In Which the Historianess Becomes a Token
Last week my friend and fellow Cliopat Manan Ahmed posted on Cliopatria about a letter he received from the AHA. Manan, along with a few other Cliopats, had detected some similarities in their scholarly work and they resolved to do a panel on their work--not as bloggers, but as colleagues.
Their panel was accepted with a condition: Since the AHA has a standing commitment to gender diversity on panels, the Program Committee has decided to require you to find a female participant, perhaps to serve as chair or a second commentator for your session.
Manan points out that while AHA regulations do "encourage" gender diversity on panels, they do not *require* it, as this program committee has done. And, as he also notes, no reminder of this official policy of encouragement appears on the AHA's Calls for Papers.
Manan and his colleagues were understandably embarrassed to contact women academics with a request to chair the panel; would you want to call someone up, even a friend, and say "Apparently, me and my colleagues are not gender diverse; so, since you're a girl, would you please chair our panel?" (Or, who would want to ask the converse: "Would you chair my panel since you're a boy?") Because these guys are my friends, and because I think this situation plainly stinks, I offered to take on the job as the AHA's token woman on the panel and thus saved it from rejection.
Here's what makes me so darn angry:
1. While gender diversity on panels is in general a good idea, rejecting perfectly decent panels because of a lack of gender diversity is short-sighted and offensive. It's short-sighted because it alienates historians of any gender who would like to put together panels (which is time-consuming work in and of itself) while limiting their options and encouraging them to pick panelists simply because of gender rather than because of scholarly interest or ability.
2. It's offensive because it installs a woman simply for the sake of having a woman on the panel. I won't be doing any serious scholarly work for this panel; I just show up and introduce my friends (I many also get to wear a t-shirt that says "token"). That's a great way to encourage gender diversity: put the token in a position of little authority or consequence, just because he/she will fit the quota. Ridiculous, and offensive. In all my time in academia, I've never been treated this way.
3. There are huge gender problems among historians. Women academics are still paid less than equivalently qualified male colleagues. Women still face discriminatory maternity leave "policies" that complicate balancing an academic career and motherhood. There is still a serious dearth of women at the tenured level in history departments, especially at the level of full professor. Income inequality and inequality at the level of senior scholars are both serious problems; sticking me, or any women, on an AHA panel is *not* a solution. Interestingly, my (admittedly quick) perusal of the AHA's annual report did not reveal any substantive inquiries in the past year into gender inequality in our profession. Perhaps the AHA thinks that by getting a woman to chair Manan's panel, history's gender problems are solved.
So here's my plea: no more offensive half-measures, no more quotas for panels, no more ridiculous "requirements" for panels. Instead, let's have a serious discussion about the challenges that women still face in this profession. Let's talk about unequal pay, about maternity leave policies, and about women as senior scholars. Let's have some requirements that do something to actually ameliorate these problems.
In the mean time, I invite you to attend our panel. It will be great, even though there will be a token presiding.