Friday, May 22, 2009

Death of the Unbelievers

In response to a letter from a young female doctor who is having trouble being respected by the older women staff members in the medical office in which she works, Slate advice columnist "Dear Prudence" ends her advice with this statement:

"And remember, while sexism may never be completely eradicated, despite your profession's best efforts, the generation that can't believe a woman is a doctor will eventually die out."

Shouldn't they be gone by now? That was my grandparents' generation, and my last beloved grandmother (who did in fact have strong opinions about what careers were and were not suitable for women) died a few years ago when she was in her 90's. My parents were young adults in the 1960's and 70's, so even that generation should be well acquainted with the fact of women doctors. Even my conservative aunts don't have a problem with women doctors; some of them have daughters who are doctors. And, since the female staff members who are giving the young doctor such a hard time are pre-retirement age, they are even younger than my parents' generation.

Perhaps there is a lag time, and with each generation there will be fewer and fewer people who can't believe that young women are doctors and eventually it won't be an issue, but I think there is more to it than that.

In my own interactions with staff members (male and female) in academic departments, I have had mixed reactions, ranging from extremely positive (perhaps because I am polite and respectful to hard-working staff members and I do more of my own administrative work than some of my senior male colleagues) to extremely negative (because, I am convinced, of the discomfort of some staff members with doing work 'for' a younger woman). In the latter case, the disrespectful, undermining staff have no trouble believing I am a professor, but they nevertheless have a negative reaction to working with me.

I don't even know what word to use to describe how these disrespectful staff members feel about working with female professors, or how to explain why it matters to them whether they are providing a memo to a male professor or a female professor. Do they feel demeaned? Does it make them feel uncomfortable about their own jobs? Will these negative interactions really go away eventually, maybe when today's 20 year olds are middle aged?

I would like to think that, but I have seen too much recent sexist behavior from young people to believe that the problem will be solved by generational attrition.

31 comments:

mareserinitatis said...

When I was working on my MS, one of the secretaries (who is about my mom's age) flat out asked me what could possess me to want a degree in engineering. I spent the rest of the day sputtering because I imagine she never would have asked that of a male student. It also floored me because our dept. had the highest average pay for new graduates. (Duh! I want to make a good living!) And while she may be older, I've been asked that same question by people who are younger than me...so it's not a generational thing. It's most definitely social perception.

DrDoyenne said...

I don't think unbelievers are dying off. They may even be multiplying.

Disrespectful staff behavior could be due, in part, to simple jealousy--of what they see as undue flexibility and autonomy of female professors (compared to their positions as subordinate females). If so, this type of reaction will never die out.

But we can also inadvertently alienate female staff--especially in the beginning when we are excited about starting a career and expecting automatic and immediate respect from everyone.

I have observed several female post-docs who suffer from "Ph.D.-itis": a condition characterized by "know-it-all" behavior (I have a Ph.D., there fore, I know more than everyone else who does not).

One of my previous post-docs had this condition and ended up alienating my entire staff. They were constantly in my office complaining about how she did not respect them. I tried everything to convince her that everyone had something to contribute and that some of my (non-Ph.D.) staff actually knew more than she did about certain subjects. Nothing worked.

Anonymous said...

I experience the same thing in teaching. I call it the "older woman problem." Older-than-average, returning-student women are the worst for challenging my authority. It seems to really bug them that I've got authority and expertise that they lack, and at a younger age. So they try to "mom" me. I can almost hear them mentally calling me "young lady."

Interestingly, older-than-average men have no problem with my authority, and young men sometimes challenge my authority but are happy to roll over once I assert myself. But an older woman problem usually remains a problem for the entire term.

Anonymous said...

A German friend of mine just told me a story about a kind of sexism that I thought had disappeared years ago. She had an oral exam in chemistry and the grade was important in determining her eligibility for a scholarship. When she registered for the exam with Professor X, was advised by the secretaries to "wear a shirt with a low neckline" (advice she ignored). She has top marks in every class, and in the oral exam she successfully and quickly answered the questions. The professor attributed this to "good memorization" (implying that she isn't intelligent enough to solve the problems on her own). At the end of the exam, her gave her the lowest possible passing grade, thereby singlehandedly disqualifying her for the scholarship she was applying for. She has complained to the department but was told there is nothing they can do, as Professor X has complete control of the grade. This happened at a famous German university within the last year.

Mrs. CH said...

I think sexism plays a role in these situations, since it seems older staff have more issues with working for/under younger females.

However, I think there's an ageist aspect as well - some older staff can't fathom younger people being more qualified/educated/experienced than them. I've heard quite a few stories where the boss is younger than the staff, and there is a lot of disrespect. This happens with both males and females in the "boss" role.

In fact, I can even see in my department among older/younger professors that this is an issue - and they are theoretically on the same level. So, I think the thoughts of "I'm being replaced" also crop up in the older generation, and they feel they have to defend their work/space/etc.

There seem to be many aspects at play in these situations. Interesting topic!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately there seems to be no time gap between 'this job isn't suitable for a woman' and 'this job is suitable for women, therefore we must cut its pay, lower its status, and expect people to put in extra hours out of love'. I'm a humanities professor feeling like my job has gone the way of the second.

Anonymous said...

I've personally had more issue with the age thing.. being a new prof means I'm 10-30 years younger than most of the admins and even my own technician. Yet, I'm the 'boss'. It's a bit of an odd dynamic for a person who has no real experience to suddenly be a manager. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't be trained more in that aspect of the job..

Anonymous said...

My parents were young adults in the 1960's and 70's, so even that generation should be well acquainted with the fact of women doctors.You are kidding right? That generation was still very much in the struggle for equality, burning bras on campuses of universities. This means main street America was far behind them.

A German friend of mine just told me a story about a kind of sexism that I thought had disappeared years ago.I've heard many horror stories like that from Germany. It seems sexism is alive and well in German academia (professors sleeping with their grad students and witholding grades according to that, female students launching complaints against said professors only to be ignored by the upper administration, not to speak of the lack of suitable day care facilities, etc).

female Science Professor said...

I kid you not. My parents and those of their generation have been encountering female doctors for decades. This is not something new. There has been plenty of time to get used to the existence of female doctors. This is a fact and by no means implies that women achieved equality in those decades.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a jealousy thing. I think it's just that most women have an innate belief that men deserve more respect, for whatever reason. And I think it's sort of an unconscious thing--they don't even realize their deep-rooted self-loathing.

Anonymous said...

I've had mixed interactions with female staff as well - some are fantastically supportive, and some are just soooooooo nasty. I remember my first teaching job out of my Ph.D. when I had to beg to get anything from the supply cabinet. I particularly remember being grilled over my request for a red pen. Was I only going to use it for grading? I wasn't thinking of using it for anything personal, was I? Whereas my male office mate got free rein with the supplies, plus the staff typed and photocopied for him.

I know these administrative jobs suck, and I go out of my way to treat all the staff well, but that does make the negative experiences that much harder to take. A little professionalism, please?

Jay said...

People believe women can be doctors, but they still don't expect women to be doctors. At least once a week, I have to explain to somebody that I am not a nurse.

Women who are doctors, like women who are professors or engineers or (I presume) lawyers are subject to more insidious forms of sexism than blatant discrimination. People expect women to be nurturing by default, and so when staff have a difficult encounter with a woman supervisor/manager/professor, they are more distressed than they would be if said supervisor were male. We are held to a different standard.

I've also heard comments similar to "good memorization" before. Women docs have "good clinical instincts"; men are "clever diagnosticians". Prudence's correspondent will be dealing with this for the rest of her professional life.

Emily said...

I wonder if there's some part of the unsupportive admin staff that think that they too would have just as much money and power as the men in the department if only they weren't women... and then a woman comes along in the power role and it shakes up that conception and makes them feel defensive which gets translated into negative experiences with those they're assisting.

Anonymous said...

In my department we have problems with some staff members-- for example, the woman who's our IT person has no problem doing stuff for senior colleagues, but flat out refuses to do things for me and other young FSPs, telling us to call Apple support ourselves. Plus some sexist comments from others.
But the funniest thing is that senior staff (male and female), our chair, and several senior colleagues constantly mix up the young FSPs. I'm tall, dark hair and eyes, and European (as in, strong non-english accent). I've been confused with a blond, blue eyed American, with a shorter Latin-american with dark hair and eyes, and with two Germans (one blond/blue eyed and one brunette/brown eyes). Note that we work in different disciplines within the department. Isn't that weird? One (male, nice) colleague jokes it's because we are all two-breasted animals...
It makes me wonder what our colleagues are focusing on when talking to us (although I think our bra sizes are quite different too).

Anonymous said...

Really, FSP? I was 20 before I saw a female doctor (in the late 80s) and I grew up in a very liberal college town. I had heard of them before - I remember in high school being amazed to discover that one of my friends had a female doc for her dreaded physical. A female doctor! How cool was that?!!!

Maybe there were dozens of them around back then, but I just assumed they were nurses.... I suppose that's possible.

Pagan Topologist said...

In the 1950's when I was a child, there was a woman physician who was my grandmother's personal doctor. I saw her a few times when our own "family doctor" was unavailable. I suspect that there is not so much a social phenomenon as just different people having different experiences which accounts for differing attitudes. I lived in a small conservative town in East Tennessee. Naturally, the idea of not expecting a woman to be a physician never has occurred to me.

FemgineerPhD said...

This reminds me of an internship story. I was at a large technology company and as part of the program we were allowed to shadow someone of our choosing. I was excited to be given access to the director of a major function. As he was giving me a facility tour, he introduced me to his secretary who said, "oh good, John has been waiting for a pretty girl to follow him around." I remember being incredibly embarassed that my being an engineer seemed irrelevant to the reason for my presence, and I hoped that the director's perception was unaffected and that he would still take me seriously. I didn't hold the comment against the secretary. I think she really thought she was paying me a nice compliment. (Ordinarily it would be fine if it weren't so inopportune.) It also served as an (important) reminder to me that it wasn't so long ago that things were very different, ie, women weren't even able to vote. Wow.

Anonymous said...

"A German friend of mine just told me a story about a kind of sexism that I thought had disappeared years ago.I've heard many horror stories like that from Germany. It seems sexism is alive and well in German academia (professors sleeping with their grad students and witholding grades according to that, female students launching complaints against said professors only to be ignored by the upper administration, not to speak of the lack of suitable day care facilities, etc)."

Don't think it just happens in Germany- all of the things you mention happen here at my R2 university in America

Kevin said...

Re: female doctors. My pediatrician in the mid 1950s was a female doctor. She changed to being an allergist, because she liked giving shots (at least, that was my theory as a child).

Re: disrespectful staff. There are staff who are disrespectful to all faculty or to certain faculty on an individual basis, independent of gender. There are also staff who are extremely helpful. My experience is that the disrespectful staff are really nasty to people they supervise, if they are ever promoted to a supervisorial position.

I think that the disrespect may be more age than gender related, but I could be wrong on that, since I haven't had an opportunity to witness many interactions between staff and female faculty---my observations are all tainted by my presence as a male faculty member, which could change the staff behavior.

Ms.PhD said...

I suspect it could be sexism of a more unintended sort. I've noticed a tendency to expect women to be more casual, i.e. okay with first-name basis if not actively promoting it.

The "mrs" comment could even be construed as the women staff being impressed to have a woman doctor around at all- I agree that it is still relatively uncommon. The context of her letter is really not clear.

Whenever I'm discussing doctors with anyone, they always assume I'm talking about a man if I don't say otherwise. We all do this, except with Ob/Gyn's where we tend to assume they will be women (and they're not always).

I absolutely agree, generational attrition will NOT fix the problem. Sexism is not going away anytime soon, especially not if all we do is, what, try to be patient?

I also second the person who said it's not just Germany. Definitely happens in the US.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I've experienced some resistance from support staff to doing tasks for me, but I thought it was more to do with my age than sex (similar to Mrs. CH's comment). It will be interesting to see what the reaction is at my next institution.

Doctor Pion said...

That story is mind boggling. (I'd almost suspect it to be one of those old "Yale" letters to Ann Landers, since I'd expect medical schools would develop in their students the ability to confront senior doctors, let alone staff, for the good of the patient.)

I'm male and have had a female internist for years. Very, very competent and professional, and I can't imagine she would put up with a situation like that for more than 10 seconds.

Doctor Pion said...

On the topics raised in the comments: I make it a point to only use "professor" as the first name of the female faculty when talking to students, even though there are some who prefer a first-name basis with their students. There are too many students at our college (not all of them male, as pointed out by some posters) who do not take female faculty seriously.

The worst case in my experience involved a woman who was older than the female professor and would not take anything she said as having any authority behind it at all.

EliRabett said...

Thanks for reminding me of a distant relative who was a physician, blessed be her memory. The stories that occasionally slipped out about the ingrained sexisim at medical school (in the 30s) were beyond belief

Grad Student said...

This, unfortunately, isn't confined to academic management, but to management in regular businesses also. After I got my BA, I took a few years off and I was hired as an office manager for a school, meaning that I was to supervise everyone in the office, all of whom were female with children, except for our receptionist, who was a month older than me. I had no problems with my supervision except from the oldest of the bunch, a woman who was my mother's age with grown children around my age. Unfortunately, in this case, I think it was the fact that she felt threatened by someone in authority over her who was both young and female.

Anonymous said...

Attitudes can be very hard to shift. My mother comes from a very bright family, where all the men are doctors or other highly successful professionals, and my female cousins are without exception nurses or in caring professions. My lovely but conservative mother and aunts (with one bluestocking exception) all 'accept' female doctors and would never disrespect them to their faces - but within the family we get the full brunt of discussion about how a woman should put her husband and kids first; that a woman should never 'sacrifice' her children for a career etc etc. This has had many insidious effects on me as a female scientist, and made it extremely difficult for me to prioritise my career. I think these attitudes become very strongly internalised, even when one is aware of them, so it is hard to see how others who may be less aware of these dynamics could cast off sexism quickly.

Samia Hurst said...

Attitudes are indeed hard to shift. Even our own. But if you haven't yet tried your 'gender-career' implicit attitudes on Project Implicit, you should. It's eery.
Granted, I live in Switzerland and was born on the year when women got the vote. But still, I thought being a female MD and medical school faculty would rid me of this sort of preconception. Apparently it's not quite enough yet.
Not that this excuses any of the behavior described here, but perhaps it gives a better idea of what we are up against and why it is taking so long...

Shay said...

It will be a long time in disappearing.

A former colleague is gathering her evidence before going to her dept head about her immediate supervisor.

He is a first-generation American from a very traditional (insert your adjective of choice, here) country, and he will not listen to women. Anything she tells him, he must verify from one of the men in the department. Any work she does is second-guessed, as is the work performed by the other women on her team.

The dept head is a woman, so I can't wait to see what happens.

TW Andrews said...

It seems like there's probably a spectrum of feelings from "I can't believe that there are woman doctors" to "It's so unremarkable that there are woman doctors that gender is no longer a feature of my assessment about this particular doctor."

Unfortunately, it seems like it takes a generation to move each step from a to b.

I actually see this where I work as well. For people my age, it's totally unremarkable to have a woman who is your boss, boss's boss, or someone on your project. Someone's gender doesn't even come up in discussion about their competence or how they are to work with.

For the generation that are our managers, that's not quite the case. The men treat the women with professional courtesy, and respect insofar as they've earned it professionally (as they would with a man), but you can tell that they're still quite conscious of gender.

Anonymous said...

I see a backlash from the conservative right against women. The promotion of 'family values' subtly - or not so subtly - undermines women's contributions and abilities outside of the home. It is no wonder that sexism is not dying out but I would gather is actually on the rise.

Eve said...

I was crossing the border into the US with a group of engineers and was asked whether I was carrying their bags. I wasn't sure if the guy was making a joke or not, because he didn't crack a smile at all. He looked to be in his thirties. So yes, sexism is alive and well.