Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Socialization of Professional Behavior: A gender dichotomy?

So, as I am very ill and post-comps, I am blogging about my reading.  I plan to finish Lean In in the next couple of days, Sheryl Sandberg's well-written manifesto about taking charge of the workforce as a woman.  Why did I buy it this summer?  My advisor told me to buy it and so did my mother.  As these two women are the most influential female role models in my life, I tend to pay attention to anything both of them tell me to do.  Rarely do I ever buy new hardcovers out of my own impoverished need to eat before read but I did this once.

Lean In talks about being a professional success which is something my advisor is always on us about - especially her female students.  I had a bit of a fit over comps around the start of July, a time when I was about 3/4 through studying, in all reality.  I had the WORST case of imposter syndrome I've probably ever had in graduate school.  Seriously, I thought "I'm going to fail comps, I can't possibly do this".  She knows me better than this.  She acknowledged seeing me every day, asked me all what I was doing, and said, "This is not your Waterloo.  Well, it won't be unless you let it."  She also told me to read Lean In as I moved forward to help me understand what was really going on.

Where did this feeling come from?  Well, part of it is normal.  All academics have imposter syndrome, a condition that makes you feel inferior.  I say it's kind of like feeling that you are just WAITING for them to find out you don't belong in your program or aren't deserving of your PhD.  It feels like you aren't worthy and it's all a facade.  My advisor agrees we all have it.  I've yet to find someone who denies that it is a HUGE problem for academics like me.  My advisor says it is twice as bad for her sometimes because she feels like because she is female she often feels the need to check if it is "okay" for her to do something.  She now realizes a lot of these things are normal things that men will do.  She stated, specifically, that she had a huge case of anxiety concerning a very important speech (probably one of the most important you can give in our subfield) she had to make this Spring. She read Lean In and actually learned a lot about what she could do to quell her anxiety, take charge, and thought the book would help professional women like myself.

While some may dispute that graduate students such as myself are "professionals", I do not agree with this.  First of all, professionalism comes from discipline, a set of rules and norms, and a guide to what is ethical and acceptable behavior.  I can think of a million reasons why expectations for me academia, teaching, and research qualify me as "professional".  Second, at this stage in my career, I need to gear myself towards being seen as professional.  This helped me recently with my Fulbright application and will serve me on the job market.  This is why Lean In fits in.  I believe this is a key thing to point out.  Ladies, as grad students, you are professionals whether you like it or not.

Another reason I feel like Lean In, thus far, has been so pertinent is it's highlighting of socializing behaviors.  As my advisor stated, women feel that they often don't belong at the table and that they can't do certain things.  Think of your grad school classroom.  What is the gender parity like?  In my discipline, it is sorely lacking.  While we have actually hired mostly female researchers and professors in the past 4 years, women are far less represented in the grad student population and a large chunk of those women are PhD students.  This year's cohort has two women out of 13 people and has only 1 female PhD student.  I also look around and see a difference in the way that women feel about speaking up and demanding things and the way that men so easily taking on those roles.

I have been known to be a rather ambitious and demanding student.  I rarely roll over.  One of the male members of my cohort characterized me as a "bulldog" once.  I didn't take kindly to that.  I got rather offended.  Why?  Well, it seemed like he was calling me a whiny bitch rather than a respectable woman.  I felt like I was overreaching or something.

And that is why, when during a seminar about a year ago, I put up with another student - a male student - making all sorts of rude gestures while I talked.  This student has, in the past, has called me spoiled, rich, and demanded that I was "out of my league".  A large basis for his problems with me came from my choice of baseball team.  Yes, it's a very petty thing.  But it went WELL above that when one time he said, "you'd be attractive if you never opened my mouth".  That was said at a professionalization event held by the department.  I never talked about it again.  I slunk back and ignored him.  No one else who heard it ever spoke of it again.  There was an awkward pause and then a topic switch.

But here we were in another seminar talking about the importance of feminist movements in interest group formation and he was eye rolling, making talking mouths with his hands as I spoke, and I lost it.  I didn't have time to think.  I was at the end of my rope.  So, he did it one time too many and I turned to stare directly at him and said something to the tune of, "I would really love to talk about the representation of working class women which is often-neglected from this dialogue but someone is making it really difficult for me to contribute.  This isn't the first time, either. So, I will continue but it needs to stop.  The person knows who they are."

The class was silent and I continued but while I view this as a triumphant moment in my development as a women in my professional world, I didn't immediately see it this way.  I stopped talking a few seconds later only to have everyone staring at me nondescriptly.  The professor soon wrapped up our class and the person responsible for my outburst ran out QUICKLY.  The professor invited me to talk directly to him.  I now know that he was merely concerned about academic freedom and the importance of other points of view but at the time I felt as though I must have overstepped my role as being a meek female student.

So, I got in my car, called my mother crying, and relayed all of the details to her.  She told me that I did the right thing and that the person in question needed a wake up call if our professor wasn't going to step in.  She told me not to feel ashamed and that while I felt judged, the other women in that room would thank me later if not sooner.  My mother, who works in engineering and is the only woman in her department, has pretty much seen it all at this point.  I had to trust her a bit.  I talked to older female colleagues that were very supportive, as well.  My roommate said she hoped I would go talk to the professor and give him the backstory because he was trying to help and how would he know to help if someone didn't say anything.

The truth is, I don't think this guy is a menace just for the sake of being one.  He only seemed to have a problem with me when I tried to argue with him over points in seminar respectfully.  I believe, at times, he feels female authority isn't okay.  Let's face it, that's not just on him, that's on socialization at large.  So, for this, he acts out and gets all huffy.  I told the professor about our past history but didn't tell him about what had been said over drinks the year before.  I now wish I would have but it felt like gossip.  The truth is, it was sexual harassment whether he knew it or not.  I shouldn't be ashamed of that.

I told the prof everything and he actually admitted he was GLAD I had felt comfortable to say something and was happy I was participating.  He noted a big lack of female participation in that class.  Part of this is because of the way that male participants in that room tended to cut you off in a way they didn't cut off fellow men.  I noted this to him.  He did a better job of controlling the seminar after this.  And, while, for a bit I felt nervous, I got over it and came back even stronger in another seminar with one of the guys who cuts girls off on the regular.  I talked to another female student at the time, a first year, and encouraged her never to step down as older female graduate students had told me as a first and second year.  She admitted to feeling nervous about talking over him when he cut her off.  She was worried for the same reasons I had been.  I didn't want to be seen as a "bitch" or to make too many waves and she was similarly concerned about such characterizations.

I took charge of my professional abilities to speak freely, learn, and participate in an environment I felt was rather hostile at the time.  In doing so, I did make it easier for women to participate.  But I could have done the opposite. I am glad I got a bit hot under the collar that night and did something "risky" because it led to things being better for the women around me.  I am sure now that no one else was thinking the same but after my outburst, the offender in question never did what he was doing that night ever again in my presence.  There were jokes made by members of his cohort about me "busting balls" but I simply ignored them.  It was all an attempt by patriarchy to shame me into be subordinated and I wasn't falling for it.

So, when approaching comps, I believe being the only chick taking them and having a bigger chip on my shoulders did play into this.  Having my advisor tell me to deal with it was important and I'm glad I started reading.  Sandberg says:
Would I do it if I weren't afraid?  And then go do it. (26)
This is a piece of advice I think women should take into consideration. It's a simplified version of the things my mother, advisor, and older and wiser colleagues have told me for years but it makes sense.  If I was mentoring a female PhD student, I would probably express this to her specifically.

Women aren't socialized to be go-getters by most of the people they encounter.  Think about the toys girls are supposed to like (dolls, princess outfits, quiet things) and the toys boys are socialized to desire (cars, trucks, active things).  I was a tomboy who rolled in the dirt and hated pink.  My parents never impressed upon me the need to play with dolls.  It was my choice and whatever choice I made was fine.  I didn't have to censor myself because I was simply female.  I was allowed a seat at the table.

I feel like sometimes men in my discipline find me threatening because I don't often subscribe to this mentality.  I have had members of my own cohort be nasty about it when I was in the right.  Other women taught me to ignore the eye rolls.  But I see a lot of young women falling for the trap.  Hell, even I did at times.  I admit it isn't always perfect but socialization is a hard chip to grapple with.  Not everyone was raised by a very liberal feminist mother in a male-dominated field, either.  My sister and I weren't treated any "differently" by our parents at home.  It's why maybe I don't see myself as limited by gender all that often.  I like sports, swearing, beer, and my career.  I'm unapologetic about it.  But sometimes people get offended and act like assholes and I end up feeling guilty as if I was in the wrong for doing the same thing.  It's not always easy, Sandberg says that, but if you can, you should.  Don't feel guilty.  Be a professional but don't be limited.

If there is one thing I could say to a female PhD student at the start of her career, it would be what Sandberg says.  Don't let people scare you off.  By ignoring the obvious misogyny in place in certain academic circles, you not only do yourself a disservice but also hurt the women who come behind you.  It's a collective action problem of epic proportions and I think something should be done.

One thing we always worry about that still worries me is the ramifications that come with being a female go-getter who is ambitious, outspoken, and demanding.  I worry that people will treat me poorly or be offended.  After all, this IS an old boys club.  I did encounter some of this sentiment from an old-guard faculty member who believed that it wasn't "becoming" to speak as strongly as I did.  However, he is in the minority.  I have had professors say that I am an exemplary student, a competent researcher, and have managed to secure awards within the department above a mostly-male-dominated field of competition.  So, there aren't many ramifications.  The benefits outweigh the detriments.

I will also check my privilege, however.  I'm white and a heterosexual.  Things are simply easier for me than a woman of color. I'm not facing all of the challenges of intersectionality that trans-women, lesbian or bisexual,  or women of color are.  I can't be labeled the "angry black lady" of the department or a "dyke" - two things others  have said have happened in their workplaces.  I won't say every department is the same or every woman faces the same obstacles or has the same opportunities.  However, I believe it is critical that we get to know our fellow women, find mentors, and stand up to patriarchy.  It can't hurt to have an open dialogue with older and wiser people.  Dialogue and demanding better representation is the only way we will make this better.


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