Looking Inward: The men on the wall

Emily Russell/ Sun Star Columnist

April 15, 2014

When not working in my office or at my home, I work in the library. I’ve always loved libraries. When writing my undergraduate thesis at the small college I attended in Maine, I went to the library nearly every day. The building was similar to Rasmussen Library, a bit outdated but with a level of comfort that can only be achieved in a lived-in space.

On the first day of my senior year I went straight to the library, reserved a locker that was offered to any senior writing a thesis, and found a desk that would serve as my writing space for the next four months. That was my sanctuary.

I am writing my graduate thesis now and have been on the prowl for a similar sanctuary. Every day I climb the stairs to the fifth or sixth floor, in search of the perfect combination of quiet and sunlight. Yet every day when I climb the stairs, I glance up at the series of portraits on the walls lining the stairwell. These portraits depict the “Pioneer Pilots of Alaska.” They are impressive portraits of equally impressive men, but the prominence of those portraits leaves me wondering where all the women are.

One theory for why, according to the FAA’s 2012 Fact Book, women pilots make up a mere 6 percent all pilots in the US, is that they lack female mentors. In Alaska the percentage of female pilots is estimated to be bit a higher, at 27 percent. Yet, like most sectors of the economy in Alaska, women are struggling for equality. On average women make 77 cents to every dollar that a man earns. In Alaska, women make a dismal 67 cents per dollar. Can these disparities be blamed on our state and nation’s lack of female mentors?

My answer to my own question would be no, at least not in the economic sector of academia. Over the last year and a half I have worked for and with the director of the Northern Studies department, Dr. Mary Ehrlander. I work as a teaching assistant for Dr. Ehrlander, and she is generous enough to chair my thesis committee. She is smart, dedicated to her work, and not afraid to be a bit endearing.

When writing my undergraduate thesis, I was equally lucky with my thesis advisor, a young and brilliant woman whom I owe a large part of my academic success to. Without her support and guidance, I would not have made the move 4,500 miles away from the only life I’ve ever known to pursue my academic passion. I don’t think I’ve truly appreciated the strong female mentors I’ve had in my life until now.

But let’s get back to the library. When working for a professor, you can be added as a proxy on his or her library account, allowing you the ability to check books out for your professor. I’ve had to do this four or five times this semester and every time the woman behind the desk asks what his name is, in reference to my professor. Every time it is assumed that my professor is a man.

According to the U.S. News’s profile of UAF, 58.4 percent of the full-time faculty are men, while only 41.6 percent are women. In contrast, 40.7 percent of the student body are men, while an impressive 59.3 percent are women. Will the ratio of men to women faculty level out as the 59 percent of female students join the workforce and serve as mentors to aspiring young students? I sure hope so.

One day, I hope history remembers women as much as it remembers men. I hope that women gain the confidence men seem to be born into in our culture.

Maybe the librarians’ assumptions and the paintings on the wall wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t one day want to be a professor myself. I hope to have students of my own, students that I can mentor as much as my own professors have mentored me. But right now, I’ll keep looking for my sanctuary.

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