Dinner at Bombay Cafe, with a friend who'd just defended her thesis. The divide at the table was subtle but I couldn't help noticing- J and I - two "almost ph.ds" on one side, and S and R, two Ph.Ds on the other. I guess I'm just becoming more sensitive to these things these days. Gender-wise, we were well balanced. So as conversation went from the gripes of thesis writing to Indian and Mexican cuisine to department politics, we began discussing the latest faculty-hire hunt going on in the department. The department was looking for a new professor, and there were three candidates that came to our univ, interviewed and gave talks about their work. All three spectacular candidates with kick-ass resumes and credentials. #1, though, had clear public-speaking issues and was vetoed right away. The choice remained between #2 and #3, and a tough choice it was.
Both held Ph.D degrees from well-known labs, hefty publication records, and exhibited strong command in the area we were looking to fill up a gap in the dept. And both were great communicators, which is oh so important in scientists, especially in abstract and theory-based areas like this particular position was for. #2 had a couple years more experience over #3. On a relative ranking scale, #2 could be a 90 and #3 an 85. (100 being the top end of the scale, that is).
#2 is a man, #3 a woman.
At the aforementioned table, three of us were hoping that #3 was chosen. Yes, because she is a woman. And that was the opinion of the student population on the whole. J (a guy) took strong objection to this, and of course, heated debate ensued, over by-now-cold samosas. He didn't see why that was even a factor. Our department has 25 full-time faculty members, 4 of which are women. 27 of the 40 grad students in the department are female. This distribution is not restricted to our dept alone, it's quite the norm in academia. The paucity of women in higher positions in science is a well-known issue, and the reasons for it range from the obvious to the lesser-known. So when the time came for us to vote for our choice of candidate, (the student body gets a single collective vote) the student rep J put forth our almost unanimous choice for #3. We got to hear that one of the female faculty members in the department apparently "took strong offence" to the fact that candidate #3 could be picked because she was a woman.
Why not? As a female graduate student and a member of the majority sex within the student population, I strongly feel the need for a larger female presence in the faculty. Having good female role-models to look up to, and help us believe that it can be done, is important to us and something we severely lack. Women in the department will also be more sensitive and clued in on female issues, be it adjusting the tenure clock to accomodate womens' needs, maternity leave, discussing child care possibilites on campus, or someone to talk to about career/life decisions for us female grad students. As a graduate student with a female mentor, ( in as much as I don't always have good things to say about her ;) ) I feel priveleged and fortunate to see and learn several things first-hand about being a faculty member of the minority sex in what can easily pass off as an "old-boys club". And whoever says that there is no difference in the hurdles faced by men and women or in the treatments they get needs to get real.
Our voice of dissent Mr. J felt that "we need to hire the best person" for the job, and being female wasn't a qualification. I think it was. For all the reasons I outlined above. The female professor who protested against such a consideration said that it would be doing a "Grave disservice to the exisiting female professors" if someone were chosen "Because she was a woman". I thought she was missing the point. While good credentials, publications, strong science were of course main criteria , and these had already been established, being a faculty member in a scientific community entails a lot more than that. And a department with a 67% female student population and less than 20% female faculty population only stood to benefit from hiring a well-qualified woman into the dept.
The final vote went to #2.
Addendum: With all the funding cuts towards research in the US these days (thanks to you-know-who), getting the $$ to be able to hire a faculty member is a big deal, and a rare opportunity. The selection process is quite transparent here in our dept. All the students and faculty have full access to each candidates dossier (except to the letters of recommendation). After the candidates present their work in a public seminar attended by all, the students get together to decide their single vote. Each faculty member, however gets one vote per head. So, I guess, the #2 supporters outnumbered the #3 supporters, perhaps because he was , after all, a shade "more qualified" on paper.