Despite the growth and success of feminist archaeology, women in archaeology still face issues not necessarily encountered by their male counterparts in the 21st Century. Legacies of past discrimination, particularly the perceived and/or actual demands of family life, have resulted in disproportionate fewer women working at research institutions in many disciplines, including archaeology. This disturbing trend has profound implications for not only the direction of current archaeological research, but also the training of future scholars.

This blog is a forum for advocating for women archaeologists so that we can move beyond legacies of inequity to a future that strengthens a feminine voice in archaeology and a feminist perspective. We contend that the very practice of archaeology is skewed towards a masculine and hierarchical perspective that excludes consensus building and “minority opinions” when interpreting the past. We argue that the feminine voice brings unique and necessary elements to the discipline of archaeology, through values such as mentoring and collaboration. We also clarify that a feminist perspective is not limited to any one gender, class, race, ethnicity or sexuality. Rather a feminist perspective is a radical point of view; one that recognizes that women’s success professionally and personally is integrally tied to larger socio-political movements dedicated to the eradication of homophobia, racism, and androcentrism.

Our hope is to solicit advice, perspectives, and experiences from all realms of the archaeological profession- including tenure-track and adjunct faculty, CRM professionals, and those not currently employed or underemployed. The ultimate goal of the blog is to shift the realities of power experienced in the daily lives of women archaeologists by discussing, inventing and offering solutions to the challenges of professional life.

Monday, January 23, 2012

'Are you a new grad student?' Coping with perception during career transitions.

The author adorned in robes for graduation.
Last year, I engaged in a ritual transition from graduate student to Doctor of Philosophy. Garbed in ceremonial magenta and blue robes, somewhat reminiscent of clothing at Hogwarts, and wearing a truly absurd puffy hat with a gold tassel, I stood on stage and was hooded by the chancellor of my university. As an anthropologist, I could not help but stand outside myself, looking at a bizarre cultural moment of organized ritual. The moment, however, was highly significant in my personal journey from student to professor and signified a new phase of my life.

This post is about moments of transition we experience throughout our personal and professional lives and how transitions can bring out the assumptions and perceptions people make about us. Transitions can manifest in many ways - becoming a grad student, a parent, an administrator, a project director, a manager of a resource management company, a university professor, a spouse. Each of these moments can be associated with a set of social expectations and responses. Sometimes responses to transitions are overwhelmingly positive. Other times, however, transitions spark negative or discriminatory responses.

In my experience, negative perceptions come in two main guises. First is the condescending praise I have received from either junior or senior (usually male) colleagues. A good example of this form of response is when I completed my comprehensive examinations during my PhD program, transitioning from student to candidate. I had received a lot of positive feedback for my performance in my exam, and word was spreading around the department. A male professor near the end of his career, who worked in my region but who had ignored me up until this moment, due in large part to my gender, stopped me in the hallway to congratulate me on my comps performance. He followed this up by telling me how there were many good jobs "teaching at community colleges." Now, I believe teaching at a community college is a valuable job and respect those who are in important teaching positions. However, I was now a PhD candidate at a large, well-respected research institution who had aspirations for an academic job at a comparable institution (which I now have), and a senior scholar was implying that I shouldn't set my sights too high because I was a woman. Predictably, I did not respond well to this "damning with faint praise" response to my years of hard work.

The second form of negative response is more insidious and, for me, less easy to dismiss. It has to do with what people expect when they hear the words "archaeology professor." Pause with me for a moment, readers. What are the images that immediately come to mind when you picture an archaeology professor? I would guess the majority of you pictured a middle-aged, bearded, white male. Others may have had different images, but I doubt many (any?) of you pictured a woman in her early 30s (who perhaps looks to be in her late 20s). I do not fit the mold of what people expect. For the first six months of my job as an assistant professor, I did not go two weeks without someone either asking me if I was a graduate student or making a comment on how young I was. Now, many of you might be thinking I don't have anything to complain about and should be flattered that people think I look young. Indeed, this is the message I get from most women who I speak to about this, and even some men. I argue this perception, that I should be happy people think I am young and enjoy my perceived youth while I can, is part of the problem. When a supposed colleague suggests I am a graduate student, she unintentionally puts me in a certain subordinate category based on my appearance. Our tendency to judge people on their appearance stretches far beyond the walls of the ivory tower, as recent viral photos (such as this one) have demonstrated. In a society where youth is held on a pedestal and many women spend thousands of dollars on plastic surgery and products to ensure that no wrinkles are visible, I am looking forward to the day where I look the part of a university professor. Or, to think about this a different way, I look forward to the day where the image of a university professor includes all shapes, sizes, ages, cultures, and genders.

How about you? What negative perceptions or assumptions have you faced at moments of life/career transition? How can we work to create an inclusive and supportive environment in archaeology?


  1. hi -- i rerouted here after your blog post was posted by a friend on fb,

    here is my response to her:

    loud and clear! when i went to teach my first class (back when i was a young looking 27 year old just started on the tenure track) the security guard carded me and wouldn't let me into the supply closet to get my classroom console. folks routinely think i am a student, and i am called Ms or Mrs a lot in class.

    On the other hand, I think the bigger problem is with the way in which young women do and don't claim authority in the classroom and the ways in which they are challenged around that authority. i am a laid back person and a generally casual dresser, topped with a chatty, interactive teaching style. i've tried to do differently, but it doesn't work best for me, and ultimately i am a better instructor/advisor when i am being more authentically myself. i also have a different take on authority and responsibility than some of my colleagues might in the classroom. i think, in the long run, the kind of authority you lay claim to as an academic, and the ways in which you claim it, is a much trickier problem that reveals more insidious and entrenched pragmatics around gender, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality etc..

  2. As a young-looking woman, I have also experience similar assumptions by my colleagues and students. This was particularly the case while I was an adjunct instructor at a community college, immediately after I completed my Ph.D. At the community college, many of my students were older than me. Like Rachel, I tend to have a much more conversational style in the classroom, which can also lead some students to question your credentials and authority. One of the ways that I have dealt with this is to actually talk about my professional experience in and outside of academia on the very first day of class, as a way of introducing myself. I also routinely use case studies from my research in class lecture. This has allowed me to continue teaching is a style that I prefer, while still establishing me as a serious professional. Most of my students respond favorable to this approach and I frequently receive positive feedback regarding my demeanor in class, as well as how much they appreciated hearing “real-life” stories and examples of research.

    I also have developed a strategy for getting students to identify their preconceptions about archaeology and archaeologists, so that we can move beyond these stereotypes in the classroom. Within the first week, I have them brainstorm all of the things that come to mind when they hear the words: "archaeology" and "archaeologist". As a class, we list these on the board and then discuss each. The list for archaeologists usually looks something like this: Indiana Jones, manly, rugged, khaki pants, pith helmet, guns, smart, tweed jacket, glasses, beard. Then I juxtapose this list of mostly masculine attributes with images of influential female archaeologists. Most students are astonished by how stereotyped their views of archaeologists were before this discussion.

    I am now a post-doctoral fellow, which is yet another professional transition. I am currently the only female archaeologist in the department and the first female archaeologists to be in the department for roughly 40 years. I feel fortunate that I have not experienced any degrading remarks from my male colleagues in this setting. Rather, they have been very supportive. Where I have had the most challenges is in navigating the role of "post-doc" in a department that has little historical experience with such positions. My external grant proposals and internal proposals for departmental funds have received unnecessary scrutiny from the department Chair, who insists on treating me like a graduate student. I wonder if this would be the case if I were male, or if it is simply the liminal state of post-doc that causes such treatment?

  3. Thanks for mentioning the gray-beard effect. As a female archaeologist who often works with gray-bearded male colleagues, I think I have had more than my share of being discounted as a student or volunteer when at my own research site.

    I am changing academic affiliations this summer and am concerned that this "transition" will restart the non-stop "How old are you?" questions that colleagues threw at me when I started at my current position. Hopefully the last 4 years have aged my appearance enough that I will fit their expectations of what a female archaeology professor should look like. If not, I may start carrying pocket-sized copies of my CV and hand them out in response to that question. Who cares if I look the part so long as I have the credentials?

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