The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sexism and Field Archaeology

The author of the Digging the Dirt blog (if you don't read his blog, then you really should) has an interesting post about sexism in archaeology. Within the post there is a discussion of the role that sexism plays in whether or not women pursue a career in archaeology.

And this leads me to a couple of questions. The first is whether or not sexism plays a more significant role in archaeology than in society in general, and the second is whether or not my own professional behavior is at-fault.

To the first question, the BWA (British Women in Archaeology)* states that 1 in 3 women in archaeology have experienced sexist comments while at work, and 60% know someone who has. To be honest, I am surprised that the number is that low**, but it would be fair to say that any level is unacceptable. Likewise, an article in the September 2008 edition of the Society for American Archaeology's newsletter the Archaeological Record found that women were significantly more likely to have experience with the career plateau-effect known as the "glass ceiling"***, illustrating that sexism in the workplace isn't just a British phenomenon.

As with all fields of employment, the role of women is increasing (and their well-being improving) within archaeology, according to two Society for American Archaeology Bulletin articles on the subject, though problems such as pay disparities continue.

This matter is made a bit more complicated by the fact that our academic training would generally lead us to regard women as our equals (both due to the content of coursework and the fact that half or more of our fellow students are women). However, there is a very definite macho culture amongst many field archaeologists (especially the older field technicians) that tends to alienate many women entering the field. The two seem to balance each other out, but both are very much present.

If you follow the hyperlinks here, you'll see that this pretty much squares with what is seen in other lines of work.

While, no doubt, many people will seek to explain this away with claims about fundamental differences between men and women leading to different competencies, an analysis of actual differences between men and women in terms of cognitive, personality, and leadership traits indicates that such claims are essentially myths propped up by our culture's mars/venus confirmation bias rather than fair observations of reality.

This is, however, not an easy issue. Cultural assumptions about the role of women in family life may play a role, and these assumptions are difficult to deal with (though, like everything else involved here, they have been changing). It has also long been assumed that women might not rise to positions of higher authority because of career choices, but there is evidence to suggest that this isn't true.

Regardless, what is seen in archaeology indicates that it has the same issues as the rest of society, which is not good for women, but is an improvement over what it had been. Whether or not progress with continue or things will stagnate is open to question, but there is reason to be at least cautiously optimistic. It is well to be aware of the problems, and to do things to try to correct them where and when we can.

Okay, so on to the second issue - as a project manager, is my own behavior part of the problem?

This is difficult to assess. Of course, I want to say "no." I hire many women to work as field technicians, and the hires who I choose (as opposed to those who my boss or colleagues urge me to choose) are around 50% women. Of the people who I trust both as field techs and as other project managers or co-managers, the majority of them are women - but to be fair this is likely due in large part to the fact that most of the project managers in my company are women, rather than being due to my own preference. When I think of field techs who I am willing to bring onto projects or suggest for promotion, there are slightly more women than men on the list but all such promotions are justified based on their experience and proven qualifications, I hadn't even realized the gender ratios until I stopped to write this blog entry.

So, on the surface, I am doing rather well in this regard. In fact, I would say that, overall I probably am doing very well. However, regardless of how we may evaluate ourselves, the problem lies in how our assumptions that we may not even be aware of influence our behavior. For example, there's one person I can think of who is astoundingly sexist, to the point that I have heard him blame the current economic problems on women going to work rather than "staying home and being moms and housewives," and he has stated that the sign of a strong and independent woman is that she looks for a husband who is financially capable of taking care of her, and yet he believes that all of his notions are based on good solid facts rather than on really questionable assumptions and bizarre, convoluted reasoning.

So, am I different?

I'd like to think so, and certainly if I am harboring sexist tendencies they are nowhere to the level of that guy's. But the problem is that he doesn't think that he's sexist or misogynistic (despite the fact that he obviously is), which leaves me wondering whether or not the difference between him and I is one of degree rather than type.

In the end, all that I can do is keep in mind that I may have biases that I am not even aware of, and to try to spot them when they creep up. In doing so, perhaps I will be able to do my part to improve the situation within my field.

* While I think that the existence of a group such as this is a good thing and I am happy to know if its existence, I was struck by this apparently self-contradictory statement on the website: [The BWA] does not exclude men but does provide a women's-only forum. There may be a good argument for having a women-only forum, but how do you "not exlude" someone by exluding them?

** It should be noted that this is based on a survey with 85 respondents, and without a description of the survey methods, definitions of what constitutes a sexist comment, etc. All of which means that these results should be taken with a grain of salt. The reality could be worse or better than these results indicate, we just don't know.

*** Neal, L. "Glass Ceiling Syndrome for Women in Archaeology", in the SAA Archaeological Record (8) 4: 31-24.


Liev said...

Thanks! Well-written, as usual, and an important issue.

I'd like to bring your attention to something key that you wrote. "[R]egardless of how we may evaluate ourselves, the problem lies in how our assumptions that we may not even be aware of influence our behavior."

There's a jaw-droppingly insightful book on this, showing the implications and consequences of both men's and women's assumptions about each other's communication styles - namely, that they're the same. Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand and Talking from Nine to Five both answer a lot of your question. Without blaming men for being sexist jerks or women for being over-sentimental (or whatever). Highly recommended. So incredibly eye-opening.


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