Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who's the feminist?

As a woman scientist, I get the impression that I've had a less-than-average experience. I'm coming out of a science department made up primarily of women, and I've had a number of female mentors over the years, including my own advisor. I've also worked with a number of female PIs; on one project our field crew was made up entirely of women. My subfield, like many, comes from a tradition of "manly," "rugged," "adventurous" scientists, but a number of the big names these days are female, as are more than half of the graduate students by my own (casual) count. Even my male mentors have been extremely encouraging to young women, often involving themselves with programs designed to encourage women in science.

I've apparently been lucky to avoid the negative situations we all read or hear about on a regular basis, wherein women are not mentored to the same extent as their male counterparts, or are made to feel otherwise incapable or unwelcome. I'm also aware of the imbalance in pay scales, family planning, and teaching/advising loads, as well as the issues involved in trying to have both a family and a career. We still have a long way to go to reach true gender equality in academia, I have no doubt.

However, I've also seen a number of women fall through the "cracks" created by an academic system seeking to increase the number of women involved. I know of students passed through their exams entirely because of their gender, and offered jobs partly because of their gender. Few people will argue that an entirely male faculty wouldn't be under some pressure to add a woman or two to their list. I've also seen women abuse sexual harassment policies in order to avoid punishment for their own illicit or inappropriate behavior, or to get out of certain academic situations.

Personally, I don't want a job only because I'm a woman. And I'm not saying that sexual harassment policies should lay some sort of "burden of proof" on the victim. Similar to the theoretical goals of the penal system, I'd rather have guilty people walk away without punishment than put innocent people through hell. However, I have to think that the tide is changing if I can come up to my defense at the end of the week with this as my primary experience: women are favored to some extent by the current system.

I still try to involve myself in "girls in science" programs, and I want all of my students to be equally involved regardless of their gender. I have hope than in ten years we won't be able to look at any University and see more male tenured faculty than women tenured faculty. (I think the largest burden to making this a reality comes post-degree, when women are forced to decide between family and career, but I'm hardly qualified to discuss that particular subject).

I still call my self a feminist, in the more modern and academic context of that word, but sometimes I feel unqualified to use the term. I should probably be thankful for that.

1 comment:

Michael L. Gooch said...

I hate to say it, but your comment about women abusing sexual harassment policies is right on point. Why do I hate to say it? Because I have seen the horrid damage it has done to male careers. But here is the real kicker...The sad fact is that most people who suffer from sexual harassment, are the ones that never report the offense. In my years as a human resource professional, I have witnessed this time and time again. Just as sad, is that a number of reported sexual harassment incidents are actually people trying to get back at a boss that they do not like or resent for some reason. Sometimes the reason is as simple as envy. I detail these situations and offer solutions in my book, Wingtips with Spurs: Lessons From the Ranch. In fact, I devote an entire chapter to these issues. Until we learn deep, moral lessons, there will be prey on both sides of the coin. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR www.michaellgooch.com