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.