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.”