Wednesday, August 24, 2005

How Does a Female Prof Sleep?

I am an insomniac. All of my friends have tried at one time or another to help me solve my insomnia issue, usually to no avail. I might go a few weeks with sleep, but as soon as some major project, talk, or paper comes my way, I am back to sleepless nights.

Early this summer, the NY Times published this article (published elsewhere so you can read it without paying) on how women are more likely to suffer from insomnia than men. Women--no surprise to me--are also a big market for sleep medications like Lunesta or Ambien.

Today a colleague alerted me to a study on the stress levels of female academics in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The data found that female full professors taught more courses and independent study units than did their male counterparts. At the associate professor level, men taught more regular courses, but far fewer independent units. And at the assistant level, men and women were equal in teaching regular courses, but women taught more independent units.

In interviews, the researchers found that women cited a variety of reasons for their increased workloads and stress associated with students, and many women attributed much of the problem to sexist patterns or attitudes — from their colleagues or students.

One woman interviewed said, “I taught 500 students my first semester. I taught the core courses. I carried 90 percent of the load of core courses for my whole department. Why? Because if women wanted to introduce a new course in their research and scholarly interests it was usually turned down. They’re there to serve and teach those core courses but men were able to fairly easily introduce the so-called vanity courses with the small enrollments.”

Another woman, commenting on how students treat female and male faculty members, said, “Students treat the women differently than the men. They’re more critical of the women than they are of the men. I’ve seen it even among the grad students in our department. More criticism is directed toward the female faculty than toward the male faculty because there are certain expectations about power and who’s wielding power. I didn’t come into this profession with those opinions. I have reached them painfully over the years because it’s impossible not to see it after a certain period of time in the profession.”

Summing up the problems female faculty members face with students, the authors wrote that “women felt students expected them to balance authority and nurturance in the classroom in ways that their male colleagues were not. Having to consider this balance while trying to deliver a course that is meaningful certainly contributes to stress related to teaching and students.”

While I personally haven't contended with all of these professional pressures and subtle, yet pervasive discriminations, I can relate to a lot of this. Above all the issue of nurturance.

I had to learn very early on to put a lot walls up after my first year, when a student of mine showed up and told me she was going to commit suicide. I had to take her to the hospital, accompany her through the whole intake exprience, and then endure heartbreaking phone calls from her begging me to spring her out of the hospital. I am pretty certain that none of my male colleagues have had to deal with that situation.

The emotional tax is significant.

I feel a bit vindicated by this study, although it doesn't help me sleep much.