WOMEN COOLING THEMSELVES OUT
The second explanation for the attrition of women in academe touches private inequality more directly: women sooner or later cool themselves out by a form of “auto-discrimination.” Here, inequality is conceived not as the
mark of a chairperson’s pen, but as the consequence of a whole constellation of disadvantages that alter what a woman wants to do.
It is admittedly hard to distinguish between women who remove themselves from the university and women who are removed or who are moved to remove themselves. For me, there were innumerable aspects of graduate school that were not quite discriminatory and not quite not discriminatory either. Some things were simply discouraging: the invisibility of women among the teachers and writers of the books one read or among the faces framed on the walls of the faculty club; the paucity of women at the informal gathering over beer after the seminar. Then there were the prelecture jokes (to break the ice) that referred in some way to pretty girls as a distraction or to getting into “virginal” fields.12 There was also the continual, semiconscious work of sensing and avoiding professors who were known to dislike or discredit women or particular types of women. One professor in my department seriously suggested adding more mathematics to the methodology requirement in order to reduce the number of’women undergraduate majors, in addition, there was the low standing of the “female” specialties—like sociology of the family and education—which some early feminists like me scrupulously avoided for that stupid reason. The real thing to study, of course, was political sociology and general theory: those were virtually all-male classes, from which one could emerge with a “command” of the important literature.
Women can be discouraged by compedtion and by the need to be, despite their training, unambivalent about ambition. Ambition is no static or given thing, like having blue eyes. It is more like sexuality—variable, subject to influence, and attached to past loves, deprivations, rivalries, and the many events long erased from memory. Some people would be ambitious anywhere, but competitive situations tend to drive ambition underground in women. Despite supportive mentor’s, for many women there remains something intangibly frightening about a competitive environment, about competitive seminar talk, even about argumentative writing. While feminists have challenged the fear of competition—both by competing successfully and by refusing to compete—and while some male dropouts crossing over the other way advise against competing, the issue is hardly settled for most of us. For those who cannot imagine themselves inside a competitive environment, the question becomes: How much is something wrong with me and how much is something wrong with my situation?