Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Life as a female academic

I just found this list, directed at male academics who want to promote equality in the workplace: Don't be that dude. It's a blogpost on Tenure, she wrote, written by Acclimatrix.

I agree that there's a lot men can do in order to make environments more welcoming for women. I spent 19 years in a male-dominated workplace, and came away from it with very few friends and not a lot of self-respect. I loved a lot of the guys there, but the general environment needed some serious tweaking to make men and women just humans together, rather than humans and women. And I think that is what lists like the one in "Don't be that dude" are supposed to achieve.

I would however feel a lot less human in a culture that followed that list slavishly. Also, the list is extremely culture-biased in what it asks for and what it doesn't ask for. Let's read it from my point of view, a female associate professor in a male-dominated field in Scandinavia:

1: Titles - we don't use them much. It's useful when we need the ethos in particular contexts, but otherwise it's not a done thing. Equality is more important than hierarchy in everyday situations. This also means that mrs, miss, ma'm and all those other little titles are absent too. I like that a lot better than suddenly being "professor Mortensen" or "Dr. Mortensen". I am simply Torill Mortensen, or Torill, and that is enough.

2: If nobody commented on my appearance when I put in an effort, I'd be really unhappy about it! And yes, we comment on it when the guys dress up too, and I get compliments from other women, and give them to women and men. It's recognition for an effort, and I think it's perfectly appropriate.

3, 4 and 5 are important in this culture too. I do appreciate how difficult 4 can be though, when cracking jokes and not watching every word, so in certain settings it's not such a bad thing. It's all about timing though, as manners and humour so often is.

6, 7, 8, 9 - this is where being Scandinavian kicks in. I will happily let men open doors for me, partly because a lot of doors are bloody heavy (getting into and out of the IT department is a struggle, every time!), and partly because I just like a little bit of role-playing with my everyday life. I will also gladly let fit young men carry crates, or macho men who rebuild cars in their spare time have a go at that tire. But the men I hang out with are good at thinking of gifts for occasions, they take their own notes, and they run off to fetch their kids, so they have to run from meetings. I think the last of that particular brand of everyday inequality in Scandinavian Academia is there because there are still more single mothers than single fathers. This means that no matter how hard the guys work at equality, there will always be more women in Academia who are tied to the routines of families than men.

10, see 3 and 5.

11 - benevolent sexism. This explains why the author feels that 2 is a problem. I am still not quite there though. I find that the problem with benevolent sexism isn't that we talk about women like that (great cook AND great scientist), but that we don't talk about men like that. Women are rewarded for having a good life/work balance, men are not. We don't see it as a quality for men to be considerate of their families while also maintaining healthy careers. Yes, women have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition, partly because we are expected to have this life/work balance, or else! But men who have it may be complimented on doing dishes (what a good guy you are...), but it's not very acceptable when they consistently leave meetings early, avoid overtime or scale back to 80% workweeks because they need to spend more time with the family. It may harm female careers, but I suspect it hurts men more. So rather than less benevolent sexism, I am in favour of more benevolence all around. Give credit where credit is due, and I know several guys who should have "great cook and great dad" in their obituaries.

I am editing point 11 to put in the "top five regrets" from Bronnie Ware's book on the regrets of the dying. It's cold comfort to know that in the end, what people regret not doing are the things women are supposed to do, but it may teach us to read obituaries differently. At the point in life when they become relevant, the good obituary will talk of a person who did not worry about what people expected of them, worked less, spent more time with their friends, expressed their feelings and allowed themselves to be happy.

12 - mansplaining. In Norway we just call those "hersketeknikker" and cite the scholar Berit Ås, who studied the master supression techniques of Ingjald Nissen and popularised them. Read up on it. It's brilliant, and you don't need to use that silly and imprecise word again. 13 and 14 falls under this.

15 to 18 are mainly calls to action, and not a problem. It's also important. Now that gender equality is less about survival and more about quality of life, it may be a good idea to consider that there's more to life than a career. Perhaps that "more" isn't the same "more" for you as for your female colleague, but working towards a system that gives everybody more liberty in how they live their lives is not a bad thing.

19, see 12.

20 - a cookie? But of course you'll have a cookie at the end of this! You may even know how to bake it yourself! How does the saying go - "give a man a cookie, and he has something with his coffee, teach a man to bake, and he will redesign the kitchen to do it more, better and faster." So in the end, you can have all the cookies you like, and you can offer cookies to others. And that's what this is all about. More cookies to go around, for all of us.

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