An Essay on Anxiety about Female Professors

[第10期] 世代對話 — An Essay on Anxiety about Female Professors
Polly Huang(黃寶儀), Min-Chen Ho(何旻真), and Wanjiun Liao(廖婉君)

I. Introduction
Currently, there are three female professors in our Department of Electrical Engineering. Professor Liao was recruited six years ago, and the other two were on board early this year.
This three-out-of-84 rarity seems to raise quite a bit of curiosity. Hence, questions in different forms and tones have been received. For example, “Did you prefer to play with Barbies or construct space station with Lego when you were kids?” Or, “Why did you choose the science-engineering track in the university entrance exam?” Or, “What is the purpose for a woman to pursue a doctoral degree?” By observation and by experience, we understand that these questions roughly mean, “Do you find it difficult, or any other way, to do a man’s job?”
To respond to this question in a serious manner, partly because the Editor-in-Chief also asked us to show some style, we try to present our thoughts as formal as we can while maintaining our popularity and readers’ entertainment. So, bear with us.

The discomfort incurred by those concerns from others about our past and future was defined as anxiety. The sources of anxiety can be categorized into distant public and close families and friends. The frequency of anxiety events and their intensity exhibit very interesting properties, which will be provided in the Analysis Section. In a nutshell, the anxiety events and intensity from the distant public tend to be lower and less significant, as opposed to those from the close
families and friends which could be destructive sometimes. As for how we deal with those anxieties, consider it a trade secret. Although this work is by no means complete nor robust, it is our first serious attempt. We hope to motivate further discussions in this issue, and add value to the whole EE community.

II. Data Collection
This article was based on the panel discussion on the 10th of July, 2003, coordinated by the editing staff of the Newsletter. The attendees include Professor Jean-Fu Kiang(江簡富), Ms. Shin-Mei Huang(黃欣梅), Chih-Yin Lee(李杰穎, 二年級), Chia-Lin Lee(李佳霖, 三年級), Wei Dai(戴維, 四年級), Yi-Jung Luo(駱怡榮, 碩二), and Pao-Wei Fu(傅柏偉, 博五). After Professor Kiang’s short brief on the purpose of this gathering and his motive of making some change to the style of Newsletter, the panel is handed over to the three of us.

The discussion was in the Q&A format. A list of questions had been drafted by brainstorming days before, focusing on gender difference impacting female professors or students.
(1) Before entering the university
o. Why did you choose the science-engineering track?
o. Was there any external influence involved in the decision-making process?
(2) Studying or teaching in the university
o. Are there any stereotypes about females majoring science and engineering?
o. Do these stereotypes bother you?
o. How do you deal with these problems?
o. What is your feeling of being put under the spotlight frequently due to rarity?
o. How would you like male classmates or colleagues treat you?
o. Is there anything the Department can do to help?
(3) Future
o. What kind of career would you like to lead?
o. Would it be helpful to have female role models around?
o. What is your opinion on females performing well in career but fading out afterwards?
(4) Closing
o. Do you think groups such as EE Women with regular gathering will help?
o. Do you think more exposure about outstanding alumnae will help?

III. Analysis
To facilitate the discussion and to make sense out of the analysis, we quantify the discomfort of being doubted on the competence of doing a man’s job by the degree of pressure, also referred to as anxiety as was mentioned earlier. Such discomfort usually results in a sudden change in heart rate or blood pressure. Those anxiety-generating events in life occur in random, and the degree of pressure is contingent upon the circumstances. For example, one of us might be walking through the hallway and overhearing something like “Wow, did you see the pair of shorts the professor is wearing?” Count this as a low-pressure event. It usually disturbs only a little bit and then life goes on. To take another example, the Admission Committee might consider appointing a female professor to help persuading talented high school graduates to apply for our Department. This is a mild-pressure event. It usually requires personal presence and to squeeze some juice out of brain to speak of something attractive. A typical high-pressure event may be waged by one of our aunties, sympathetically looking into our eyes, and murmuring, “Why would a girl have to study so much?” This type of surprise can shake our value of life over certain period of time.

Based on our experience, including this panel discussion, we will present the occurrence of such events and the intensity of pressure they generate, the distribution of event arrival process, as well as the distribution of the pressure intensity. Our focus will be the gender factor.

III.A. The Hypothesis
Conclusions drawn from the panel discussion and private communication can be summarized in two parts:
(1) Indeed, there is pressure from the general public, which is usually related to the skewed stereotypes about professional and intellectual women. However, the total impact of such pressure is relatively insignificant. We expect such pressure will be further reduced as more females are recruited to the faculty and the standing female faculty members demonstrate no such stereotype.
(2) The real pressure comes from the families, especially the parents. It is primarily due to certain difference between the parents’ and our own expectation of life. Pressure events of this type do not occur very frequently, usually happening at every critical milestone of our lives. To name a few, the moments to decide whether to take on the science-engineering track in the university entrance exam, whether to pursue the doctoral degree, whether to choose industrial or academia for career, and whether to get married and have children. Such type of pressure, however, does have very profound, sometimes life-turning, impact on us. We are concerned that the frequency and intensity may continue to climb in the future.
Based on these observations, we conjecture that the pressure intensity and the social distance of the pressure generator exhibit a strong tailed-like relation as shown in Figure 1. The abscissa represents the social distance from the farthest to the closest. The vertical axis indicates the intensity of pressure generated by people with various social distances. The big tail indicates that the majority of events are insignificant, and the impact from those scarce events at the tail is too large to be neglected, most pressure comes from here. In addition to this statistical nature, local features of event frequency and intensity are surprisingly distinctive in the insignificant body as compared with the tailed region. These features will be inspected further.

III.B. The Negligible Body
People of distant relationship usually pay little attention other than seeing us as women, thus creating little pressure on us. This is also confirmed in the panel discussion by the fact that the students care more about our professional profiles like background and experience of studying abroad, rather than the mere gender factor.
However, a number of observations might be of interest. The occurrence of pressure generating events, for example, interviews or invitations to social occasions, obviously does not follow an identical and independent distribution. In fact, the likelihood of a subsequent event tends to be high if there was already a recent event. This theory is verified by this panel discussion which is the outcome of Professor Mao-Chao Lin’s(林茂昭) proposal to have the Newsletter interview the three of us, and he was inspired by reading the annual NTUEE-Week Special Newsletter just issued in this March.
The intensity of such pressure tends to drop quickly at the beginning, but the remnant stays quite a while, based on our experience with the Department. Such events may occur in different formats, bearing different degrees of seriousness, like formal writings, debates, casual chats, or mere social appearance, but Q&A is the most commonly encountered version. Since the nature of questions is pretty much the same, so are our replies. The difficulty, hence the pressure, can be traced back to search for politically correct answers in a diplomatic manner. Fortunately, those proper answers can be applied again and again, as long as the same questions are raised over and over. By such practices, the level of pressure will gradually be reduced to a minimum effort of just remembering the time and place of such an event.

III.C. The Strong Tail
The pressures from close families and friends do pose much more serious threats. Intuitively, they are the people who care a lot about us and we also care a lot about them. That’s how the feeling of obligation was established and why their suggestions were taken seriously. The event usually begins with a casual chat, but suddenly turns into preaches about why women should get married or transforms to a match making date.
Additional pressure is contributed by the fact that very few know that university professor is among the toughest professions there are. We need to put up with reviewers who do not really appreciate our papers, try to convince our graduate students that the topics of their choices are not going anywhere. On top of all these, we are expected to come up with jokes when the students fall asleep in the class. All these are not specified in our job description. We overwork and desire no more episode of miscommunication at home.
The three of us do not reach an agreement on the distribution of event frequency. However, we identify that the distribution correlates strongly with the determination of individual family member. For a specific family member, the frequency tends to follow a normal distribution which peaks at about the age of 30, then he began to give up. Yet, another normal distribution will follow when another family member becomes aware of the difference of our career path from that of other women’s.
It is interesting to observe that our families seem to expect us to be ordinary people. But their attitude was clearly the opposite when bringing us up. They have no idea of contradicting themselves. Another example was brought up by the only female student during the panel discussion. Her mother insists that she should not pursue a doctoral degree, but she should keep good academic record.
Such pressure intensity exhibits complicated dynamics, analogous to the Internet traffic or a rubber band. The pressure intensity is a monotonic function of the concerns exerted by the caring families and friends. When the intensity exceeds certain critical point, it will drop all of a sudden like the rubber band reaches its elastic limit and snaps. The audience may see the picture that the concerning family members are frowning, but we are not listening to what they are saying.

IV. Conclusions
Professionally, we have no problems at all to do our job. In fact, we enjoy doing our job. We might work more than 60 hours a week somtimes. We might pull our hair out, trying to figure out an explanation for an extraordinary data point. We might need to repeat the same thing over and over, and the students still do not get the point. But we enjoy doing our job. We may look different from your view, but there is indeed no big difference between us and our male colleagues in the Department. The only difference is the extra bit of pressure: some from the public, but most from the close families and friends.
We know and we prefer to lead the lives WE expect. So, we need to put up with more miscommunications and occasionally some murmurs from our caring family members. That is fine. We will survive well. Here, we would like to share some lessons with you. Children do inherit values from their parents. If the children can live up to the expectation, the likelihood that they grow up the way their parents prefer is high. Think over what you really want your children to be. If you expect them to be outstanding, chances are they won’t be simultaneously as normal as you expect. It is OK to be instrumental, but try not to be inconsistent.
In the future, this type of discussion can proceed in two directions. The first one is to encourage more female students and professors into discussion, especially the students, since more and more female students are qualified and admitted to our Department recently. One might even consider a joint student-staff-faculty club with periodical gatherings that can share experience and release some pressure.
Secondly, we think the interaction will be much more useful if alumnae experience can be incorporated. We have heard all sorts of outstanding achievements by our alumni, but almost nothing from our alumnae. We should pay more attention to them. We would like to take this opportunity to encourage our alumnae to speak up for themselves. And finally, our gratitude owes to Professor Kiang for a job well done in polishing this article.
Message from the Editor-in-Chief: The Student Association of the EE Department presented a nice interview article with three female professors in our Department in their annual Special Newsletter(電機週專刊). Professor Mao-Chao Lin proposed to publish that article in this Newsletter. After two years of endeavors by all the participants, this Newsletter has gradually established its own style. It is a good time to extend a little or to upgrade in order to keep our readers, working committee, editing staff and myself from getting bored. Professors Liao, Huang, and Ho are deeply appreciated for taking this challenge and preparing this marvelous article. To ensure they feel comfortable on this task, Professor Wu(陳金蓮) was invited to present her career path to our alumni/alumnae in this same issue. Writing articles in English was an agreed policy two years ago in inaugurating this Newsletter. This article also gave us the first shot in this aspect. Supports from the Chairmen of our Department and all the Graduate Institutes are critical for the progress of this Newsletter. We hope the Newsletter will serve our alumni/alumnae better in the future.