Why I’m playing the woman card

woman-card-01-originalSpare me the gender card, Erica.”

These words appeared in my work e-mail inbox, not all that long ago. That’s why I’m playing the woman card this fall.

As I listen to and discuss this year’s election rhetoric with my 9-year-old daughter, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the woman card and the gender bias in our country. It’s all around us. The election is brining to light the issue – an issue working women in the US know very deeply and personally, but do not talk about nearly often enough.

I feel it in my workplace – a workplace, where, from the outside looking in one might think would be free from gender bias. I am a Professor; I work at an institution where we teach about these things. Heck, I teach in a Psychology Department no less, where we Psychologists conduct research and write theories about biases, gender among them.

Not only that, but at my institution, females are in places of power: we are lead by a female University President, I am supported by many female College Deans, and Associate Deans, and Department Chairs, too; in fact, I’ve been a Department Chair myself. Many of my colleagues are powerful, intelligent, strong, talented women. Many of my students are intelligent, talented women coming into their own power.

Surely I should be immune, right? But I am not. The “spare me” comment is but one of many personal reminders that no one is immune. Gender bias happens everywhere, including the academy.

It happens when students, in their evaluations of a course, remark on ….

…. my temperament (“she’s so sweet”)

… my physical qualities (“I can’t learn from a voice like that …”)

… my clothing (“Her socks were distracting;” or, on the flip side “She’s got style!”)

Year in and year out I read comments like these, written instead of remarks about my professional qualities that bear on their learning experience (which is what they are prompted to remark on, after all) – Professional qualities like the fact that …

… I read the text books I assign and the primary course literature the books are based on closely enough to inform the class of when a bias exists in the text book, or when the text book contains an error, and so on.

… the fact that I utilize state of the art active learning techniques to guide their learning and help them make the most of the time and money.

And so on. My colleagues do notice my professional qualities despite such student remarks — remarks, by the way, that don’t appear on my male colleagues’ course evals. Over the years I’ve passed each promotion benchmark, earning tenure, promotion to Associate, and then to Professor; I’ve earned an award for the quality of my innovative teaching and for my dedication to mentoring students. Despite these accolades though gender bias creeps up in my professional, collegial dealings too.

For example, I have been …

… brushed aside as a Dean reached across the table to shake my male colleague’s hand and introduce himself. I was ignored.

… offered an immense workload (higher than that of my male colleague counterpart) for less pay and been told I was wrong in my “accounting” of workload / compensation comparisons, when I wasn’t, actually, wrong.

… asked to do extra work for no extra pay, then devalued after the fact. That is, when you are pre-tenure, you say “yes” when asked to chair a search committee. But you do not expect to be told that you can’t dissent with senior faculty, when it comes to contentious deliberation.

… told by a senior administrator “I have appointed a VP to serve as your direct report. I don’t want to see you again.” And then, a moment later that senior administrator physically turned his body away from me struck up a conversation about sports with my male co-chair.

… at a local continuing education seminar where I was invited to speak as an expert in my field, and experienced a male conference organizer speak to my chest the entire time, never once making eye contact.

… overlooked for the hard, careful work I’ve done, because I had worked alongside a male colleague (“I didn’t even know you were on IRB Erica, I thought ______ was chair). This particular case still galls me because I had worked as chair of that committee alone for years, and when I finally got some relief in the form of a co-chair to share the workload, apparently some of my colleagues attributed the work I’d done to that male.

… asked to do extra work for no extra pay in the same conversation where a male colleague was being offered pay for the same kind of work! We were all sitting at the same table – together!

The insidious thing about gender bias in the workplace, as I have experienced it, is that in many cases it is a matter of perspective. That is what bias is, after all – a perspective. A habitual way of thinking. A tendency. It’s occurring when a female comes to mind first as a candidate for a one-off job that needs doing, because we all know she’ll get it done. It occurs when a male colleague says “no” and refuses to discuss the matter, when his “no” means that by default, the job falls to a woman because the work doesn’t go away, just because someone says no.

An observer, or perhaps an adjudicator, could look at some of the scenarios I share above more closely, talk to the folks involved, and offer up a different perspective, one that doesn’t carry with it the label “sexism” or “gender bias.” But that wouldn’t be fair, either. That’s part of the problem. The fact is, when scenarios like those I allude to here stack up, one on top of another, year after year, the pressure they create is real. Woman are not treated the same way as are men in the workplace.

Bias is a tendency to make the same choice, over and over, despite evidence suggesting it’s not the best or most fair choice. Bias happens outside your conscious deliberate awareness. Bias is a perspective or a way of thinking that is not objective, but is habitual. And because bias is a perspective, perspectives can be argued.

I suspect that many of my male colleagues would be deeply, personally offended if they were explicitly told they were engaging in gender bias. They would say, “but I am not sexist!” And I would understand that while they might not deserve the label “sexist” and they do not intend to act in a biased manner, without deliberate, conscious effort guiding them, they do act that way. The cues in our culture guide them outside their typical level of self-awareness. For example,

When they leave campus at 2:30 in the afternoon to pick their children up from school, they are honored as good fathers. Two eyebrows are raised – “Wow! Good for you! Helping out your partner like that.”

When we leave campus at 2:30 in the afternoon to pick our children up from school, our commitment to keeping up with our workload is called into question. One eyebrow is raised – “Wow! Really?! Done for the day, eh?”

These differences are insidiously subtle. When I was pre-tenure, I said “yes” to chairing that search committee. Doing so meant countless hours over several months of intensive reading, communicating, and deliberating. It meant making flight arrangements, dinner engagements, and driving to and from the airport (a 50 mile round trip, sometimes). It meant missing dinner at home. It meant doing all that with a commute. And doing all that while still nursing a baby who wasn’t sleeping through the night. But I said yes. I’ll do it.

In contrast, I hear my male, pre-tenure colleagues say, “no.” They say no to a request to do extra work, with confidence, knowing that their integrity will not be called into question. Because it isn’t. We don’t speak out about gender bias at the times when it matters most.

This last week, the university hosted a diversity training for faculty. The keynote speaker used sexism as an attention getting device, in his actions and words. After several minutes of it, he “fessed up” to what he was doing, and then asked the audience who “noticed.” Believe me when I say I did! He asked us to stand, those of us who noticed. I was shocked by one thing, at that point – very few, relatively speaking, of us stood up. I wasn’t shocked though, to see that of those standing, the vast majority were women. Men don’t see it. Why would they?

Why not, indeed? Because as a country we have not made it a commitment to make room for the conversation. Our culture doesn’t want to change, even if the change might be for the better.

The keynote speaker asked us women a hard question. Why didn’t we call him out on his “bad behavior” while it was happening? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. It makes me mad. The pop-out answer is the worst possible reason and that’s this:

Because it doesn’t matter what we say. Our voices aren’t respected.” We think, “What will come of it, if we do say something? It’ll just make more work for us, in the end. Another mess to clean up.”

But we have to stop taking the easy way out. At a time when we see more female than male college students, where we see a professional workforce full of highly competent, capable, and talented women, and where we see our children living in a world that still values and enables masculinity, we have to speak up. This is a problem of monumental proportions. It is a societal problem as much as it is a personal problem.

When I showed my daughter the HRC campaign “Woman Card” memorabilia, she exclaimed: “I want one! I am a woman, too!” … which was great. Awesome, in fact. It made me proud. But I can’t help but mull over what she said next.

But what will it get me, Mama?!” … and “I wish it weren’t pink.”

Because of comments like this, and all I’ve experienced growing up female in this country, I am playing my woman card this election season (i.e., I haven’t even mentioned the personal side of being female in this country). I am working hard at respectfully playing the card at work. And I am working hard at helping my daughter learn how to play her card wisely and respectfully too. Believe me when I say that this isn’t easy. At home, it’s not all that hard to talk about color (“Color is for everyone, honey, we can’t let biased attitudes tell us we don’t like pink, either we like it or we don’t…if color is taken away from us, we have to take it back…”) and how ridiculous it is to align color with gender, but at work it’s another matter. I can’t say with confidence that I’ve played my card smoothly there – it’s an awkward, hard, and embarrassing (yes, I did say that! Embarrassing!) thing to do. And folks don’t like it. It disrupts the flow. It adds a maddening layer of complication to workload allocations. It makes me question my own integrity when I do it.

But that, right there, is why we have to. I know I have it pretty good. I have job security. I have a wonderful husband who eagerly and effectively participates in the raising of our daughter. He is my greatest champion and supports me, encourages me to keep going when I want to give up. I may be lucky, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune. And because I know that I am lucky, I am voting for the candidate who is the mostly likely to succeed, when it comes to helping more and more women experience relief, when it comes to bias. We need to shift the perspective and I see this election as means to an end, in that regard.

And, I’ll admit, that I also really like saying “Honey, women get to be president by doing their homework!”


    • Thank you. Looking back on my early November optimism, I feel like the reflection is a bitter pill. But I will be working harder now, in the new year, than ever before, to try and turn things around. Every little counts.

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