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Lovers in science (was: Re: Mentors)

Una Smith smith-una at yale.edu
Fri May 21 21:19:21 EST 1993

I really liked what several people had to say about mentors!  Yes, mentors
and advisors are two different things, although sometimes you may find both
in the same person.  I have had the extreme good fortunate to have several
advisors who have become mentors.  One or two encouraging things they said
to me in times of distress have come back to me repeatedly since then.

Steve Modena (samodena at csemail.cropsci.ncsu.edu) wrote:

: One's point-of-view on sexism-in-academia/science can be influenced by
: direct experience that runs counter to feminist orthodoxy.

Hm.  Just what is the feminist orthodoxy?  That something bad always results
from any close personal association of female students with male professors?
This sounds like Steve doesn't think conditions are as bad as they're made
out to be.  Maybe things aren't all terrible.  But they're still pretty bad.

To paraphrase Steve's examples:

  A PhD student gets and later breaks up with a professor on her committee.
  No one has any problem with any of this, and committee remains intact.

  A visting senior scientist relates personal anecdotes about her
  romantic activities during her graduate school years, with relish.

There's another "positive" outcome:

  A graduate student reveals a romantic interest in her professor, who
  responds with a scorched-earth policy, remaining civil but distant and
  severing all ties with her, in the interest of proper feminist respect
  for her "vulnerable" position.  One step forward, two steps back.

And a very common, not so nice scenario:

  A graduate student and her (possibly married) advisor have an affair, move
  in together (he gets a divorce), but keep secret the fact that they are a
  couple, sometimes denying it to everyone but their closest mutual friends. 
  They often get married at some point, but only "come out" when she has her
  PhD and he has tenure (or at least a secure job).  This may be fine for the
  two of them, but it is *poison* to any other graduate students in the
  research group.
I've heard several first-hand accounts of each of these scenarios myself,
but they are outnumbered by stories with (sometimes very) negative outcomes
for the graduate student.  The complaints I hear most are about lies and
deceit, and grotesque sexism, less often about betrayal and retribution. 

And missed opportunites are very common:  undergraduate women cannot go on
field trips with this professor; that professor won't close his office door
when talking to female students, thus it becomes very awkward for them to
discuss sensitive or emotional issues; the other one never has his female
students home for dinner; another gives well-meant advice like "wear more
makeup" or "wear a dress and show off your nice legs" when giving poster
presentations.  I know (and like) professors who fit each of these stereo-
types, but I sometimes wish the world were a slightly different place and
they were slightly different men.

Most people will break up with several lovers before finding the one they
decide to stay with, and often the breakups are painful and messy.  It seems
more often the case that the woman pays a much higher price for breaking up
when she is a graduate student and the other party is a professor.

That aside, I think most female graduate students would like to have more
"normal" relationships with the faculty they *don't* have affairs with.

      Una Smith      Biology Department       smith-una at yale.edu
                     Yale University
                     New Haven, CT  06511

      Una Smith      Biology Department       smith-una at yale.edu
                     Yale University
                     New Haven, CT  06511

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