The Status of Women in the Historical Profession, 2005
Chapter 3: Departmental Climate
A majority of respondents mentioned the difficulty of battling gendered expectations about their place within their departments, in their colleges and universities, and in the profession at large. This can take the manifestly trivial form of different modes of address—more than a few reported that both colleagues and students referred to them as "Mrs. So-and-So" while addressing men as Dr. or Professor. The issues around gendered expectations are anything but trivial, however. The practice of addressing women by their marital instead of professional status is symptomatic of larger problems of gender in the workplace.
Let us start with appearance, or lack thereof. Several younger respondents reported that faculty members in their departments had not bothered to learn their names long after they had been hired, and could not distinguish them from other young women hires. Others reported that they were stereotyped as "too young" based on their appearance. One respondent overheard a search committee denigrate her too-youthful appearance and presumed lack of experience. She held that being judged on the basis of her appearance was "grossly unfair," and suspected that, if she had been "a 6-foot-tall man with a beard this would be less of a concern." Another wrote, "I have found that senior male faculty are unabashed about evaluating me and other female faculty members on our appearance, youth, and maternal responsibilities or lack thereof….Young, cute, and childless is preferable." Yet another cited recent "complaints from an older faculty member that the young female hires were not wearing skirts."
The close connection between these gendered assumptions about women's age, appearance, and place in the profession also extend to women entering the profession later in life. One respondent remarked that in her experience, "there are a number of us who are pursuing Ph.D.'s in history as a second career. We are in our 40s and 50s. We are all women." Women mentioning this phenomenon often described the choice to "re-invent life in middle-age" as very rewarding, but lamented that many "are returning to employment only to find themselves stigmatized as 'over the hill.'"10
Women also complained that while men could sport casual clothing and still garner the respect of students and colleagues, they as women had to be careful to always appear professional and well-dressed. Yet the issue of gendered expectations transcends that of dress and appearance. Women are expected, by both colleagues and students alike, constantly to perform femininity. They are expected to be restrained and endlessly supportive in dealings with colleagues. Respondents said this expectation arose in concrete ways, such as expecting them to perform secretarial duties for the department—"mail this, book this lunch reservation, etc." It also appeared in expectations that female faculty should be "softer," more sympathetic, and more available to students than their male counterparts.
Women at all stages of their careers commented that the same outspoken, aggressive, and confrontational behaviors that are celebrated in men as indicative of competence or even brilliance are condemned in women as pushy and unfeminine. Confidence is too often coded male, and linked, in one woman's words, "to personal styles which are gendered male." This has the effect that senior men can more readily see younger male colleagues "as carriers of new theories." Assertive women report having been told to "filter" or tone down their personalities, to "soften" their presentations. Yet they also report being ignored in meetings, of having their voices silenced, and of having what they say not be taken seriously. Even otherwise enlightened colleagues engage in such behaviors; as one respondent wrote, "they seem completely unaware of the fact that they do this, even as they adopt the rhetoric of gender and sexual equality. I think it's entirely unconscious." One respondent, identifying herself as lesbian, noted that she is constantly put in the "confusing and energy-draining bind" of choosing between expressing her true feelings about issues and being labeled "a strident feminist or unfriendly woman," or censoring herself at the cost of imperiling her ability to convince colleagues she is an intellectual presence to be reckoned with.
All these conflicting messages add up to a classic double bind in the classroom. Students can expect women to be less rigorous and more nurturing, yet in being so a woman risks being labeled unprofessional. Student perceptions have the potential to translate into lower teaching evaluations, and women may face job consequences as a result. Even if supported by colleagues, women may find their authority challenged by students.
Issues of personality style extend to evaluations of research, where women are expected to be more tentative than men. Some felt they were clearly held to higher standards than their male colleagues. One woman, after facing a series of gender-related challenges in her part-time position, was told by one of her evaluators that they "just wanted to see if she could jump through hoops." Meanwhile, a male hire from her same graduate program had a much easier entry into the department. Similarly, a Latina wrote, "my achievements have been underplayed and my faults exaggerated greatly in comparison to my male colleagues." Even more common than such blatant double standards, however, are subtle indications that men are assumed to be competent unless proven otherwise, while women have to prove their competence before they are fully accepted. Finally, it is harder for women to signal the commitment to the institution that is so important a criterion for tenure. One woman, single and childless, is "frequently asked if [her] 'lack of commitment' to family is a reflection of [her] overall reluctance to make any commitment (i.e., to an institution)." On the other hand, taking maternity leave in many cases is read as a sign of lesser commitment; one woman described an "institutional climate which, in subtle ways, thinks that women who have children aren't quite 'serious' enough." Again, we come face-to-face with the double bind of gender.
We recommend that chairs carefully monitor the distribution of service commitments;
that they recognize that many female—as well as male—faculty are
shouldering the double burden of work and family. Chairs should make allowances
for this, where possible, in scheduling teaching, meetings, and other activities.
They should establish departmental cultures in which women and men are held
to similar standards of conduct, performance, and style. We recognize that
the issues discussed above are recalcitrant and not easily remedied, yet bringing
them to faculties' attention can constitute a first step toward resolving