Professors talk about obstacles facing women in academic fields

By Marta Ryvak

A room full of women—and a handful of men—gathered in Stuart Hall Monday evening to listen to three female U of C professors discuss the challenges women face upon entering academia.

Susan Fisher, practicing psychoanalyst in the social sciences department, opened the lecture with an anecdote from her experiences in medical school.

She recalled an incident during the first year her school went co-ed when all of the male students in her anatomy class had gathered around the two women dissecting a female cadaver’s pelvis. The men had cut off the penis of a male cadaver and inserted it into the vagina of the female cadaver.

“But one woman took the penis out of the vagina,” Fisher said. “She held it up in front of the 60 people that were watching and said, ‘Oh, one of you gentlemen must have been in a hurry last night.’”

Fisher discussed the isolation that women in academia faced in earlier generations. She recalled how once, overwhelmed with the loneliness and hardship of being a woman in her field, she released her tears on the shoulder of her dissection subject, a cadaver named Waldo, in the anatomy lab late one evening.

“In medical school, there were only five women,” she said. “We were treated so brutally by the boys in our class.”

She noted that while much progress has been made since the cadaver incident, many of the same challenges remain for today’s generation of women in academia.

“Women are socialized to be very conservative. It is extremely important to unhook from concerns about what other people think of you,” Fisher said. “You have to be like the brave woman with the penis. You have to be prepared to be lonely and have people be mad at you.”

Lisa Ruddick, associate professor in the department of English, shared what she wished she had known before going to graduate school. She talked about how certain feminine skills, such as working well in groups, being able to sense people, and teaching, are often devalued.

“Trying to thrive in this kind of environment is tremendously tiring. Also, being good at these skills is never reflected in your income,” Ruddick said.

Fisher echoed these sentiments. “The presence of women in fields generally devalues the field,” she said. “It’s a cultural phenomenon, and women have to be prepared for it before entering academia.”

Olga Sezneva, a Harper fellow originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, discussed the challenge of trying to strike a balance between academics and family life.

“Women’s lives are shorter, and I don’t mean by longevity,” she said. “By age 35, women have to make a choice between family and academics.”

When asked what is the best time for an academic to have a child, Sezneva responded jokingly, “Right after tenure.”

Sezneva also noted that sacrifices have to be made when it comes to personal relationships.

“I don’t want to sound gloomy…but basically, you either have a dissertation done, or you have a partner. You can’t have both,” Sezneva said.

One female audience member asked the panelists, “Is there hope for change?”

“I think there are fewer constraints than have ever been,” Fisher said. “A woman can do anything in academia if she’s competent and wants it. The number of terrified men is no different from the number of women terrified of succeeding.”