Archive for the ‘assumptions about mothers’ Category

I am a female Professor of Philosophy, married with two children, in a university on the East coast.
20 years ago, I was on a tenure-track in the philosophy department of a Midwestern university. At 40, I became pregnant with our second child. The Department was having its annual end-of-the-year party. The chair, about 10 years my senior, asked me into his office before joining the party. Once behind closed doors, he began expressing doubts about my progress toward promotion. I was surprised because I had above-average publication, teaching and service qualifications–at least as measured by the standards of that university. When I kept defending my record and expressing optimism about my prospects, he blurted out, indicating my swollen belly: ‘I just don’t think THAT is a very good idea.’
I admit, I was stunned by the inappropriateness,gall and sheer arrogance of that statement. But philosophy, the art of conceptual distinction, came to my rescue. I told the ‘gentleman’: ‘This isn’t an idea at all. It is a conception.’ I left the department (with tenure) two years later.

I was participating in an intensive research seminar and had a brief opportunity to meet with its accomplished, distinguished director. I was excited and nervous to discuss my project-in-progress. One of the first bits of feedback he gave me was that I would “make a good mother.” Although a significant compliment, on its face, it seemed a deeply problematic way of communicating that I shouldn’t continue on in philosophy, and it made me consider the professional costs of things I especially value about myself: empathy, kindness, intellectual humility. I said, “Thank you. I think so, too,” although I’d known for a long time that motherhood was not in my future.

I am an ABD grad student at a well respected school. We hosted a conference a few weeks ago, and an older man (perhaps retired?) who described himself as an “interested Independent scholar” attended. After attaching himself to the young women in attendance at every opportunity, he cornered me to tell me about his new revolutionary philosophical theory, he told me that I “have a bright future in philosophy, though it will most likely be as a full time secretary or mother, doing philosophy on the side”.

A highly abridged list of incidents:

I got excellent teaching evaluations from my students. But the Chair discounted the report citing the my “good looks” and NOT my “teaching” as the explanation for the high marks.

I was repeatedly denied a raise and told among other reasons that I didn’t need one because I didn’t have “a family” or “children” and that I just thought that I was “better than everyone else.”

I was initially denied an office and told that I shouldn’t have expected one because I “failed to negotiate for it” and I shouldn’t complain because I was “lucky to have a job” despite turning down several other offers. Then they tried to put my office in Women’s Studies.

I was repeatedly the subject of discussions about the fit of my clothing and general appearance. I was told that I need to “dress” like “an adult” “behave like an adult,” but probably cannot/will not until I have “real responsibilities” (i.e. children).

I arrived on campus and met with several undergraduates who report sexual harassment and discrimination by a certain professor in my department. I report the incident to the Chair with substantiating documentation and it is ignored. The offender is then given emeritus status so he can retain his office on campus to meet with students.

I was required to meet with faculty assistance center social worker and eventually ADA officer for special permissions to have my dog on campus (which was agreed to prior to accepting the position) while no male faculty member with a dog (of which there are several on our floor) was required to do so.

I go up for tenure and I am told by the Chair that my friends cannot write letters for me. When I explain that my area is very small and that my colleagues in the area of expertise are all friends, the Chair says “you know what I mean….” intimating that my relationship with these colleagues was sexual.

I am fortunate to have suffered relatively little sexism. Interestingly, however, the reason I suffered so little is because my advisor was overtly sexist.

I had my children during graduate school. Many professors questioned whether I was really going to “stay in philosophy.” One senior woman looked at me thoughtfully and said a department might be okay hiring me because I’d already had my kids and therefore (presumably) would not go having kids on their time.

My advisor, who until I’d started having children had been reasonably supportive, absolutely turned on me. He would ask sneering questions such as “When are you going to give birth to a paper?” He made it clear that he thought by having children, I’d shown I wasn’t serious.

Finally, I got sick of it, and switched advisors. My new advisor couldn’t have been more supportive. He was awesome. I know I wouldn’t have written nearly as good a dissertation as I would have otherwise, nor would I have gotten as much career help and advice.

1. I got engaged, and a senior male professor jokingly tells me not to “go getting pregnant now,” thinking he’s giving me good career advice. I’m pregnant the next year and have two kids before I finish my PhD, which I do in 6 years (earning two masters degrees along the way).

2. I’m at an international conference, out to drinks with some other students. One student goes on about how women can never be good at logic. I tell him he’s just plain wrong (telling him how I tutored two male students in my logic class because they couldn’t keep up as well as I could) and that ridiculous opinions like his do keep people from pursuing his specialty, to its detriment. As great as some of us ladies are, some of us would prefer never want to have to regularly socialize with asshats like him, even if it meant not pursuing logic as a specialty.

3. Same international conference, a senior person in my field casually tells me that I must be sleeping with my advisor. When I get angry and say hell-no, he tells me I protest too much, and that it must be true. I do not tell anyone about this for 3+ years, not even my spouse, because I am so upset that anyone would have the nerve to say something like this and, worse yet, that, if this douchebag has the nerve to say it, then others must think it is also true and believe that my only worth to my advisor is in my pants and not in my work or intellectual worth.

Thanks for the vent.

A few years ago, I left my university’s philosophy department. I had been there about 20 years, hired with tenure and assuming that I would be able to participate as an equal in its affairs. I forgot I was the only tenured woman. One of the first things my new chair told me was that he liked my skirts as short as possible. The second thing he told me was that I was making less than a man who had been hired with tenure at the same time as I had because the man had “a family to support.” Things did not improve. When the department was audited, it told the Dean that the mistakes were my fault, even though they originated before I arrived on campus. When I engaged in free-ranging departmental debate, I was told that I was overly emotional. When I was passed over as chair it was because, the out-going chair said, I made him feel stupid. When I applied for an administrative position at the university, a member of the department told the search committee I was power-hungry. I could go on (and on). I have not had these problems in my new department.

As someone who doesn’t want children, when I started my MA I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about the career setbacks women often experience when juggling work and home life. I was wrong. The two body problem is enough all by itself to put me off pursuing a career in Philosolophy. In the time it has taken me to complete my MA, I have seen 5 male staff members (at all stages of career advancement) join and/or leave the department, moving internationally or interstate, with female partners in tow. Not a single female has been hired by the department or moved on elsewhere for the sake of their career.

Of the female staff members whose stories I know (who have been there the whole time I have), one has spent significant amounts of time apart from her husband in order for them to both pursue their careers, and the other has a relationship in which both parties have made concessions and turned down good jobs in order to always be in the same place (it has worked out pretty well for them, but it could easily not have).

The message: men can take all the job opportunities they want, partnered or not. Women have to choose between living with a partner and career advancement.

Several years ago I visited the Department X as a prospective graduate student in philosophy. A group of prospective and current grad students gathered that evening for drinks at a local bar, and discussion turned to the faculty, and eventually the lone female faculty member at the time: Y. One of the other prospective students commented, “Can you believe she drives a minivan?!?” My interest was piqued. This was heartening news. “Y drives a minivan?” I thought. “Maybe I can do this after all. Maybe I can be a woman and a mother and a philosophy professor all at once.” I was childless at the time, but I was hungry for signs that a person like me – a woman with an interest in family life – could find a place in the world of philosophy. These signs are few and far between. The previous one came when my undergraduate advisor told me that she had gone to a Tupperware party. I suspect she still has no idea how important that one comment was to my decision to try graduate school in philosophy.

It wasn’t until later that night that it dawned on me that the speaker did not mean the comment the way I took it. He meant it derisively. He meant that it was preposterous to think that someone could be a philosopher and a mommy. I felt so stupid. In my eagerness for a role model I had completely overlooked his tone. I also felt very, very angry – both because he had sneered at one of my heroes and because he had shit all over one of my cherished and rare points of identification with professional philosophy. “Fuck him,” I thought. “Y is the amazingly accomplished professor, and he’s just a prospective grad student. What does he know?”

I ended up attending a different graduate program in philosophy, and now, several years into the program, I am married and pregnant with twins. Faced with the challenge of squeezing two infant car seats and a labrador retriever into the back seat of a sedan, we bought a minivan. This prompted some reflection on “the minivan comment” that I remember so clearly.

The truth is that I find it harder and harder to muster that “fuck you” spirit every time I feel like an outsider. I have never felt so alienated from the profession of philosophy as I do now that I am pregnant – and I didn’t exactly feel like “one of the gang” prior to being pregnant, either. I have formed close friendships with other grad students in my program, but almost all of them are men whose attitudes toward family life range from indifferent to downright hostile. Most are not in committed long term relationships, and none have children or have even expressed an interest in having children. From what I have seen of the faculty in my program, these demographics do not change very much at the professor level, either. I guess some of the indifferent male grad students go on to find partners and have children as faculty, but they certainly aren’t driving the minivan themselves.

I am angry at myself for being in this position, for being isolated and without woman friends or friends of any gender who are having children. Lately I think that graduate school was a huge mistake: as much as I enjoy studying philosophy, I wasn’t thinking clearly about whether a career in philosophy would fit in with my other plans and interests. If I had been thinking clearly, I probably would have sought a career in which I would be employed by now at a job with maternity leave benefits, so that I would have something to come back to after the first few weeks or months of my children’s lives. Instead I am standing at that juncture between graduate school and a post-doc or employment, unsure that I even want to mount the exhausting and demoralizing campaign one needs to mount to get a job in this profession. I love philosophy, but I suspect I could also love (or at least like!) another profession that is not so inhospitable to mothers.

I don’t know whether I will stay or go – or even if I will have the option to stay, given that I don’t have a job. But there is one thing that I want to say to all of the women philosophers out there who are reading this: let your students know about the activities you do that go against the philosopher stereotype. Mention your gardening, taking your kid to swim lessons, painting your fingernails, redecorating your kitchen, your recommendation for the best laundry stain remover. Yes, these comments might seem off-topic when the student is there to talk to you about Hume or incompatibilism or whatever. But find ways to drop in little clues and hints now and then. I can only speak for myself, but tiny comments like these have played a huge role in getting me to me to stay in the professional philosophy pipeline as long as I have. The impact can be enormous.

There’s probably a technical term for this kind of signaling that I don’t know, but it’s the opposite of the “whistling Vivaldi” type maneuver that a minority person uses to signal to members of the dominant class around him that he fits in. It’s a signal of hope to other outsiders – and women who are interested in having an active family life are definitely outsiders in philosophy.

My account brings not much new to the shocking posts I read on this blog, but mainly confirms that they are part of a wider structural problem. I did half of my first degree in philosophy. Prior to commencing my studies there, a female friend and previous graduate recommended the department to me, but warned me that I need to watch out for Dr X and Dr Y as they’d come onto female students. I never experienced any form of sexual advances myself, but during my time there I learned about several sexual encounters, affairs and occasional relationships between male lecturers/ tutors and female students. Generally (perhaps not in every case) I think this is an abuse of power from the side of the lecturers who are in charge of students’ grades and future prospects.

My former philosophy department had a similar set-up as many of the departments mentioned on this blog – exclusively male leadership, and out of the whole staff team only a couple of staff members were female. I was fortunate enough to at some point be taught by an excellent female lecturer, who had left the department due to department-internal conflicts (unknown to me, but they were between her and apparently several male colleagues) and ran her courses from a different department. Courses run by that lecturer are my best memories of my time in philosophy – I suspected that she never fully received the recognition she deserves.

In my final year or so, I asked on a department-internal online forum why there was no course offered on a prominent female or non-white philosopher – indeed, these were generally found only sparsely on our reading lists. On the same forum, several male student ‘colleagues’ posted some ‘jokes’ along the lines of ‘women to the kitchen!’. Then a prominent lecturer responded to my post, saying that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether a philosopher was male or female, white or black – all that mattered what the philosophical theories produced by them. He overlooked that his assertion was informed by a particular epistemological bias and completely unacceptable as a generalised statement. Furthermore, even in more maths-based philosophy as in the area he worked in, there is a case to be made for making sure that there is a women-friendly climate in general and women get the same recognition as men, so they feel supported to produce the best work they can. I was disappointed. As some others on here said, the most depressing thing is that these are supposedly people who are educated in equality & diversity, and highly educated in general.

As a graduate student, I changed subject and never looked back. I’m now often in strongly female-dominated working constellations – even though recently my (female, self-proclaimed feminist) supervisor told me half-jokingly, ‘Don’t get pregnant while in graduate school!’. This comes at a time when one of my colleagues is struggling with her department being unsafe for her pregnancy, and there are huge delays in making it safe despite repeated pleas from her (male) supervisor. Not that I’m planning to get pregnant anytime soon, but – ouch!

I am writing this to tell any potentially discouraged readers to hang in there. I have experienced sexual harassment, dismissiveness, discrimination on the job, and other offensive behavior throughout my time as a grad student and professor in philosophy. Yet I love doing philosophy and teaching so much that none of this can dissuade me from my purpose. I feel lucky to have this rare opportunity to be a philosopher, and nobody’s sexist crap is going to stop me. Don’t let it stop you either if you love philosophy.

As an undergrad philosophy major, I cannot count the number of times I made a point that was dismissed or ignored by the professor, only to have a male student make the same point and receive praise. All of my male undergraduate professors actively discouraged me from applying to grad school on the grounds that my abilities were not up to par. Nevertheless, I was accepted by four top-20 programs.

My grad school mentors were wonderful, supportive, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, from other faculty I witnessed several instances of both physical and verbal sexual harassment of female grad students. For three years, I was the only romantically unattached, heterosexual female grad student in my program. I was pestered and harassed almost daily by the male students, including everything from offensive sexual comments made in the middle of class to relentless efforts to hook up. The specific physical attributes of female students who took philosophy grad courses were enthusiastically discussed in our dept. lounge. Every time the department sought student input into a hiring process, my preference for a candidate was attributed by the other students, in front of the faculty, to my supposed romantic attraction to him. I was frequently quizzed by fellow students about which faculty member(s) or student(s) I would be willing to have sex with, hypothetically, despite my refusal to respond.

When I began attending conferences and APA events, my trusted mentors had to tell me which male professors I should avoid being alone with. Sometimes they accompanied me to parties so that I wouldn’t be harassed. While this may seem like a negative story about the prevalance of sexism, it’s just as much a positive account of the other guys who had my back and wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. Eventually I received many interviews and a few job offers, and all of my success on the job market was directly attributed by my fellow male students to the fact that I am female.

Once I became a professor, I learned what it is like to work closely with men who cannot seem to visually acknowledge your head up there above the breasts. I learned to deal with male students who tried to intimidate me about grades or come on to me. (Specifically, I learned to keep my office door open, and to inform someone else as soon as a student started behaving strangely toward me.) I do not work in feminist philosophy myself, and apparently that has encouraged several male professors to share with me their view that feminist philosophy is junk and not really philosophy. For a while another single female worked in my department. Some male professors hoped that I might be able to report on her sex life, about which they knew nothing but suspected everything. I have had to listen, in the department office, to my colleagues’ descriptions of escapades at strip clubs.

Though all of the aforementioned events were annoying, they did not intimidate me. The sexism that nearly shook my resolve came later, in the form of having my research devalued because I was female, being judged according to different standards from men in pre-tenure reviews, being pressured to take on more teaching and advising duties than others, and eventually being treated unfairly with respect to family/medical leave. Luckily, my resolve is fairly stout. In the hiring process, I have seen numerous female candidates ignored either because their cvs mention the word feminism, or because they are perceived to do “soft” work in ethics. In awarding scholarship funds to our own students, my colleagues consistently downplay females who have stronger records on paper in favor of males with whom they are friendly. My teaching evaluations are good, but male faculty have often commented (in direct contradiction to the facts) that this is probably because I am not a rigorous teacher or strict grader. I am treated like a secretary whenever menial tasks like note-taking must be done, and one of my colleagues (who happened to vote unsuccessfully against tenuring me) told me in all sincerity that I would make a good secretary.

I’m now past worrying about what my colleagues say to or about me. However, I want to create a terrific climate for our students, insofar as it is in my power. I have had to choose my battles for the sake of preserving both job and sanity, but in the long run I’m winning the war. To all the women and men who want to change things: don’t lose heart!

This is a copy of an email exchange with our head of school. What is shocking is that he shows NO AWARENESS AT ALL of any gender issues around academic environment or hiring – e.g. he thinks treating all cases the same is equivalent to treating equally, and blythely he claims that our policies are “robust”…The equality and diversity officer (a man) ignored the email entirely.

Dear Prof. P, (cc Dr Z, Equality and Diversity officer),

As Prof. P knows, I have announced my intention to take 2 semesters of
maternity leave from this coming September.

I heard today that the school does not approve of getting cover for
maternity leave. This seems like a really problematic policy to me. I
totally understand that we should be able to cover our regular automatic
sabbaticals without getting teaching fellows, and even that we should be
able to cover funded research leave. However, maternity leave and other
unpredictable leave seem like a different sort of case. and in the case of
maternity leave in particular, the current policy raises equality and
diversity issues.

In asking my colleagues to cover for me, the school is asking my colleagues
to do extra work – not work that can be built into our contracts, because as
I said, unlike with regular sabbaticals, and even funded research, it is not
predictable and also fairly rare given the gender balance in our department.
In fact, in my 8 years in this philosophy department I am the
only full time staff member to have taken maternity leave. So far as I know,
before that only one person ever did.

So it is totally clear to my colleagues that they are doing extra work
because of me. In fact, anecdotally, last time when I came back from
maternity leave I was made to feel like I owed everyone favours, and did a
considerable amount of extra work because of that.

But my point here is not about me or my case in particular, it is about a
general policy that seems designed to make people resent their colleagues
going on maternity leave, and make it hard for women to feel comfortable
about maternity leave.

It is also, of course, a disincentive to hiring women. Imagine that my
colleagues, mostly men, are deciding between two candidates to hire.
One is a woman of child bearing age, the other is not. The possibility of
the woman taking maternity leave has now become a serious disincentive to
hiring her – my colleagues know that they will have to pick up her work when
she has a baby.

I have spoken to our head of department in philosophy, and several
of my colleagues about this. I think my view has wide support.

Thanks for taking this into consideration.

Dr Q

Dear Dr Q,

Thank you for your email. There appears to have been some mis-understanding
here, as there is no special policy in the School regarding cover for
maternity leave.

Requests for additional teaching associated with maternity leave are taken
together with all other forms of request for teaching support in the context
of the overall subject area teaching plan and the balancing of workload.
Indeed, this is why we have such a plan. To give one indication of this: in
the coming year, even taking into account your own leave, Philosophy will
have more teaching staff available than they have in this current year. So,
far from this being an issue of lack of equality, my own view is the precise
opposite: we deal with this issue in exactly the way that we deal with all
forms of request for additional teaching support and in this respect
maternity leave is treated in exactly the same way as all other forms of
leave such as research/sabbatical leave entitlements.

So there should be no question of colleagues feeling that they are ‘doing
extra work’ or experiencing resentment – planning for covering all sorts of
staff leave is a perfectly normal part of our teaching planning processes.
(Across the School, a number of our colleagues have taken both maternity and
paternity leave.)

And just to be clear: our appointment processes are robust, and there is no
scope within them for any sort of ‘disincentive to hire women’. Indeed you
might remember that in just this last month, we appointed a woman to a
senior lectureship in Philosophy.

Best wishes

Prof. P

A woman philosopher writes…

While at……volunteer night, I took on packing condoms into baggies and folding brochures. It was blast. Here comes the agony of female descent. To our surprise, the director came in and joined in for friendly conversation. An assistant director introduces another young woman to the director: “Yes, this is so and so and she is a grad student at the …molecular biology… at lab…..” etc…..The director is excited! The assistant director turns to me and says: “This is so and so…..she has three young children…….in school full time…..” The director turns away immediately to the other young woman and engages in a conversation. I swear a snooty sound just came from her direction.
I am the poster child for the female struggle: rape, kid at a young age, growing up in poverty and the system….Yet when I assert myself and attempt to give back to my community, I am not worthy. This is only one example. Many times in my life and career, I have been stricken with stereotypical notions of where my level of intelligence registers and how useful I am to the feminist world because of my life circumstance (i.e. children and late to finish college). Either I am cast aside as a non-worthy source of intellect or simply patronized. Did I try to engage and throw my weight with her? Yes. Did I get a response? No.
Perhaps it was most shocking because of the hierarchy of transgressions from female to female in a progressively feminist environment; no matter how subtle. Am I offended or hurt? Sure.

“Worried Mum”

Posted: April 2, 2012 by Jender in assumptions about mothers, trivialising women

Careless talk costs lives – well, costs publications anyway. I had some thoughts, pretty well worked together, about a topical issue in medical ethics and shared them with a male colleague, because I thought he was more of an expert in the area and might want to publish something jointly on the topic. Not only did he publish these under his own name in a blog, but I appeared – not as fellow academic who had initially alerted him to the problem and who also happens to have published in the very area – but as ‘worried mum’ who came to him with her concerns.

I was stunned at an informal philosophy drinks session recently to hear a (fairly young) male philosopher ask a pregnant female philosopher “has your mind stopped working yet”? He went on to explain that “apparently your mind just stops working in the second trimester or after the birth and you just can’t think anymore”. Now we know why there are so few women of mature age in philosophy – their brains came away with the afterbirth. Gosh they must all have been geniuses BEFORE they had kids, if only their failing brains could remember what it was like!
Stunning. This chap sits on selection panels.

My children grew up on campus–from daycare to summer camps–and I actually think that university campuses can be great workplaces for parents. Mine at least is safe, green, happy and provides excellent childcare options. I liked being able to have lunch with my very young children and they’ve all spent a lot of time in the department and in my office. My colleagues have been terrific and I feel I paved the way for lots of junior colleagues with kids. But students aren’t always so understanding. My funniest comment ever on a student evaluation of my teaching was in a large class, 200 students, that met for one hour, twice a week, for 13 weeks. “Professor X cares more about her children than she does about us.” 🙂

I was asked to do casual lecturing while being short-listed for a tenure-track position in Philosophy at a R1 University. The male childless philosophy professor on the committee said in conversation to me afterwards that “having children makes no difference to some (ie the right) people”. His department contains only one tenured woman with children and I believe that those children may have been cared for entirely by grandparents (not an option for everyone). The only senior female Professor in the department is childless by choice. I find it odd that the men in the department can have families but the women cannot unless they have grandparents who act as surrogate parents.

I applied for an early career fellowship and was told by a trusted childless male mentor that the section where it is possible to list career interruptions such as maternity leave was known as the “excuses” section.

This may have little to do with being a woman in PHILOSOPHY specifically, but I think it is relevant nevertheless. I’d certainly never thought about this kind of thing until it happened – and was shocked when it did.

When pregnant for the first time, and at a stage where this was showing, I attended a small-scale conference I’d organised. The day was, I suppose, a success, but I became increasingly distraught throughout: I was not able to steer a single conversation away from the pregnancy. Even explicit attempts on my side to talk about the topics of the conference or the content of the talks were quickly rebuffed by a comment or enquiry about my pregnancy.

I don’t really want to blame people here: I am sure everyone meant well and was showing a genuine and friendly interest, or perhaps what they thought was socially appropriate behaviour. But – this was a work event! I had put a lot of effort into organising it, and it should have contributed at least a little bit to my network and career. At the very least, I was there as a person interested in philosophy, and I would have liked to talk about philosophy! But as it stood, noone – I repeat, NOONE – asked me about my work, my professional interests, or engaged with me in philosophical terms in any way. I was “the pregnant one” – and I fear that few will remember me as anything but that.

Worse even: during the day of the conference the date of a related event was pinned down for the next year – over 6 months after my due date and 2 and a half months after I was planning to return to work. But I wasn’t asked about my plans: instead I received many comments on the day (and received emails since) that made one thing very clear: everyone blindly assumed that I would not be attending the next event. I would have “better things to do”.

I have rarely felt more demoralised about being a woman in philosophy. I thought I would show them: a pregnant, clever, engaged and interesting WOMAN in philosophy. As prejudice-busting as can be. Instead, few if any will have remembered me as a philosopher at all – and certainly noone will think of me when they are looking for speakers at their own events! How could they? They never asked me about my work or engaged with me as a professional.

Of course I realise noone will have meant ill – in fact everyone will have had the very best of intentions, and I do not want to blame any of the attending individuals. No – this is probably the ultimate unintentional harm. But harm it is nevertheless; for all my hard work and months of organisation, the one message that my conference succeeded in sending out to my academic peers is that I would be out of business for the next year or so. I cannot think of a better way to kill one’s career.

My spouse and I are members of the same department. He is on sabbatical. We have a child, and during his sabbatical my partner picks up our child from school in the afternoon. For a late afternoon department meeting where some important business was to be done, our chair sent an e-mail to my husband (not to me), asking if it would be possible for him to convince me to handle the childcare so that he (my spouse) could be at the meeting (rather than me).

No point funding a pregnant woman

Posted: November 22, 2010 by Jender in assumptions about mothers

This has bothered me for so many years, I am relieved to be able to tell it in an anonymous and public way. I am so miserable at the repeated insistence on many websites that women get tremendous ‘affirmative action’ benefits. Such observations should be contextualized by experiences including this one:

I am a childless woman who started graduate school in the same cohort as a visibly pregnant woman of about my age, mid-twenties. When I say she was visibly pregnant, I mean that at the New Student Orientation, she looked to be at the seven-month stage, the point at which pregnant women get rather basketballish.

At that particular program, there was no funding in the first year, and we had to compete for second-year funding, with said competition being decided before our first semesters even ended. I.e., second-year funding was contingent upon perceptions of our performance in the first two months of graduate school. Professors stood about in the hallways and openly told each other that there was no point ‘spending’ a teaching assistantship on the pregnant woman, since it was apparent “she’ll never finish.”

I can assure you that the woman was a consistently more prepared, more insightful participant than I was in classes. I was awed at her acumen, especially in her areas of specialization. Yet I was consistently offered funding in the department, and she was not. She took part-time jobs in local businesses. At the end of graduate school, she had less experience teaching than I, because she dared to arrive pregnant and was penalized for seeming “unpromising” — not just in the first year, but in the following years, since each year her lack of previous teaching was seen as inexperience.

I was going to write that her childless classmates like me had the advantage, but had to delete the sentence, because of course, men in the department with children got assistantships, naturally! They were not perceived to be less serious or unpromising. They had wives!

There is at least a happy ending, which is that through her own true grit, the woman finished her Ph.D. faster than anyone else in our cohort, wrote a dissertation which made a true contribution to her field, and got a TT job with little help from our graduate program. It is her story that makes me gnash my teeth at the complaints that women get unfair affirmative action or are ‘less qualified.’ My classmate was highly qualified, and passed over for funding because of her sex and motherhood status. If she was ‘less qualified’ in terms of teaching experience, that was because of the systematic discrimination against her. Her determination to beat the rigged odds that a pregnant woman won’t finish is humbling.