Whitman Women in Academia Reflect on Challenges, Achievements

Photo by Annabelle Marcovici

In the 2013-2014 academic year, 45 percent of the Whitman faculty are female, but women make up only 36 percent of Whitman’s tenured professors. The first female professor to achieve tenure was an astronomy professor in 1972. The number of female tenured professors has grown steadily since the ’70s, but has stagnated at 36 percent for the last three years. Fifty-nine percent of current tenure-track faculty at Whitman are women.

Being a woman in academia is no longer an unusual feat. But female-identified professors are still a minority at Whitman. The Pioneer spoke to three female professors at Whitman about their experiences in academia.

Associate Professor of Sociology Helen Kim discussed how her experience as a Whitman professor has been influenced by gender.

Pioneer: How do you feel your role as a professor has been gendered?

Helen Kim: Women are asked to do more service-oriented roles and play a more hands-on student advisory role and that takes up a lot time. I underestimated how people would want my time. Students tend to go to female faculty in an expectation that they will be there for them all the time, and that the interactions will be different.

P: So like a motherly figure.

HK: Yes … and those expectations aren’t there for men. That bleeds into the classroom in terms of how female faculty act compared to male faculty. So I try to do things in a way where I’m more comfortable saying no.

P: How do you feel like you have experienced this difference? Has it placed you at a disadvantage?

HK: I’ve experienced this with the birth of my kids, going back to work, going back to teaching and telling students that their papers will get back later than usual because, well, I just had a baby. Most students have been very understanding, but there are, especially with the birth of my first child, comments from students, such as “She is using having a baby as an excuse.” Those are not nice. And those comments are tied to gender.

P: How do those things play out in the faculty, as a whole?

Photo by Annabelle Marcovici

HK: Within the faculty there are ways in which—and there is data [on this topic]—once women get tenure, their service commitments tend to go up compared to men. So we ask, do [women] say “yes” more, are they asked to do more? And men tend to do proportionally less after tenure, and they have more time to devote to research and teaching and other commitments. That I haven’t experienced personally, but others have. Then there are cases where men are challenging women’s legitimacy [as professors] because they are women. There are female faculty members who exist where that is a very sad fact of their departmental life.

P: What accomplishments have you achieved that you are proud of?

HK: I think that my answered is gendered, but I think my family, my marriage and my two kids. Professionally, the best thing that happens to me as a college professor is when someone leaves Whitman and comes back to you. It’s really wonderful when students return to you, and you can continue your relationship in a different way, but you can talk about the positive impacts that you have had on them … my accomplishments are really about the relationships you have created with people.

P: Is that also gendered?

HK: I think so, yes.

Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Heather Hayes talked about the differences between male and female professors that she has observed within her work sphere.

P: Why do you think it is important for women to support women?

HH: I think that anyone who faces a power differential—in this case, women—you need a network of other women, particularly who are more senior than you and more junior than you to have conversations. I haven’t personally experienced harassment, but looking back, there have been some things in my career that have just been weird. Now compared to some stories women have, that’s nothing. But if we don’t have conversations about [harassment], it becomes harder to navigate. This could be as simple as asking other women how to dress for a certain presentation.

P: How do you see that play out in the classroom?

Photo by Annabelle Marcovici

HH: For example, I’m teaching two classes right now. Weapons of the State, a topic that would be traditionally thought of as more masculine, and a hip hop class. My Weapons of the State class is 85 percent male and my hip hop class is 85 percent female. Now that just could be by chance, but the dynamics of those classes are different. Watching the fewer women in the weapons class, and watching them when they speak—it’s different. What they face is very different in the class with all men. It’s challenging when you are a women, and you feel like there are not as many other women in a professional or academic setting.

Assistant Professor of Biology Leena Knight spoke upon the importance of mentorship and how belonging to a minority group influenced her. Her father is from Ahmedabad and her mother is from Surat, both of which are large cities in the state of Gujarat in western India.

P: How do you feel about your experiences that lead you here, specifically your family dynamic?

LK: My mother really did set a unique example for us. She was the breadwinner of the family. Both my parents were adamant that we should have some security and dependence and a wherewithal so we could depend on ourselves. That being said, they did struggle to raise their children as independent. Yet they still wanted us to have an arranged marriage and be traditional. We can’t commit to the tradition of the male as breadwinner and the female as some sort of subordinate. It was hard for us how to figure out for ourselves what we wanted—they had such contradictory hopes for us. But they always wanted us to succeed.

P: Can you speak to your mentorship during what you mentioned was an instrumental undergraduate research experience?

LK: I owe a lot of to my mentor, [Robert Malchow at the University of Illinois at Chicago,] who was male and he equally supported everybody. [To] everyone who had interest and committed themselves to the lab, he equally committed himself. He trained me in some of the most difficult techniques in neuroscience and not once ever doubted my ability. I don’t think early on I was very conscious of gender or even race playing a role in my ability to succeed or to not. And I’ve become ever more aware of my gender and ethnicity.

P: What eventually triggered that increased awareness of your identity, if your undergraduate experience didn’t?

Photo by Annabelle Marcovici

LK: Well certainly representation … how many of those students were not white? Questions like that become more compelling when there are obvious differences to the answers. When you’re in it, you can’t see it—it’s not until you’re at a place that you can reflect when you realize that it could have a much bigger impact than you thought.

P: So do you think these things ended up hindering your success or experiences in any way?

LK: I wouldn’t say hinder. In the sciences we have had implements that are trying to create a balance and to support women and minorities in the sciences. That’s not a hinder, that’s a support. But … your presence is constantly questioned.

P: How did you end up perceiving yourself as you went higher and higher in your education?

LK: I have never checked minority status—I have never checked that box. But it doesn’t matter if you are being perceived as a minority person; there is a silent set of prejudices. Those worked against me. People saw me as being there not because I deserved to, but because I was satisfying the “I’m not white” check box. It didn’t matter that I had all those exceptional experiences and was published and already had done amazing research and such. You are working against all those preconceived notions.

The experiences of female professors can never be defined because of their gender, and no individual’s achievements or failures can ever be attributed to any single part of their identity. But gender and race have nevertheless shaped the lives and professional experiences of Whitman’s faculty, in ways that even those professors may not be able to explicitly identify.




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