In the storm surrounding highly educated women, I was reminded of my own career trajectory and that of my female colleagues, and the ways by which our professional experiences have been blighted by sexism and sexists.
When writer Joe Epstein mocked Dr. Jill Biden’s educational credentials last month, the backlash was swift and predictable. The Internet unearthed his intellectual history and reputation as a problematic lecturer; his former employer, Northwestern University, even scrubbed their website clean of their affiliation, citing his views as unmerited and misogynistic. I followed the story with lukewarm interest—there’s nothing new about a mediocre white man’s propensity for diminishing accomplishments to which he cannot lay claim.
A few days later, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson jumped on the Misogyny Bandwagon to also downplay and ridicule Dr. Biden’s professional legitimacy, suggesting that she is a doctor “maybe in the same sense Dr. Pepper is.” For anyone who knows Carlson’s work, it comes as no surprise that he would take the first opportunity to minimize the professional and academic accomplishments of a woman far more educated than himself.
Educated While Female
In the storm surrounding highly educated women, I was reminded of my own career trajectory and that of my female colleagues, and the ways by which our professional experiences have been blighted by sexism and sexists. Like Dr. Biden, I hold an advanced degree in education and have encountered misogynistic ideas about its value along the way. And when Carlson invited me to be on his show in the summer of 2017 to talk about my public commentary on free speech, I knew that the last thing on his mind was an honest exchange of ideas. I graciously declined this battle of the wits with the unarmed.
Frankly, as a woman who’s earned a Ph.D., I am tired of having to work twice as hard to prove my value to men half as educated as I am (neither Epstein nor Carlson have advanced degrees). And while it might be said that both of these men are thought leaders in much the way that Dr. Pepper is a doctor, my gripe is not with them. My beef is with the institutions that fail to prepare women for the realities of what they’ll face after they’re conferred with doctoral degrees—a distinction held by only 1.2 percent of the population.
Sexism Is Built Into the Workplace
To say I was proud when I walked across the stage to receive my Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction and teacher education is an understatement.
I’d completed six years of rigorous study and graduated from a program that, at the time, U.S. News & World Reports ranked as number one in the nation for the 20th consecutive year. I was a first-generation college graduate and went on to be the first (and so far only) in my family to earn an advanced degree.
My first experience on the job market was replete with sexist undertones about my degree’s value. Eventually, I was made an offer of $13,000 less than what I knew the market said my credential was worth. I was able to shakily negotiate my starting salary by $5,000 dollars, but only after I countered that this same institution paid their assistant male professors, on average, upwards of $10,000 more than what I was asking. The public data I’d accessed made this distinction clear.
It’s a consequence of teaching in the humanities, some might say, while neglecting to acknowledge that the humanities is a field dominated by women. At least you have a job, others might say, as though I’m duty-bound to silently accept what I am offered—another misogynistic attitude.
I do not believe that my first experience landing a job was an intentionally sexist one. But the freely available data was enough to give pause—the problem appeared engrained in the institution from the start.
Universities Are Not Preparing Highly Educated Women for Institutionalized Sexism
Upon graduation, I was highly trained in research, pedagogy and curriculum. I was not trained in salary negotiations and discrepancies across gendered lines. Dealing with how to advocate for your worth seemed confined to whispered discussions in break rooms with friends who might be in the same boat, or gracious advisers who were happy to donate a few minutes of their time to questions.
Several months after I successfully negotiated my value, I learned of a woman whose job offer was pulled for doing the exact same thing. Even with my contract in hand, I was terrified. I wondered whether my male colleagues were consumed with fear over their own negotiations.
Later, I’d learn that my degree would not shield me from sexually charged student evaluations or unwanted sexual advances, topped with administrative advice to write less and perform more service—another historically sexist expectation in academia for which I was ill-prepared. Students often eschewed my title, greeting me on a first-name basis (without permission)—some even referring to me as “Mrs.” (I wasn’t married). When I returned to the job market, prospective male colleagues probed for details about my marriage and motherhood status.
I also watched other female faculty navigate misogynistic dynamics. One year, a colleague had to get administrators involved when one of her male students openly refused to read literature by women writers—the theme of her course. My female colleagues of color often have their own horror stories to tell, all falling under the theme of defending their worth at the intersection of both sexism and institutionalized racism. When this is the reality of what highly credentialed women face in the same workforce that purports to value our accomplishments, is it any wonder that misogynistic cultural attitudes persist?
Epstein and Carlson have likely crawled back into their hovels by now, but insecure men who vomit up putrid think-pieces about educated women are the least of our problems. While Dr. Biden expressed surprise over the tantrums surrounding her hard-earned title, I certainly wasn’t astonished. I’ve taught at two universities. Professional-grade misogyny is built into the very fabric of the workplace.
Degree-conferring institutions have a responsibility to recognize and address infantilizing attitudes toward highly educated women. Preparing all students to combat these professional realities is part and parcel to receiving a high-quality education.
Only then can we, as Dr. Biden put it, begin to “build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
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