Thursday, October 15, 2015

Women's Work

I'm starting this post off with a "caveat lector": this post is about women and women's work in academia, and about how we can and should support and promote it. Period. If you feel the need to put in a "what about the men?" or "notallmen" kind of comment, please see the first sentence of this short preface. Thank you.

Recently, I've been thinking about the work of a senior-to-me female colleague whose work is, in my opinion, vastly under-appreciated outside her field of specialization. Her own scholarship is wonderful. But the one thing I find myself coming back to time and again is her work as a mentor. She's got a couple of great books of her own, but she's taken time away from her own work to edit collections (that's plural -- when most people run from even one), chair important planning committees, and work to promote and informally mentor younger scholars in her field. It's almost impossible to find a young scholar in one of her fields of interest who hasn't benefited from her help and support.

This is the "women's work" of academia.[1]

I don't just mean serving on committees or developing new teaching strategies or mentoring young scholars; I mean doing these things to the point where you know you could have had out another book or two if you'd just pretended not to be there when people knocked.

Because here's the thing: if you want to get a fellowship or grant or promotion or raise or other professional recognition, your scholarly output weighs most heavily. People who volunteer for tough committees makes things run. People who edit collected volumes provide outlets for scholarly work on a particular topic. People who mentor young faculty -- who take them under their wing with no conceivable benefit to themselves -- make academia a better place to be, and model civility and humanity.

Shorter version: if these people went away, we'd be fucked.

I'm about 50-50 on this. I try to be a good worker/colleague/mentor, but I'm also serious about drawing boundaries. No value judgement in that either way; just that's how I roll. But that's just a full disclosure, because this ain't about me. It's about the fact that women (and, in my own personal observation, gay men -- but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish) are the ones who set up and clean up, who take meeting minutes while everyone else looks at their shoes, who step up and say "yes, I'll do that work that no one will ever see,"  who take the time to check in with a junior colleague and say "How are you doing? Let me buy you lunch and let's see how I can help."

And every hour spent on unseen-yet-essential labor is an hour that we could be reading, writing, thinking. We may actually enjoy the service and mentoring. But when it comes time to be recognized, and you stack up our CV next to the male candidates, chances are that they'll have more publications than we will. And committees will think they're making objective choices: "He's just more qualified!"

So, women have been told to "say no." Which is great, but it only goes so far, due to decades of cultural conditioning combined with pressure from above. And who's going to do the work, if not us? And if the work doesn't get done? Well then, we suffer too. One solution is to apply "see something/say something": if the women in your department are doing all the heavy lifting while the men get to be scholars, say something to your chair if you can, and ask if something can be done. Or say something to the men themselves if that's practical: I find a lot of men are simply blissfully unaware of how much work goes into getting things done.

So sure: we need to set boundaries to the degree that we can, and we need to point out inequities and agitate for change. But you know what we also need to do?

AS A PROFESSION, WE NEED TO RECOGNIZE WOMEN'S WORK. We need to promote its value, not just rhetorically, but also in terms of promotions, raises, professional honors, and all that other stuff. We need to point out the value of all this labor, and make sure that it gets taken into account -- really taken into account -- when it comes time to hand out tangible rewards.

[1] Here, I could insert some stuff about how I know that men do blah-blah, and I know that not all women set their own work aside to do work for others... but I'm not gonna. Because there are lots and lots of people out there who say and write such things on a daily basis, and I really don't feel like apologizing for my own argument.  Fuck it.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

One simple, practical suggestion for recurring meetings (not so good for one-offs): rotate the person who takes notes. First meeting, A's turn, second meeting, B's, and so on down the line.

This is not necessarily generalizable to other situations, such as editing collections or mentoring junior faculty, but taking notes and does help to raise consciousness and encourage people to think of this sort of job as everyone's work.

Historiann said...

I think you're right--we all need to draw our own boundaries. Most of us draw them differently depending on the stage of our careers, and/or our outside-of-work life too.

I see the work your colleague is doing as just being a good senior colleague. This is the kind of work that Matthew Pratt Guterl described in his post last week: (and which I wrote about on my blog too.)

It sounds like your generous colleague really enjoys her career and gets energy from giving back. Sometimes I feel that way. Other times I'm just tired.

Susan said...

This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. Because I'm pretty much in a giving back to the profession mode. And mostly I enjoy it. What I've found is that on campus, when it's taken for granted, I start getting resentful. So I don't want lots of garlands, but maybe an occasional thank you would help. In other words, my colleagues off campus seem to appreciate me, but those on campus appear to take it for granted. So I'm trying to figure out what boundaries I draw. But that's also because Historiann is right -- our boundaries shift with our careers.

Historiann said...

Susan's point about the recognition of this kind of work is a really important one. THANK YOU would be nice to hear not just from the individuals one helps, but from one's colleagues & institution, to show that they recognize & appreciate this work.

Notorious, the point you make about this becoming women's work is a totally valid one. I didn't mean to undermine it with my earlier comment. As you say above, it's not the kind of work that gets recognized or rewarded when one is looking for an appointment as a senior scholar.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, H'ann & Susan. This is really what's responsible for that "leaky pipeline" -- the gendered expectations of Serving Others. And it's not that some of us don't enjoy them very much -- I like being a mentor! I like pitching in and working and feeling like I'm serving others! But then you realize that only the people who *don't* do that get promoted, get raises, get honors... and that somehow this is All Your Fault (which is why I've stopped saying "say no" and started asking "how much room have you got to say no?"). And then there's the resentment: They're making a big deal about X again, but that's only because s/he routinely ducks service assignments and has never once mentored a junior colleague or organized a conference panel or...

Some of us -- single, childless, fully employed -- have the privilege to "lean in" just like the menz. But if USE that spotlight to draw attention to the inequities built in, and to demand recognition for "women's work" -- well, that would be a nice, feminist act. (And who knows? It might even get some of the service-duckers pitching in!)

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Coincidentally, I was just discussing this with one of my female colleagues. She was making the same points you did, but added that she thinks people should demand to be paid for doing this kind of stuff.

Historiann said...

I wonder how many service-shirkers have been approached by more senior people and talked to about this. I have to say that in my department, service appears to be a fairly equally distributed burden across gender lines, but then we have a departmental culture in which people regularly step up.

I guess what I'm saying is that most of us don't have training in management or motivational strategies, so I wonder how many of us, once we get to be departmental chairs or leaders of other kinds, bother even to ask people who aren't stepping up to step up and talk to them about how it will be good for them?

Then again, I wonder how sustainable my department's culture of stepping up is, in the absence of real levers for encouraging service and discouraging shirking. It's not like (as CPP says above) we get rewarded by any time or money if we do it, or punished if we don't. The pathetic thing is that it wouldn't even take much $$$ to motivate us humanists: why not offer the Grad Studies Chair an extra $1000 in travel money? It's just a token compared to the amount of time it takes to be GSC, but it signals that the service itself is important to the department.

gwinne said...

Yes, yes, and yes. While we have male folks chairing major committees (they do a lot of work, actually) and serving in major admin positions, the UNSEEN work of my department is done by women.

But more surprisingly, the 'new' generation in my dept has a number of female asst profs who are so worried about protecting time for research that they say no to pretty much everything time consuming, important, and VISIBLE to the folks who will eventually be on their tenure committees, even as they continue to do a lot of the smaller unseen stuff.