Saturday, November 22, 2008

On being a pissed-off woman in academia (and losing my office)

(Cross-posted to BlogHer)

So the word on the street is that the academic unit that oversees mine and several others would like to consolidate us geographically. Makes sense, yes? Except that the price tag for rehabbing the proposed space (an old science lab in a "temporary" building) is, I'm told, somewhere around $400,000 in a year of dramatic budget cuts. Even scarier? That price tag is for cubicles, not offices. Offices, I hear, would cost $200,000 more.

So yes, I soon may be losing my current office with its lovely closing door. My underground, windowless office--but an office nonetheless. And one that has been mine and mine alone for all of two months, since my graduate student researcher (and friend) sought out greener academic pastures. The other woman holding my same position will also, it appears, be losing her office.

Lest I sound like a total whiner, let me point out that this is the first time in my professional life I have had my very own office. I've done the cubicle thing. I've shared offices. I've held office hours (as a grad student) on a couch in a random academic hallway, in coffee houses, in more places than I care to name, really. And so getting my own office, even knowing that I'd be sharing it for a while with a grad student, was for me a huge perk of my job.

We're told that the converted lab space will have a few offices with doors, but that they're for general use, to be reserved for meetings. I meet with or call faculty regularly about confidential matters. And my productivity has increased at least 200% since I found an office I could call my own, with a closing door.

When I mentioned my concern to someone in the academic unit that oversees mine, she mentioned she herself (she outranks me in the unit's hierarchy) shares an office with two other people, and that they just ignore one another's phone calls.

This is not okay. I understand there is a shortage of space on campus. (I also understand there are science faculty who teach in two or more departments who have two offices and large labs.) I feel I've earned that door. And the university has a complicated formula that determines whether one gets a door, how much office space a person gets, etc. But apparently a Ph.D. who consults with faculty on how to teach, say, a class of 900 students does not merit a door. Nor does someone who meets with her grad students (and, next quarter, undergrads) merit office space. That is cubicle stuff, my friends.

OK, I know I sound a bit like a diva. After all, it's likely the half-time faculty director of our unit will also be sitting in a cubicle--but he has an office elsewhere in the university, as does a male colleague who works in my department 50% of the time. In short, all the men who work with our unit in some capacity will have offices elsewhere. We women folk? Not so much.

I was chatting with my therapist about this yesterday, and she asked if I was angry. I said I didn't really do anger. Then she asked if I was pissed off. I paused a moment and then thought, yes, yes--that's what this feeling is--I'm totally pissed off. Ends up, though, (surprise!) that I'm not alone. Historiann has been writing about and linking to pissed-off academic women. There must be something in the water. Or maybe we're just always being provoked. Let's take a look, shall we?

The History Enthusiast talks about one of those many incidents that may or may not be sexist--until you consider the varying respect given to grad student women and faculty men:


Every year I get a new round of stories to share with people who think I'm making this "sexism" up. Last year my office mate told me about a student that entered my office (which was a 3-person grad office), saw that I was not there, and promptly began to rummage around on my desk. When my office mate asked what he was looking for, he said something to the effect of "[History Enthusiast] gave a handout in class, and she said I should come by and pick one up." Why that entitled this person to have full access to my desk, I don't know. It may not have been sexist, but I doubt they would've felt comfortable doing that if I were a male professor.


Historiann deals with a male student who writes a bit too informally requesting advice. Really, you must read this series of e-mails--and particularly the final one from the student--to believe it.

I have mixed feelings about informality in e-mail and in face-to-face interactions on campus. In a recent employee evaluation, I was called "democratic to the bone," which was once a compliment and a caution about providing sufficient deference to and careful handling of, say, the head of my university at events I put together. I do believe that all of us--students and staff and faculty and presidents--bring something valuable to the table that deserves consideration and respect. That said, I'm tired of asserting my own equality with men on campus, and I'm sick and tired of hearing that other women are experiencing the same thing with alarming regularity.

Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time provides some perspectives on these kinds of incidents:


The issue, I think, is less about each individual incident than about the many, many such incidents that such accounts as those in the two posts to which I linked represent. When this crap happens over and over again, at a certain point it becomes not just mildly irritating. And when you watch them happening to you, over and over again, while your male colleagues sit happily in their offices without the emails, the interruptions, and the challenges to one's professional status, yeah, it becomes something that pisses a person off.

Now, you might say, "well, all you lady professors are clearly just too sensitive!" This is often the tenor of the challenges that women professors get when they complain about these sorts of things. Our skins aren't thick enough; we take everything to "personally." My first response to such challenges would be that they in themselves express a certain kind of gendering of the woman professor. Because we have vaginas, we must be blowing things out of proportion. Clearly. My second response would be that the challengers, too, would lose their sense of perspective if they experienced this stuff not infrequently, but rather over and over and over again in each and every semester.


Yes, yes, Amen, yes. My office dilemma, taken alone, would already tip the scales for me toward a certain brand of disrespect. But because the cubicle move comes after countless times when I have had to whip out the Ph.D. to confirm my credentials with (mostly male) faculty who call my office about the programs I run, and along with the hundred little "subtle and insidious" (to borrow a term from Dr. Crazy) incidents that I suspect would not plague a man with my credentials, moving into a cubicle becomes a symbol, for me, of the larger place of women in academia--and particularly women in academia who are not on the tenure track and those who walk the line between faculty and staff positions.

What are your thoughts on these incidents? Do you have similar stories to share, inside or outside of academia?

4 comments:

The History Enthusiast said...

Yeesh. I am sorry to hear about all the new arrangements happening in your division. I've worked in cubicles too, and the lack of privacy becomes shockingly clear when the person in the cube to your right starts a conversation with the person in the cube to your left, and they don't even have to get up from their desks. They just talk right over you like you aren't there. Thankfully I never needed to make confidential calls. Maybe you could take turns staking out one of the closed-door conference rooms, and put a sign-in sheet on the door? That sounds totally lame as I write this, but it's 1 am here and so I'm out of helpful ideas. Best of luck with it.

P.S. Thanks for the link up.

Historiann said...

You are not being a "diva." As I pointed out in some of the comments on my post and in Dr. Crazy's thread, this is about being able to establish boundaries and having them respected. Whether it's History Enthusiast's desk being perceived as public property, or random strangers lecturing me as to what I can and can't instruct them on when they consult me for advice, or your office being taken away, it all boils down to women not being permitted to set boundaries around our bodies, minds, and time.

I wonder if some of your workmates might feel the same? Regardless, you could point out that the new office plan really should include proper offices with doors for those of you who don't have other offices. That seems to be a reasonable compromise. I'm someone who needs complete silence (no talk, no music, no TV or radio) in order to read and write, so a cubicle would drive me nuts. Either they provide you with an office, or permit you to telecommute, if you think that might be an option. (If your home is a quiet space during business hours, anyway--if you still have young children at home, this may not work!)

Bardiac said...

Grrr! Nope, doesn't sound diva-ish to me at all.

It's so hard to fight the systemic sexism, isn't it? And at my school, the consolodation thing would be a deanling consolodating his power, and doing it by messing with a ton of less powerful people. Ugh.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Bummer. I would recommend escalating from "pissed of" to angry. Angry women are much more frightening, and more likely to inspire action.

I doubt it's any consolation, but when I went to college and grad school in the 70's and 80's, there were quotas for womens' admission to professional schools (very low quotas--ISU's veterinary school accepted two women for every 98 men, out of a 50-50 pool of applicants), and my major professor required that his female PhD students have sex with him to get access to research materials. His colleagues knew about this and didn't see anything wrong with it. They told me to "toughen up" and get a "thicker skin."

Things have improved in society, but sexism is not gone, it's just more subtle, like racism.

People call academe "liberal elite," but in important ways, it's one of the most conservative, hidebound institutions around, with traditions that date back to the Dark Ages. (Remember what PhD stands for!) Once I graduated, I found the federal government and the private research sector much more sensitive to sexual harassment and discrimination issues than academe ever was.