Editor’s Note: Please enjoy this fantastic interview with Academic Batgirl by Teresa Chan MD MHPE, & Jasmine Liu CFA, MD (Candidate).
As a #FeminEM follower, if you’re not already following Academic Batgirl (@AcademicBatgirl), I would highly suggest that you do so. As stated in her Twitter profile, she runs around the cyberspace… “[p]romoting scholarly peace, academic love, and #AcWri.” Similar to other academic parody accounts (e.g. @AcademicsSay), Academic Batgirl brings comedy and levity to a very important cause. Through the power of humor, memes, and witty tweets, Academic Batgirl and her colleagues are battling, resisting, and frequently raising important issues for discussion. What she adds to the mix is her own brand of #WhyFeminism, highlighting some of the uphill battles that women face in the Academic jungle.
To this date, women are still highly under-represented within the ranks of academic medicine. We are less often promoted to full professor; fewer of us are promoted to Department Chair or become Deans. There are complex reasons that are slowly being discovered through research (e.g. women are more sensitive to rejection, lack of gender parity in rank and leadership, disproportionate family responsibilities). Solutions to these systemic problems can likely only be combatted by joining forces… like any band of superheroes.
This is why we’ve taken time here at FeminEM.org to sit down with Academic Batgirl. Here is the interview that took place.
Teresa Chan (TC): So tell me a little bit about the origin story of Batgirl – every good superhero needs a good origin story. I was wondering if you could, keeping to the vein of that, tell me a little bit about why and how this account got started without obviously revealing details that would breach your confidentiality and your secret identity.
Academic Batgirl (ABG): I joined Twitter and I was looking at the academic Twitter feeds, identifying some of the main academic folks who tweet. There is Shit Academics Say (SAS) and some other big players in there and I thought…there really aren’t very many women. I saw Research Mark (an account whom nobody knew at the time was run by the same person as SAS), and I thought to myself that combining humor and academia is kind of an important thing because I don’t think it happens as much as it could or should.
So I created my Academic Batgirl account so that I could allow Research Mark to meet his female counterpart. I wasn’t interested in him as an individual — I had no idea who he was. I thought, I can make memes… and I can be funny, and I’m a woman. I think that combination is important. When I created my Academic Batgirl account, I just started tweeting about stuff that I was doing: the usual revise and resubmit torture, the struggle to cut down the size of the manuscript and things like that that really resonated with other academics on Twitter. It was once Research Mark found me and started promoting me was when I became more of a presence and also started making more academic Twitter friends.
As for the other origins, Batgirl has kind of been a motif in my family because I have a younger brother and when he was a child, he actually thought that he was Batman. So we have this sort of Batman/Batgirl motif in the family, so she was the superhero of choice.
TC: So obviously the man behind Shit Academics Say and Research Mark has recently revealed his secret identity to the world. Any thoughts on that process? Going for anonymity. I’m not suggesting that you need to or should at all but I was just wondering did you think about it when he did – what was your reaction to that?
ABG: I know that he came out because he got tenure and his job security, so his identity wasn’t so much of an issue after getting tenure and going on sabbatical. So, I think that was a good time for him to do that because he had that safety, and I think that was a wise move. I do have tenure and I thought for a while about revealing myself. I haven’t really had a great reason to do so. I kind of like the anonymity; not because I feel the need to hide, but anonymity lets me open up a bit more than I would if my identity were revealed.
TC: Do you think it’s different for men in this digital space?
ABG: I do. I do think it’s different. For example, there are a lot of women on Twitter who have either been trolled, abused or harassed. For example, Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist. And Polly Vernon, who’s also a very visible feminist. Both of them have been harassed and trolled. And Jessica Valenti had a wonderful comment recently where she said “any time a woman says something, there almost always some sort of backlash or some sort of response to what she said and that is controversial.” So I think for the sake of my safety, I’m happy to remain anonymous for now.
TC: And do you have any advice then to overcome trolling, other than being anonymous. In your experience, are there any other things that women can do to better protect themselves online? Or is it in the way we react? What do you think we can do to change that?
ABG: I think one of the potential responses is just a perpetual presence. Still hanging around, still being online. Not being intimidated by the discussion around what we say or do because what we say is important. And whether it’s a woman or a man or regardless of the race, ethnicity, or gender of the individual, I think it’s important for people to be heard. So in terms of being online and establishing a presence, I think there’s an element of just needing that resilience to stay on.
TC: Yeah, so to have more women trying to get online. The split for Twitter is still about 2/3 men 1/3 women so I think we are a minority voice and that probably leads to some of what you’re talking about – the lack of presence, right? And also, I think it’s about sticking together. I know recently I was subject to a discussion that got quite heated and maybe some miscommunicated words were used by a certain male individual. And it was my other colleagues who are female that took to Twitter and supported me that helped with making some issues around gender and gender terms become a little more apparent, which weren’t apparent to this individual. And I think this is a part of how we all grow – it’s getting that feedback.
ABG: And I think you’re right in that women – and something you said resonated with me – that women need to know that we are allies, not competitors. I think that element is absolutely essential.
TC: So any messages that you’d like to send to the FeminEM crew? What are your thoughts on our little online community of practice?
ABG: I think the work you’re doing is exceptional. You’re serving people and their health while promoting positive messages. The notion of responsibility and just the discourse of sharing information that you do in creating a community like that is important because it is that community that keeps information relevant and moving and growing. It’s the conversation, the discourse, that I think sparks some ideas and a sense of support and community amongst women in traditionally male fields.
TC: Is there anything else you want to add? I mean us doctors are often on that cusp of doing clinical care but a lot of academic medical professionals do quite a bit of scholarly work as well. Do you have any tips, tricks, advice for the trenches whether it’s about writing or defining yourself or anything else?
ABG: I was thinking about the combination of medicine and academia, and how a lot of medical professionals and doctors are part of the academy as well. I was just reminded of Barack Obama who published an article in an academic journal. Ok, well if he can do it, certainly the rest of us can, right? We’re whingeing about our revise and resubmits and things like that, but I think we need to all take time to gain perspective. We all have ways of prioritizing our lives in ways that make sense for ourselves and our families. I have two children and they’re obviously the most important part of my life. My job is important because it feeds us and it gives us somewhere nice to live. So, elevating academic writing and work in the midst of those sorts of priorities is a challenge. For medical professionals in the academic arena, I would suggest that, like academics in all fields, the key is to write. To communicate. Share things that you’re thinking or experimenting about or new and thoughtful ideas that really need to get either on paper, online, or even discussed with colleagues. It takes courage to do so, though it’s a matter of taking risks and putting yourself out there.
While social media presents its unique challenges to female academics, it has also somewhat leveled the playing field. There are fewer systemic barriers to success and the worldwide web is your audience. As Academic Batgirl has recognized, not all academic heroes wear capes. Courage comes in all shapes and forms, and the only way FeminEM followers can get their voices and ideas heard is if they pick up their pens and keep getting back in the ring for another round. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, right?