This week, The Medium reached out to UTM female faculty members to find out what it’s like to be a female member of their discipline, their experiences so far, and how to address challenges that may arise in their work environment.
Geography, senior lecturer and associate chair
Asked what it’s like to be a female faculty member in the geography discipline, professor Monika Havelka laughs.
“Well, it’s one of those things where I’ve never not been a female—you don’t know what it’s compared to,” she says. “It’s sort of funny to think even what my discipline is because I’m in a very interdisciplinary department. So there’s people from very, very broad backgrounds and I think that, in general, creates a very inclusive environment […] I tend to think of myself as a biologist, Professor [Barbara] Murck is a geologist, and Professor [Pierre] Desrochers is an economist.”
While Havelka has had a positive experience here at UTM, other experiences have not been as supportive.
“I’ve seen the other side of it. You know, you do feel—I don’t know if marginalized is exactly the word that I’m looking for—but you’re sort of conscious that being female is something that is a little ‘other’ to the central culture,” says Havelka.
An obvious challenge that female professionals face is raising children and maintaining a balance between a career and a family.
“Nobody asked my husband how he was managing to juggle a career and children,” says Havelka, highlighting the gender imbalance that was present in her time. “This is still sort of an issue, [but] now it is evolving. I see a lot of men in this generation who are more involved and approaching parenting as an equal partnership, which creates a whole different landscape for women who are trying to get on to a career track after being home at the beginning with kids.”
Havelka believes that the family balance issue is an artificial barrier, and doesn’t have to be there. She believes that there are other challenges that exist, that are harder to overcome due to the way individuals are socialized.
“Things that are considered to be strengths in men can be perceived as weaknesses in women. Being forthright […] a woman is considered pushy—that loaded language [is still present],” she says.
“It’s a socialization thing—breaking that down, I think, does come with time, having more female mentors, female role models, and so on. […] When you expect your professors to be women, CEOs to be women, people in government to be women, and so on […] it changes that at the very beginning for girls growing up when they see this around them as part of the normal landscape,” says Havelka.
While Havelka personally feels that as a man, she would not have accomplished more than she has as a woman, she does believe that her early socialization made a significant difference.
“I feel like it has taken a lot longer to come into myself and feel like my voice is valuable and I have something to contribute,” she says.
Havelka recalls a recent memory where she felt that her voice had not been heard. While at a meeting where several individuals were discussing a topic, she proposed a solution, which was not commented on. However, a short while later, when a male individual offered the same solution, he was heard and received credit for the idea.
“Ninety percent of the time I would have just taken it, but I said that I had made the exact same point about half an hour ago, and if you thought it was a great idea then, we would have all been out by now,” recalls Havelka. While there was a bit of silence following her statement at the meeting, Havelka was happy with getting it off her chest instead of letting it go.
“I’m really cognizant of the fact that I’m a white woman who grew up in a white culture and so on—what I feel is not the same as a woman of colour, who is obviously going to have a very different experience,” says Havelka.
Overall, Havelka believes that this is a good time to enter her discipline, as it is getting better.
However, there are also some “ugly elements” that have popped up in today’s society. Havelka believes that the Internet gives the opportunity to hear ugly voices that may not otherwise be quite so vocal.
“Sometimes it’s good to know what’s out there, but it’s hard to tell what’s dominant. When you read something really hideous, when someone makes some kind of horrific statement […] is it a significant minority or is it a tiny, fringe minority?” comments Havelka.
However, Havelka believes that while the barriers are real and are still present today, there are more resources to overcome them.
“It’s not your fault if you’re encountering those barriers—but when you’re trying to problem-solve, look outside yourself. Look to other people who will mentor you—look for help,” she says.
When asked whether she thinks that International Women’s Day is an important occasion, Havelka recounts what she said to her son earlier that day.
“My son said, ‘Why do we have to have International Women’s Day?’ I said that [we have to] because every other day is International Men’s Day!” she says.
On a more serious note, Havelka says, “I still think that we need [International Women’s Day]. It’s really important to remember that the sorts of things that we worry about here—[that] we’re in a privileged ‘first world society’ [and] there [are] massive inequities that women all over the world face. It’s nice to put the focus on that [as] there are still places that still have a long way to go.”
English and drama, assistant professor
“It’s slightly easier to be a female faculty member in the humanities than it is in the sciences,” comments professor Liza Blake. “There is something of an old-boys club at a lot of universities, and you sometimes run into it when you go to conferences. Certainly, female graduate students and female professors still have to put up with going to conferences and being harassed. But we’ve taken over—we lady professors—have sort of taken over humanities in a way that hasn’t quite happened in the sciences yet.”
According to Blake, many humanities departments have a much higher percentage of women than STEM disciplines.
“It’s better because I think a lot of the arguments—especially if you’re not just a female professor, but a feminist professor—are easier to make in our classrooms,” Blake says. “They’re a lot more expected, but that also means it’s sometimes harder to point out inequities because we assume that this is the safe department to come to, but that in fact you’re always going to come against hardships.”
When asked about how she approaches challenges such as discrimination and marginalization in her work environment, Blake illustrated her answer with an example.
Last semester, Blake, and fellow English profs Suzanne Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie, and other partners organized a conference made up of medievalists, artists, and activists. A key concern was that women tend to get harassed at such events.
“It’s a big problem in general, but especially focused in medieval history,” says Blake.
To combat the problem, a statement was placed at the front of the conference program, saying, “Harassment will absolutely not be tolerated,” and three individuals were deemed as safe persons to approach regarding such incidents. Additionally, a very strong message was included: “If you are harassing someone, stop it.”
“[It] was really important because it says that not just if and when you’re victimized, here’s who to come to—but also people should stop harassing, and it’s important for every member of the conference to be involved with that,” says Blake.
Blake also recounted an experience of one of her colleagues experiencing discrimination.
At one point in her career, Blake’s colleague was a part of a panel that was interviewing prospective students. The panel included a professor (Blake’s colleague), an admissions person, and a current student. Blake’s colleague arrived early that day, and upon asking for a key to the interview room, she was told, “Those are for professors only, and […] you should wait for the professor to arrive to get in.”
“Even in humanities, it’s tough. As a young female professor, I often get mistaken for an undergrad, which is annoying. I started wearing more suits in my first year so that people could tell that I was a professor,” says Blake.
As for the challenges today, Blake says, “Sexism, when it happens, is a lot more subtle […] For example, having to constantly identify yourself as a professor in a meeting. A lot of the times, service work gets shifted to female professors—although again, this department is very good at protecting my time in relation to my male colleagues.”
On the other hand, in the classroom, it’s different, as Blake says that there is a different power structure involved.
“As a professor, you can do things, like write lectures focusing on feminist issues. You can be really explicit about how class participation works. Women are sort of socialized growing up to see into the room and give way in conversation, and things like that,” Blake says.
Blake also comments that while there are certain aspects of teaching that students may find annoying (such as group work), they are in fact good techniques to allow everyone to find their voice.
“But if all you do is say, ‘Everyone, here’s a topic for discussion, and now you talk about it,’ there are certain people who [would be] comfortable talking about that—and a lot of time, that’s gendered,” she says.
According to Blake, group work gives every individual a chance to speak, despite their socialization.
Another important aspect is to create a safe space within classrooms and office hours.
“Making clear that you, as a professor, are open to students being able to come in and talk to you. If something happens in class that you are uncomfortable with, they know that there are no repercussions with coming in and talking it through,” says Blake.
However, she adds, “It’s not enough—it’s never enough. But we, in this department especially, we are thinking about how to do that and how to make sure all of our classrooms are safe.”
Chemistry, associate professor
Jumi Shin is a chemistry professor who, while driving the multidisciplinary Shin research group towards designing gene-regulatory anti-cancer proteins and exploring how nanoparticles affect cellular evolution, also chairs the Awards Committee for the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. When she isn’t observing genomic mutations and teaching students the fundamentals of organic chemistry, Shin also takes time for the gym and listening to her nine-year-old son’s and 12-year old daughter’s hockey stories.
“I think there are a lot more women now in fields like chemistry and physics than there were, say, 20 years ago,” says Shin.
“The progress however, has been glacially slow,” she says, as academia in general, not just the position she is in now, is a long road to travel.
While Shin does allude to the existence of a ceiling for women’s professional progress, she says for her, it’s worth it.
“It is a real privilege to be teaching here, and I think I’m really blessed with everything my position has to offer,” she says.
Shin describes the experience of interacting with a range of students, enjoying the vitality of undergraduate students and the advancement of graduate students. “Research is so rapid, I love introducing new aspects to the course,” she says while at the same time “getting to do cutting-edge research in the lab”.
Inspired by her father, who was a physicist, Shin began her undergraduate career at Harvard and completed her Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. While she mentions being good at math, science, and the piano as a child—what she calls a “stereotypical Asian upbringing”—her father always encouraged her to pursue all sorts of opportunities.
“He used to be present at all kinds of performances. I used to look at the audience and it used to be a mom, mom, mom, and my dad,” she says.
Although she calls herself lucky, Shin points towards research that reports the significant role played by mothers in shaping their children’s success, including how working mothers provide strong role models for their children. She expresses concern over the continued and deeply rooted nature of sexism and racism, not limited to earlier generations.
“You’d be surprised at some comments I receive in student opinion surveys, and these are young students,” she says.
She relates an exchange when a male undergraduate told her male colleague that he would not report to a female supervisor. “We were shocked that a student would admit to feeling like that,” she says. Conveying this to a senior faculty member does suggest the presence of a strong underlying sentiment shared by some people, but Shin adds however that this is largely an individual issue.
“We need to have female and minority role models, we need diversity in positions of authority and see that it is possible to be a high-achiever and successful regardless of what you look like,” she says.
Shin also says that “your thinking and attitudes start at home” i.e. what you learn at home largely determines your values and the kind of friends you ultimately go on to make.
Speaking from the point of view of someone mentoring a class of 250 students and often accommodating 20 to 30 students in her office multiple times a week, she describes how watching students learn and grow through this process is tremendously rewarding.
“Students in my lab often come to me worried about job applications and where they’re going, and I tell them to just keep following up, keep trying, it always works out,” she says. “I often have them come back to me and say, ‘I just heard back, Professor; they want me to start next week.’ ”
Shin mentions how for a largely male-dominated discipline, the social aspect of a workplace environment appears to be a challenge and inclusion is not as obvious. Women may not fit into the same roles, and she doesn’t see trends changing much in the next 20 or so years.
Shin does remain concerned over incidents such as the pro-rape vandalism story, and similar events in other universities, saying, “It’s very important for every member—not just females—to familiarize yourself with procedures and rules.”
While Shin emphasizes how incidents such as these require major action, she describes her progress in the profession as a combination of keeping your head down and knowing when to speak up. “I suggest this to all my students: document everything and keep your facts straight.”
Referring to her Korean background, she mentions how although her family was, in a way, very progressive, she was still asked the same stereotypical questions after her graduation: “When are you getting married. When are you having kids?”
While Shin says that didn’t happen for her for a long time, she eventually met the right person, and she thoroughly enjoys the dynamic between her work and family life.
“When I’m here in my office, I close the door and I get stuff done,” says Shin. “But I don’t think a lot of people appreciate the balance.”
Although I’m surprised at how she manages to make time for a balance, she tells me, “I’ve actually had a lot of male colleagues share this sentiment with me. There is no other feeling like the feeling you get when you get done what you got done, and then you go home.”
Shin laughs as she says that her own daughter is understandably good at math and music, but “when she told me she’s interested in performing and visual arts, I told her [to] go ahead. I’ve never steered her towards the sciences”.
Shin suggests how although this may be telling of her own experience in the field, the progress you make is determined by your passion and determination, and this applies to every individual.