On Being a Masculinised Woman in Academia

 Most of this post was written in August of 2012, but didn't get published until December 2012 due to lack of time + sensitivity of the content.  I've had enough feedback on it (& it's getting enough traffic) that I've now split the post in two.  This is what I wrote in August, plus a new summary.  The "summary" I wrote in January has now been extended into a second post, on masculine appearance.


A few months ago, it must have been May (2012), everyone was upset because the vast majority of PhD students don't want academic careers.  Well, actually, you might think they were upset because only one in 5 men and one on 10 women in their (hopefully) final year of their PhD thought they wanted an academic career, but actually somehow they only cared about the women.

What struck me at the time, and what finally lead me to blog, was this paragraph:
Women more than men see great sacrifice as a prerequisite for success in academia. This comes in part from their perception of women who have succeeded, from the nature of the available role models. Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless.
 OK, so I'm a sufficiently masculinised woman to have people correct me when they think I'm headed for the wrong toilet, and I'm certainly childless.  So maybe I'm a bit touchy on the topic.  But really, is this a big deal?

I've been a "mature" academic (that is, I've qualified for the term "professor" in at least US English) since 2002.  In that time I've graduated 3 PhD students, had one drop out, and I've got four others working with me right now and two more coming in the Autumn.  If I stay in academia 30 years (a short career, but I spent 10 years as a postgraduate, 1 as a postdoc, and 7 in industry) I'll presumably produce at least 20 PhD students.  Then I'll retire and one person will get my job, if the University hasn't frozen hiring right then.  So if 1:10 of my PhD students wants to be an academic that might be a bit over-ambitious.  Of course, some academics produce a lot fewer than 10 students by never getting to a position where they qualify to have them (e.g. working in research the whole time), or working in Universities without graduate programmes.  And the truth is, some academics produce a lot more PhD students who go into academia than others, just I think because of the nature of their research.

The real problem of course is: are the "right" students lacking ambition?  I just spent a day with a brilliant masters student in politics who came to visit Will.  She was an incredibly able conversationalist, but she drove me crazy with her British defeatism:  I'll never change the world.  Well, you might not, but you ought to think you might, and you ought to say so.  People less capable than you have.  But honestly, she's applying for PhD programmes and I'll be surprised if she doesn't really give it a try, whatever she is saying.   But famously, women are inclined to think of themselves as less competent than they really are.

But what does it mean to be "right"?  The smartest of my peers at MIT didn't all go into academia.  A really large number of them all went to work for this one company that one of them formed, ITA Software, which figured out cheap air fares.  I was always struck by what an immense waste of talent that was on such a pedestrian problem, but they were really just doing AI & paying the bills, and finally last year Google bought them.  So presumably something more useful than making one market more efficient is now being done with all that brain power.

Cover photo for the Guardian's "Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried" (click to read)
But back to the masculinisation.  Is there something wrong with being aggressive, competitive, and not a mother?  Well, some conservatives & feminists think so, but other feminists don't & certainly not this one.  Though I also don't think there's any inherent merit in being that way.

These traits aren't really gender linked, they are testosterone linked.  And actually, so are a lot of other things, like a lot of cognitive abilities. If you are like me, the first thing you thought when you saw the above picture with it's Guardian headline was "huh, she has a low-testosterone digit ratio." A recent study at University of Chicago showed that testosterone was a much better predictor than gender of who got the best paying jobs after an MBA, too. (Here's the original study, it doesn't look like the 2-year follow up with salaries has been published yet.) Levels of hormones are of course influenced by context, such as whether you are in a relationship.  But there also seems to be some sort of hormonal profile which is a part of who you are, like personality.  Do you deserve credit or blame for your personality?  I don't know, I doubt it, though of course some people do seem to learn to control theirs to greater extents, but that generally generates its own rewards.  Are you responsible for your actions, even if they are typical of people with your personality?  Yes, absolutely.  Responsibility is defined that way, otherwise there's no utility to the concept.  And I like the world better with a useful concept of personal responsibility.

So, maybe "gender typical" female grad students are smart enough to pick up on regularities about which people (regardless of gender) are most likely to be super-achievers in academia.  Is that bad?  I can't believe that if you were really passionate enough about science to do well in academia that you would really let something like that put you off.  By the time you get to do a PhD, you are already sufficiently exceptional that you've defied odds many times before.  It certainly isn't as if there aren't any feminine women in academia.  But if someone correctly assess that they'd be more miserable choosing between having children or pouring the kind of time some people feel they need to do exceptionally well in their research careers (given the other stuff academics tend to do in the "day job" part of academia: teaching, admin) than I am, should they be blamed?  Should I?  Are we obliged to try to lie to them and say "no, don't worry, it will be fine, you'll probably be different?"

What are people advocating?  A change in culture where we stop people from working long hours on their passions?  That people without children should have mandatory equivalent time sinks foisted on them, despite having already lost out on having kids?  Notice here that I don't think anyone says it is impossible to be an academic and work 40 hours a week, just that for most people it's impossible to be an academic, do world-leading science and work 40 hours.  In the first couple tiers of universities in the USA this may mean you won't get tenure, but there are many other academic positions that either don't require promotion to retain your job or allow you to focus fully on research (though these are mostly in industry.)  And, of course, some people really are exceptional enough to do world leading research, teach & do their administration duties in 37.5 hours a week.

What made me finally (August 2012) write this blog post was a new round of articles concerning academic fathers' lives, which someone finally got around to asking about.  1/3rd of academic men are fathers and have it as bad as most academic mothers do.  About 1/5th don't have children.  Many of the rest have wives in less demanding roles, some even as housewives.  What's weird to me is the number of researchers who consider that professional inequality victimisation, not compromise.  It's as if it's impossible that one partner might be more motivated to have children, or less motivated to have a career.  Again, we know perfectly well that such variations are possible, and correlated with gender.  But is this strictly a gender issue when it affects 1/3rd of male academics as well?  Isn't it actually about childcare?

Up to the previous paragraph, this has been sitting in my draft spool since August, when I read "Get a Wife!" (the victimisation link just above.)  I realise that this is all sensitive material and I didn't feel I had  time to come back and check I'd said exactly what I meant – or that what I meant made sense.  To summarise my points, it's actually good, not the end of the world, if something like an appropriate number of students by the end of their PhD are still trying to get into academia, and that it's at least possible (though not proved) that fewer women than men would be as happy with the tradeoffs most academics find to be necessary to do their job well.  Which is not to say all women would be or are, or that only women, not men are.  Rather, it's to say that gender is correlated with (but does not entirely determine) things like hormonal levels that are indicative of intrinsic rewards various activities and situations will give you.  Couching these issues as exclusively women's when substantial proportions of men make just the same calculations and suffer just the same problems strikes me as wrong in many ways:  sexist, politically flawed, and not likely to lead to deeper understanding.

 Writing about this and discussing this post though has made me realise it is not only those three wrongs that make me angry about this debate.  It is also the entire idea that a woman can be masculine, or that if that is a reasonable description, then that being masculine could be a problem.  I've decided to make a separate blog post about that, here.


Joanna Bryson said…
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