Opinion | Women in academia need to get aggressive

By Dalia Maeroff, Senior Staff Columnist

I don’t need to dive into why women, especially women of color, are marginalized in academia  — every woman knows the answer. We should be teaching men to be more accepting and less sexist rather than teaching women how to survive and thrive in male-dominated academia, but at a certain point, when your professor is just too good to email you back after the fifth or sixth follow-up, you get impatient, pissed off and more motivated to do something about your situation than ever. This is the time to become proactive.

Women in academia know some professors can be sexist. We know that STEM programs often are trying to weed us out. We know that we are expected to do less and succeed less often than our male peers. It all boils down to what can we do about it now? We can’t just wait for all the older generations to die out, quite obviously, because sexism still exists in every generation to some extent, and is still ever present in academia. And let’s be honest, teaching men is exhausting, especially when they mansplain things back to you.

My horrible solution to this horrible problem is to get aggressive. All those qualities academia values in men — ambition, competitiveness, confidence, leadership and aggressiveness — are all qualities that women desperately need to adopt and own in academic spaces. I was lucky to have been raised by two parents who taught me to be aggressive in all spaces, make room for myself and demand what I need. It took me a long time to get used to that, and I was shocked when I got to college and realized that most women I knew didn’t know how to do that. Here are the first few steps that helped me feel like I was actually being respected in class and in the workplace.


It’s all in the way you present yourself

I hate that this is true. Every woman does. But it does matter quite a lot. Yes, clothes and makeup are one thing, but more important than that is how confident you are in your own skin. It’s hard to have self-confidence and that takes practice in time, but they always say fake it until you make it. Walk with your head held high, shoulders back, back straight and with purpose. What I normally do is listen to music that makes me feel like a badass, or I think “murder” and then walk. A nice pair of shoes also does the trick. My favorites include my tortoiseshell ankle boots or a nice black leather boot. No one will underestimate you. It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a world of a difference.


Your emails are important

Writing comes naturally to me, and so does emailing people. It doesn’t for most people. A few tips. Be direct and to the point about your situation and what you need from who you’re emailing. You don’t need to end every sentence in your emails with an exclamation mark unless you actually are excited. Send follow-ups when they don’t reply, and be persistent.


Don’t let anyone talk over you

This one is probably the most annoying, and no matter what field you’re in, it happens nearly nonstop. When a man interrupts you, be silent until he stops talking. Ignore everything he says. When he’s done talking, say “I wasn’t done talking,” and start your point over, without addressing anything he just said. This technique works like a charm, and I have classically conditioned both professors and students in my classes to never interrupt me again. It’s a wonder that none of these men have been taught basic respect for other people. Or maybe they just don’t see women as people?


If you need something, speak up 

Your needs come first, no matter what. We are allowed to be “selfish” and not cater to the needs of every man in the room. If you are sick, take the day off to rest and get better. If you need help on an assignment, ask, and don’t apologize for not understanding the material, because it is never your fault.


Don’t smile for anyone, ever, unless you actually want to

I have a persistent case of RBF, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to smile or cheer up. More people would like me and people will go out of their way to do things for me, and apparently those are reasons to smile at every creepy man on campus. No, it isn’t. I can get good grades on my own without smiling and batting my eyelashes at my TA, and I am more than capable of networking without being ingenuine. I am a very happy person, and I smile a lot, when I actually feel like smiling, not when people tell me to.


Check in on your other women 

Other women are your best weapon against sexism in academia. Your female professors are here for you, and most will be more than happy to talk things out and share their experiences and advice with you during office hours. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had a female professor at Pitt yet who hasn’t been accessible, inclusive and incredibly helpful and nice. After complaining to one of my English literature teachers during the pandemic that reading from a screen gave me migraines, and telling her that my nearest “free” printer was a printer in Hillman a three-mile walk from my house, she promptly asked for my address and sent me the rest of the readings for the semester, neatly stapled, along with a cute bird-themed card and roll of washi tape, as we had bonded over our mutual love of birdwatching a few weeks earlier. Your female professors and TAs are here to support you and all of your academic endeavors.


Self-care, tons of it

Being a woman in academia is frustrating and exhausting and at times will make you want to quit. Self-care is the key to keeping your sanity. Do whatever you need to do to feel relaxed and comfortable and ready to tackle each day like the amazing woman you are. 


Dalia Maeroff writes primarily about issues of psychology, education, culture and environmentalism. Write to her at [email protected].