When I was in college studying politics, a senior male professor was my valued mentor. One piece of his advice, way back then, always stuck in my craw: Even if I wasn’t interested in professional sports, he urged, I should learn a bit about it and read the sports page in the paper every day. Why? So that I would be able to join in the male chit-chat before the big meetings started.
I took his advice, for a while, and found that he was right: The big boys always did seem to talk about the football game before the meeting, and knowing something about sports gave me a way to join in. But it always felt forced, and a little risky, too — after all, what if I said something ignorant? But though it was uncomfortable, it was what I had to do to make a place for myself in what was still, in the early 1990s, mostly a man’s world.
As a younger scholar, I attended my share of meetings and conferences where I was the only woman in a room full of male experts. Although I saw more younger women entering graduate school, hoping to work in foreign policy and international affairs, not all of them made it out the other end of the pipeline. Too many female students and junior faculty I met were agonizing about whether they could afford to take time out for maternity leave before they got tenured. One older professor told me, when he learned I was pregnant, “A dissertation is a baby, too, you know.” If that were true, then I produced three babies in three years (two delightful humans, one that “lives” on a shelf) — while getting and holding a full-time job at a think tank.