Aug 5, 2011

Gendered Role Models in Academia

This article from the Chronicle has taken some flack, much of which targets the author's claim that he had a hard time seeing female professors in his department as role models while he was a graduate student. Here's a choice quote from the article:
"It's not that I don't respect anyone. It's just that very few of those I do respect are English professors.
Partially, it's a gender problem. I can't use women as role models because they are not like me. We think differently. What motivated me to go to graduate school was different from what seems to have motivated many tenured female academics I've talked to. Much of what I've heard from older women about why they became professors revolves around issues of professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard, and wanting a place in which to say what's on their minds. Also, many of the older female professors I've known were quite angry about those issues. 
While I can certainly understand their drives, they are not mine. So, tipping my hat to women in English departments, I can discard them as role models."
He then goes on to discuss his difficulties connecting with the motivations of the male faculty as well. While the phrasing here is overblown-- should he really "discard" the female faculty from the realm of potential role models just because he doesn't share the motivations he attributes to them?-- the basic sentiment seems reasonable. After all, one of the arguments in favor of having a gender-balanced professoriate is that it helps students of any gender find role models among their professors. If it's not problematic for female undergrads or grad students to want a female professor as a role model, why is it problematic for a male student to want a male professor for a role model? Notably, the author of the Chronicle piece doesn't say that he only wants male professors as role models; that is a position I would take issue with. The issue seems to be with the motivations of his professors, rather than primarily with their gender, and he doesn't make any sweeping or essentializing generalizations about female English professors at large, just some local observations about those he was in contact with.

None of this is meant as a defense of the article, just a rebuttal of one kind of criticism that has been made of it. It's absurd to have a double standard whereby caring about the gender of one's role models is only appropriate for some people but not others!