What’s It Like to Be a Woman in Academia?

Colleagues or students do not always start from the assumption that female academics are qualified for the positions they hold.


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Answer by Elizabeth H. Simmons, theoretical particle physicist and professor at Michigan State University:

I’ve faced some challenges that my male colleagues have not encountered. Here are a few very specific examples that come to mind:

Being visibly pregnant while working full-time as a postdoctoral researcher, someone quite junior in my field. When colleagues would make rude remarks about my appearance or try to touch my abdomen, it felt much more intrusive and intimidating than when a stranger would do so—these were people who would be judging my professional competence then and for years to come.

Teaching classes while heavily pregnant, which can be pretty tiring if you teach an evening section and then have a long commute home. I taught right up to my due date, and because I couldn’t be sure when I’d “vanish” from the classroom, I put together a detailed binder for the colleague who would take over during my absence, complete with contingency information for any conceivable timing of my absence. I can laugh now, but it took a lot of time …

Attending conferences while so newly pregnant that it was too early to tell people my true situation: I had to have a colleague lift a suitcase for me and had to find milk to drink at meals (not usually served at professional meetings!), but I couldn’t tell anyone the true reason, which felt awkward.

Professional speaking and travel while still breast-feeding. Either I had to arrange to bring the baby and a minder with me, or I had to bring the pump and find time (and privacy) to use it.

Early in my career: Having posters advertising a research talk of mine defaced by sexist scrawls. Having an audience member come up to me after my talk and say, “We should have more pretty girls come give talks.” (The department chair pretty much pushed him aside and apologized profusely for his behavior.)

More generally, colleagues or students do not always start from the assumption that female academics are qualified for the positions they hold. There is a constant pressure to prove your competence, to prove that you belong, to prove that you are serious about your scholarship (and not just interested in teaching or service), to prove that you can be a good leader. However, those pressures are also present for people of color, LGBT individuals, and other members of underrepresented groups in academia.

Women in academia, have you faced any challenge which your male counterparts have not faced? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: