By Valerie Rachelle
A few months ago, over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, a friend confided to me, “It wasn’t until I was 40 that I realized only women had to work this hard to get this far.” She was right. It was never something I had really acknowledged before.
I look back at my career now and see how many doors I had to kick open, while my male counterparts walked through that same door unlocked and wide open. I worked. I pushed. I put myself out there. I knocked down doors. Every once in a while I would look at some of my male colleagues’ careers and think, “Wow - I have much more experience and they got that job over me?”
I thought, ‘that’s how life goes’. That’s how education goes and how theater goes. I thought that working harder was the norm for women in higher education and theater. I know now that I am not alone and the deck has been stacked against me. I never said anything before because there wasn’t anything to say. It was the status quo and I didn’t even acknowledge the inequity.
“Every year I’m expected to do more and more and more. From my first year, I was expected to do even more than the entire rest of the faculty.” - Anonymous, Full Time Professor
In an article by Pete Musto, he found that in 2017 a new info-brief by ACE's Center for Policy Research and Strategy updated key statistics about women in higher education. This info-brief examined issues like tenure, compensation, and representation in high-ranking leadership positions. The indication was that women were being prepared for leadership positions at a much greater rate than men. For three decades, female students earned more than half of all baccalaureate degrees and for the past decade half of all doctoral degrees. The report found that despite the number of female graduates available for leadership positions, women did not hold associate professor or full professor positions at the same rate as their male peers. This information prompted me to reach out to women I know in leadership positions in theater departments at the university level.
“No one (on the faculty) in six years has come to see me teach. Not once…” - Anonymous, Adjunct Professor
I interviewed three different women, from three different states, at three different colleges. They are all full-time tenured professors. Two of these women are also the head of their respective acting departments. Their experiences as women in power were eye-opening to me. These women don’t work together, their theater departments are hundreds of miles apart, and yet, their experiences are undeniably similar.
I inquired about workload, expectations, the delegation of responsibilities, and support from colleagues, subordinates, and from the department and/or president’s/dean’s office. All three of these professors felt the pressure to perform better, take on more outside classroom responsibilities (whether asked to, expected to, or taking it on themselves), and put in more hours than the rest of their colleagues.
“I do not feel my voice is heard. I always feel like I’m fighting. Things I say - no one registers. [A male colleague] will repeat what I have said and a male faculty member will finally respond. Tenure has helped me speak up more but I’m more fed up because it doesn’t get better. It only gets worse.” - Anonymous, Head of Acting
Although women are trained, sometimes at a higher rate and with more experience, our voices aren’t always heard. Is this why we stop speaking up? Is this why we stop asking for help? Do we take on more work, more hours, more responsibility because it is actually the path of least resistance? Or is it perception?
A study done in 2014 entitled “Faculty Service Load and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?” found that “...in the liberal arts, having female chairs correlated with women doing more service, especially within the department.” As to correcting the imbalance, the study found that “women simply need to become more protective of their research time, as men are.” Yet they face “grave consequences if they are not perceived as team players,” while men on the same faculty usually don’t. Perception feels important. In order to be respected in a leadership position, it feels like we need others to perceive us as infallible. In order to be infallible, we put in the extra hours and take on more responsibility than our counterparts. When we do take it all on and succeed, it becomes the expectation. Once the workload becomes too much and we begin to delegate, it can be perceived as weak.
“There are things in the department that I shouldn’t deal with. But I’m sent by higher powers to deal with things like sexual harassment. My boss has been accused of sexually harassing students. The dean's office refuses to take care of it and I end up going in and trying to fix it myself.” - Anonymous, Head of Acting Professor
The pressure to look superhuman also seem to come from within. The women I spoke with all admitted they take on more work without being asked because if they didn’t, “it wouldn’t get done.” Or “...the work just isn’t done with the same level of detail.” In my own experience I feel the need to take everything on because even if it did get done by someone else, it wouldn’t be done to my standards. But, Is that really true? Is this our fear of letting go? Of failure? Do we stop trusting others because we have been burned in the past?
“No, I don’t delegate anymore. There is no one I can trust in my department.” - Anonymous, Full-Time Professor
My own frustrations as faculty at major universities mirror these women as well. In 2014, I was interviewed as part of the final three for two different tenure-track theater professor positions. One in a rare place where 90% of the theater faculty were women. The verdict there? I was overqualified to teach their students acting and directing. The other? As the only female applicant in a male dominant department, my final interview was with the President of the school. He was accompanied by one of the Human Resources staff during the interview (I now know why). During the interview, he asked me questions that the HR staff member had to continuously tell him he couldn’t legally ask me. “Do you have children?”, “How are you going to work full time and be a mother?” “Do you realize the number of hours a full-time position like this requires?” There weren’t many questions about my qualifications and when he challenged me on my resume I started shaking with anger. After a short breakdown outside alone (I wasn’t about to lose it in front of him), an apology email from HR (probably to make sure I didn’t sue), and a good vent over the phone to my husband, I took a step back. Why didn’t I realize this as part of the problem until just recently? I just assumed this was part of everyone’s experience in academia. I mean, don’t we all have stories like this one in our careers?
One cannot always pass off these internal departmental problems as part of the structure of that particular program. The women I interviewed have worked in numerous departments, as have I, in order to get to where they are as professors. The story from place to place has a recurring theme. We see it in the research and we see it in the studies and statistics. We see it in the classrooms and in the admin office. Women are outnumbered, paid less, and do more than our male colleagues. Gender bias runs deep and shows up in our everyday behavior.
“My attitude is to do good work and the work should speak for itself.” - Anonymous, Adjunct Professor
What’s next? Do we continue to work hard or harder and let the work speak for itself?
Yes, we do!
And, no - Hell no!
I know now that the conversation needs to accompany the work. I will call out that President, I will tell HR how someone really affects their institution. I will hire more female colleagues. I pledge to speak up when I see inequity. I vow to celebrate when the paradigm shifts. My work does need to speak for itself but so do I. My voice, your voice, our voices need to be heard. There is hope. No, wait, let me try that again. “THERE IS HOPE!”