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The Ice Queen Cometh: Women Must Rise Up to End Gender Discrimination

By P.K. Newby

The story describing the ongoing sexual harassment faced by Terry L. Karl by Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez at Harvard was heartbreaking—particularly because it is by no means unique, and mostly because it was she who suffered so deeply, not he. Karl first noted his behavior in 1981, and it was 37 years and 17 women’s accusations later that Harvard put Dominguez on leave, after which he resigned. Harvard’s “too little, too late” response is stupefying and infuriating.

Karl continued the conversation last week by noting Harvard’s insufficient follow-up by either the Provost or current University President—including, I glean, an apology.

The #MeToo movement began with overt harassment like that faced by Karl—and, most recently, by women in the Graduate School of Design—but has expanded greatly. Hollywood, for example, has highlighted differences in opportunities resulting from systemic sexism and gender discrimination that also come with dramatic discrepancies in pay, calling #TimesUp.

The extension of the conversation beyond overt sexual harassment and assault is thus vital: Gender discrimination is often less visible but far more pervasive. And, of course, the two are often intertwined.

As we also reflect on Lean In—a book by Facebook COO Sheryl K. Sandberg '91—five years hence, I wonder once again how far my own professional home for so long, the academy, has really come. In addition to stories like Karl’s, the vast majority of which go unheard, substantial differences remain in who’s at the top and who’s not. In 2015, 56 percent of professors were white men, compared to 27 percent white women; black females comprised an additional 2 percent and Hispanic females 1 percent. The average salary was higher for men every year between 1995 and 2015, during which time the wage gap actually increased. Women scientists are cited less frequently than their male counterparts (0.7 to 1), one reason I began my career publishing under my gender-neutral initials. Women faculty also perform more administrative responsibilities than men, among so many other often-unconscious sexist behaviors that compromise productivity and advancement. And, as in countless professional settings, mansplaining is commonplace—so much so that this blog about the phenomenon in academic settings went viral.

I was first introduced to gender anomalies as a new graduate student in 1993, when a male advisor confided that I was known as “Ice Queen.” It was then I first learned that the dispassionate objectivity so prized in science was only okay for men; the same behavior was perceived as cold and unfeeling in women, a liability rather than strength.

Alas, the same is true in academia as it is everywhere: Women can’t be too loud, too smart, too challenging, too beautiful, too intense, too fat, too uppity, too… anything.

Indeed, pejorative perceptions regarding the same personality characteristics critical for success in men—ambition, assertiveness, and the like—often result in decreased likability and lower evaluations for women. Women are also judged more harshly when measured using student evaluations of teaching (SETs). There is a substantial body of research showing that SETs are biased against women due to role incongruity and other factors. Copious studies show that women score more poorly than men on SETs on average, including in clever experiments where only gender varied. Faculty of color are also hurt by SETs, thus black women are especially disadvantaged.

Differences in how students perceive a woman at the front of the classroom are rooted in slow-to-change social mores that, sadly, still need time to evolve. Such efforts go far beyond any single workplace. Nonetheless, there are steps the university can take to help level the playing field. One easy fix is abolishing SETs, which have other biases too, like higher evaluations for easier courses and those in non-quantitative fields, a double whammy for women teaching rigorous science classes. It is, moreover, increasingly evident that SETs do not even measure course and teaching effectiveness at all, regardless of gender.

In response, many have called for SETs to be eradicated from use altogether, with The Century Foundation going so far as to state that SETs may even violate a host of federal laws and regulations. A handful of schools thus no longer use SETs as a stand-alone tool, like the University of Connecticut. Yet the majority of universities continue employing SETs as the primary, if not sole, criterion for teaching success, a basis for tenure, promotion, and (re)hiring that tacitly perpetuates gender—and racial—discrimination.

My own stories in the ivory tower span 25 years across time and place. Like most women, I have far too many tales to tell that have gone on far too long. As a professor, I now face the ongoing agony of student evaluations, which have had devastating effects personally as well as professionally; my efforts to discuss the limitations of SETs were repeatedly ignored by administrators and colleagues. Other experiences include exploitation as a student, post-doctorate, and professor; misattribution of intellectual contributions and courses; and denial of equivalent professional titles compared to those who performed less work, over less time. I was also a victim of “misbehavior,” as one advisor euphemized—though what I said was “emotional abuse.” In all of these cases I either confronted the persons responsible—likely enhancing my “Ice Queen” persona—or brought the incidents to the awareness of mentors, department chairs, and ombudspersons. In no cases were my concerns taken seriously, let alone addressed.

Thank God for therapy.

Yet I consider myself lucky, especially when contemplating the horrors women like Karl faced, as have far too many in the #MeToo movement.

In light of the upcoming vote for graduate student unionization, I now find myself contemplating whether such an organization would have made a difference in my myriad encounters. The policies and procedures in place at Harvard are clearly insufficient and, moreover, designed to protect the University, not its employees. There is evidence that unions are helpful in many domains, including responding to sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

The academy has come a long way but must do more to stop sexual harassment and assault and gender discrimination alike. Those in positions of power should ask questions, listen and believe our stories, and act promptly and appropriately. Students and post-doctorates are particularly vulnerable: Surely, a union is a step in the right direction. Yet women suffer again and again, across all levels of the academic lifespan.

Ice queens, unite! It is we who must give Harvard the much-needed push it needs to lean in.

P.K. Newby is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Nutrition at the the School of Public Health and Instructor in the Sustainability Program at the Extension School.

This article was published in print on April 17, 2018 under the title "The Ice Queen Cometh."

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