A few weeks ago I challenged the readers of this blog to join me in reading Paula Caplan’s “Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving in the Academic World.” This weekend we’re set to discuss the book – and we’ll see where the conversation goes from there.
If you’ve read the book (and you have a blog), I’d encourage you to post your thoughts on your blog and then put a link in the comments here. I’ll make this the first of three posts where I’ll pull out what I think are highlights of the book and try to add my own two cents.
Below the fold, you’ll find my thoughts on “The good, the bad, and the perplexing (Ch 1)” and “Why Can’t a Woman be more like a man? or the maleness of the environment (Ch 2).” On Saturday, a post covering “Unwritten Rules and Impossible Proofs (Ch 3)”, “The Myths (Ch 4)” and “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (Ch 5)” will appear. Finally, on Sunday, we’ll turn to a happier note and look at “what you can do: some general principles (Ch 6)”, “what you can do: suggestions for specific situations (Ch 7), and a “checklist for woman-positive institutions (Ch 8).
It actually took me a while to parse what was meant by “lifting a ton of feathers.” What I think the author means is that women academics are carrying a burden (one that their male colleagues don’t share) and that just because the load is cloaked in attractiveness (academic freedom, setting your own schedule, reaching the next generation) doesn’t make it any lighter. A ton is still a ton. Is that what you understood the title to mean?
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Perplexing
“Because so many people have the impression that colleges and universities are wlecoming and safe for women, the who enters that world but encounters barriers is in great danger of not recognizing those barriers; instead she is likely to blame those problems on herself, to feel – as ‘good’ women are are trained to feel – that she must be doing something wrong, not doing enough, or both.” (p. 4)
“Women are often blamed for their own insecurity, but in fact, the combination of female socialization to feel inadequate and the very real sexist aspects one finds in most academic settings are the major culprits.” (p. 12)
Barely into the first chapter, Caplan is already alluding to both impostor syndrome and the fact that what appears to be a meritocracy, may not really be one. These are themes that come back throughout the book.
“Women in academia, especially those who belong to one or more non-dominant groups, find that sometimes they are treated as though they are invisible, and sometimes they are made to feel too visible.” (p. 12)
Women and minorities are often seen as representing their whole gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, as if those groups were monoliths and one faculty member could speak to the whole range of experiences of her group. But when topics other than the minority experience are at hand, the woman’s voice is often unheard or dismissed. I’ve read more than one anecdotal story (Jane?) about saying things in committee, having them ignored, and then having a senior male colleague repeat the idea to have it greeted by popular acclaim.
“It is important to remember that the mere admission of some women to most institutions has not mean the elimination of subtle forms of exclusion or mistreatment of them. Indeed, typically, when any form of prejudice (such as sexism or racism) is labelled as unacceptable, it does not simply vanish; rather, it tends to take increasingly subtler forms, thus protecting the prejudiced person from both social and legal accusation of prejudice.” (p. 17)
I think this is a key point, and one that is often missed by men. When I see blog comments along the lines of “but there are so many more women PhDs now than there were 20 years ago…and in some fields it’s approaching 50%…we don’t have a problem any more” it just makes my blood boil. This is the problem of what Zuska calls nice guys (can’t find specific link, help?).
Another point related to the one in the quote above is that prejudice doesn’t need to be conscious in order to be expressed. I don’t think my colleague that has (repeatedly now) made the point of accomodating daddies, while not acknowledging my parenting responsibilities, is aware that his words and actions are sexist. But they are.
So, you say, prove that academia is still a sexist environment. I want facts, not anecdotes. Caplan gives us the essential list near the end of the chapter (and I’ll excerpt here).
- “… the proportion of women drops at each step from undergraduate enrollment to masters and doctoral programs, and from there onto and right up the faculty ladder.
- …Women are disproportionately likely to be part-time students and faculty, and concomitant with part-time status go a host of disadvantages…
- Women are severely underrepresented in administrative positions….
- Women graduate students in many fields are disproportionately unlikely to receive financial support.
- Faculty salaries tend to be lower for women than men, and this is even worse for racialized women.
- Women are disproportionately likely to work in lower-status institutions.
- Women faculty tend to have heavier teaching loads and family responsibilities than do male faculty.
2. “Why Can’t a Woman be more like a man? or the maleness of the environment”
This chapter gives numerous anecdotes describing the range of experiences of women in academic institutions (from outright harassment to being left out of sports talk) and that these experiences can lead to a range of reactions (mild irritation to inability to function). It’s a short chapter, but Caplan opens with a couple of broad suggestions for dealing with this male environment. Two of them stuck out for me.
“1. Realize that, at those times when the maleness gets to us, we are not paranoid if we feel upset. …
3. Realize that, if we like, we ourselves can work to change this maleness and that, in important ways, our very presence in an academic institution is a part of that change.
One of Caplan’s suggestions though stuck out in a not-so-good, largely unrealistic, somewhat defeatist way. She suggests that we consider studying or teaching at an all women’s institution. While I’m confident that all-women’s colleges are a great place for the women who enroll or teach there, to counsel us to seek out those places seems like we are giving up the battlefield of co-ed institutions to the men. It sounds to me like we are avoiding the real issues of women’s continuing inequality in the ivory tower. Plus, there just aren’t that many seats at the table at women’s colleges for all of us who might benefit from being in that environment. So we can’t all go to Smith or Holyoke, and besides, we need to stay and do battle where the men are, or nothing will ever change.
If you’ve read the book, please comment here and link to your blog post (if you have one). If you haven’t read the book, please comment here and on any of the linked blog posts. Do you perceive the maleness of the academic environment? Do you view feelings of inadequacy as largely the result societal training and real barriers, or do you attribute them to real defects in your abilities? Do you feel invisible or overly visible or both? What have been your experiences as a woman in academia? If you’re not a woman in academia, how do your experiences as a man or as a woman outside of academia compare to what Caplan describes for women academics? Share, share, share. Then come back tomorrow to talk about myths, unwritten rules, and being damned either way.