Lifting a ton of feathers (1 of 3)

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).

the title.

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).

  1. "... 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.
  2. ...Women are disproportionately likely to be part-time students and faculty, and concomitant with part-time status go a host of disadvantages...
  3. Women are severely underrepresented in administrative positions....
  4. Women graduate students in many fields are disproportionately unlikely to receive financial support.
  5. Faculty salaries tend to be lower for women than men, and this is even worse for racialized women.
  6. Women are disproportionately likely to work in lower-status institutions.
  7. 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.

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I haven't read the book (but I think I will, now that I've read your comments). I did interpret the title differently, though - a ton of feathers is a lot of little things. Each on its own is not much of a burden, but when they all press down on you, boy do you feel it. And that's really how I feel about why it's hard to be a woman in acedemia.

I agree with you, though, that it's really a cop out to tell women to go work at womens' colleges. When I was making the decision about where to go to graduate school, I expressed concern to a mentor about being the only one - the only woman of color, the only one who was older, and the only one with kids. She said that, if anything, that might be a good reason to go to an Ivy League. The culture won't change without the presence of people who are different from the staus quo. My passing on an opportunity would not serve the interests of anyone but those who don't want change. When I feel "too exposed" I try to remember that every person I interact with will now have a slightly different idea of what an graduate student looks like. Ivory Tower inhabitants really need that dose of reality from time to time.

acmegirl: Brilliant! I bet your interpretation is the "correct" one.

And good on you for being brave and "being the change we want to see."

I haven't read the book, but interpret the title slightly differently than you. An individual feather weighs so little, that each feather can be added to a load without the bearer noticing, until finally the load has become unbearable. Because no matter how light a feather is, it still carries weight, and enough of them will add up to a ton. Discrimination is often like this - little comments and small inequities add up and add up until finally they cannot be borne any more.

By blondmaggie (not verified) on 14 Mar 2008 #permalink

I didn't read the book either, but I thought the title referenced the riddle "Which is lighter, a ton of iron [or lead, or...], or a ton of feathers?" The thoughtless [I don't mean that with the insulting connotation, just the literal denotation of didn't think] answer is "feathers" because feathers are lighter than iron, etc. But the real answer is they're the same. Which gets back to acmegirl's point: there's a lot of little things, so everyone thinks it should be fine, because little things are just little things -- but a ton is a ton no matter what it's made of.

Long post ahead... I did read the book after seeing your post about it. Thank you for starting this conversation. I am a female minority scientist in industry (large company). I like your blog because it deals with a lot of the same issues that I think about, even if I'm not in academia. My company just blog-posted a round table discussion from technical women within which echoed my concerns about being an "other" or an imposter (when will they find out?) and constantly being worried about not belonging. While many people were not brave enough to post response comments, it has a 3/5 star rating on the internal blog so I do not think it is being well-received by the company at large. I thought it was excellent.

In the book, I do like the proactive advice about how to deal with specific situations, but there was a strong emphasis on feminist studies programs for many of the example stories (which is the perspective of the writer). There was also some jargon that she threw around (chilly atmosphere) that annoyed me, but I find myself using it now because it's accurate. Because it reflects my own experience, I do feel like I get more catharsis reading/hearing about the trials of female scientists in the physical sciences. (So thank you for this blog.) I did see something new by viewing the world through the perspective of the author, but there were some parts of the book that did not speak to me strongly, so it was an uneven read for me.

> Do you perceive the maleness of the academic environment?

I did and I certainly do now. In grad school my research group was stereotypically jock-type, with golfing trips and jogging appts for the guys routine. Now the men seem to have lunch dates on their own, which could be a clique thing but it functions as the same type of social barrier. The women who do succeed have to do so without the benefit of the informal networking opportunities, among other things.

> 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?

Both. There are strong societal barriers that I was too stubborn to yield to earlier, but as the support network fades away (friends leave, co-workers work part-time now) it is that much harder to continue to do it on your own. I feel that there is lots of wasted personal energy that I spend thinking about these things that men don't have to worry about.

> Do you feel invisible or overly visible or both?

Both. I feel that my research accomplishments sometimes are in the shade while I get remembered more or noticed more for being the only woman. In a room of men I also think there is a way of talking that is more self-promoting, yet more effective in the eyes/ears of other men. I probably don't do this as well, but I feel that I have to learn it. In my experience, it takes a fair amount of becoming one of them to fit in. Because I feel socialized this way I see clearly when other women don't do this and I am partially jealous, but also discouraged when some of them (in grad school or industry) don't "make it." However, that begs the question - is my effort in this world of men worth it?

I love working on new problems in the lab setting, but day-to-day the personal isolation can wear me down, so I feel even more raw and "touchy" about the little things (those feathers). Despite the chilly atmosphere in the field, I am concerned that I spend so much energy surviving that I don't have the energy to mentor or guide younger scientists. I think the world of science would benefit from a different way of working and I think more women in the field would contribute to that.

The title of chapter 2 is ironic, given that Christina Hoff Sommers recently wrote a very anti-woman, anti-woman scientist article by the same name for the American Enterprise Institute. Peggy blogged on it at Women in Science, here.