In a recent Ms. Mentor column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ms. Mentor fielded a question from a "Katie Anne", a "new, young assistant professor in a department of older, mostly male, tenured faculty members". Katie Anne feels invisible in her department, particularly in meetings. No one listens to her. Her accomplishments are ignored. A male professor on a committee is praised for his participation; she is praised for being a good note-taker on the same committee.
This is of course a classic problem that many women have described and discussed. I have done my fair share of complaining about this very issue in this blog and in real life.
What to do?
I generally find Ms. Mentor amusing, but I was not amused by this advice, which I have heard before and in fact have never liked:
"Middle-aged men do lose the ability to hear higher registers, and they may tune out high-pitched or breathy voices. Women can train themselves to speak in lower, more resonant tones. The best female voice to imitate, according to Researchers Who Know, belongs to Julia Roberts."
That advice makes me want to scream in a shrill, high-pitched voice. In fact, I don't have a high-pitched or breathy voice, and quite a few middle-aged men (and women) can hear me just fine. Furthermore, although my voice is not particularly loud and not especially resonant, plenty of middle-aged and older men can hear me when they want to. The problem is that some don't want to. They need to be trained to listen to women.
Is that a non-constructive thing to ask? If we women are serious about being taken seriously, should we be willing to train ourselves to speak (but, according to Ms. Mentor, not look) like Julie Roberts for the higher purpose of being heard? Isn't it a small thing to suggest -- that women learn to speak in a more "resonant" voice so that men will listen to us more?
No, it is not a small thing to suggest. And the problem is not our voices.
The invisible, inaudible young professor is also advised by Ms. Mentor to say only intelligent, relevant things. OK, that's fine, let's all restrict ourselves to saying only intelligent, relevant things.. if our male colleagues do the same.
Oh yes, and the young assistant professor should work hard at making people like her. I don't think there is much evidence that women who are thought to be nice and friendly are taken more seriously than cranky women, but I'm certainly not going to argue against trying to be collegial, even with selectively deaf middle-aged men.
I agree that young women should try to avoid the upward inflection that makes statements sound like questions and should try to speak directly and professionally. I have trouble listening for even short periods of time to people who use 'like' 5 times in every sentence, particularly in a professional conversation. This is advice for everyone, not just women. And this is not the same as telling half the population to train their voice so that the other half will not tune them out.
The best part of Ms. Mentor's advice is the last part:
"Once you do get tenure, and you're eminent and older, you'll stop being invisible. You can get a cowbell or a bullhorn and become a powerful and tyrannical dean. That'll get everyone's attention—but so will being a kind and inclusive mentor, who tries to get all to listen and speak. You'll know how."
I agree that with time and relentless evidence that a woman is a serious professional with useful and interesting things to say, many men will listen more. But it can take a lot of time to get there; in my case, well over 10 years.
Getting tenure is of course essential, but if a woman is invisible before tenure, she is likely to be only semi-visible soon after getting tenure. Female associate professors are less invisible; they are sort of translucent.
When promoted to full professor, after a few years, we solidify a bit more. Perhaps our voices also deepen!? And we are more visible and audible to those who were unable to see (and hear) us when we were younger, particularly if we are respected by people outside our own departments (and our department colleagues know this) and if quite a few younger faculty have been hired.
So, to the Katie Annes of the academic world: Keep your voice, use it to make your points clearly and well (even if you have to make them more than once), and do awesome work. A hopeful thought is that it won't take 10-15 years to be seen and heard. Perhaps the "invisible" stage for young female professors in male-dominated departments will get shorter and shorter in duration, and eventually disappear. I would like to see that.
If you are a formerly invisible female professor: How long did it take you to become visible? Did anything other than tenure and time bring an end to your invisibility?
If you are still invisible: How long have you been in this state?
12 years ago