Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Because I'm a Woman

A reader writes:

Dear Female Science Professor,

Maybe you had this topic before on your Blog but I was wondering if you do also frequently receive offers to occupy leading positions "because you are a woman". I am a female science professor at an institution with few female professors - in fact I think we are far less than 10%. This is a big political issue, because our institute may get a cut in the annual budget if the situation is not improving soon. I received already several offers to become a committee leader, a department head etc.. I was always asked by males and they were not hiding the fact that they asked me, because "we" need more women in leading positions. I really wished one day I would be asked, because someone thinks I am the best match for this job... I also wonder if it is sometimes a satisfaction for the males to let us women know that we were chosen just to balance the genders. Honestly, sometimes I start taking it as a discrimination to be asked for these jobs, because it means extra time that I have to spend with these duties and sometimes it is impossible to step out, because I would risk to imbalance the male-female ratio, which would fall back negatively on our institution. I am not at all a feminist - never was. I was always the girl who preferred to play with boys as a child and I always saw myself simply for what I am - free of gender thoughts. I was never feeling treated diffently, because I am a women. But this new situation is really starting to annoy me. Don't get me wrong, its better to get these jobs offered than to be left out, but I just wished I could think I "earned" them....


You very likely have earned these opportunities, but it is common to feel otherwise. I have discussed this topic before in the blog, but it's one of those topics that never goes away because many of us experience this situation throughout our careers* and have mixed feelings about it, as expressed well in the e-mail above. This is a situation that would presumably go away if there were more women in our fields.

One reason the 'we need a woman' situation makes some of us uncomfortable is that we want to be given opportunities based on our expertise and talents, but sometimes this isn't going to happen unless there is a concerted effort to try to include women in certain administrative positions, committees and so on. I have served on many committees that needed a woman (and there weren't many women to ask), resented those cases in which it was made clear to me that my token status made my participation less valuable than those of the men, and been convinced many a time that my presence was important, even if I had to put up with some unpleasant behavior on the part of my so-called peers. It bothers me less in cases in which I am aware that the committee (or whatever) 'needed' a woman, but once there, I am treated with respect, just like everyone else.

Our mixed-feelings can result in the unfair accusation that 'we don't know what we want'; that is, we think women should be represented but we don't want it to be overt that we are asked because we are women. We resent having to do more service than our male peers (and not get credit for it, or even get criticized for it), but we are disturbed when important committees (etc.) are composed entirely of men. What do we want? It's simple: We want to be treated with respect.

Note that being "free of gender thoughts" does not disqualify you from being a feminist. The fact that you think women should be treated in a fair way, based on our qualifications, does in fact make you a feminist. This is a compliment. A feminist is a person who thinks that women should have fair and equal rights and opportunities. If you think that your male peers should be paid more than you for the same job, then OK, you are not a feminist.

* In fact, just a few weeks ago, I received an invitation to serve on the board of the Zombie Research Society. The invitation explained "We are actively looking for qualified women to join the Board." Despite my intense fascination with all things zombie (= sarcasm/lie), I was struck by the 'we are only asking you because you are a woman' line. I was not offended at all, but I noted the up-front statement. Alas, only qualified women are being considered, and I am definitely not qualified for this role because I am more interested in dryer lint than I am in zombies.

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