What do scholarly women talk about?

Pile of books and painting of a mother and infant

Books or babies? Both, of course.

The other night, a sizeable group of women from my graduate program got together for “ladies’ night:” movies, desserts, and drinks. I baked a version of apfelkuchen, a German dessert which I’ve mentally filed under “mouthgasm.” The movies took a backseat to the banter. In addition to the normal party chitchat, many of the conversations addressed aspects of our graduate program, questions and concerns about advanced study in academia, and a healthy dose of grousing. So what, then, do scholarly women talk about?

Well, the Facebook invite read, in part:

“At some point, think of something that A) is worth celebrating, B ) is a point of contention, and/or C) is something you just think a group of smart and funny women should discuss. One or all, it doesn’t matter. We can anonymously (or not) consider any or all of these things at Ladies Night. Some examples might include:

     Does painting my nails make me look unprofessional? Does asking that question make me look unprofessional?

     I gave a kick-ass presentation last week on [x, y, z].

     How to deal with the patronizing ‘old white male’ syndrome.

     Proposing special-topics courses: to be contentious, or to not be contentious.”

I had to leave early, so I didn’t get a chance to engage in all the conversation, but until I left we were engaged in various topics such as course proposals, marriage proposals, gendered professional events, gendered superheroes, preparing for comprehensive exams, writing the dissertation prospectus, departmental gossip, and sports teams and activities. These are all pretty standard topics; at other women-only academic gatherings, I’ve noticed a pretty strong focus on having children during grad school or as a newly-minted assistant professor. At the risk of sounding like I’m relegating academic women to the dregs of archetypal femininity by using the word “gossip” or by reporting on a bunch of chicks talking about girly stuff like how their boyfriends proposed or how many babies they do or don’t want, I’d like to consider the value of such discussion in general.

It’s been well-documented and well-discussed that as one progresses up the academic ladder, one is less and less likely to find oneself surrounded by women. The lack of women in the higher levels of academia is due to many factors, all of which contribute to the problem of gender disparity at the core of higher education. One of the results for women at all levels of academia is “imposter syndrome” (which by no means limited to the academy; women in all professions and interests deal with this too). Part of feeling like one is unworthy of the challenges her career sets is not having a strong community in which to feel involved. Women are more successful when they are surrounded by supportive, successful women.

Of course, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum: how will women get to be more successful unless there are already a bunch of successful women to help them out? True, at this point in history there are many extraordinary female role models for academics, corporate people, politicians, scientists, artists, humanitarians, and so on. But it’s kind of hard to get Hillary Clinton or Oprah Winfrey to meet you for coffee after a harsh meeting with your grad advisor. Many universities and academic societies now have women’s caucuses, which is a great start. An even better start, however, is getting to know the women in one’s own department. In graduate school, we tend to end up far from friends and family, so those support networks are not as accessible. Moreover, many friends and family simply don’t understand the pressures, commitments, frustrations, and joys of graduate study, so what mental or emotional support they can offer is often not enough. I personally find it very difficult to construct new social-professional (I’ve been at my current institution for two and a half years and finally feel like I have department friends—damn my introversion!), but making the effort is worth it.

The danger here is making the misogynistic assumption that women always need to be around other women, because, you know, hormones and gossip and sharing recipes and talking about infants’ bowel movements. No; a woman needs to know that she is not the only one whose experience in her academic career has unjustly left her feeling inadequate. A woman needs to be able to express her anxieties in a safe space, which even now (in what we like to fantasize is the egalitarian 21st-century USA) is often still a female-dominated space.

In some ways each new crop of graduate student women has to reinvent the wheel by finding out for themselves the diverse challenges and barriers that academic women face. Some of those barriers are worth an eye roll—“My male students, who are mostly taller than me, keep looking down my cleavage when we talk”—and some are more insidious—“The department chair said that I can’t teach during the second half of my pregnancy because ‘What if I need to leave school suddenly?’.” Ladies, no one will make the institution better for women unless we do it ourselves. If the occasional “ladies’ night” can give us anything, it’s a forum for addressing these issues among like-minded people. It’s also a way to normalize women in academia, and to work towards changing the university system to retain more strong female talent.


2 thoughts on “What do scholarly women talk about?

  1. mcwnorris

    I really envy this women group, we sadly don’t have this at our university. And I’d love it if we did. Your blog looks great btw, and I’m looking forward to your future posts. Pregnancy, motherhood and academia is such a personal issue to me. One academic in my department once remarked during a careers session that women of a certain age (childbearing) should not wear their wedding rings during jobs interviews lest they give the interviewer the impression that they might get pregnant! I was so furious, I could barely speak.

    Your phd sounds fascinating btw!!

    Thanks for linking :)

    1. bearingscholarship Post author

      Thanks so much! I really enjoyed that blog’s comments about masculinist reading lists…it’s something I noticed too when I was preparing for my exams. Luckily my department, and my particular field, is pretty flexible, so I was able to add plenty of women scholars and writers. Still, though, I think the ratio ended up being 60/40 between male/female authors.

      I’ve heard similar advice for women regarding job interviews…but I have to hold out some tiny bit of hope for reasons like this!: http://chronicle.com/article/This-Cant-Be-Happening/131880/ (tl;dr: she’s 8 months pregnant at her job interview, she barfs all over the search-committee chair, but she gets the elusive tenure-track job anyways!)


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