Mary McKinney is an academic coach who keeps a blog, maintains a web site, and sends out the occasional newsletter. Her most recent newsletter (ok, no more links, I promise!) contains a response to a reader's question. The reader is the only woman faculty member in her engineering department, she is new, and her students are overwhelmingly (90%) male. Her question: any survival tips?
As I read the article, I of course couldn't help thinking about how I would respond to such a question. What would I have wanted to know going into this job? What advice do I wish I had been given? And now that I've been in this job for a few years---in this same situation, in fact---what would I tell people in similar positions?
Here's what I came up with:
1. If you're considering a job in a department with no women, think really, really hard about the repercussions of being the "token". Listen really hard to what your future colleagues say, but pay more attention to what they do. Talk to the women students---what are their feelings about the environment in the department, and how is morale among them? Talk to the male students---how do they react to you? Find out if the department plans on hiring again soon---is there a chance to add to the number of women there in the near future?
2. If your department is hiring, do everything you can to hire other women. Even if your department consists of the most enlightened men on the face of the earth, the fact is that real culture change won't happen until you have critical mass, or something closer to it. The more women you have, the more your voices get heard, and the less likely you are to be marginalized or minimized.
3. Develop a strong, confident classroom persona. Project that you know your stuff (even if internally, you feel unsure). Speak loudly, clearly, and in a lower tone. Make eye contact. Don't be too nice. Set clear and high expectations and don't be afraid to stick to them and insist that students stick to them. (of course, don't be totally unreasonable, but don't worry about students not "liking" you to the extent that you become a pushover.) Once you have the respect of the students, you can relax your persona a bit if that's more natural to you---but remember, there's always a new crop of students that may have never dealt with a female techie before, so don't totally let down your guard.
4. You will have at least one "god's gift to [insert field]" in your classroom at some point---or, in my experience, about one a year. Figure out in advance how to deal with these types. You don't want to wait until you're faced with one of these bozos in the classroom to figure out what to do. Talk to other women (in similar fields, on the Internet, whatever) about what they do---your male colleagues, I'm sorry to say, won't be much help here, because these students give them a level of respect that they just don't give to us.
5. Reach out whenver possible to the few women and minority majors. Make them feel welcome. Small gestures can have huge ripple effects. Encourage them---publicly and privately. You might be the only one in your department that does so.
6. Above all, keep your sense of humor, find a fabulous mentor or two, and surround yourself with supportive girlfriends (in your field, in similar fields, at other schools, whatever). You'll need them!