Friday, February 10, 2012

"It'll put hair on your chests"

In my graduate program, men outnumber women by a 2:1 ratio, more or less.  Women make up 30% of my class, which is pretty normal, both in my department and in economics graduate programs generally.  There are a few programs where the gender ratios are even more skewed (Maryland comes to mind), but that's generally how it goes.  And I will say, the schools are thinking about it.  Most of them want a higher proportion of women, though they vary in what/how much they're willing to do to attract them.  It may not be seen as super-high priority, but it's an issue that departments are well-aware of and that they take fairly seriously.

My department's faculty is similarly skewed, except somewhat worse.  Again, this is the case in almost every economics department, not a particular feature of my school.  In fact, my program is notable for having a couple of very high-profile women faculty (though sadly one of them just left).

Honestly, most of the time I don't notice that I'm surrounded by men.
It was a bit of a culture shock at first, yes.  After growing up in the ballet world and then attending a women's college, I'm attuned to female-dominated environments.  Meaning that I'm more comfortable with certain sets of social rules, etc.  But it's not that big a deal, not after a semester studying math in a program where men also outnumbered women by more than 2:1, and certainly not after three years of working in one of the more male-dominated areas of public policy (albeit within an organization that had a fairly good gender balance).  

The program works for me.  I've made a couple of close friends among the women, and we all like each other enough that we get together for the occasional girls-only evening.  So I have my female support network, at least to the extent that I have a grad school support network.  (It's definitely still developing, in my opinion.)  And I like most of the men in my class, too, both to study with and socially.  So I'm comfortable enough that I don't think about it all the time.

But then there are Those Moments.  The quiet little reminders that this is in many way's a boy's club, that women are outsiders here.  I had one of those in lectures this week.

One of my professors took the entirety of two lectures (Tuesday and Thursday) to walk us through a long and somewhat complicated proof (existence of equilibrium in GE theory).  Which is all well and good, and normal for microeconomic theory.  But he kept commenting--multiple times--that it was so good for us to do this, that it would "put hair on our chests."  Which, thank you, but my chest would not be improved by adding hair.

In the scheme of things, this is not a big deal.  It doesn't really harm anyone, and I doubt the prof meant anything by it.  But it highlighted the sense that women are strangers here, that this is not our world, that we are not the intended audience.  I am not in any sense upset about this.  It was just an offhand comment, or three offhand comments.  But it did give me pause.

For the record, this was one of my favorite professors.  A guy who's lectures are endlessly entertaining, whose lecture notes outstanding, who I like being taught by enough that I don't mind how early his class is scheduled.  I don't dislike him.  I don't think he has anything against women, at all, or that he is consciously sexist in any way.  He simply reflects his training and his environment.

Which is why this kind of thing does give me pause, inconsequential as it may be.  Because gender attitudes are deeply ingrained.  They aren't easy to change, because they go beyond conscious thought.  Which is why we have to pay attention, have to work to be(come) conscious.  Because things aren't going to change if we don't, especially not within insular communities (like academic economics).

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