The Should-I’s of March

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

-Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Dear proFadvice,

Whenever my department has a function and all the female staff plan and set up for the event, I feel guilty if I leave them to clean up even though my male colleagues leave them to it. I always feel like I should stay behind and help – and in fact, I often do, even though this really isn't my "job.” My male colleagues don't seem to have a problem with it. Should I?

– Guilty Co-worker

Dear Guilty,

Questions starting with “should I” and relating to feelings (having a problem, feeling guilty) almost always have the same answer: “No.” Why? Because just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no should-ing in feelings. So you might feel pressure to help clean up, frustration with your male colleagues, and anger at the injustice of it all. All of these feelings are valid. The question is what to do with them.

In your case, information could be your comfort. Have you ever asked the female staff (I am assuming you are a faculty member) what the arrangement is for set-up and tear-down? Maybe they get overtime hours for these events and count on the extra pay. Maybe they seethe with resentment as all the faculty stumble off into the night and they remain behind to scrub like so many Cinderellas. There’s only one way to find out.

Another important resource is your department head. You could let them know in an informal conversation that you feel uncomfortable leaving this kind of work to the staff. It might relieve your guilty conscience if you find out that you are not expected to help and the reason why, or it might alert your head to the fact that they are overlooking a potentially unjust situation.

If there isn’t a clear plan in place for delegating event planning and execution, you might suggest circulating a sign-up sheet that includes set-up tasks, bringing dishes, serving, and cleanup, so that all department members understand they are being asked to help and given the opportunity to do the right thing. (Be prepared to say no, however, when you are asked to create and manage this sign-up sheet. Practice your “no” at least ten times. Trust me.) This solution would also let you unburden your guilty conscience as you sign up for your favorite task and fulfill it to the best of your abilities.

Dear proFadvice,

I have noticed that all of the high-profile speakers that are invited to my university are male. This bothers me, but should it? How can I go about making sure there is more equity in this regard?

– Feeling Invisible

Dear Invisible,

You’re bothered by the gender imbalance in invited speakers to the university – full stop. It doesn’t matter whether or not you should be bothered, because the toothpaste is out of the tube. What should you do about it?

First, find out which offices on campus oversee inviting these high-profile speakers. On many campuses, the student union has a dedicated speakers board. Graduation ceremonies are often planned by the graduation office. Individual colleges also often sponsor such events. Once you’re armed with this information (follow the money!) you have some options, depending on how much of a ruckus you want to raise.

You could send a polite email to one or more of the committees that issue invitations, inquiring as to their gender equity policies and whether the question of inviting woman speakers has come up. Based on their response, you might ask to join one of these committees. Be careful about overburdening yourself with service – you might need to drop something else you’re doing if you’re more passionate about this.

Finally, if you do not receive satisfactory responses, you might decide to organize. Check out the letter this group of 50 members of the American Institute of Architects wrote protesting the AIA’s all-male keynote slate. The AIA added a special keynote panel as a response. Talk to your colleagues and find out whether they would be willing to help draft and/or sign a similar letter for your institution.

Go forth and bother back.

Dear proFadvice,

I have noticed that my students and colleagues often use professional titles for my male colleagues, but refer to me by my first name. Should this even bother me at all?

– Professor No-Name

Dear Professor,

Sigh. This problem seems to be eternal, and it’s a tough one because it implicates our sense of self-worth. Do your colleagues respect you? If not, is it because you’re a woman or not a good enough colleague? Do your students respect you? If not, is it because you’re a woman or because you’re not a good enough teacher? At its deepest, the issue pokes at the self-doubt that makes us wonder whether we are enough.

Given the depths of the problem and the brevity of this column, I’ll try to address the existential part and the practical parts of the question as quickly as I can. First, pay attention to why this bothers you. Observe whether it triggers self-doubt, fear of losing your livelihood, anger at the injustice of it all, or something else. Sit with that feeling and acknowledge it.

To reiterate my advice from the questions above, there is no “should” when it comes to being bothered. You are bothered by what you perceive to be gender bias in the way your colleagues and students address you and one another. So go ahead and be bothered! Write about it in your journal, rant about it to a trusted friend or loved one, and even stomp your feet a little bit. You’re a doctor, dammit!

It’s important to recognize that you’re not annoyed because of a title, and that it’s not a petty issue. Study after study shows that gender bias is persistent and deep-seated in academia. You’re not responding to one student who made an honest mistake; your bother comes from real, systemic sexism in the academy.

But being bothered on its own isn’t going to change anything, and will probably make you sick. There are some strategies you can employ to address this issue head-on. In the classroom, you have the advantage of being the instructor, so you’re expected to educate your students. You can tell them on the first day that they may call you “Dr. X” or “Professor X.” You could even throw in some advice to them about university culture in general, explaining that it’s a good idea to err on the side of professor unless an instructor tells them otherwise.

I have a good friend who states in her syllabus that she will not answer emails that don’t follow a specific format, including addressing her by her title and last name. If a student fails to follow the format, she replies with that paragraph from the syllabus and nothing more.

Your colleagues are trickier because you’re not their instructor and educating them could be frustrating or even professionally risky. One way to bring up the issue might be as a question – say you’ve noticed that the department culture leans toward formality, with people using professional titles. Ask what your colleagues’ policies are in this respect. Explicitly naming the issue in a general way might help bring it to well-intentioned colleagues’ consciousness.

Thanks for the questions. Stop should-ing yourself and go ahead and feel what you feel, even if that feeling is bothered.

proFadvice is offered by Julie. At her day job, she serves as an assistant professor of Latin American literature and culture at a state university. You can reach her at Send her your gnarliest questions - she is one tough cookie and can dish out some serious advice.