Emma Galbraith is an actress, musician, writer, and climate justice organizer. She stars in the upcoming film Inbetween Girl.

The Ivory Tower Was Never Built for Us

‘Study hard, and go far in life. An education will open doors for you’. These words of wisdom were instilled in me as a young girl in Malaysia – and I thrived in school because I simply loved learning. We were not wealthy, but my parents sacrificed a lot to give my sisters and I the best education they could afford; and for us it included ONE chance for each of us to study overseas. “You can study whatever you want” my dad told me, “but you have to see it through – because we can only afford one chance for your degree.” Given my capacity to consistently generate top grades, and the unwavering family support, I felt well-prepared to go to university in the United States. 

My first educational experience in the US as an undergraduate in Hawaii was empowering. Great faculty introduced me to the thrill of discovery in marine biology research, and I was hooked. I graduated early and was eager to continue into grad school, determined not to stop until I achieved the pinnacle of academic honors – a PhD. By this time I had exhausted my family’s financial support for my education, and my graduate degree had to be self-funded. But the land of opportunity holds doors open for those willing to work for it. I worked three jobs during my undergraduate degree, and held a teaching assistantship position during graduate school to support myself. I was conducting research, presenting at conferences, writing proposals for travel grants, teaching, and churning through all the academic assignments like I truly belonged in academia. My productivity fueled this belief that I belonged here amongst the scientists and professors, even as I recognized how few tenured professors looked like me.

While my upbringing of a strong academic emphasis helped me power through academic work, there was also the underlying culture of respect for your elders, and conforming for the sake of the common good that was about to make my life in academia much more challenging. 

Culture in Academia has changed very little in the last century. Productivity is measured primarily in the number and prestige of peer review publications generated. Without them, you simply cannot compete for the limited tenure track positions out there. In theory the peer review process is there to ensure that research has the rigor to stand as a valid contribution to science, but in practice I found the blind peer review process tended to embolden reviewers to act as gatekeepers, and often unfairly so. As a post-doc, I delved into Interdisciplinary research on Arctic Change and my manuscripts would inevitably end up getting sent to the small pool of experts, whose systemic rejection of new methodologies I used perpetuated the “gatekeeping” role of those in positions of privilege. It was hard at first to think that a respected senior scientist would be so critical of my work, and it was easy to start to doubt my place as faculty in academia. But the moment I read a reviewer’s comment in which he assumed I was ‘just a student who needed to work more with her male mentors’, I knew that the bias ran deeper. My cultural background at first made it hard for me to stand up to a senior scientist, because it simply seemed disrespectful. I could no more argue with a senior researcher than I could talk back to my parents. I also didn’t want to get a reputation for being difficult to work with – and so I perpetuated the role of being compliant, more easily dismissed, perhaps the stereotype of an Asian woman knowing her place. 

But I am a descendent of strong women – women who have survived world wars, raised families on their own under tragic circumstances, and ran businesses during a time when women were expected to stay home. I believe those women must have shared their fire with me. I’ve since learned how to find my own support group of peers and mentors in academia, and learned how to stand up for myself to reviewers and editors. Yes, I still get rejected a lot, but in those instances I am reasonably confident it’s not grounded in a biased view against me as a person. I’ve taken the road less traveled by pivoting my productive output to include serving in roles that don’t always generate new papers. I know how the game is played in academia, and it’s not friendly to women or minorities. This would explain why so few of us stay in academia long enough to progress through the ranks, and that’s a shame because we need that representation. 

I’ve since heard of so many toxic experiences in academia which is strongly rooted in the powerful patriarchal structures of the ivory tower. I concede that the option to leave academia can sometimes feel overwhelming, but for now I will continue to fight the stereotype of being too submissive. And I will find allies to help me slowly dismantle the ugly power structures of this ivory tower brick by brick.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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