The Wizards in the Tower

Posted By Pamela on Sep 22, 2007 | 11 comments

Somewhere, once upon a time, the metaphor of faculty living in a mystical Ivory Tower entered the vernacular. I don’t know the history of this imagery, but it always conjures images of wizards working their spells while the look out over the common people – the little people – from their vantage on high. These gray-haired men of wisdom sometimes enter the courtyard to educate the young. At their feet the future wise ones absorb knowledge and engage in Socratic dialogue.

This image doesn’t have much room for young woman – heck it doesn’t really have room for the young at all. But it’s just a metaphor, right?

The problem with stereotypes and metaphors is they are often rooted in a certain amount of truth.

One of my favorite blogs is FemaleScienceProfessor. I don’t know who the writer is, accept that she is a “full professor at a large research university, and [does] research in the physical sciences.” From her posts, I feel safe guessing she’s not an astronomer, but even though her experiences aren’t identical to mine, she does articulate a lot of the universal experiences of women in academe. Because she writes anonymously, and because she has tenure, she has the freedom to talk in ways that someone like me should never dare.

(Note to everyone: People lose their jobs and are punished in their jobs for what they write in personal blogs. I’ve now heard two stories of different people losing their jobs after being outed as bloggers – both had blogged anonymously about non-proprietary stuff that lived in their heads.)

In a recent post, the FemaleScienceProfessor noted that in meetings she has repeatedly seen female faculty get ignored until a senior male faculty member has spoken up on their behalf. After the senior male supported their effort, the rest of the men suddenly listened to the female. She referred to the person who spoke up for the woman as a social training wheel and asked the interesting question, “if a female professor has an advocate who supports her ideas again and again during committee meetings, will that committee eventually be able to listen, even when the training wheel is removed and the ideas are expressed by a higher pitched voice?”

It is a fascinating question.  What is required to enact a shift in what I think/hope are largely subconscious behaviors?

Gender discrimination crops up in a lot of different and annoying ways. Some of them aren’t even malicious – they are just subtly annoying. For instance, I’ve noticed that students assume men are Dr. SoAndSo, and they assume I’m Ms. Gay (to which I respond “You can call me Dr Gay, Pamela, or some combination of those three words, but Ms/Mrs/Miss are off limits”). The other day I had some really sweet students ask if I had my PhD yet, and I’m afraid I responded “Yes, since 2002” a bit more arrogantly than I should have – I’m just tired of people who don’t know me assuming I couldn’t possibly have a PhD, and these kids got a bit of pent of frustration.

This is the mostly harmless kind of the c*** that periodically (but regularly) smacks women in academia. Some places are better, some are worse, but discrimination widely exists and is recognized as a problem but also as the norm.

I’m not sure how to enact systemic change. I just know the same biases exist in my students as exist in the senior faculty. This makes me worry that change won’t come with a changing of the old guard for younger faces. There are women coming up through the ranks, but they are still rare.

I hate seeing problems that have no solution – not even difficult to implement solutions. My greatest personal frustration comes from seeing problems that aren’t rooted in logic. I see a problem with subconscious gender discrimination. I live with the problem of subconscious gender discrimination. And when I read TheFemaleScienceProfessor I know I’m not alone.

Maybe, every woman just needs a gray-haired wizard to serve as her training wheel.

Perhaps I need to sit at the foot of the tower and see who comes out ready to offer keys to the carefully chained off stairs.


  1. Agreed (despite not being a girl). Gender discrimination has always been a built-in problem of the society.

  2. As kind of an aside to the main thrust of your post, which I completely agree with, I was wondering about the instances of students referring to you as Ms rather than Dr. I know that, despite personally knowing some younger PhDs, in my mind’s eye the image I have of one is always older. So I wonder if other people have a similar image and default to a neutral Miss because you seem younger. [I of course have no idea what your age is and am not asking, but based on your pictures you look younger than my obviously flawed mental image of a Dr.] Not that age discrimination is any better than gender discrimination, but it was something that stuck me that perhaps some, probably not most or even many, of the instances of Miss are a similarly subconscious reaction to your, apparent, age?

  3. People are constantly assuming that I am a student (undergrad or postgrad) even though I have a PhD and am a member of staff. The other day I was told off by some secretaries for going into their office and not standing at the window where students were supposed to. They were a bit taken aback when I said that I was a member of staff and changed the way they were talking to me (more on a similar level than talking down to me).

    Part of my problem is to do with my clothing as I’m usually quite casual. I’ve tested this in the past couple of years by occasionally wearing smart clothes or clothing more typical of an academic. It is pretty cool to see the change in the way people behave towards me. This works in ‘real life’ too.

    Luckily, I can do something about my clothing, so this isn’t as big a problem as gender discrimination.

  4. I think this relates to the general question of subconscious discrimination of all types. Everybody agrees that it exists, but there’s a debate about whether the discriminators are morally culpable, because it does require a large degree of dispassionate introspection to see it.

    Ultimately, once we’ve mandated equal treatment to what extent we can through policies and laws, we have to find a reasonably humane way of reaching into people’s heads and forcing them to self-monitor. Education on the topic is one way, but institutions tend not to require this training unless forced. In the corporate world, it often requires a class action lawsuit that demands training. While I find this a little distasteful, it may sadly be the only way to continue progress in this area.

    In my (very) large company, I think one reason women are perceived (and treated) as lightweights is that they tend not to stay around as long because they choose the family track at some point. They can overcome this, but it requires a lot of self-assertiveness, which can backfire. Classic Catch-22 for them.

  5. Come to GMU. They have, I believe, the highest percentage of women on the physics faculty of all US universities (35% vs. 10% nationally), including the previous Physics Chair (now in the College of Science Dean’s office) and most of my favorite professors there have been the women.

    Besides, northern VA is the place to be!

  6. It is sad to hear your efforts get less noticed, Dr. Gay. In my industry, construction, the situation is even worse.

    Hmmmmm… how to help. Try this, have a big meeting at Haloween where everyone attends in costume. Get a voice deeping device and a mean gorilla outfit then take charge!

  7. I just started Applied Computer Science and more than 90% of the students are male and the few females (5) are threat like they know less of this subject. (they seem to know about the same as the males though).

    But the suprized comes in that most of my teachers are female,
    It’s somewhere around a 2/3’s.

  8. I’m coming in from a slightly different perspective: I’m trying to reenter academia (astronomy) after nearly 2 decades of working in the computer science field. I’m also a transgendered person who recently transitioned.

    At my workplace, my company is publicly and outwardly supportive but the day-to-day reality is quite different: I’m seeing the same thing described here, where my ideas are ignored unless one of my male colleagues support it. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon: at the start of my transition, when people were still having difficulty with the correct pronouns and whatnot, my ideas could stand on my own. When people got used to me in my (to them) new identity, that’s when I started seeing this needs-male-advocacy bit.

    Having been male in my previous life, I’m intimately familiar with the lingering idea that women expect to be treated differently in the workplace, as if we expect to be cut slack or accorded special privileges. I’m very cautious to avoid that; all I want to do is to do my job and get paid and advanced on merit. It will be interesting to see how my next performance review goes.

    I’m currently taking online courses and the phenomenon is reversed here. My classmates (who don’t know I’m transgendered since I took a year’s medical leave) are treating me less brusquely and with more politeness, similar to the phenomenon of women gamers.

    I think it all comes down to whether the men see the women as a threat.

  9. Pamela, thank you for Astronomy Cast and for teaching so many people so much :).

  10. Back at SUNY Morrisville, way back in the last century a woman, Jean Boland, took over Campus Computing Services from a man who had kept us on VT220 terminals up through the mid 90s.

    Jean was known as the savior of the Department. Morale went up appreciatively.

    One day myself, my immediate boss Randy, Don, our network person, and Jean were in an office. A vendor came in and was just talking to us informally about something, I don’t remember what. He left and Randy just quietly said, “Do you believe that?” Don responded, “Amazing.”

    You know me – everything goes over my head. “What? What?” I asked.

    Randy looked at me sand said, “The vendor never once looked at Jean. Never once.”


    “He couldn’t deal with a woman being the head of a technical department. You’ll notice that he directed all his questions and pitches to Don and I. He ignored you because you weren’t on the radar being under me. He ignored Jean because she was a woman.”

    I was absolutely livid. Oh there have been woman leaders I’ve not liked (my undergraduate college president), and woman leaders I’d disagreed with (Margaret Thatcher on a cold day), but ignoring them just because they’re a woman…no.

    Oh, I may fall into the old societal problems of assuming the man is the doctor, yea, but then again I’ll tend to assume everyone in an AAS meeting, or anyone teaching in college is a Ph.D just to be safe.

  11. Just learned of your blog via a post at BAUT about your post on the quintet/sextet images. I’ve added your RSS, so I’ll certainly be back…

    Regarding gender stereotyping and discrimination: yeah, it is a pain in the neck. And it isn’t just annoying to women in the field! Plenty of my younger male colleagues don’t really see that there is a problem at all, and I’m often at the point of shouting at them… If you have any ideas, I’m happy to listen!

    You didn’t mention it, but there are have been some interesting conversations about this sort of thing in the AASWOMEN mailing list. The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy has a lot of resources:

    I figure you probably already know about them, but others might not. More advertising for CSWA is always a good thing, I figure…


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