Stop Acting Like a Girl! A Response to Feminist Critics

Some feminists don’t like the Dr. Karen method. By the Dr. Karen method I mean my practice of telling women to stop acting “like girls” and to start learning to recognize and master the codes of power and authority that operate in academic settings, which are almost entirely derived from male patterns of behavior.

I get it. I mean, what feminist can really get behind telling women to act more like men? And yet, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I look at the modes of behavior that the vast, vast majority of young women unconsciously adopt, and what I see are the ways that they systematically, with extraordinary consistency, undermine their own voices and sabotage their own career prospects.  To the degree that they continue unconsciously adopting these behaviors, they will fail to advance in their academic careers. And I want to see them advance. So I target the ineffective behaviors, and urge on them replacement behaviors that are, quite simply, less stereotypically female, and more stereotypically male.

What is it that women do that is self-sabotaging in academic settings? Minimize their accomplishments, hang back from debates, apologize for their opinions, make excuses for their so-called “failures,” smile too much, laugh too much, dissipate their time and energy in nurturing needy students and peers, compromise their intellectual integrity, shrink into the background, bend over backward to be agreeable, and spend more time soothing professorial egos than standing up for their points of view.

What do I tell women to do in professional settings? Well, here’s a representative list:

  • Cut excessive emotion out of your speaking patterns
  • Speak in short declarative sentences without rambling
  • Smile less
  • Square your shoulders
  • Take up all the space in your chair
  • Master the straight, direct, level gaze
  • Master the firm handshake
  • Stop apologizing
  • Stop making excuses
  • Stop focusing on what you didn’t do and don’t know
  • Be the sole author
  • Collaborate less
  • Teach less
  • Nurture less
  • Promote yourself

With great consistency, audiences with feminist tendencies object. “No!” they insist. “That’s terrible advice! We should be telling young women to reject those behaviors, because they are the very behaviors that make academia cold and isolating. We should be telling young women to be MORE collaborative, more nurturing, more caring! We should encourage a variety of ways of being, because women’s ways of being are equally valid!”

They inevitably conclude, “if we want academia to change, we have to encourage young academic women to behave in nurturing and collaborative and cooperative ways!”

I do hear what they’re saying.

And I reject it.

I reject it because, at The Professor Is In, we’re not about the normative, we’re about the descriptive.

I’m not saying that the academic world “should” be dominated by individual ego competition, aggressive argumentation, jealous isolation, a fear of emotion, a contempt for teaching, and a hostility toward collaborative work. I’m saying that at its highest and most competitive levels, it “is.”

And if a young woman who comes to me for advice wants to have a career in that world, after already investing some 5-10 years in preparation and indebtedness to do it, then my ethical commitment is to arm her with the full set of weapons she needs to succeed. Yes, I am using the military metaphors deliberately. She needs to stop acting like Little Bo Peep when her job is taking her into the Killing Fields.

Out on the job market, too many young women mistakenly believe that they will be judged and hired on the basis of their niceness, their nurturingness, their brilliant teaching, their selfless service, or their willingness to “go the extra mile.”

No, you are judged—on the job market, and at tenure—by your individual production of scholarly work and your ability to make claims for this work that are bold, assertive, and supremely confident.

How do women’s diffidence and self-effacement ruin their chances of professional success?  To answer this i’d like to quote extensively (bold added) from Clay Shirky’s post “A Rant About Women”

“When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was ‘How’s your drawing?’ Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) ‘OK, how’s your drafting?’ I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

‘My drafting’s fine’, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said ‘Ok, you can take my class.’ And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.

That got me in the door. I learned to draft, Bill became my teacher and mentor, and four years later I moved to New York and started doing my own design work. I can’t say my ability to earn a living in that fickle profession was because of my behavior in Bill’s office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and David Hampton isn’t that he’s a con artist and I’m not; the difference is that I only told lies I could live up to, and I knew when to stop. That’s not a different type of behavior, it’s just a different amount.

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.”

Academia is not a particularly nurturing or kind place. There are kind and supportive people in it, to be sure. And there is much good that is done in the classroom, and among colleagues, and in scholarly collaboration. But ultimately, academia is based on judgment and evaluation of individual productivity. And the agent of that productivity is you, and you alone.* You are judged by your work. The person who stands up for your work, is you.

Guess what, women?  Nobody’s going to help you gain this confidence, this ego, this ballsiness, and few are going to praise you for displaying them.  On the contrary—these have been beaten out of you since the day you were born–through shaming, and rejection, and criticism, and undermining.  But that doesn’t change the facts, which are, without them, in professional and academic settings, you will always play second fiddle to some man, and you will always be and do less than you are capable of.

It is the starting principle of The Professor Is In, that if you want an academic career in this disintegrating market, you cannot be distracted by time investments that do not pay off. You have to be both selfish and self-promoting. You have to advocate for yourself. Oftentimes you have to fight for yourself. At the bare minimum you have to be prepared to “toot your own horn” (in my Depression-era parents’ favorite phrase), insist on your place at the faculty conference table, form a strong opinion, express it audibly and firmly, and defend it, and not back down.

I want to see women get into the academy and succeed there. Women in the academy change the academy. I saw it countless times in my own university surroundings. Women sitting at the table changed the nature of the dialogue that took place at the table. But the women who were sitting there got there did not get there by acting “like girls,” but by being tough, and fierce, and talking and acting quite a bit like the guys.

Again, Clay Shirky:

The institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

I may personally wish the academic world was other than it is. But as Dr. Karen, I will not make individual young women Ph.D.s on the job market, or in the probationary pre-tenure period, the martyrs to an imagined feminist fantasy of what the academy “should” be. The academy is what it is. I take my job to be to prevent young women from misreading it so profoundly and wandering out onto the market (and sometimes all the way to tenure) like Little Bo Peep, or like so many sheep to the slaughter.

*Of course for those of you who work in lab settings, collaboration is built into your process, and this advice does not apply in exactly the same way to you.  Yet the sciences are in many ways even harder on women, and it’s easy for women to end up as the “service workers” of the lab, in service to the male leaders. This is not an area of expertise for me, and I would appreciate hearing from readers as to how women sabotage themselves in a lab setting, and what they must do to claim a space “at the bench.”

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Stop Acting Like a Girl! A Response to Feminist Critics — 15 Comments

  1. Finally someone who sees reality for what it is and not how we would like it to be. I very much appreciate your willingness to address the proper attitude (in this post and in others) that is necessary to get ahead not just in the academy but in every aspect of life. Until women realize the truth about what you are saying, we will continue to be perceived as and treated as second class citizens. Thank you.

  2. You mention the sciences as an exception. But I am wondering too how this changes–but is still highly applicable–in so-called feminized fields e.g. education, social work, nursing etc. While there are certainly more women in these fields, there tends to still be a hierarchy which places men in positions of power. That said I have observed some interesting patterns, in my very brief years as a prof, in which women seem to be harder on women especially in terms of making sure new female faculty take on equitable amounts of service. I wonder, Dr. Karen, in what manner the behaviors you suggest adapting work in the face of female colleagues, who may not be Dean but are likely your direct superior or in other words stand between you and the male upper leadership.

  3. I’m a feminist and I agree with all your points EXCEPT the notion that “feminists” are the ones standing in the way of female progress. Oh come on. There are only so many times such vague references to “feminists” can be used as a whipping boy.

    Your advice is great. But even Clay Shirky, whom you quote at length, later acknowledged that his Rant Against Women didn’t take into account the fact that some women who don’t play the femininity game still wind up losing because they’re seen as “bitches,” as he put it on the NPR show On The Media. Let’s not be naive here: women have a hard time making it as professionals NOT because “feminists” are standing in their way, but because they get infinitely mixed messages about absolutely every aspect of their professional personae. Put on makeup! But not too much! Wear attractive clothing! But not too expensive or sexy or Patty Hewes-y! Be strong and decisive! But don’t come across as a bitch!

    I’m certainly not saying that women should play girly-girl — god forbid. But I can name at least six instances of strong women being derided as “bitches” by their colleagues (male and female). I know you like to play the plain-spoken truth-teller — but truly, Dr. K., leaping onto the anti-feminist bandwagon does no one any good. I can’t think of a single woman colleague at my very large research university who’d offer such advice; and I can’t think of a single one who’s escaped the whiplash of mixed messages throughout her career.

    • Feminema, I feel you misunderstood me. I am speaking of the responses to my advice from those specific individuals who, to date, have labeled themselves as responding “as feminists.” Their reaction has been consistently as I described it in the post–ie, that my advice is misguided, and young women academics should be encouraged not to capitulate to the alienating male model of academia, but rather to create new forms of collegiality and scholarship that are collaborative and cooperative. Whether these same people would tell individual graduate students that they should be collaborative or nurturing or whatever, I have no idea. I would guess not, because that would be madness.

      So, the critique is one that has been directed at me, and my response was one that was directed at those specific critics. It is not meant to be a generalizable critique of feminism per se (or jumping on an anti-feminist bandwagon). I actually assumed that the irony would be apparent that I also work entirely from a feminist commitment, so that differing definitions of feminism are at work. But I guess it wasn’t.

      About the mixed messages—no argument there. But from my odd vantage point, seeing such a large cross-section of predominantly women trying to tackle the academic job market from a vast range of different fields, I’d actually say that the message most of them have gotten loud and clear is not at all mixed, rather, it is unequivocal: sell yourself short, doubt your abilities, minimize your accomplishments, and emphasize your ‘niceness’. Makeup and so on shrink in significance compared to the overwhelming preponderance of that single message, given and received.

  4. Feminism isn’t about changing individuals. It’s about fighting interlocking systems of power. Sure, individual acts feed into and help to constitute those systems. If we want academia to change, we have to encourage senior academics (especially those in positions of power) to behave in nurturing and collaborative and cooperative ways. Why do young women have to make all the changes?

    Placing the onus for change on young academic feminists does not challenge those systems. It does keep smart young women from making it into the academy, where they could work on ways to change the system from within. Helping young academic women learn how to strategically adopt masculine workplace behaviors does not hinder feminism. It helps. Keep it up 🙂

  5. You’re quite right, and when I see such behaviors in myself, which I do all too frequently, I fight against them. You’re also right that women academics constantly get messages to be nice, not speak up, doubt yourself, etc. The paradox comes in when you try to challenge that message and behave in the ways found acceptable by the boys; it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be the bitch. Often I find that I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t, at least in the setting of American research universities. (For some reason, I fight the paradox less when I work in Europe; there they’re either outright misogynists or pretty accepting, which seems odd to me. I ascribe it to my behaviors as being “exotic” by being foreign and try to enjoy being in an environment where I have an advantage in being myself.) All I can do is behave in a way that I personally find acceptable, but it’s often hard dealing with the double standard.

  6. Great comments, although your suggestions are applicable to a much wider audience than just women in academia. All those qualities you cite that limit personal advancement apply to both sexes and in public and private institutions as well. It is not ‘acting like a girl’ that these qualities are born of, but the humble self effacing lingering guilt of Christianity and altruism. Our society teaches us not to be rationally proud of our accomplishments, but to humbly hide them and apologize to our peers for their not being able to achieve those things. It teaches us that ‘niceness’ isn’t honesty and integrity, but agreeability. We are supposed to try to achieve, but not be proud of achievement. The false dichotomy that emerges from this is the idea that you are either a ‘decent’ person who is always agreeable, apologetic, humble, and nurturing, or a mean selfish narcissistic person who is proud, assertive, and disagreeable. We should be proud of our accomplishments, this does not make one selfish in any pejorative sense, but rational and honest. We shouldn’t be agreeable just for the sake of agreeability, that is not a virtue in it’s own right, we should have integrity and trust our judgements yet know our limits. We should dislike people who deserve to be disliked, and like people who deserve to be liked. We should build our own healthy sense of self worth based on rational assessments of our selves, not be blindly dependent on every irrational whimsical evaluation of every passer bye. If we are confident in the judgements we used to derive our own sense of self worth it wouldn’t matter if someone didnt bother to bend over backwards to protect ourselves from our no longer fragile ego. It is not that women should act more like men, a whole generation of wussy apologetic men has been borne of these attitudes, it is that people should act more like rational human beings complete with rational evaluations of self and rational values, goals, and attitudes in life. As Aristotle wrote two millenia ago “A proper sense of one’s self is based on a reverent love for the truth”

    • I think you are quite right, and this is so well said, and I also think the gender imbalance gets laid on top of the guilt and selectively intensifies it.

  7. Of course, the alternative to both the behavior that you criticize and the behavior you recommend is acting in a way that is natural and not over-thinking it. My feeling is that if a woman has done well enough in graduate school to get an interview in a competitive market, she must know how to handle herself in a professional situation. Afterall, I would imagine that most successful job candidates have presented well-received papers at conferences, networked enough to have gotten publication opportunities, and received positive teaching evaluations. I appreciate your intentions, but I tend to dislike advice like this because I feel that it replaces one set of circumscribed behaviors with another.

  8. Dr. Karen – I’ve been reading your blog for about a month. I’ve found it to be incredibly thought-provoking and instructive, and for that I thank you. But this post has been gnawing at me for the last few days.

    There are two pieces of it that I keep turning over in my mind. First, academia is about productivity, yes, but it’s also profoundly social and political. I’ve seen brilliantly productive hot-shots get denied tenure because their arrogance pissed people off, and I’ve seen mediocre scholars secure it because they were charismatic, collaborative, and seen as good colleagues. (And note: this is based on my experience in Ivy League/R1 universities – exactly the kinds of competitive institutions you focus on.) I think you’re doing a disservice to your readers when you categorically tell them to “be selfish” and smile less, rather than exploring the complexity of this.

    Second, as one of my friends commented when I linked to this post on Facebook: “Personally I feel her advice to “stop acting like a girl” is better than “start acting like a man”. There’s not merely a gender distinction in that language, but a maturity distinction that may be more meaningful. So how about advising women in academia to “stop acting like a girl and start acting like a woman”? Since when are confidence, assertiveness and self-possession male-only attributes?”

    I’ve learned a lot from your posts so far, to the point where I’ve considered your consulting services. But I have to say, this post really turned me off!

    • H, these are good and thoughtful comments. From my vantage point, though, women of all ages fall prey to the message: sell yourself short, minimize your accomplishments, apologize for your opinions, cater to male egos, and play the nice card to a self-defeating fault. So while in an ideal world “woman” would be the structural equivalent of “man,” in fact, it is not. The case of the occasional arrogant hot-shot denied tenure is certainly a valid one, but truly rare enough to be in its own separate category of analysis. By contrast, I’ve spent 20 years in a career surrounded on all sides, every single day, by women–young, middle aged, and old–who have been too thoroughly socialized to oppressive and pervasive codes of femininity to be able to own their own space and claim their own power and voice. They smile excessively to make themselves non-threatening. And they volunteer for or acquiesce to every goddamned service demand made on them, while their male colleagues skate through tenure with office door closed and publication list growing by leaps and bounds. For the purposes of THIS blog, those are the people I want to address. THAT is the intervention I am dedicated to making.

  9. Great post! I think that both stances – “stop acting like a girl” and “transformation of the academy” – can co-exist under the big tent of feminism. In fact, I think both tactics together will ultimately do more than either one alone. You’re doing the former, which is great, and I’d say feminist whether or not you like calling it that. The association I work for does what it can on the latter.
    Onward on both fronts!

    • ha! thanks, jessica. Oh, I am unabashedly feminist! I guess I had a writing fail in the post that made it look as though I was claiming to *not* be feminist. Instead, I was responding AS a feminist to those who have commented while identifying *as feminists* to argue that advising women to beat men at their own game is a bad feminist message. I think it’s a great feminist message. As is transforming the academy from within. Thanks for sharing.

  10. This is such a great post. I am going to print it out and remind myself every morning: do not smile all the time, do not apologize, do not try to please …

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