Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus – but don’t hold your breath for a meritocracy, honey.

I had an experience recently that started me nostalgically reflecting on my undergraduate days and the path that has since led me to become my current jaded, cynical self.  I’ve wanted to be an archaeology professor since I was 12.  A life of teaching in the academy, mentoring students, undertaking research, reading and learning, designing curricula; even serving on committees seemed exciting and fulfilling.  Don’t get me wrong, I know I romanticized the life: I always pictured myself living in a modest, yet adorable, Victorian house, but never lingered on the idea of a salary so low I could not make mortgage payments.  I imagined my worldly and engaged children, reveling in our summers spent together at fieldschools, yet I did not anticipate surly teenagers who don’t like dirt and whose care takes me from writing up research.  The list of these delightful juxtapositions goes on, of course (tres amusant, n’est-ce pas?), and I’m sure you could make your own: helping students find their academic voice sounds important, grading 500,000 crappy papers feels thankless; forging academic policy sounds invigorating, spending hours in committees whose decisions are then over-ruled by administrators, now that’s soul crushing…

Nonetheless, I loved the academy, and fundamentally this was because it was the closest thing to a true meritocracy I had ever experienced.  My love was pure.  My faith was bottomless.  And I honestly believed that if I worked hard, did the most work and the best work, was creative, easy-going, funny, dedicated, etc., etc., I would be rewarded commensurately… In retrospect, it’s touching, really, how fervently I believed this with my whole being.

I still remember the day I had the rug pulled out from under me, and, yes, I fully know that you may laugh when you read about it.  It’s simple really.  When I was in my sophomore year of college, my undergraduate advisor began to plan to go to into the field to do some preliminary research.  It was a small school, with a small cohort of archaeology students.  Please excuse my tooting my own horn – but I was the best by several measures.  I had been doing archaeology since I was a young teen; I had the highest GPA; I had taken the senior year archaeological theory class in the spring semester of my freshman year and gotten an A.  I had even trained for three months in the field in the very river valley the advisor was fixing to research (unlike any of my peers).

So, when it happened that one day sitting in my professor’s office he mentioned that he was finalizing his plans for the trip and some other student was being invited to join him – I was shocked, truly shocked.  He saw the look on my face and I remember him being surprised at my surprise, and then bemused.  He carefully explained to me that the student he was planning on taking with him was male.  They would save money being able to share a room, the student would be able to carry lots of equipment, and (once more for emphasis) I didn’t really think he could take a 20 year old woman alone to the field with him, did I?

I was the best…wasn’t I?   It has absolutely nothing to do with merit, he assured me.  Nothing to do with merit?!!!! Was I hearing this correctly????

That’s right, it had never, ever, EVER occurred to me that my sex (or my gender) might be a factor in his decision.  The realization of what I was hearing slowly sank in – I was being passed over for the chance to do original field research because I was a girl.  None of the other things I had done (or not done, frankly) mattered in the final assessment.

Okay, okay,  I understand that in the grand scheme of life this was a minor incident (and in the end the trip was cancelled and nobody went),  but it was a watershed for me.  My faith in the meritocracy of academic life had been rattled. Over the years my faith and I would sustain MUCH harsher blows: insults to my integrity; academic betrayal; as well as, personal harassment, intimidation, and assault.  Each event made me recall  this first incident.  My advisor had been the greatest archaeologist and most impressive intellectual I had ever known.  He was my mentor and I trusted him completely.  In retrospect, of course, I’m far more sympathetic to his situation than I was back then.

Why is this on my mind?  Well, recently I was passed over for participation in a project in favor of an older male (here it was symbolic capital being sought) and I felt that old familiar feeling again – a mixture of anger, frustration, heartache, and resignation (read = bitter).  Maybe I wasn’t so unambiguously the best in this particular situation, but I was an excellent choice for many reasons, and once again it was a decision made by a person I trusted completely.

I have been discriminated against for reasons other than my gender (although that one is surprisingly consistent), and in settings other than the academy, of course.  And this is definitely no story of horrific treatment compared to apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, hate crimes, etc., etc., but as I have learned over the years, these incidents need to be spoken of and spoken to.  So many of us spend our lives accepting them as part of the cost of doing business with a uterus.  We excuse, ignore, rationalize, and blame ourselves.  For years I tried to make sense of my incident in a way that preserved my idealization of the academy as a meritocracy – I must have misunderstood what my professor said; I must not have been the best; there must have been more to the story.

I don’t really have a witty conclusion for this.  It is what it is.  When I taught a seminar on topics in gender and science, I had fellow female faculty members come and talk to the class about their lives and careers, and my story was hardly unique.  (Let’s just say, physics grad school can be a real bitch for the ladies, folks!)  We all agreed it feels good to share, however, and if you, the reader, have never had a moment like this in your life – it bears consideration.

4 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus – but don’t hold your breath for a meritocracy, honey.

  1. Cynthia, thanks for sharing this. I wonder how many of the men among us have had similar experiences?

    My disillusionment came much later. I had been working for a Japanese advertising agency for over a decade when my supervisor called me in and said, “John, you are fifty years old, not Japanese, and only a contract employee. We can renew your contract for only two more years. You need to think about the future.”

    The problem was that, like you, I had begun to think of an organization, the agency, as a meritocracy and had even let myself begin to feel like one of the group. Having it pointed out that I was, after all, an “Other,” and dispensable when push came to shove… Hurt is a human thing.

  2. My friend is an ethnographer and showed me the link to this site. I am a computer scientist, a woman, and just hit 40 years old. I am so totally not surprised by this. At all. I live in the States in a city where there are many technology companies. I am a programmer.

    Being in the computer programming field there are, of course, a bunch of men. There are also quite a bit of Indian men. (those from India.) Here. In THE STATES. I have been discriminated against because I am a woman … from people who weren’t even BORN in this country. I see it all the time. The favorable treatment of my male colleagues, regardless of race or nationality, and yet, the women, especially American women, are treated as second class citizens. In. Our. OWN. Country. By those NOT from this country. It’s angering. It’s angering to see an H-1B visa worker get to keep their job and I get laid off.

    I’m starting a company with my programmer boyfriend. I am taking lessons I have learned so that when we do have employees, I can ensure that women, or people in general, are not discriminated against.

    You are not alone, obviously.

    BTW, I have learned to never assume anything. Intelligence will not garner you any special treatment – especially since the majority who rule are the idiots.

  3. Having been a mechanical engineer and female, I experienced an ironic point of discrimination applying for financial aid in college. At that time (mid 70s) I was informed, I was not eligible for minority consideration in a field that had less than 1% of women in it, because…I was not a minority. Mind you at that time, black men, formed 7% of engineering students and were. The math does not work for me…what about you?
    I have had younger inexperienced men come up to me and flat out say, they don’t think women make good mechanical engineers because they don’t work on cars. Mind you, I pointed out to them, that their lily white hands told me they didn’t either.
    I guess it is all what you make of it. It was an early awakening.

    The other irony, is that my daughter has informed me there is no sex discrimination in our country, that I am fighting and old fight. How I wish she was right.

  4. That wry smile on my face right now is covering the complicated emotions that your story evokes in me…

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