Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pressured to consider female candidates

I applied for a tenure-track academic job at the university where I got my bachelor's and master's degrees. The current department head there knows me fairly well. He taught me both undergraduate and graduate classes, in which I did very well. He also supervised my undergraduate thesis, and gave me an excellent grade. When the faculty position opened up, he wrote me personally and asked me to apply.

All this to say, I thought I might have a reasonable shot at this job.

My PhD co-advisor (the one who didn't really do the major advising work) just came in to talk to me. He had gotten a request for a letter of recommendation, and had called this department head to ask for details about what he should put in the letter, and what exactly they were looking for in a candidate. What he learned from the conversation does not look good for me.

I'm not being seriously considered for the job. Apparently the department head felt "pressured to consider female candidates." This is somewhat understandable. The department has never had a female faculty member. Seriously. Did you even know there are departments in the world that don't have even one woman? They have once made an offer to a woman; she chose to work at another university, which also had a faculty opening for her husband.

While I understand to some degree the politics that force search committees to put a token woman on their shortlist, it also pisses me off. They're wasting my time and the time of my recommenders, and they have no intentions whatsoever of actually hiring me. And now that I've been fit into this token-woman spot, I doubt I'll be able to get out of it. Even stunning recommendations are unlikely to change the minds of the search committee, now that they've been biased against me.

The truth is, I know I'm not that great a candidate. I have a single publication in review right now, and this is a Research I school. Yeah, I need to publish more. I also need to learn to write grant proposals. Other than that I'm pretty good (growing subfield, good school, teaching experience with positive evaluations, can make an excellent presentation) but not quite good enough, yet. So if my publication record wasn't good enough, they should have just not considered me. Also, there's a relatively young faculty member there whose research overlaps significantly with my own, so I can see them thinking they don't need to expand that subfield.

I'm disappointed. I had problems with this school anyway: the unsupportive administrative staff; the long public-transit commute to anywhere I'd want to live; and I didn't actually want to take on all the burdens of being the first woman professor. But as I started to think I had a shot, I was coming up with positives: the friends I have in the city; the excellent quality of the students; the opportunity to be a sorely-needed female role model for the women students.

There's no reason for them to mess with me like this, and to waste their time and mine.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Marital fraud

"Most women I know commit fraud on their wedding days--they weigh-in for the walk down the aisle with no expectation of maintaining that weight year after year," said anti-obesity advocate, MeMe Roth.

-- from Roth's blog, Wedding Gown Challenge, in which she liberally quotes herself.
I found MeMe Roth's blog through the comments to zuzu's post about Roth's insulting, misogynist, body-dysmorphic (is the woman blind!?) rant on Fox news about Jordin Sparks, an American Idol contestant. The above quote is a lot more mainstream than Roth's bizarre attacks on Girl Scouts and reading programs, and her vandalism of a YMCA sundae stand. And that's what makes it scary, and worthy of attention.

A woman whose weight varies from her weight at her wedding is committing fraud. Other similar sentiments have used the term false advertising. I'm not a lawyer, but I know that the basic concept behind fraud and false advertising are the same: gaining something, usually financial, through deceptive means.

What are these "deceptive" women gaining, in addition to weight? Maybe Ms. Roth and others mean that women are falsely getting the emotional benefits of marriage, like love and support. I doubt it though. I think they mean the most direct definitions of fraud and false advertising: financial gain.

And now the argument starts to make sense. It fits nicely in a worldview that sees marriage as a straightforward, gender-based financial contract. A man gives his money; in return, a woman gives her body.
What would be the equivalent "false advertising" on the part of a man? Roth's site doesn't mention a "wedding tux" challenge for men. They're allowed to change their bodies. No, I think the equivalent situation is a groom in medical school at the time of his wedding, who later chooses to drop out of residency and become an artist. He wouldn't be holding up the financial side of the bargain; the male side.

None of this is new; marriage has been seen as the sale of a woman's body to a man for centuries. But silly, optimistic me. I thought things were changing. I thought marriage was transforming, becoming more egalitatrian. What frightens me the most is that people are still saying these things, now, in 2007. And both Ms. Roth and MorphingIntoMama are young.

I'd better ask my husband if he's getting his money's worth.

Is this your first pregnancy?

A few days after I peed on a stick and got that second line (known in baby dust circles as a BFP) I called my school's medical centre to get a prenatal appointment. They made me one for a few weeks later. In a few days, I was woken up by a phone call (people! mornings are not for the use of the telephone!) from a nurse.

She wanted to confirm my address so she could mail me some forms and information, see if I needed a prescription for prenatal vitamins, and ask a small number of questions. Fine. And then she asked, "is this your first pregnancy?"

I paused. For a long time, as conversational pauses go. Maybe a second or two. Then I answered "no."

I expected the next question to be "and how many children do you have?" but the question never came, so I didn't get a chance to explain my answer. Apparently she interpreted the pause as full of meaning. Maybe tragedy. Really, it could have been anything: an ectopic, a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a live baby since passed on. Apparently she took my pause to mean I wasn't up for discussing it. And considering the harrowing experiences so many women have had, and how much it upsets many of them when they have to explain yet again what happened in their previous pregnancy or pregnancies, her choice not to continue down that line of questioning was probably one of compassion. But in my particular case, that was misplaced.

The pause was simply because for a second I wasn't sure about the answer. No, it wasn't my first pregnancy. Yes, it was my first "real" pregnancy; the first pregnancy I was allowed to speak to others about. My early-morning-brain took a moment to figure out which answer was the correct one in this situation.

Had I been given the opportunity, I would have continued: "I had an elective abortion at ten weeks." That's what I put on the history form I brought to my first appointment with the midwife. I chose the word "elective" with some care. With no adjective, abortion can be a synonym for miscarriage (but one a woman would rarely use to describe her own history). "Induced abortion" is more clear, but could be due to threats to my health, genetic testing of the embryo giving a poor prognosis, or other "good, compelling, patriarchy-approved" reasons. My own medical records call it a "therapeutic abortion," which I presume stems from the time when an abortion was allowed only "when the health of the woman was in danger as determined by a three-doctor hospital committee." My abortion was not "therapeutic;" neither my physical nor my mental health were in imminent danger. It was elective. It was my exercise of autonomy over my own body, and the rational decision that at that point in my life I preferred not to carry a pregnancy to term.

Perhaps in a future post I'll tell the story of my abortion, including the reasons at the time, and my own continued belief that it was the right decision for me. That's not what this post is about, though.

What I'd like to discuss is how an aborted pregnancy is not a "real" pregnancy. It is not socially acceptable for me to mention it. It's supposed to be a shameful thing, something I would never mention in public. But to me, it's not a shameful thing. And after the beginning of my second pregnancy, I started feeling it was relevant, and wanted to mention it. But every time, I chose not to do so.

I'll admit that due to some misplaced search for community, I spent a little time on forums populated by the above-mentioned "baby dust" people. There's a lot of women just looking for tidbits of information. Typical post title: when does morning sickness usually start? The answer I wanted to give: In my first pregnancy, morning sickness started very suddenly at six weeks. It was accompanied and triggered by an insanely perceptive sense of smell. There was a lot of vomiting. However, in this pregnancy, I'm finding it very different. It came on a little later, around 8 weeks. I feel nauseated all day, but rarely throw up. Answer I did give: none. With no comparison to make between pregnancies, I really had no point. And if I mentioned the first pregnancy, I'd have to answer the questions: how old is your kid? No, no kid. Oh! That must be horrible for you, what happened? I chose to end the pregnancy at 10 weeks. And then silence. Or castigation. Social exclusion. A forum full of pregnant women tends to be a good place to find virulent, uninformed anti-choice opinion. And it comes up again and again. How's your libido? Ravenous when I was 19 and pregnant. Existing now, but tempered by nausea.

The doctor who performed my abortion told me my cervix was very difficult to dilate. They used the 8-week tube instead of the correct 10-week one. She mentioned that this could "cause some problems later when [I] have children." I didn't ask for more details. At the time, I didn't picture myself ever having children. However, now I think this is something I think my health-care practitioners should know. But again, they don't want to discuss my abortion. The couple of times I've mentioned it, the doctors have moved away from the subject as quickly as possible. I haven't mentioned it to any midwives yet; I will if I get a chance. And I expect, again, that they won't want to try to interpret this piece of information. They won't want to talk about it.

My desire to discuss my first pregnancy is waning now that I'm further along in my second pregnancy than I was in that one. This part is new to me, and I don't make comparisons as often, or marvel at how different the two pregnancies are. But that pregnancy existed, it was legitimate, and I learned from it. It's too bad others can't.


Two days ago, on Friday, I achieved two major milestones. First, I handed in a completed PhD thesis. It was on special magic thesis paper and was even signed by my committee. This means that, when the university gets around to planning a big ceremony, I'll be getting a PhD.

I'm trying to protect my pseudonymity here, so I won't tell you exactly what it is I study, or where. It's in a technical field. Take the most impressive field of study you can think of. No, that's not what I study. Think of another. That's the one. I study the second-most-cool-sounding technical field. Now think of the most "prestigious" school in the United States where a random layperson thinks one would go to study that field. Yes, that's where I am.

I'm not saying those things to brag, just to give you some idea of where I'm coming from. I will tell you that the field, while interesting to me, isn't nearly as cool or as difficult as most people think it is. And my narrow specialty sounds much less cool than the field as a whole. And the school? Yeah, it's a good school. It has a lot of money, and that makes a big difference. My department in particular is awesome, with, on average, very good faculty, and administrative staff who are actually helpful, rather than obstacles to getting work done.

Second, I passed the twelve-week mark in my pregnancy. Some sources claim that after 12 weeks, the risk of miscarriage decreases substantially. I've also heard the same happens at 8 weeks, 10 weeks, and 14 weeks, so I don't have huge confidence in 12 being some kind of magic number. Most likely the odds decrease exponentially with time, and experts just simplify it for the laywoman by giving these arbitrary dates. Numbers I've heard, for the odds past 12 weeks, are 3% and 5%, so the odds of miscarriage aren't even that low. And I've read enough about all the various things that can go wrong, even late, in a pregnancy, that I'm not overly cavalier. But yeah, it's looking like the best prediction is that sometime in December a mewling, slimy mini-person will emerge from my vagina. How very, very, odd.

And thus, after passing those two milestones, I decided to start a blog. I made an attempt once before, but overreached a little and got frustrated with myself. This one will be about my experiences as a post-doc, my search for a job as a professor, and my pregnancy. I presume the intersection of the last two may provide some entertainment. I make no promises about the frequency or quality of my posts.

As for my handle, I prefer to pronounce it in three syllables: "con-FOO-zed", but that's up to you.