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?