Hannah Lewis spoke to Dr. Alison Powell about gender and academia.
HL: A person’s identity is something that defines who they are and the life they live. There are some aspects to a person’s identity that they cannot choose: Race, ethnicity, sex (though you can change your gender identity), and sexual orientation, to name a few. These aspects to a person’s identity creates a specific experience that is different for everyone, and shapes a person’s life. Women for example, tend to face gender discrimination in the workplace (wage gap), as well as sexual objectification/sexual assault in their day-to-day lives and at work.
Dr. Alison Powell is a professor at Oakland University and holds the well-earned title of Assistant Professor of Poetry. In addition to teaching her own classes on poetry and literature, she is also responsible for the current publication of the Oakland Arts Review, a literary magazine published at Oakland University showcasing undergraduate poetry, artwork, and non-fiction from all over the country. She has been teaching for 18 years and has established herself as a successful professor by herself and on her own terms. A poet, feminist, and dedicated educator, Professor Powell has made a name for herself; and like many other women, has not gotten to where she is easily.
Is there anything you’ve had to overcome in your profession that others may not have, simply because you’re a woman? Be it certain obstacles or life changes (such as having your children)?
Powell: There are so many. My husband is also a professor, so we talk about this kind of thing a lot. And I would say anytime – women who are professors face consistently different issues than male professors in the classroom… One example, maybe the most obvious ready example is teacher evaluations – student evaluations of teachers… There are many universities that are thinking about doing away with them because student evaluations are really powerful for tenure and promotion… A pretty significant part of it is that they go through your student evaluations and see what students have said about you… Women professors who are seen as difficult or challenging are consistently given much lower ratings than male professors who are seen as difficult or challenging. With male professors who are difficult or challenging, the reactions from students tend to be like, “He’s tough, but good and you really have to prove yourself to him.” Whereas with women, it tends to be a lot more like, “She’s a real b***.”
[In regards to having children.] At Oakland we don’t have a formal maternity leave policy… It has been an ongoing issue for faculty, but the union has never really tried to address it because their attitude is like, well, we get FMLA, which is the Family Medical Leave Act. So you get six weeks off or something…
HL: Has there ever been a time where you felt that you were being treated differently in your life or profession because you’re a woman?
Powell: I grew up in Southern Indiana, which is pretty conservative. There is a lot of low-level misogyny. Women were, I think, seen as, y’ know, either sort of mother-figures or sexual objects – or you could be kind of tomboy; there were only a few roles you could play. I had an interesting experience in my own family… my mother worked, she was a professor and a lawyer. My dad was very proud of her and the work that she did, and I felt like I was raised to think I could be just as good as the boys, but in this kind of 1980s sort of way. And then when I went to college and I majored in gender studies, I started getting really into feminism and feminist theory, and I would try to talk to my dad about it… and it was very difficult for him… He loved the idea of his little girl being a tomboy, but when I started to be really critical about social structure then it was like, “Well, hold on a second…”
HL: Have you ever been cat called or talked down to at work or doing your schooling because you’re a woman?
Powell: Yes… Comments on teaching evaluations from male students. Comments about your looks… Most of the women I know have had comments – either they’re negative about their appearance, or they’re positive about their appearance… I would say I probably get one a year.
HL: Do you think that becoming a professor has made you a stronger person?
Powell: Yes. I think there is a lot to be said for feeling pride about what you do… I feel proud of myself for having gotten to this point because it was really hard… I feel especially strongly about the work that I’m doing with young female students. It’s very meaningful to me… It makes me feel stronger and more capable just by virtue of being able to do that [help students].
HL: If you could change (or improve) one thing about the world, what would it be?
Powell: End capitalism.