Tin Roof, Rusted (Part II): Party Conversations

One of the people I most enjoyed was a wife of one of Paul’s cooler co-workers, who is the Department head of the Math Department of a local high school and teaches AP Calculus and AP Statistics. She and I were discussing the importance of women in Mathematics and Sciences when she came out with this: “I have a class of 28, and each year, about 21 of them are female and all of them consistently outperform their male peers. Our student government is always female. So what I want to know is: WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING IN COLLEGE????”

A brilliant question placed so nicely within the observations and experiences of someone who faces it everyday. What is happening to women?

Once upon a time, Paul and I made similar observations about friends and acquaintances, noticing that they shared the same college: we joked that this particular university had a curious way of beating dreams and aspirations out of women. This particular university is also well-known for having faculty who openly have flirtations and affairs with students — and write about it — and maybe this isn’t a coincidence. What happens in college, and what happens after, and why is it so toxic to the promising potential in the talents of women?

Maybe it isn’t necessarily what happens in college, but is instead what happens afterward? She gets hired by Company X and gets stuck working with the guy with the roaming hands. This guy is pervasive everywhere and is typically one that everyone seems to like (or is maybe tolerated out of some strange peer-pressure fear), and while it’s well-known that he is inappropriate, he remains untouched by an indifferent management (make the environment more friendly to women? what is that a requirement of management?) Worse, he may be her boss. Or, her boss totally ignores her, calling in for the first time on the day she resigns. She gets paid less than her male peers, receives less promotions, and is hounded on her personal life (marriage and kids makes a working girl distracted, ya know.) Are all of these things illegal? Well, maybe, but they are all active and real… as part of corporate culture as power ties and pumps. Maybe my use of the word ‘corporate’ unfairly fingers business, which is not my intent: it is even worse in academia.

So what does the world offer to women, professionally? Well, I’d argue it offers all that it offers to a man — at a reduced pay, of course — IF the woman is willing to act like a man.

For a woman to be successful, she must remain aloof, act tough, rough, and hard (which will label her a “cold bitch” but is preferred to the alternative, patronizing treatment). She is constantly observed for signs of female-ness: did she marry, buy a house, or (gasp!) have a baby!? These are all connected to risk within the robot-male business model, where one must have no emotion to any thing but the job, dedicate all time to it, and reject life outside of work. Forget that 30 hours a week of work is the most efficient, connected to more completed in a work week, healthier employees, and a better overall company: you are required to be at work, even if you’re not doing anything at all, 12 hours a day, everyday. Not performing at this level is a feminine slip, a sign of weakness, and shows lack of dedication. Want to push back that 4pm meeting to 3pm so that you can make Tommy’s soccer game? Tisk, tisk… your priorities are all messed up. (Incidentally, if your male boss makes the same request, he’s just “being a good Dad.”)

A day of sexual harassment, hours and hours of extra work with little reward, pay out of whack with peers, and diminished opportunities for advancement… who would willing and openly choose this life? Staying home with babies (who actually need to be with their Mothers for more than the ridiculous 6-week window) does not sound like a “choice” but a rational path made by smart women who are lucky to have enough resources available to them so that they do not have to endure the torture of a sexist, hostile work environment.

If the work world was structured to be family friendly: to offer part-time opportunities with benefits (or have university health care so that benefits were not a requirement for families), and work options that allowed for quality jobs with less hours and more flexibility; if maternity leave was reasonable; if childcare was affordable and on-site for nursing mothers… in short, if women and families were valued, then I believe more women would remain in professional positions in all fields. Women “choose” to leave the work force because there is no other choice to make. I don’t think it a coincidence that so many women have part-time independent businesses, photography studios, craft endeavors, design consultant services: these are flexible areas where women can control their professional lives. Signs that women want to continue to develop themselves outside of their family identity and responsibilities, but cannot do so in the professional world. So they look for other places to do so.

So what happens to women to take them out of mathematics and sciences (and the professional world, in general?) Well, they get beaten. Enough licks and anyone with a ripcord will pull it to get out.

The whole situation sucks for men, too, who are expected to work, expected to find well-paid employment to support a family, expected to work too much, and expected to not notice that they are missed at home. What would it take to re-think how we work and who we expect to work? Is it too much to encourage young women to think beyond a life in homemaking and allow men to pursue art or craft-making without looking at him as irresponsible?