What It’s Like to Be a Woman in the Academy by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadLast fall, I was asked to sit in on the women’s pre-doctoral colloquium at the divinity school where I teach. In the course of a wide-ranging lunchtime conversation, the central question to which the students wanted an answer was: “what is it like to be a woman in the academy?” The question took me by surprise at the time – mostly because I’d expected to be asked more nitty-gritty questions about applying to graduate school, writing samples, and personal statements – but it has stayed with me in the weeks since the lunch as I’ve found myself trying out answers from different directions.

The first answer, and perhaps the most obvious one, is this: there is no such thing as being “a [generic] woman” in the academy (or anywhere else). This kind of answer comes from the direction of anti-essentialist and intersectional analysis in feminist theory, but it is also the result of looking at the successful academic women one knows, and noting how different they are from each other and how differently they negotiate the challenges they encounter. I say this not, by any means, to underplay the significant ways in which the academy, especially the religious and theological academy, remains a male-dominated space in which women experience significant barriers to full participation. But there is something that gets lost if one assumes that individual women are likely to meet the same kinds of challenges and to negotiate them in substantially identical ways. Intellectual styles and preferences, personalities, life situations, desires, and orientations all play into which challenges one encounters as well as into the ways one negotiates such challenges. In the actual conversation with students, I shared some of the concrete strategies I use in negotiating gender issues in the academy, but as I suggested then, my negotiating strategies may not work well for others. This is why the practice of consciousness-raising remains so valuable for strategies of solidarity and negotiation, because it allows a greater variety of experiences and practices to come to the foreground while also leading to the discovery of structural commonalities in and across differences.

The second answer, then, is that the way to find out what it’s like to be a woman in the academy is to ask. The philosophical blogosphere, with initiatives and resources like the Gendered Conference Campaign (directed toward conferences with all-male lineups of speakers), What a Philosopher Looks Like (philosophers submit pictures of themselves to challenge the tweed-clad, pipe-smoking white male image of the philosopher), What Is It Like to Be A Woman in Philosophy, and What We’re Doing About What It’s Like is way ahead of the theological blogosphere in this regard (compare the recent brouhahas at the Theology Studio and at Tony Jones’s blog at Patheos over the absence of women). I want to focus here on What It’s Like, which gathers stories about what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy. The stories vary widely, and serve as a valuable resource for noting not only the ongoing prevalence of gender-based discrimination and bias in the academy but also for drawing attention to the protean forms such discrimination takes. Similar initiatives are, sadly, almost entirely absent from my own field of systematic theology.

The third answer, and here’s where it gets personal, is that for me, one of the most significant aspects of being a woman in the academy is negotiating my own shyness (which is not necessarily a gendered attribute, but takes gendered forms) in professional settings. I am almost incapable of going up to someone and introducing myself, even if it’s someone whose work I’ve long read with appreciation, or someone with whom I have relatively close (but impersonal) professional connections, or even if it’s someone who I know knows who I am (let’s say we have friends in common). Shyness here functions not as a personality trait so much as a result of fear of engaging in any practice that might smack of networking and thus of self-promotion. During AAR last November, knowing that this sort of thing is now in a sense part of my job, I managed – in the course of the entire conference – to take the initiative to introduce myself to a total of three people, which I counted as a significant victory (yes, I did count, and even boasted about my grand tally to a close friend!). Maybe next year it will be four? At the same time, my discomfort with networking also reflects concern about how it advantages those who are socially adept already, and serves as a behind-the-scenes way to get involved in interesting conversations and opportunities that others then miss out on as a result – as we know, such practices often serve to privilege the already privileged even further.

I’m curious, though, about other responses. How else might the question about what it’s like be answered? Ought we to take a leaf from philosophy and campaign more directly, and more specifically, on these issues? Many of the most important of these conversations have to be had in private (which leads to the topic of mentoring, which I’ll take up in a later post), since I encourage students to take a ruthless inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, analyze how they come across to others, and then seek to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses while at the same time working to change the academy’s strictures on gendered forms of expression and its continued hostility to feminist, womanist, and other forms of critical thought and activism. How do others negotiate fear of and hostility to networking? What advice, and what answers, would you give if asked this question: what is it like to be a woman in the academy?

Linn Marie Tonstad is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of Christian systematic theology with feminist and queer theology and theory. She is an assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and earned her PhD in religious studies from Yale University. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally entitled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 

Author: Linn Marie Tonstad

Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School.

8 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Be a Woman in the Academy by Linn Marie Tonstad”

  1. Of course we as women are all different, but another way to look at it is that structures of patriarchy and patriarchal thinking erase our difference into a single one, different from the men who have power…would that we were really beyond that!


  2. This was a timely post for me. I recently went through a grueling interview process for a full-time staff position at a university, and the hiring manager was very concerned about whether I, particularly after working as an independent contractor for so long, have the temperament for the university’s patriarchal, sexist, and racist environment. It,s been more than ten years since I completed my undergrad degree, and I had forgotten it could be like that. As you and other women share “what it’s like,” I hope you’ll include coping strategies as well as descriptions.

    Good point about being shy. It’s not a gendered trait, but I think it hurts women in professional settings more than it does men.


  3. Linn, I really appreciate this post! You are right that we should not generalize but I think there are some points that we encounter as women – although as you point out, we certainly approach and negotiate these differently.

    As women we do have a very different experience in the academy. I know women who did not share their pregnancies with any colleagues for fear they would be judged as unwilling to do the “real” work. Although their pregnancies were eventually obvious, they did not speak about them. I also recently had a female colleague who told me that she was pulled aside by a female mentor and given this advice: “don’t get pregnant…you will never be able to reach your true potential in the academy if you have a child.” As a mother I find these comments and actions difficult to swallow. The ability to give birth – or to be a mother by any means – challenges women in a way the fatherhood does not.

    Also, as women I think we are often engaged in issues that men are not. For instance, as noted from this site, I self identify as a feminist and this alone can create challenges for women. As an advocate for women’s ordination I’ve been denied positions. Not that there are not men who identify as feminist or support women’s ordination – but I think women are more active in these areas and if so they are limited. This is something I’m learning a great deal about in the midst of a job search! And I’ll tell you, it is not pretty!

    Shyness is also a huge issue and I appreciate your point here. I noticed throughout college and grad school that men are generally very confident – even without reason and women often do not speak up. This has been what I have encountered – which of course is not necessarily the experience of all or even most. But in my own experience I certainly was shy in the classroom and it had much to do with my background and being raised with the idea that women got married and had children and men went to school.

    I find now that because I have recognized that as a main reason for my shyness in the classroom that now I interact with much confidence in the academy – at least I try to. As silly as it sounds I always use a strong handshake and always look in the eye. I’ve also learned to stand up for myself and refuse to be treated as anything less than a colleague. Again, at least I try. I still have my moments but I think, why should I be treated as anything less?

    Thank you for this, Linn! A very important topic!


  4. If you think it is bad in the academy, just try corporate America….I could go on. I have a new years resolution— I won’t go to any meetings where men are dominant, I will do online courses with women teaching, and I will no longer listen to men giving speeches in my industry. I don’t want to learn anything from men anymore, I want to focus on women. That’s my plan, and I’ll report back in a year on how it all worked out. It is one of the most exciting and envigorating decisions I’ve made in 20 years! I feel like I got a get out of jail free card!


  5. Gina and Carol, I strongly, STRONGLY agree about the ongoing structural barriers that women face in the academy. I wasn’t wanting to put forward a sort of why haven’t we gotten beyond gender-based solidarity and just allowed everyone to be an individual type of argument. It’s in the service of developing effective strategies for negotiating structural and gender-based discrimination that it seems important to me to pay attention to particularity. The ‘punishments’ that women receive for being too deferential or too aggressive are a useful example. Both of those are gender-based responses, but they take different forms and so require different strategies – on the most abstract level, women who seem deferential might need to practice strategies for making themselves heard, while women who seem aggressive may need either to compensate with being nice in other ways, or might calculate the cost-benefit of apparent aggressiveness and decide that it’s worth it nonetheless. One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about these things is that it might seem like I’m suggesting that women should bear and internalize all the burdens of negotiating gender-based discrimination (in analogy to those ever-annoying trollish articles about how differences in pay are based on women’s unwillingness to negotiate – when studies show that negotiating hurts women too; damned if you do and if you don’t, as usual). But I take it as writ that the academy, and especially the religious and theological academy (but by no means only), remains extremely patriarchal/kyriarchal/racist/and all the embarrassed et ceteras. So since that is the case, how do we find ways to live inside it? These ‘ways to live’ involve working to change the structures that make the academy an unliveable space, but they also involve living inside a context that is hostile to flourishing in multifarious ways, and figuring out what they are, how to respond to them, and how to change them require – I think – the kind of attention to particularity that was one of the things I was calling for in the piece. Thanks for these lovely responses!


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