One reason it’s so hard to be a woman in academia: we have personalities

Did you disagree with a male colleague at a faculty meeting? Did you ask a question during a seminar? Did you laugh out loud at a joke in the hall? Are you an extrovert? If you are female, be careful! You may be stamped as an aggressive woman, chided subtly or not so kindly, encouraged to change your personality, as if you could.

Female Science Professor has addressed aggressive women, here, and here, and here. The bottom line is that behavior that is acceptable, and even lauded, in men, is not acceptable in women. It just makes me cry. I love to see strong spirit, in women as well as men. Joy and celebration are not meant to be quiet and the louder among us keep things fun.

What should we do? I say we, because those of you who know me, know I’m not exactly quiet. I say, keep on asking those questions, laughing at the jokes, enjoying life. Should we bow to the critics at all? No, but maybe we should be extra careful to make it clear that we are curious, not vindictive. We want to know; we are not showing off. We are actually trying to keep up with the seminar and have not drifted away the minute the speaker lost us. We want to help others, not hurt them. For science best advances in a cooperative, open, interactive environment. We may be noisy, but we are a very positive influence.

How about the women who are naturally quiet, who easily avoid asking questions at seminars, who stay mostly quiet at faculty meetings? I think they have their challenges too, and are equally as justified in embracing their natural personality. We need to make space for them to talk, notice the tentative raised hand, even in a scrappy meeting where no one else is raising their hand.

Some of the quiet women need a microphone to teach, even in a room where others do not. In this case, as far as I’m concerned, the microphone becomes a women’s issue, and we should provide it.

Another challenge for quiet women is that their contributions may be under-appreciated. How do we know what they are thinking if they are so quiet? Let them have the environment they need to express themselves and don’t be too quick to ignore them.

Of course, extroversion/introversion is only one axis of personality. My Facebook pages periodically have a run of interest in the Myers-Briggs personalities. The point is, why do we accept some personality types in men as just fine, and denigrate the same thing in women? Before you think a certain woman is too aggressive, or too passive, think about the men in your department with those characteristics. Do you judge them similarly? If not, why not? To me, the important thing is that we all try to be positive and helpful to all, and that we feel comfortable naturally expressing our own personalities. This is how we as a society can get the most out of everyone, for personalities are not a plastic element of who we are.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career, Social interactions. Bookmark the permalink.

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