The Plight of The Female Professor

By Brooke Claflin

Recently I was with some friends, and we were discussing the idea of mansplaining- when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending manner. They related incidents in their own lives when mansplaining had happened to them, and I reflected on the fact that age can also play a role in its occurrence. Often those who have mansplained to me have been older, so I have not been as inclined to see the incident as a real issue. Age demands respect, or at least it does for men.

After that I couldn’t help but think of a moment in one of my intro level classes, when a male student kept insisting that his grasp and explanation of a concept was superior to that of our professor, who happened to be a woman. The professor did not get angry with the student but rather explained in various ways the accepted theory within this field of study, until finally the male student gave up with a resigned sigh. The incident definitely resonated with me as an uncomfortable moment; however, I didn’t see it as gender related until I considered that a male professor of the same age and experience would probably never have to face that same sort of questioning. Of course this can’t be proven without some sort of evidence, but I think just by asking women about their own experiences one would find that many can share similar stories.

In fact, to try and delve deeper into this incident, I decided to research the differential treatment that our society seems to have for male and female professors. I then came across, among other things, the opinion piece, Girlfriend, Mother, Professor?, by Carol Hay in the New York Times. Hay writes about Sigmund Freud’s “Madonna-whore complex,” the idea that men see women either as someone to obtain sexually or as their virtuous mothers; women, according to this theory, are not imagined outside of these two concepts. Based on this concept, Hay then reflects on her experience as a professor in which students, both male and female, have been unable to separate her from these two concepts. 

The main problem seems to be that our society, with all of its supposed progress, has not created a clear design for the female professor, whereas the role of the male professor has been underway since the time of Plato. As Hay points out, a “mentoring relationship between older and younger men remains one of the most accepted and effective ways of transmitting knowledge and power in a patriarchal society such as ours.” On the other hand, female professors are not expected to mentor or delve out knowledge in the same way. Instead Hay and her female colleagues face students expecting more personal advice, asking for extensions, or crying to them about grades- all things that her male colleagues did not seem to worry about. For female professors age does not demand respect. Instead, it transfers them into a motherly role for their students. 

As students, we should pay attention to the ways in which we interact with our professors. Who are we more likely to turn to for advice? When do we feel more inclined to share a dissenting opinion? How do we interact with male versus female professors? Mostly, we need to learn to recognize that women can be something other than the labels, like girlfriend, mother, wife, and daughter, that connect them to someone else (and often, to some male figure).