Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why are female profs so mean?

Abel Pharmboy asks: "What do you feel were the barriers for The Big Hurt to feel the same way about you or other female grad students?"

Certainly the Big Hurt faced hurdles. As she was so fond of pointing out, she was (at the time, not sure about now) the only female prof in the engineering school with young children. She got her PhD from MIT, which had to be a real picnic.

Does facing and overcoming such hurdles give one the right to belittle others? Obviously not.

Does facing and overcoming such hurdles turn you into a monster? I hope not.

Does facing and overcoming such hurdles require the kind of personality that is domineering, perfectionist, and driven beyond rationality? Sometimes I think so. Our good friend Herman Melville said "all mortal greatness is but disease." I think things have gotten better though, which is why the second generation of female profs is now ... what's the word I'm looking for here? Sane?

A few entries ago I wrote about my Dad, and I included some info about my Mom. I just think she is so incredible that she got a PhD in chemistry, raised five kids, and worked full time. She taught chemistry at a nursing school and eventually became the director of the science division at her school. Did she face barriers? Oh yeah. Did they turn her into a monster? No. Did she have to be a bitch to succeed? No. But on the other hand, she told me once that she had no doubt that she had the ability to be a big-time professor at a research institution, but that she wasn't willing to make the sacrifices required. Her family was too important to her. (Incidentally, I think I was in high school when she told me this, and I gaped at her like she was insane because it felt to me that she had sacrified her family - i.e. me - greatly. Now I am older and wiser.) In addition to making the conscious choice to devote herself to her family, I'm sure two other factors prevented her from getting a job at, for example, Ohio State. One was the good old two-body problem. She went where my dad got a good job. The second was probably lack of opportunities. Not many schools would have even considered her. All these three issues are intertwined in complex ways, and they still are today. They resulted in my Mom working at a job she was probably overqualified for. And she did a great job at it and was at least partially responsible for the success and expansion of the school she worked for. One of the things I always admired about her was that her job involved educating people, predominantly women, so that they could get better jobs and be able to support their families. She taught and awful lot of recently divorced women who had thought they would be stay-at-home moms forever, and had suddenly realized that they needed an education to support themselves and their children. My mom gave those women better lives. She gave them the tools to live independantly.

But maybe my Mom was too nice to be a big-U prof. But even though she wasn't at a Big U, she was still a pioneer and she paved the way for me and my sisters, just as much as or maybe more so that the Big Hurt.

So are we supposed to be grateful to all the Big Hurts of the world for opening doors for us? Probably, yes. But does that make their demeaning behavior okay? I don't think so.

But let's cut to the heart of the issue--how does the mean behavior of those first generation female profs really affect us? If their behavior prevents some women from finishing their degrees, or if it scares women off from the profession, then that is bad. But maybe anyone who is scared off by such behavior isn't meant to be a prof anyway. I think one of the big morals of my Big Hurt story is that you can't let anything, especially not a difficult advisor, prevent you from reaching your goals. Remember, another good friend of ours said, "everybody takes a beating now and then." It is unrealistic to expect to get through grad school or get tenure with some humiliation. (and if no one is around to dish it out, I can usually be counted on to cook up something self-inflicted). To survive, we all have to learn to separate our personal feelings (of being belittled or humiliated) from the rational standards of our profession. In other words, if you are making good progress toward your goal, who cares what your advisor thinks? If you do excellent work, the world will notice, you will get a reputation for excellence, and there is nothing one psycho professor can do to stop you from attaining your goal. My point is that we can be grateful to the Big Hurts of the world without hating them if we learn not to give a shit what they think and not to let them stand in our way. I call this strategy "winning by losing". I let the Big Hurt win all the battles, even though it made me feel like dirt, because in the end I won the war - I graduated.

Of course, it is very easy for me to dispense this advice now, seven years later. At the time, I was wallowing in despair, and it is very difficult to put your personal feelings of humiliation aside and "take your beating and go" under those circumstances. That is why I actively sought out positive and helpful mentors. So another moral of the story is--seek out mentors, and be a good mentor because good mentors are so critical to success of both men and women.

Occasionally there will be circumstances where it seems that one psycho professor really can scuttle your career. For example, let's say that BPT hadn't helped me and I had been forced to leave EPPU. But that would have been a failing of the entire institution, not just the Big Hurt. I like to think that I would have gone and found another good school with a better advisor and would still be in roughly the same position I am in now. But in reality we know that if you discourage and delay people, they will eventually give up. So it is this kind of institutional failure that I think is less common now and has made it possible for us, the second generation of female profs, to survive without the prerequisite of being psychotic.


Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

thanks so much for commenting on my comment. i expect that a lot of the forced suffering is due to the fact that female mentors came into these fields when it was far less friendly than today.

i have had three phd students finish with me. one is doing a postdoc while the other two have taken the time to start families. My wife, Dr PharmGirl, thinks this is good in that i was the kind of mentor that made the other two feel comfortable with starting families and not feeling pressured into postdocs before they were ready. i fear that i showed them too much of the underbelly of academia, but i do the same for all of my trainees (i.e., let them read my ms reviews, grant reviews, tenure decision memos, etc.)

now that i got tenure and gave it up to live in the same town with Dr PharmGirl, i look more objectively at her female mentors. i feel that they hold back young women more than the patriarchy. fortunately, i've identified a young md faculty member who actually has a designated title to advance women and minorities in science and medicine and i will play in their sandbx as long as they will have me.

thanks for the thoughtful post.

9:07 PM  

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