wanted to let her stay-at-home husband know when she would be home to breastfeed their baby daughter. At the end of the meeting, the professor with the baby daughter and I exchanged mutual admiration for the bag I was carrying and the granola-covered nuts her husband had made for her (for which you can find the recipe here). It felt, during that meeting, like the proportion of women in the room had changed something, like it was okay to be academics and people too. That baking and breastfeeding and being good academics and holding positions of power weren’t mutually exclusive—the acknowledgement of which is key, I think, to addressing the power imbalance in the academy and the wider world.
It would have been nice if there wasn’t another side to this story, but of course there is. The two people up for tenure and promotion were both men, as are most of the people who have been given tenure or have been promoted since my arrival in the department. The nursing professor was apologetic, and jokingly defensive, about her need to get back to her baby. After bonding over our shared love of Smitten Kitchen, she remarked that she clearly wasn’t working hard enough if she had time to go hunting down recipes for granola-covered nuts. At a workshop on academic job interviews later that afternoon, we were warned against interviewers who would try to find out if we were planning on having children soon. And at that uncomfortable conference last month, a presenter made a joke about my sending him love notes as I sat and waited to deliver my own paper, a joke that I had to laugh off but which made more women than me in the room cringe. Earlier that day, another male panelist told me, in not so many words, that as a young(ish) woman, I was not allowed (although I was moderating the panel) to ask him to wrap up when his paper went over time, which he assured me it would.  
One of the things I love best about Hook & Eye is that women fill the chairs. We sit around this virtual table and discuss whatever matters to us as female academics. Sometimes that’s writing a better conference proposal. Sometimes it’s how we get treated differently when we leave the house without makeup on. Sometimes it’s a great recipe that makes rushing out the door to get to class feel a little bit easier, or one that can keep a breastfeeding woman going through a long day on campus. We feel comfortable talking as people, and not just as academics, at least in part because we fill the chairs. And if we filled the chairs in more rooms, as we fill the chairs in more rooms–in the Dean’s office, in the office of the department chair, in the university senate, in the President’s office, at the presenter’s table–the culture of the university might continue to shift. It might start to acknowledge that parenting and positions of power aren’t incompatible. That teaching and taking time to nurse a child, or to care for an aging parent, or to spend time on a hobby, are equally important facets of a complex academic life. That being professors and being people, no matter our gender, should be accepted and celebrated and taken into account when making decisions about who is given positions of power. When we fill more of the chairs, I can’t help but feel that the feeling in the room changes for the better, for us and for the men around us. And so do our experiences of being women, being people, in academe.  

So I’ll keep watching to see who fills the chairs. And I’ll keep filling one myself, as often as I can, while I do. What about you? What’s your sense of the gender balances and imbalances at your university, or in your field, and whether or not they’re shifting? 

5 thoughts on “Who Fills the Chairs

  1. There's a High Level Muckymuch committee I sit on by virtue of a different position I hold on campus, and the room looks like this: me, male colleague, male colleague, male colleague, male colleague, male dean, male dean, male senior administrator, female staff member … and, hallelujah! female provost. If it weren't for her, and she's the Top Banana in the room, I'd be the only lady in the room not charged with taking the notes for the minutes. Which is always weird, and even now, as an associate prof with nearly a decade under my belt, still throws me off balance.

    It also throws me off when I'm in a meeting which is all women: I wonder–why did the men run away from this? Are we getting stuck doing something unpleasant and low status? Is our work destined to be taken less seriously? I don't know if I'm being clear eyed, or sexist about this.



  2. Such a timely post, Melissa! Thank you for it! You make me think of so many issues, like the report on the absence of women CERC recipients, which came out last week, or the ensuing Wente-rant in Saturday's Globe (I won't link to it, but suffice it to say it's the same argument she always makes, that diversity should not trump excellence, which in her small little head, are mutually exclusive).

    However, far from desperate, your post speaks hope. I love the “as we fill the chairs in more rooms,” because this is exactly what we're trying to do with H&E. That's why Erin and I, from our contract-positions, so often speak of problems, and desperation, and annoyance, and the like: we should be there and fill the chairs not in a transient position, but on equal-terms.

    There are so many other things your post made me think of, but I'll let others chime in before I hog the whole thing. Thank you!


  3. This is indeed a great post, thank you Melissa! I mentioned this on FB, but apropos of Aimee's comments I figure it is worth reposting here. At the 2010 ACCUTE Committee for Professional Concerns I saw Neta Gordon give a paper that considered gender shifts in relation to who is chairing English departments in Canada. You can read a reworked version of her perspective in her introduction to the Readers' Forum “Where are we Now?” : Negotiating a Changing Model of the University' deals with similar questions (as well as pieces in that forum by Donna Palmateer Penne and Heather Murray and, in another way, Robert Zacharias and Veronica Austen). Check it out: ESC 37.1 (2011)


  4. I had that thought last week, not at a meeting but at a session (run by our Arts Teaching Group) on Evaluating Student Writing ('tis the season after all). Aside from the person presenting (a man) 75% of those in attendance were women, although I'm certain that women do not make up 75% of Arts faculty members. So my two thoughts were, is this because we are more concerned about improving our teaching, and doing so on our own time? Was this a response to student evaluations that can rank women lower than men in teaching, but nevertheless seem to be the principal criteria used to evaluate faculty teaching here? Or was it just me?


  5. I'm glad y'all found that this struck a cord. Now that I reread what I wrote, I realize just how bad that conference really was. But hey, Linda Hutcheon put her arm around me and told me she loved my paper, so that was pretty great.

    It's looking like I'm going to be continuing to work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies for awhile, and I'm very curious to see what ends up happening with the staffing there–our female Dean is an interim appointment, and I really wonder who will replace her. The project I'm working on–professional development and career support for graduate students, particularly developing skills that are transferable outside the academy and translating graduate education beyond academe–has been largely spearheaded, at my university and across Canada, by women. I hate to make gross generalizations, but I think that's a gender thing–I sense that female professors are less attached to the idea of replicating themselves through their grad students (and are therefore more willing to advocate for supporting students who are planning to, or by necessity must, leave the academy), and they often seem to be concerned about their students' emotional/psychological lives (which are so affected by the vagaries of the job market and the strong ties between personal and academic identity), as well as their academic ones. Our Dean is very passionate about our project, as am I, and I really hope it doesn't get abandoned once her term is up.


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