The writer is a regular reader of TPII.
I’m a young, female, non-tenure-track faculty member and longtime reader of this blog. A few of its posts, specifically “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings,” “Stop Negotiating Like a Girl” and “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)” have had a lasting effect on my perception of women’s behavior in academia. These posts have made me painfully aware of how female academics continue to reproduce gender norms in professional settings through words and gestures. I now can’t help but regularly catch myself and my fellow female colleagues of all ages “acting like girls.”
Recently I was at a conference where I actually became distracted by the gendered conduct of the participants. This was a topic-based conference attended by a select group scholars of different institutional ranks, from postdocs to endowed chairs. 90% of the attendees identified as women and feminists and used gender as a critical lens in their research. I knew a handful of them as charismatic teachers and strong mentors who boldly challenged my arguments, at times, dismantling them on the spot. However, during their presentations, almost all of the participants made the kinds of mistakes that Karen identifies in her blog posts:
- Beginning a talk by undervaluing their work or apologizing – “I’m sorry that I can’t do justice to this material,” “I hope to make just a tiny contribution to this complex topic,” “When I was first approached to speak about this topic, I didn’t want to do it,” or “I’m now embarrassed by how under-theorized my talk is”
- Using “um” and “uh” too much
- Rushing through the talk and not making eye contact
- Doing the verbal upswing and the head tilt, sometimes at the same time
- Smiling or laughing while discussing serious topics
- Beginning a response to a question by apologizing – “I’m sorry, I probably wasn’t clear enough” or “I’m so sorry, it looks like I completely misinterpreted your article in my talk.”
I share these observations not to shame my unnamed colleagues but to continue to address these problems of public speaking and assertiveness as they manifest among female and otherwise marginalized scholars.
I’m still striving to unlearn my particular tendencies to undermine my work through language and demeanor. When complimented on a good presentation, I’ll sometimes say “Oh you really thought so?” or much worse, “No, it wasn’t! You’re just saying that.” Beyond the conference setting, I’ll deny that I’m a good teacher or won’t take credit for my part in organizing an event by saying “No, colleague X did all the real work!” This struggle to “toot my own horn” and to present myself professionally has especially high stakes for me as someone who lacks job security. I depend on department chairs to advocate for me in renewing my position and to write strong recommendation letters that portray me as a colleague instead of a subordinate.
As difficult as it is to unlearn habits, I find that awareness and behavioral intervention go a long way. Just identifying my personal gendered tics helps me to minimize them. Conferences, invited talks and campus visits are performative affairs that require preparation. As a result, they give us opportunities to rewrite scripts. I used to prefer giving “off the cuff” talks but discovered that when the material was relatively fresh my speech became peppered with a lot of “uhs” and “ums.” These days, I write out my presentations, but as talks, not papers. This way, I know exactly how I’m going to open, specifically reminding myself not to begin with an apology, excuse or compliment for the preceding presenter, such “Wow, that was such a great talk! I don’t know how I can possibly follow that!” I make sure that I leave myself time to take pauses and make eye-contact with the audience. When practicing my talk at home (or in my hotel room), I make a conscious effort to lift my eyes from the paper. Though I lose out on some of the spontaneity of an “off the cuff” presentation, I make up for this by giving a confident talk that, with enough rehearsal, sounds natural and engaging. I also mentally prepare for the Q&A, reminding myself to answer directly and, again, avoid apologizing.
The worst is when scholars respond to a question with “I’m sorry, I haven’t thought of that” or “Yes, I still need to do research on that.” I often begin my responses by thanking the person who posed a particularly relevant or challenging question. I don’t thank every single questioner, but thanking the people who ask hard questions shows confidence, as Karen describes in her post How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career. I can see way that it demonstrates that I am still in control, evaluating the quality of the questions before answering them.
In other words, I avoid some of the gendered pitfalls of communication by scripting my conference performances. By de-naturalizing women’s mistakes in an academic setting through observation and intervention, I manage to actually relax and have meaningful exchanges at academic conferences.