George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Tenured women in academic medicine describe carefully managing femininity to succeed

Mon, 08/24/2015

LAWRENCE — Nobel laureate Tim Hunt resigned his University College London position earlier this year after backlash over his comment that female scientists only fall in love or cry when criticized.

The university in a statement announcing Hunt's resignation mentioned its commitment to gender equity, and advocates were quick to point out the dramatic increase in recent decades of women receiving degrees in STEM fields. Women today make up roughly half of all new academic science and medicine graduates.

However, a University of Kansas researcher's new oral history sheds light on issues that women scientists and medical researchers face in their effort to get tenure, as studies have shown that in most scientific fields, women make up at the most a quarter of those with tenure. The study found that women tend to mask their gender or function as a "third gender" to avoid certain stereotypes.

"The rhetoric is that women in science or medicine are no longer in a male-dominated field because we've fixed that with the number of women in the field since the 1970s," said Emily Jones, graduate student in sociology. "But if you dig deeper, it's very difficult to achieve equity in leadership and tenured positions."

In her qualitative study, Jones interviewed 26 women with tenure in academic medicine at an institution in the Midwest. Jones presented her paper, "Managing Femininity to Manage Success: How Women Thrive in Academic Medicine and Basic Science," on Aug. 22 at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Chicago.

"Most of these women were giving two reasons for their success," Jones said. "They were talking about meritocracy and pushing aside the gender piece, which I found interesting. And then they would also talk about negotiating self and identity in this and navigating the space because they had to manage their femininity. They couldn't be too feminine, or they were weak or too girly. They couldn’t be too masculine, or they would be perceived as too butch."

One woman in the study said she didn't even dress like a woman and wouldn't talk to secretaries or wives at office parties. Other women used humor to deal with sexism or being ignored in residents' meetings, and one African-American department chair reported being told once by a male resident that the Coke machine needed filling because he had mistakenly identified her as a custodian or maintenance worker.

"It should not have to be that hard. Work is hard enough," Jones said.

She said while entry into STEM fields and medical science is more even among gender, the attitudes of women expressed in this study could point to why less women tend to receive tenure or why other women tend to leave the field without seeking to advance.

"Everyone agrees it's OK for women to go to school for these things, but who is getting tenured professorships and leadership positions?" Jones said. "This makes it more difficult for younger women to come into the field and say they can see themselves advancing because other women did it, too."

She said potential keys to addressing these issues would be policy changes such as paid family leave and subsidized child care that could help put women on equal footing with men and eliminate situations that arise that might put women at a professional disadvantage when seeking promotions or tenure.

Women in her study also expressed the need for more mentors of younger women.

"In academics, you need a senior scholar to show you the ropes. If there's nobody that gets you and can really understand what you're doing and where you're coming from, there's just a mismatch there," Jones said. "Among the women I talked to, a lot of them did have very awesome male mentors, and that was probably one of the reasons they succeeded."

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