Jennifer Berdahl: The "crazy/bitch" narrative about senior academic women

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      By Jennifer Berdahl

      When I was a graduate student there weren’t many senior women in my department. There were narratives about them that seemed unique to each woman: One was crazy—I never really understood why, but there were hushed rumours and we were warned to stay away and not work with her. She had some impressive publications, but they were informally credited to her co-authors. Another senior woman was a "bitch"—she was well known in her "narrow" area of feminist inquiry, but only because few had researched the topic and she'd landed upon low-hanging fruit. She got her job because the department wanted to hire her husband and she didn't deserve the position and knew it. 

      The junior female faculty were seen more favourably—as up-and-comers, friendly, and good citizens. According to some senior men, though, some junior women had Achilles' heels that would stunt their success, such as the woman who had kids before tenure (her rookie "star" was sure to fade) and a black woman, an "affirmative action hire" and flight risk due to the lack of black professionals in town. Or so the narratives went. The junior women generally steered clear of the senior ones, and it didn't seem like the senior women helped the juniors. The senior women were generally thought of as competitive, selfish, and threatened. Some of us attributed the negative reputations of the senior women a bit more kindly—to a generation gap: It must have been difficult making it in a male-dominated field when they were young, so they'd had to be steely and selfish to survive.

      Then I was an assistant professor—in a different disciplinary group, school, and university. One of the senior women in my group had the reputation for being a "bitch" and the other was "crazy". The few other senior women in the school seemed to fall into one or both of these categories. People spoke of them disrespectfully—she waited until after 40 to have a kid (how calculating and cold!); what was she thinking wearing that slutty suit to a presentation?; the reason for their publication success (and tenure) was their male advisor or co-authors (incompetent!); she just showed videos in her class; she feeds conspiracy theories to her students and tries to turn them against other faculty. And so on. As a junior woman I grew to resent, disrespect, and distance myself from these women. I thought the senior men (who were the important members of the department) liked and respected me, as did my peers, and I reasoned that once the next generation got tenure the culture would change. 

      Then I moved to another university as an assistant professor, where there were initially no senior women in my department. As I moved up the ranks I saw and endured what felt like terrible betrayals—inequalities in voice, mentoring, pay, opportunities, being given the benefit-of-the-doubt and access to inside information, and having junior men promoted at the same time or earlier than me. I saw other women—grad students and junior faculty—give up, drop out, or get the boot. I spoke up about the injustices I saw. As I did this, and developed a good publication record, the feeling of being a promising “little sister” morphed into being a resented wife, and after tenure, a despised mom. One male colleague told me I looked like "a mom"; another, who'd shown interest in me and my career as an assistant professor, told me after promotion to full that I was now "cuntless" to him. It seemed the only women who escaped such marginalization and vilification had successfully continued the “cooperative sister” persona, with the right “tone” as good “team players”.

      Now I'm one of the few senior women in a male-dominated department. Now I'm one of the bitches, crazies, and/or loathed mom types. A quarter century has passed since my graduate school days and the narrative really hasn't changed, only the names. My own expertise on gender in the workplace should have told me this problem was intransigent and that I was not immune to it—research on queen bees, women in power, and infighting among women in gender-biased climates demonstrate this clearly. I suppose I fell prey to thinking I (and my generation) was an exception, things would change, and I could escape the fate of the senior women before me. I now look back on them with compassion and guilt. How could I have fallen for the pile-on, and not seen the misogyny in it? Why did I join others in being so hard on them, or readily believe the rumours? One of the senior women from my early days died young; two retired unusually early; one dropped out of academia; others moved to lesser institutions. A few hung on, finding enough meaning in their research and a group of supportive colleagues on the outside. I now wonder about their stories, their silent suffering, and how they processed and coped with the lack of kindness and respect they received from students and colleagues. 

      I still hope that future generations can do better, but it will require a lot of awareness and motivated effort, which are difficult to come by in our ongoing structures. Talking about and recognizing the pattern is a first step: It needs to be recognized not just as an abstract phenomenon that happens "in the workplace", but as a local dynamic that plays out in our own departments. Just because we have more details to explain away local cases doesn't mean they're not part of a common pattern when we zoom out. 

      The next time we hear a crazy/bitch narrative about a senior woman, let's ask ourselves: how much first-hand evidence do we personally have to back it up—does it resonate with our own direct observations and interactions with her? Do our male colleagues do the same things but escape such scrutiny or derision? Can they be "assholes" but stay influential and respected, and not get marginalized? If a senior woman does seem troubled, struggling, or isolated, is there a history of experiences that might explain her behaviour? Might a senior woman not advocate for junior ones because of the costs of doing so, because she feels powerless to do so, or because the junior women have rejected her? How might the narrative about senior women be challenged or changed in order to respect these women who have achieved enough success to earn promotion? How do we stop this generational cycle so that women's wings aren't clipped as soon as they approach the power to soar?

      Jennifer Berdahl is a professor of leadership studies: gender and diversity at the University of British Columbia. This commentary was first published on her blog.

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