Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Frau Professor

However difficult it is to be a non-professorial looking professor and scientist in North America, the situation here for women in science is much better than in other places where I've lived or spent a substantial amount of time. For example, I spent a recent sabbatical in Europe. I had a really great time living in Europe and traveling and meeting new people and getting recharged by all the new experiences. Even so, it quickly became clear that it was absolutely pointless even to try to be taken seriously as a scientist or professor. I was only there for a year, so it didn't really matter, but I had numerous experiences that reminded me of stories my senior female colleagues have told me about what it was like for women in the U.S. a few decades ago.

There were lots of women students and postdocs in my host institution during my sabbatical, but there were no women professors in my research field in the entire country. The society was set up for a situation of working men and stay-at-home moms, so I wonder what will happen to all those smart young women. I think the pipeline over there does more than just leak (like it does here) -- I fear that it gushes, but I would like to be wrong about that.

In our sabbatical city, which was a major business and cultural center, we got some strange looks at the bank when we first requested an account that had my name on it as well as my husband's; we had to explain why we needed this (I was getting a salary from the local university) and fill out special forms and wait a surprising amount of time to get full use of the account. And then there was the school system, in which kids have somewhat random schedules and go home for lunch after being at school for only a couple of hours. My husband and I spent a large part of our sabbatical walking back and forth between our apartment, our daughter's school, and the university, sometimes 6 times per day. In addition, my department at the university had its weekly department seminars on the one afternoon of the week when the local schools were not in session, making it impossible for people without child care to attend. My husband and I took turns attending the seminars, though sometimes we brought our daughter to the ones that we both wanted to attend. After the first month or so, the people in my research group at the university didn't even bother to tell me about informal meetings, visitors, etc. because they assumed I wouldn't be able to participate - most such events involved activities in the late afternoon or evening.

When asked what my position was back in the U.S., I would reply that I was a professor. Sometimes I would be corrected, as if I were confused, and I was told that I may have a Ph.D., but in Europe that didn't mean I was a professor. * NOTE: I am deep into my 40's and had 'Professor X' on the nameplate on my office door *

Another typical response to the news that I was a professor was the statement "There must be a lot of professors in the U.S. It is not such an important position as it is here." No of course not -- how could it be if they let women be professors? There is an element of truth to the statement that professors are less 'important' in the U.S. than in Europe in terms of the academic culture, but no one ever told my husband that professors must be less important in the U.S. upon hearing that he's a professor, and it happened to me a number of times.

And then there were the endless official government and university forms to fill out. These all assumed that my husband was filling them out, and there was always a space labeled "wife" just for me. Even checking into some hotels, there would be a line for "Name" and a line for "Wife's Name". I talked to a lot of women (and men) who said that the society was changing, but very slowly, and most of these official things were behind the times in terms of the way people actually lived their lives.

Sabbaticals are still a very great thing, even if one has to live in a gender time warp for a while, and I am already looking forward to my next one.


Cecilia Lunardini said...

From the title of your post, I gather that your experience was in northern europe. While I have no knowledge of that area, I can say that southern Europe is totally different.

I am an italian physicist and I worked in my country before I moved to the US. I had the type of shock you described when I first arrived in the US, since things are so much better for women in my country. In every place I studied or worked there, I met women professors and female graduate students.

The first time I was asked whose wife I was, while attending a professional event, was here in the US.

Europe is very diverse, since very different are the histories of the various countries that make it. So, what applies to one country can rarely be generalized.

Anonymous said...

As a female CS PhD, I sadly share your observations. They certainly ring very true in the country that I got to know a bit better during my PhD studies: Switzerland. The random school/kindergarten schedules (and other ways of assuming a stay-at-home wife) are mind-boggling.

The remark about doubting your professorship I would interpret differently, though (although, true, I wasn't there, it might still have been sexist, of course). In the European countries I've lived in, one cannot become a professor (or assistant professor) right after the PhD. In some countries one has to do a "habilitation", or can only become a lecturer, not a professor, at least for a decade or so. In some countries there is a very small number of professors, usually very senior, and a larger number of PhDs employed as researchers or teachers.

Also, e.g. in Germany, the undergraduate degrees take much longer, so a typical academic curriculum would look like this: graduate in late twenties, PhD. in early thirties, habilitation/lecturer/researcher in another professor's group until late thirties/early forties, and THEN a professorship if one is lucky, many are not due to the small number of openings versus the large number of applicants, so many spend their forties looking for a professorship or leaving academia. So in short, the comment IMHO more likely reflects statistical discrimination based on age stereotypes.

CMT said...

Hi, FSP.I'm very happy to have found your blog.

I'm spending the summer doing research in Europe. I have to say that (and yes, I'm in northern Europe) I've seen the same things here that are in your post. And in 3 months here I've met 2 women scientists, one of whom is leaving. Two! At a large research facility.They are both visitors; I have yet to meet a native female scientist here.

I was finally advised, by a colleague who did his graduate work in the US, to put my full title on the door and to have the secretaries do everything I can (apparently the gossip helps somehow). Things have been a bit better since that.

I find it very sad. I'm a rarity in my own field, but not like this!

Anonymous said...

From your title and description, you probably were in Germany.

First, a small word to say that "professor" there apply only to what you call "full professor" in the US. That doesn't forgive the fact that YOU were asked and not your husband. But might explain some difference with the US.

Second, Germany is very conservative, the women being traditionally devoted to the 3 Ks: kids, kitchen and church. A german friend of mine, catholic, was finishing her medicine studies. She had a boyfriend but didn't want to marry him. Her explanation was limpid: if she's married it means, for employers that she'll soon have kids hence she'll have to stop working for 3 years at least because there's no child care.
But do not generalize it to the whole Europe. Situations are very different in different countries. I guess you would have had a completely different opinion in Finland, Sweden, Norway, or in former eastern countries... or even probably in France or Italy as said previously.

That said, sure, you'll find sexism everywhere.