Monday, May 18, 2009

On service, social pressure and separation

The Letters to Our Daughters project featured a thought-provoking entry this week from Dr Pamela Carmines, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Cellular & Integrative Physiology at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. She raised the issue of women in academia frequently carrying heavier service commitments than their male colleagues. This reduces the amount of time they can dedicate to their own “hot science, papers and GRANTS!”, with the flow-on effect of limiting their career advancement and/or causing their professional efforts to be taken less seriously than those of male counterparts.

Both within and outside academia, women are often expected to take on more service commitments and to provide support to colleagues or junior staff, sometimes at the expense of getting ahead with their own work. I believe this is directly related to broader gender-based social pressure for women to be ‘nice’, nurturing and co-operative instead of just saying no. Even when we do say no, we often find ourselves feeling compelled to explain our decision and come up with a slew of good excuses, whereas in my experience, males will usually feel quite comfortable leaving it at a simple ‘nope, sorry, I can’t’. As someone who has an irritating propensity to say ‘yes’ and over-commit myself, this is something that concerns me when it comes to ring-fencing time to work on projects that are important to me and to advancing my career.

The other interesting point Dr Carmines raises is the existence of special women’s committees within larger professional groups and societies. Does this serve to ghettoise women and make it harder for them and their work to be taken seriously? As she asks:
Is it possible that compartmentalizing ourselves into the women's group associated with an organization might actually impede our efforts to have "equal" (or higher) status in the eyes of our male peers?

Or are women’s committees serving a necessary purpose? It's probable that without them, women would have even less influence and recognition in fields still seen as traditionally masculine, such as the 'hard sciences' and IT. And certainly, their very existence highlights the fact that such initiatives are needed because gender-based discrimination continues to be a big problem in many professional and academic settings.

The question of separation versus integration is a topic of perennial debate in the field of women’s history, too. The methods and theoretical approaches developed by historians of women and historians working from broadly feminist perspectives have revolutionised the discipline of history over the last few decades. But it also seems that the establishment of women’s history as a recognised specialty within the academy has enabled some (many?) scholars working within specialties such as political and diplomatic history to assume they don’t need to integrate women into their historical inquiries, because ‘the women’s historians do women’s history’. As a result, women – who make up over half the human race – are still invisible or appear as only token participants in many of the ‘master narratives’ of western history*.

*My own research is centred on England/western Europe, so I don’t know if this is the case elsewhere. If you’re a historian working outside that framework (or within it), what’s your experience?

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