Women who are professors face more challenges than men, according to Angel Hoekstra who shares her experiences of inequality in the academic space.

For centuries, women have had less access to education and the ability to gain the same amount of skills as men. In the 1970s, 11% of selected women had a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 2016’s 42%.

Dr. Angel Hoekstra, an AAU professor, became the first in her family to go to university and eventually earned her PhD in Sociology. 

“There are two types of people—those who will support you and those who won’t,” said the AAU professor.

Did you have trouble as a woman stepping into ‘higher education’? Have you observed a change in attitude towards you throughout your academic path?

To be fair, Sociology is that kind of science which is presumably more female-dominated, so I cannot really distinguish some moments of limitations or whatsoever. In my opinion, in America you will see more encouragement for women to step up and go higher in this hierarchy, but here, it feels different. I am not sure, but some factors in Europe define the fact that more men here are assumed to go into higher education, as women are usually under pressure of family-building, kids, and housekeeping.

It is definitely hard for a woman to step into higher education and consider it a “long-term run” if she expects to have a family. In my case, I had an opportunity not to work when I was nursing because my husband had a good salary…but some mothers have to sacrifice their time with infants to go to work. That happens in the USA more often—people receive their health insurance when they apply to a job, which in the future, leads to inability to quit the job as you are left without any healthcare. 

Honestly, sometimes you fall, especially considering the challenges you have to face as a woman, but I am grateful to have been in that “privileged” position and to have felt more comfortable than some other women.

You said “sometimes you fall,” did you have a specific moment in mind?

In my program, the PhD was done in six years; if you need more time, you have to extend it to finish your work. After those six years, I was not finished yet, and I had to extend the period. My husband, though, was trying to tell me to finish my PhD by December as we had some trouble with our daughter. 

I went to my advisor…We met in October and I told her about my plans and she was disapproving. We had an argument about the time of the defense of the PhD. She was disappointed in my work and attitude, saying that I ruined her expectations and was not presenting her as an advisor nicely. The choice was ridiculous: my husband or my PhD. 

I did not have a chance but to stay on my line. I walked out of the office sobbing because she was unsupportive at all. She told me that she did not want to have anything with me after December. This situation kicked me hard, but I kept going and this was the lesson I learned.  

What pushed you into your current career?

I worked in a bank for two years or so… When I was studying, I needed to make some money, and it seemed to be a good spot. This job was not for me—it was too much of a routine. I could not handle it, and it was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a college professor. 

How did your school years go by? Did you feel or observe any sociological issues before university?

When I was in my teenage years, I went to school with people of all colors and races, but I was in a minority. I went there for a Science academy, and this experience gave me an opportunity to consider going beyond my social class, as it exposed me to this reality—we all want to look nice, no matter what initial characteristics we have.

Can you share your experience with people around you, as a woman?

I had a lot of men and women supporting me throughout my journey. But the biggest challenge for women, I think, is something that is called “the second shift.” Even when women get into positions of power, they perform a shift at work, and they go home and they have a second shift. And this responsibility is hard, but you are expected to have this responsibility. 

When I became a mom, I had a moment of embarrassment in my career. When you are in a higher education system, you have to be able to speak your mind and not be afraid that someone disagrees with you. When I was going to some meetings of the committee, I tended to be the only woman. 

Once, I was asked by a service committee if I wanted to join them as I am a mother with two children. I felt so much pressure, especially understanding that I already have a lot on my plate. The people who asked me were trying to excuse themselves, saying that it was just a good gesture of respect to me as a mom. But this was offensive in some way, and this is what “unconscious oppressiveness” is. 

Men will never understand if something that they said was offensive just because they do not know the background of women’s responsibilities and life in general…Some of my male coworkers can bring up a completely different topic in some meetings, and I seem to be the only person bothered by this because I know my time. Yes, this was offensive and embarrassing, but I cannot judge anyone as this is an unconscious action, which probably meant to be kind, sort of.

Do you think that your background shaped your mindset?

Of course. The way I saw very diverse cultures led me to specific thoughts, actions. I learned very young that I had a white privilege. If I had not experienced shifting from that specific high school to a white [dominated] university, I would not have even thought of some things. Besides that, Texas is a very different place—you can see a lot of diversity there. The place where I stayed was multicultural, which is also an important factor to mention.

What do you have to say to women and those who might be struggling on their academic path? 

When you are in your twenties trying to figure things out, you have to believe in yourself and have something to let your soul rest in. You know, when someone is 55 and in a big position, they can easily look at your work and say that it is horrible. During these moments you have to understand that the more you work, the less the gap is between you and this 55-year-old. 

To women who struggle with this system, keep in mind that there are two types of people—those who will support you and those who won’t. 

Go out and look for these people who can give you emotional support and love. Go find someone who is willing to help, willing to support, willing to listen. Seek support from those people, let them help you and go on with your path.