Women in academia battling gendered expectations

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According to a report released earlier this year by the American Council on Education, women in academia make up more than half of college students, but less than one-third of full professors. They continue to see a salary gap: Women in academia made only 83 percent of what their male counterparts earned, as reported in a survey conducted a couple years ago. 

A study conducted by the American Political Science Association might have some insight into why this is happening. Researchers found “students react differently to men and women faculty in part because they have differing expectations about how men and women in these positions will and ought to behave.”

Dr. Terese Guinsatao Monberg

Dr. Terese Guinsatao Monberg is an associate professor in RCAH. Photo courtesy of Monberg.

According to Dr. Terese Guinsatao Monberg, an associate professor in the Residential College of Arts and Humanities, this is nothing new for women in academia, whose students often expect them to be more nurturing than authoritative. It’s an uphill battle.

“I think that female professors are always trying to negotiate that expectation,” said Monberg. “If we are not nurturing, we might be seen as uncaring. I think there are cultural norms in society that then get mapped onto professors in a very particular way.”

Dr. Hilda Mejia Abreu, an assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said she struggles to both challenge and support the students she interacts with.

Abreu smiling.

Dr. Hilda Mejia Abreu is an assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Photo courtesy of Abreu.

“I am really caring and compassionate, but there is that part of me that also has to balance that with the expectations,” said Abreu. “If I’m just going to coddle you, you might not perform at your highest potential, so I try to do both. I think about it all the time. If I’m being way too flexible, or maybe too strict … I try to walk the fine line, which is a difficult one to walk.”

Context matters

While some professors may struggle with how they interact with students, Dr. Liza Potts, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Letters, says this interaction is very much context-based.

“When you take students on study abroad, which I’ve done a few times, that is a totally different situation than a classroom setting,” Potts said. “And a lot of what study abroad is about is emotional change. There’s a physical change of setting, but there’s also a lot of emotional change that students go through.”

Potts said she felt more protective of her students while abroad than she normally would on campus, particularly in times of violence or political unrest in the countries they were in. She would even take students out for meals just to talk about their experiences and give them time to reflect on their journey.

“I think it’s highly contextual,” said Potts. “But I don’t think I’m in the classroom mothering them. They have a mother or a father or a figure in their life that’s their support. They don’t need me to be that. But they do need me to help prepare them to go out into the world.”

Invisible labor

For Dr. Marsha Carolan, an associate professor in MSU’s Human Development and Family Studies, meeting the needs of individual students is a constant struggle, especially if students are requesting extensions and additional help due to personal issues outside of the classroom.

“I don’t want to be unfair to the rest of the student body who’s not asking for anything,” said Carolan. “But at the same time, I also want to be helpful to the person who may be seriously in trouble or struggling with something.”

Counseling students outside of the classroom is something that many female professors are committed to, though this ‘invisible labor’ often goes unnoticed and unrewarded.

“You’re trying to be there for someone but you also can’t put your own work aside because then your promotion, your credentials and your authority is also being compromised if you’re not getting the work done that you need to keep your credibility as a scholar in the field,” said Monberg. “There’s always this sort of balancing act. But I think that all of us eventually feel it’s kind of an invisible labor. And the institution doesn’t always recognize it as important.”

According to Catalyst, women of color are severely underrepresented in academia. This adds pressure to the women of color who do hold positions within the university to take on even more of this invisible labor. Monberg, a Filipina-American, said she’s interested in helping students like herself unpack the rules of the academy.

“So there are just different things that we’ll take on because we want to see more people like us in the academy,” said Monberg. “We want them to succeed. Sometimes we take that work on willingly, but it is extra work.”

Establishing legitimacy

In a comparison of women in academia by country, Catalyst also found women in the United States are more likely to hold lower-ranking academic positions.

“A lot of women get stuck at the associate professor level because they spend too much time in administrative roles,” said Potts. “Traditionally, I would say, in academia, women get asked to do a lot more service. And scholars of color, especially women of color, get asked to do a lot of service around diversity, which adds a lot of work to them without much reward and without a lot of extra time being given to do this the right way.”

Monberg said that women of color often receive comments on their evaluations in which students view them as pushing an agenda for teaching content connected to race or gender.

“Some students assume the content is not legitimate and has no academic value because of that connection to our racial and gendered identities,” said Monberg. “When you’re teaching about issues of gender and race, to see those as someone’s agenda rather than actual, legitimate areas of research and scholarship that could actually impact the world in significant ways, it can take a toll. The reverse can also be true. One of my colleagues at a previous institution who taught Shakespeare often had students question her authority on the topic, which would not likely happen, she pointed out, if she were a white male colleague (at least at some institutions).”

Calling out this bias in students, however, can be risky for professors on the tenure-track. Catalyst found that women in the U.S. are less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts.

“It’s really tricky, particularly if you’re not tenured, right, to call attention to these expectations students bring to the classroom and potentially get students to think differently while also being aware of how these expectations impact how your teaching will be evaluated,” said Monberg. “Depending on where you are in the system, you’re always doing this kind of tricky dance, with the way that students see you, with the way that students evaluate you and the way that your teaching gets evaluated otherwise.”

Many women also struggle to obtain authority in the classroom. According to Potts, one cause of this could be what they allow students to call them in the classroom.

“There’s a lot of debate in this department, but also larger in the field, about how students should address us,” said Potts. “This department is very much cool with professors getting addressed by their first name, but that can create a level of familiarity that can cause that situation where you expect that nurturing or that caring. And it can also, to my mind, cause confusion around authority.”

Moving forward

Monberg said to enact significant change, universities need to give female professors more visibility in terms of the work they do and reward them for their scholarship.

“See our accomplishments as important and recognize some of the invisible labor we do, but not always see that invisible labor as the only work we do,” said Monberg. “I’ve taught at several institutions and I’m grateful to now be at MSU and in RCAH, in particular, where my colleagues are cognizant of these issues and the integration of my research, teaching, mentoring and service work is valued.”

The associate professor admitted she has sometimes been recognized more for her work mentoring students than the fact that she published a scholarly article or contributed research. She wants universities and students to see these as complementary parts that make a stronger faculty member, rather than being mutually exclusive.

Abreu, on the other hand, wants women to take matters into their own hands. Though women have historically been socialized to speak in a way in which they ask for permission, Abreu urges women to take a more authoritative approach.

“When we do that, people think that we’re confrontational, but I think what we’re doing is being direct and addressing the point without having to ask for permission,” said Abreu. “And I want my fellow women to do that more, to really be their authentic self and not to go home and think that they missed the opportunity. Let’s try to be present in the moment. I think if we do that, we would be much more respected by academia and our fellow male colleagues.”

While there is still some discrepancy between the recognition of male and female faculty members, Carolan hopes women will continue to choose to work in university settings.

“I think that when it comes to quality of life, work-life balance and equity and pay, I think they’re still one of the best places for women across the job sector, from what I know at least,” said Carolan. “And I have no regrets that I went in this direction.”

She’s hopeful that things will continue to improve for women in academia.

“I certainly think they have changed to some degree, but I’m not sure,” said Carolan. “Sometimes we take two steps forward and there’s one step backward in the process.”

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