Only Woman in a Department: ‘Okay, I’ll Show Him’

Physics Professor and Department Chair Nicolle Zellner stands on the roof of Palenske Hall during a department-run solar observing event (Photo courtesy of Nicolle Zellner).

Women in full-time faculty positions are historically underrepresented at institutions across the U.S. In a 2018 report the American Association of University Women found that women make up 44% of tenure-track positions across institutions and 36% of full professor positions. 

In 2021, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that out of the institutions surveyed, less than 13% of full-time faculty were women of color. 

At Albion College, women teach in all 23 departments, but according to the faculty listed on Albion College’s website, in at least three of these departments, physics, philosophy and religious studies: only one faculty position is held by a woman.

Physics Professor, Department Chair Nicolle Zellner

Zellner is the only woman faculty member of the physics department at Albion. Zellner, a planetary physicist, said she has been part of Albion College since 2005.

“I’m the astronomer on campus, but my research is in planetary science,” Zellner said. “I also have a background in astronomy, and I’m responsible for the telescopes on campus.”

Zellner said she always knew she wanted to be a scientist, and throughout her education and work, has been inspired by women working in the field.

“I really do credit the women at the space astronomy lab and in the department in Wisconsin for being the role models that I modeled myself after,” Zellner said. 

However, in terms of physics and academia, Zellner said the representation of women is harder to find.

“Oh it’s bad,” Zellner said. “You may have heard it called a ‘leaky pipeline,’ where women are being forced out or willingly leave – choose to leave the field – between their undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. and or a career in academia.” 

As to why the “pipeline” is leaking, Zellner cited multiple studies, which have shown that women and faculty of color are held to higher expectations, given lower starting salaries, smaller start-up packages, smaller lab spaces and smaller offices than white men.

Zellner said that for women passionate about pursuing physics, if “the support system and structure isn’t in place to allow you to do it, then that’s a real loss.”

At Albion, Zellner said her experience as a woman in faculty has been very positive, and she’s felt supported in the physics department.

“Every department is different in terms of department culture, but physics has been good,” Zellner said. “And we’re a department of four, so I’m 25% of the department, that’s above the national average.”

To anyone interested in physics, Zellner said the best advice she can give is to persist: 

“Come talk to me! I’m happy to chat about your questions, your fears, your hopes, your dreams. I’ve seen a lot and I know a lot, and I really would like to see more people in physics.”

Philosophy Professor, International Studies Department Chair Bindu Madhok

Philosophy Professor and International Studies Department Chair Bindu Madhok, the only woman in the philosophy department, poses for a headshot-style photo. Madhok teaches up to 15 ethics courses in the department, “I’ve got courses for every division on campus,” Madhok said (Photo courtesy of Bindu Madhok).

Madhok, who has been at Albion for 34 years, said she teaches all of the ethics courses in the department and specializes in international development ethics.

“One of the things I love about my job is I get to see students from every major because there are ethical issues to raise in relation to so many fields,” Madhok said.

Throughout her education and career, Madhok said her role models have been both women and men.

“It wasn’t only women faculty,” Madhok said. “It wasn’t that they were my only role models, because that’s what you do as a student, right? You gravitate towards ideas.”

In the field of philosophy, Madhok said many women are entering the field today as students.

“Is it 50/50? No, it’s still majority men, so we see that at different levels, whether it’s undergrad or grad or faulty,” Madhok said. “But, I’ve never found the field too restrictive when it comes to my passions and interests; I haven’t found there to be obstacles for me in terms of what I want to do in my teaching and my research, based on my gender.”

Madhok added that though the department is smaller today than it used to be, her experience in philosophy has been very positive. 

“There are a lot of women doing really good work in the field, so even if they are not the majority, or it’s not half the body, it’s still a lot of women doing really good work,” Madhok said.

Religious Studies Professor Jocelyn McWhirter

Religious Studies Professor Jocelyn McWhirter stands on the western shore of Lake Ontario in Canada. McWhirter said she grew up with two brothers so she is “used to competing” in a male-dominated career field (Photo courtesy of Jocelyn McWhirter).

McWhirter started at Albion College in 2006. McWhirter, who specializes in biblical studies, said after declaring a religious studies major in her undergraduate, she hasn’t looked back.

McWhirter said that though she loved the field, she never expected to build a career in it. After graduating however, McWhirter thought, “‘If I ever go back to school, I’ll be studying the Bible.’ But, I never had plans to do that until I had the opportunity to start a master’s degree.”

McWhirter added that in the third week of her master’s degree program, she had her second child. 

“I said to myself, ‘When this child is in first grade, I’m going to be getting a Ph.D.,’ and that’s what happened,” McWhirter said. 

In her graduate career, McWhirter only had one female biblical studies professor, who was an important mentor for her in the first and second years of her doctoral program at the Princeton Theological Seminary. 

McWhirter added that more and more women are attending conferences in the field, though “overall the majority of people who show up as professionals at those conferences are men.”

Altough McWhirter said she’s never seen it happen at Albion, in her education and career she has seen women intimidated by the men in the room.

“To feel underrepresented in the field, I think that’s fairly common,” McWhirter said.

Throughout her education and career, McWhirter said she kept her goals of graduating in mind.

“If I ever felt intimidated by a male professor, I said to myself, ‘I’ll show him.’ And then I did,” McWhirter said. “By doing my work. By doing my best. And by graduating from that seminar.” 

At Albion, McWhirter said she’s felt supported in her department. 

“My experience with my colleagues has been great. I’ve always had all-male colleagues since I’ve been here,” McWhirter said. “Nobody has mistreated me here at Albion College because they were a man and I was not.”

To women interested in religious studies:

“Have friends that you can talk to, have trusted friends,” McWhirter said. “Keep focused on your goal, and what you want to do, and what you’re doing.”

Corrections – 11:45 p.m. Friday March 22: Spelling of Zellner’s first name was corrected. 12:22 a.m. Sunday March 24: McWhirter’s degree program at the time of having her second child was corrected.

About Bonnie Lord 40 Articles
Bonnie Lord is a sophomore from Alma, Michigan and is an environmental science major at Albion College. She investigates questions of infrastructure, water quality and the changing relationship the community of Albion navigates with the environment. She enjoys bird watching, reading, and dismantling the patriarchy. Contact Bonnie via email at BFL10@albion.edu

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