The sexism of not being able to fake it

Today I’ve been noticing that there are faculty members, in all departments, who drop the ball a lot by letting things slide, and there are other faculty who pick up the slack and keep those balls in the air. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that that’s unfair. There’s no good excuse for it: just as many of the responsible people are disorganized and have busy personal/family lives as the irresponsible ones. The disorganized and overextended people certainly tend to forget things more, but they’re sincerely trying to keep all those balls in the air. Some people have just learned what they can get away with, and they do. I’m not talking about people who try but screw things up a lot; I mean the people who just let everything slide because they don’t care that much. That kid who never pulled their weight in group school projects. THAT person.

Everyone knows who those people are, too. Sometimes I suppose that tendency might pull someone up short when it comes to tenure, but often not, because “service” doesn’t amount to much in a tenure review. And there’s no real gender pattern I’ve observed when it comes to whether you’re a ball-dropper or ball-picker-upper in life in general. I’m sure everyone knows some very responsible men and some very irresponsible women, and I’d never argue otherwise.

But. There is a distinct gender pattern I’ve observed when it comes to faculty. I see very few women just letting everything slide so they can do the bare minimum, and already I’ve encountered several men like that. I don’t have statistics on this (anyone? Do those exist? I’d be interested to see them if they do), so we’re dealing with the unfortunately plural of anecdote, but for the moment let’s assume I’m right, and there are fewer women slackers than men slackers per capita in an academic environment. Just for the sake of trying to explain my own observations.

Why would that be the case? Possibilities:

1) Socialization. This presumes women in general are less likely than men to be slackers. I really have no idea if there are any statistics that might show this to be true. There certainly are different social pressures on boys and girls while they’re growing up, and to some extent women are still trained to pick up the slack, to do the housecleaning, to be the secretary. There’s still a lot of that being taught in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. But like I said, I’m not arguing that women like this don’t exist, because of course they do. I’m not sure how big a role this plays.

2) Filtering. The slacker women don’t make the cut, but some slacker men slip by (presumably, the REALLY slacking men still don’t). This could happen during undergrad, grad school, or postdocs (maybe even tenure, but hard to say).

I lean towards #2. I certainly feel like I can get away with a lot less bad behavior and lousy work ethics than men. I’m not terribly inclined towards either of those things, so maybe my perspective is biased by my own disinclinations. But still, I want to say that women can’t get away with as much. We have to meet a higher bar to justify our place.

That’s it in a nushell. We have to meet a higher bar. And when you’re working with men who are dropping the ball and have gotten away with it, over and over, to the point that everyone knows they do it and they’re still here, you as the woman have to pick up the slack. Because if slacker dude was working with another man, and that man refused to do more than his fair share, no one would blame him. He did his part, and his coworker fucked up. But if I fail to pick up the other ball, I can’t escape looking irresponsible.

It’s like the recent Office episode where Pam refused to photocopy anything in the new office, because she didn’t want to be automatically assigned all of the secretarial duties when she wasn’t a secretary. Good on Pam for that. I just wish it were that easy when you’re in a workplace with more than 3 people.


4 Responses

  1. Don’t they interact, though? The reason slacker women would be filtered out is because of the expectations laid down by the socialization everyone has that women are supposed to participate more. And the ‘non-slacker’ women may in actuality be hyper-participatory due to their own socialization, setting that bar even higher for the rest of us. I’m thinking in particular of one woman in my department who is the most mother-figure person imaginable. She brings food to every committee meeting she’s in charge of. She volunteers for everything. She talks to everyone all the time, so she knows all the politically important gossip. Me, I get tired just being in the same room with her. She makes me feel like a slacker who needs to do more, even though I’m already doing more than half the other people in the department.

  2. THAT is a great point, car. They absolutely do interact. I was labeling “slacker” and “non-slacker” women and men using the same criteria here, for the sake of comparison. But in reality, other people don’t use the same criteria for determining that, and that is what informs that filter.

    I’m super organized and like to get things checked off my lists, so I’m a pretty efficient worker, especially under pressure. More than most. I’m sure that’s helped me meet expectations for women scientists over the years. The problem I’m encountering, already, is the side effect of being consistently handed responsibilities that should either be evenly distributed between the men and women involved, or that should be performed by administrative assistants or secretaries. The fact is that I would be a GOOD secretary, and people notice (despite my best efforts!). So when I’m working with other people and things aren’t getting done, it always ends up faster for me to just do them and get them out of the way, because clearly they aren’t going to happen anyway. (I also was disproportionately assigned some very secretarial lab-group duties as a grad student, which drove me a little crazy.)

    And yesterday, that pattern was just pissing me the hell off, hence the post. I’m really not sure how to fix the problem, though, other than learning which personalities to avoid working with, and noticing sooner so I put my foot down more. Even though that would require being willing to let things not get done sometimes.

  3. There are slacker women – there’s one I’m thinking of who has procrastinated so much on some basic issues that it’s become a serious issue. So it’s not impossible.

    One other thing to consider is age. There’s two basic age groups in our department – fresh and new profs, and venerable profs. The men in the older group tend to not do *anything* remotely secretarial, and they get away with more ball dropping. (They’re trying, but they’ve got other foci.) Part of this is increased responsibilities – they’re heads of committees and organizations, they’re invited to speak more, etc. In the younger group, I find both men and women to be much more self-sufficient, although I think men tend more towards the letting things slide that don’t directly impact them.

    There’s also increased pressure for women and minorities to be involved in mentoring and advising students – which is great, but a real time eater. I think it can be harder to say no to those activities, even if they’re not considered contributory to tenure, because there’s a marked shortage of women and minorities in our school. A lot of the straight white male profs don’t mentor directly, on the assumption someone else will step up.

    Specialty makes a difference in our department, too. Many of the men work alone, while many of the women are deeply involved in collaborative projects or cross-departmental committees which eat a lot of time. A lot of this depends on what they specialize in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was easier for women to succeed in areas where they’re expected to be collaborative. (After all, all women love working together! Natch.)

    As an admin, I find the women *in general* tend to be more responsive to my requests, and tend to do more of the stuff that the older men take for granted I’ll do, like forward an email to their lab group.

  4. I agree– as above– that there’s some reinforcing going on here, and also that this is sometimes a generational divide– the professoriate being more male-dominated.

    In my own department, I see a tremendous gender gap here. It’s very much the men who are slackers, but they are also senior faculty. It will be interesting to see how this plays out now that I will have a male junior colleague. It’s also a junior-senior gap; there is one senior woman, but she got tired of the general situation, and has now put her foot down.

    I also think that so-called “imposter syndrome” may play a role here. Women and minorities in fields like academe often aren’t as confident of our positions, and might do huge amounts of service work to “prove” ourselves, which, of course, we shouldn’t have to do (I know that I am personally prone to this).

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