Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Ivory Towers, Playing Fields and Glass Ceilings: Beyond Metaphor to Best Practices

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Ivory Towers, Playing Fields and Glass Ceilings: Beyond Metaphor to Best Practices

Article excerpt

Keynote Address

Succeeding as Women in Higher Education Conference,

SUNY Cortland


Abstract: Taken from the keynote address given at SUNY Cortland's "Succeeding as Women in Higher Education" 2009 Conference, this address uses the framework of metaphor to question institutional practices and suggest steps toward gender equity.

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In my remarks today, I will pay some attention to the institutional contexts in which we might search for best - or better - practices, I hope I can set the stage for your deliberations with some context, some questions that might provoke or stimulate discussion, and perhaps a lesson or two to help navigate the frigid waters of the chilly climate. It is fitting that I begin my talk with a metaphor. We academics just love metaphors. Everything can be compared to everything else, it seems, especially when we sociologists talk about inequality. Metaphors provide us with both visualizations of what may be happening to us in our institutions: the glass ceiling, for example, where one can see the place one wants to be, but never quite reach it. Or, the phrase "level playing field" - another place to aspire to, but which we very seldom reach. But these metaphors can also get away from us, or disappoint, as they are never really about what we're trying to describe or appreciate, and sometimes they get very creatively mixed: As Cher was reputed to say, "I've been up and down so many times, that I feel as if I'm in a revolving door."

Perhaps the "chilly climate" is the best example of the metaphor that also understates. In fact, most of the actual "chilly" institutional climates we end up discussing are a whole lot colder than simply "chilly"; some of them are so cold they are downright dangerous. It would be impossible to exhaust the examples of the frigid climates women face day in and day out in our academic institutions. When I was a student, one of my mentors was the late well-known feminist sociologist, Alice Rossi. Introduced to a male faculty member at the University of Chicago one evening now over 50 years ago, he asked her what she did. When she replied, "I'm a sociologist", he replied, "My, that must be difficult to do at home." Twenty years later, when my colleague Janet Lever looked for a job, she was turned down by the sociology chair at a major university because they already had their "woman" (Lever, 1995). Referencing that same period in the 1970s, Judy Long, now emeritus at Syracuse, spoke of her time at the University of Chicago:

The history of women faculty at the University of Chicago is a ghostly one, haunted by the absence of women scholars who have been "disappeared". For all I know, feminism persists at the University of Chicago in the same distinctive form: each one teaches one and then expires. (Long, 1995)

Ten years later, now fast forwarding to the early 80s, as I was facing the tenure process myself, the senior men in my department (who constituted the entire voting faculty) were determining the list of outside reviewers for my case - the outside letters (usually 6-8 in number) being the most consequential element of any tenure case. Instead of a list of scholars studying work, or women's work (although no one was studying housework), or even women, they reasoned that the best collection of outside reviewers of my work - in addition to a list of eight others - were all the living past presidents of ASA. "That way," it was explained to me, "we can be sure that the work is of the highest quality."

Whatever we determine its temperature to be, the metaphor of "climate" does communicate an important feature of inequitable institutional cultures: climates tend to be pervasive, so we can say that in our institutions if inequality exists at all, it probably exists almost everywhere. Or, perhaps I should said it can exist everywhere, and this knowledge - of the power and potential of inequity - affects our work lives as much as any other feature of academic life. …

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