Gender dependent

That’s what I thought when I read the articles linked below, even though gender is never mentioned explicitly. Instead, there seems to be an implicit assumption that everyone involved is male. (Presumably white, too – but that would be a story for someone else to write.)

First, there’s this stunning book review by Scott McLemee, linked also at Crooked Timber:

The most powerful figures in this system [Italian academic promotions], says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of “some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride…. Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.”

[…] Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”

Also, this from the comments at CT:

I experienced this in a past position, and reached the same analysis as Gambetta. My attempts to signal that I would leave if I didn’t get better treatment were exactly the wrong ones to send. The people who won the battles were those signalling “I can never go anywhere else, so I will fight to the death to get my way here”.

I’d be interested to know how many of those incompetent-and-proud-of-it academics are female. Because, at least over here on this side of the Atlantic, somehow I don’t see a lot of female professors (or lawyers, or businesswomen) showing off their weaknesses on purpose.

What I do see on a regular basis is men who mess up repeatedly and aren’t particularly embarrassed about it, even if “flaunting it” might be too strong a word. I wouldn’t know what signals, if any, they might be sending to other men. The message I get is: they can afford to do that. In due course they will still get promoted as scheduled, then picked to chair this committee here or hold that prestigious position there, as surely as pierogis float to the top of the pot when they’re cooked. That’s just the way it goes. Nothing to see there, move along. Women, on the other hand…

As for communicating readiness for battle? If you’re female, the default assumption is that you won’t really put up a fight. That’s obviously not limited to women – the commenter quoted above is male – but I’d say that in our case such presumptions are made much more often. They’re also harder to change. I don’t know of any successful career woman who has managed to turn that around just by signalling something or other – without actually getting into fights and developing a reputation for it. That can be a long and unpleasant process (think Hillary Clinton). By the time we’re done with the “she’s so cute when she’s angry” stage, and the “she’s an angry bitch and I’m not negotiating with her” stage, and the “she’s mentally unstable and should be on Prosac” stage, much water has passed under the bridge. Time has been wasted. Opportunities have been lost. And that’s just to get to what men can usually assume as their starting point.

On to the second article, Politics for Deans by Dan L. King. The author adapts LBJ’s political strategies to an academic setting:

Johnson notes that LBJ would use up White House liquor having nightcaps with the leaders and key members of BOTH parties, and that these leaders and key members would take home cufflinks, watches, signed photos, and perhaps even a pledge to come raise money for their next election. The key here is the courting of support with “leaders and key members.” Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #8: Devote some time regularly to interacting with department chairs and chairs of key committees/groups in a setting other than formal meetings. Invite them to your office for refreshments on a regular basis. […]

LBJ didn’t miss an opportunity to connect personally. […] Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #9: First, figure out the extent to which individual faculty are comfortable with your familiarity of their personal life; make a note of this in your file (see the first item on this list), then make sure you use the information to demonstrate your sincere interest in each person with whom you work.

Can you see why this might be gender dependent? I mean, how about the male dean inviting female faculty for nightcaps in his office? Right. Probably doesn’t happen much. But we don’t even need to go there. The fact is, all of the “personal connection” strategies on the list are easy to implement when everyone is of the same gender, but much more tricky otherwise. In private, men tend to socialize with their male colleagues. Women will likely get invited to the after-seminar dinner, but probably not to the private barbecue on Saturday night, and we certainly won’t be spending the long weekend at a male colleague’s cottage out of town. We can of course socialize with other women, but that doesn’t necessarily amount to the same thing, at least not in those science departments that have only a few women on their faculty. Some have only one or two.

But that’s just one side of it. The other side, less obvious but possibly more important, is: just how much exactly do women benefit from “connecting personally”? It is too often assumed without questioning that developing personal connections with colleagues improves the working climate and leads to harmony and general happiness. In my experience, what developing personal connections does is that it brings the professional relationships closer to what a personal relationship might be. Whether that is necessarily an improvement is another story. And that’s where gender comes in.

In a perfect world, all personal relationships would be free of traditional prejudices and unconscious biases, therefore they would be a fine model for professional interactions.

That’s not where we are, though. I have been blessed with some truly wonderful friends who are men, but I also would like my co-workers to remember that I’m their colleague and not a personal acquaintance. Here’s a couple of reasons.

Gender bias is more pervasive than we like to think. You don’t need to be hostile or unfriendly to women to be biased. You might instead believe, genuinely and wholeheartedly, that a woman is most satisfied and fulfilled as a housewife. Or that we are naturally inclined to follow someone else’s lead, leaving it to men to decide about all those complicated matters of politics and such. (Don’t you worry your little head about it, darlin’.) Perhaps you’re perfectly comfortable with having women around as colleagues, you just see them as supporting players rather than the main actors, because that’s more natural. Perhaps you assume that we get so much satisfaction out of helping men succeed that we don’t mind when our contributions go uncredited, our own success and achievement being less important. It’s bias, and it hurts us.

Thanks to feminism and political correctness, such things are less likely to be said openly at work. But who says that you can’t offer a little bit of personal advice to a friend? Or do what you consider to be a favour? (It would certainly explain some of the friendly but wrong advice I have had, and some of the liberties that were taken with me, over the course of my career.) And who says that you can’t have a discussion with friends at your own house about how women are genetically less predisposed to be top mathematicians, your female colleagues are too pushy, and Hillary is the Wicked Witch of the East or some other such? Sure you can. You have every right. I just don’t want to be invited to that.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

2 thoughts on “Gender dependent”

  1. on the plus side.
    you don’t have to pretend to like sports.

    thanks for this. (good to see you’re
    reading mc lemee… amazing ain’t he?)

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