INSIDE THE CLOCKWORK OF MALE CAREERS
An offhand remark made to me years ago has haunted me more and more ever since. I was talking at lunch with an acquaintance, and the talk turned, as it often does among women academicians just before it’s time to part, to “how you manage” a full teaching schedule and family and how you feel about being a woman in a world of men. My acquaintance held a marginal position as one of two women in a department of fifty-five, a situation so common in 1973 that I don’t fear for her anonymity here. She said in passing, “My husband took our son to the university swimming pool the other day. He got so embarrassed being the only man with all those faculty wives and their kids.” When the talk turned to her work, she said, “I was in a department meeting yesterday, and, you know, Ї always feel self-conscious. It’s not that people aren’t friendly.. . it’s just that I feel I don’t fit in.” She felt uneasy in a world of men, he embarrassed in a world of women. It is not only the double world of swimming pools and department meetings that has haunted me, but his embarrassment, her unease.
This conversation recurred to me when I met with the (Committee on the Status of Women, a senate committee that formed on the Berkeiey campus in 1972. We met in the Men’s Faculty Club, a row of male scholars framed on the dark walls, the waitresses bringing in coffee and taking out dishes. The talk was about discrimination and about the affirmative action plan, a reluctant, ambiguous document that, to quote from its own elephant-footed language, “recognizes the desirability of removing obstacles to the flow of ability into appropriate occupational roles.”
The well-meaning biologist on the committee was apologizing for his department, the engineer reminding us that they were “looking very hard” for a woman and an African American, and another reminding us that things were getting better all the time. But I remember feeling what many of us probably sensed but didn’t say: that an enormously complex problem, an overwhelming reality—one world of swimming pools, children, and women, and another of men in departments and committee meetings; his embarrassment, her unease—was being delicately sliced into the tiny tidbits a giant bureaucracy could digest. I wondered if anything in that affirmative
action plan, and others like it across the country, would begin to merge these double worlds. What such plans ignore is the fact that the existing academic career subcontracts work to the family—work that women perform. Without changing the structure of this career and its imperial relation to the family, it will be impossible for mothers to move far up in careers and for fathers to share at home.
I would like to start by asking a simple and familiar question: Why, at a public university like the University of California at Berkeley in 19*72, did women compose 41 percent of the entering freshmen, 37 percent of the graduating seniors, 31 percent of the applicants for admission to graduate school, 28 percent of the graduate admissions, 24 percent of the doctoral students, 21 percent of advanced doctoral students, 12 percent of Ph. D.s, 38 percent of instructors, 9 percent of assistant professors, 6 percent of associate professors, and 3 percent of full professors?1 This classic pattern was typical for women at all major universities in the early 1970s, and the situation in nearly all of them was, as in UC Berkeley, worse than it had been in i93°-2
I have heard two standard explanations for this classic pattern, but I doubt that either gets to the bottom of the matter. One explanation is that the university discriminates against women. If only tomorrow it could halt discrimination and become an impartial meritocracy, there would be many more academic women. The second explanation is that women are trained early to avoid success and authority and, lacking good role models as well, they “cool themselves out.”
Since some excellent objective studies already address this question,3 in this essay I explore my own experience, comparing it occasionally to findings in other studies, in order to explain why a third explanation rings more true to me: namely, that the classic profile of the academic career is cut to the image of the traditional man with his traditional wife. To ask why more women are not full professors, or “full” anything else in the upper reaches of the economy, we have to ask first what it means to be a male full professor—socially, morally, and humanly—and what kind of system makes them into what they become.
The academic career is founded on some peculiar assumptions about the relation between doing work and competing with others, competing with others and getting credit for work, getting credit and building a reputation, building a reputation and doing it while you’re young, doing it while you’ re young and hoarding scarce time, hoarding scarce time and minimizing family life, minimizing family life and leaving it to your wife—the chain of experiences that seems to anchor the traditional academic career. Even if the meritocracy worked perfectly, even if women did not cool themselves out, I suspect there would remain in a system that defines careers this way only a handful of women at the top.
If Maehiavelli had turned his pen, as so many modern satirists have, to
how a provincial might come to the university and become a full professor, he might have given the following advice: Enter graduate school with the same mentality with which you think you will emerge from graduate school. Be confident, ambitious, and directed. Don’t waste time. Get a good research topic early and find an important but kindly and nonprejudicial benefactor from whom you actually learn something. Most important, put your all into those crucial years after you get your doctorate—in your twenties and thirties—putting nothing else first then. Take your best job offer and go there, no matter what your family or social situation. Publish your first book with a well-known publisher, and cross the land to a slightly better position, if it comes up. Extend your now-ambitious sell broadly and deeply into research, committee work, and editorships to make your name in your late twenties and at the latest early thirties. If somewhere along the way teaching becomes the psychic equivalent of volunteer work, don’t let it bother you. You are now a full professor and can guide other fledglings along that course.
Perhaps 1 am caricaturing, but bear in mind that I am talking about why in the early 1970s only 3 to 4 percent of the full professors were women at universities like Berkeley, where I think it is fair to say this describes the cardboard outline of the “ideal” career. Ideals are the measuring rods of experience. Even if, as a moral dropout, a student rejects this ideal, the student finds himself or herself nonetheless in competition with others who rise to the top to exemplify and uphold the ideal.
But there is something hidden in the description of this academic career: the family. And men and women have had (and still have) different ties to the family. I think this is not accidental, for the university seeks to immunize itself against the vicissitudes of human existence out of its control. Some of these vicissitudes are expressed and absorbed in the family: birth at one end of the life cycle and death at the other. I ower ages at retirement handle the “problem” of death, and the exclusion of women the “problem” of birth. (It it could, the university would also guard against other human traumas, sic k – ness, insanity, postdivorce depression, now removed from it by sabbaticals and leaves of absence.)
The family is in some sense a preindustrial institution and lives in a private, more flexible time, remote from the immortal industrial clock. The family absorbs vicissitudes that the workplace discards. It is the university’s welfare agency, and women are its social workers. That is to say, the family serves a function for the university, and women have more to do with the family than men. As a result, Machiavelli’s advice suits them less well. In the 1970s women Ph. D.s in the United States spent about 28 hours per week on household tasks.4 More important, the twenties and sometimes the thirties are normally a time to bear and raise children. But it is precisely at this stage that one begins to hear talk about “serious contributions to the field” and
“reputation,” which are always more or less promising than those of others
one’s age. The result is apparent from a glance at a few crucial details in her curriculum vitae: How long did she take for the degree? Full-time, continuous work? Previous jobs, the best she could get? But the result shows too in how she sees herself in a career. For many academic women have been socialized at least twice, once to be women (as housewives and mothers) and once again to be like men (in traditional careers). The second socialization raises the issue of assimilation to the male culture associated with academic life; the first socialization raises the issue of what women abandon in the process. The question we must unbury lies between the first socialization and the second: How much do women want careers to change them and how much do women want to change careers?