Acceptance Speech for ASIST Award of Merit

Marcia J. Bates

Nov. 1, 2005
Charlotte Westin Hotel
Charlotte, North Carolina

© 2005 by Marcia J. Bates

I stand before you as Llewellyn C. Puppybreath the 3rd’s second ex-wife. It’s great to get some recognition and not have it all go to Llewellyn.

But, seriously, I cannot tell you how much this award means to me. It represents this community’s recognition of my work and participation in the field. This high honor caps my career and fulfills my lifetime’s work. I want to thank the nominators and the jury and all of you for selecting me to receive the Award of Merit.

As this is such a special honor, I want to use the time I have to talk about the distinctive experience I’ve had as a woman of a particular generation, who set out to teach and do research in her discipline. The poet Muriel Rukeyser has said: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Opportunities in university teaching for women in generations prior to mine were virtually non-existent. Women faculty in earlier generations were the exception that proved the rule. They offered no serious threat to male dominance.

When women did begin to come into university teaching in large numbers in the 1970’s, mine was the first generation large enough to be perceived as a serious threat to the comfortable boys’ club. And the boys were not happy. My generation paid a high price for our opportunities. I had naively thought that men would be embarrassed to realize how much women had been discriminated against and would quickly act to correct things once the unfair rules of the game came to the light of day in the 1960’s. Au contraire.

I saw this in my own life when my effort to be promoted to full professor was turned down in the late 1980’s, despite an excellent record. Finally, after ten years without a merit raise of any kind, when I was considering going up for professor again in 1991, I looked back at the cohort of doctoral students who had gone through Berkeley’s program with me and then gone on to teach. There were four men and four women in regular positions. Two of the men were now full professors, and two were associate professors. Two of the women, including myself, were associate professors, and two had failed to make tenure. In other words, the guys were exactly one promotion further along. I hadn’t realized that being a woman dropped my odds of tenure to 50 percent!

That’s scary enough, but the work of the two women who didn’t make tenure and left academia continued to be cited more than the work of the male associate professors who did get tenure and continued to have the opportunity to do research and write. That’s the operational moment when discrimination becomes visible. That’s when the rubber meets the road. This award is in part for those two women colleagues and all the others who didn’t get a fair shake.

The personal lives of women of my generation were not easy either. The cost of reconciling two different careers was overwhelmingly borne by the woman. A doctoral student I met in another department had gotten a Ph.D. in English literature and received a coveted offer of a tenure-track position. But her husband, also a doctoral student, couldn’t find a position in the same city. So she was now working on her second doctorate, in the hopes that they could still find a job together.

But I don’t want to speak only of men. I learned another big lesson over these years, and that is that we are ALL sexist. Almost anyone old enough to be in this room is old enough to have been raised in a different era. Most of us act in sexist ways quite out of awareness. We were steeped in it in our own families. We saw it in our friends’ families and on a hundred sitcoms, TV dramas, and movies.

Daddy’s job was important, and Mother’s job wasn’t. So when junior gets sick at school, it’s Mother who leaves work to pick him up, not Daddy. Mother always took up the slack, whatever it was, while Daddy did the important things. As for the work around the house, the relative contributions of men and women were summarized along these lines by a male respondent in a research study not long ago: “I take care of the garage and the dog, and my wife takes care of the house and the children.” He wasn’t joking.

Faculties are not unlike large families. Need someone for a high-demand committee? Appoint a woman, even though she has had an overload of committee work for the last three years. Ask it because this is what women do; they take up the slack. I’ve seen men excused from high enrollment required courses because the subject matter is outside their specialty. A woman, however, gets told, “If you don’t know the subject matter, learn it!”

Indeed, in the approximately 25 classes I taught during the four and a half years I was an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, 23 of the 25 were sections of the three required courses that the school offered. And it was a woman dean who asked this of me. It never crossed her mind that this was unfair.

It wouldn’t be so bad if all this were in the past, but I’ve heard a number of stories just like these at this very conference.

In our culture, the sacrifices of women are invisible in a way that the sacrifices of men are not. The husband can’t get a job? The wife gets a second doctorate. Not the husband, the wife! We don’t, as a culture, acknowledge and value these sacrifices. We just take them, and take them for granted.

A study published in Science a few years ago demonstrated that in all the different contexts in which scientists work—business, government, academia, etc.—women were paid 72 to 83 percent as much as men with comparable backgrounds [v. 252, 24 May 1991, employment sector percentage calculations are mine]. This isn’t a particular university’s problem, or an individual’s problem; it’s not those people’s problem over there. The second-class citizenship of women has something universal in it. Let’s turn that pay figure around. A woman making 72 percent as much as a man would need a 39 percent raise to make as much as he does.

Virginia Valian, in a book titled “Why So Slow,” studied why women in academia advance more slowly and are paid less. Men feel entitled to a variety of forms of support in the faculty family. Out of habit, women don’t expect that support, and even when they realize they should have it, they feel guilty asking for it. Further, when they do ask, they may be treated as though they were selfish and demanding, both by men and by other women.

Finally, when it comes down to it, there’s a big difference between going through life with the wind at your back, and going through life leaning into the wind. I retired at 61 not because I really wanted to, but because I was worn out.

Fair treatment of women can happen only when we ALL self-consciously ask ourselves what we are doing every time we apportion work and rewards to men and women. Fair treatment does not happen without a self-conscious effort to change.

That’s why THIS recognition, the Award of Merit, is so very important to me, and I value it so highly. After all, I’m only the 8th woman to have received this honor, in the 40-plus years it has been awarded. Thank you.