Wanted: The Academic Equivalent of the “Pretty Girl Rock”

Today’s post is a Guest Post by Kristen Ghodsee,  John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, at Bowdoin College.

I originally got in touch with Kristen to congratulate her on her excellent IHE column on strategies of self-promotion, and to commiserate over the handful of sour comments that followed it.  We got to talking about her new book, co-authored with Rachel Connelly, another Bowdoin professor and TPII guest blogger, Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia. I asked Kristen if she’d be willing to contribute a post to the blog, and she very kindly has.

Thank you and welcome, Professor Ghodsee!


A little over a year ago, my colleague, Rachel Connelly, and I were telling a friend about our new book project, Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia.  We were all driving to a bowling alley for a girl’s night out and the conversation was light and bantering.  We were explaining that the idea behind the book was to help younger women scholars achieve professional success while also raising families.  Our friend said something like, “So you guys think you have achieved professional success?” in a slightly sarcastic tone. Rachel and I immediately made some joke about her comment and changed the subject.  But the implicit meaning haunted us long afterward.  Who are you guys to be telling other women what to do?  Do you really think you are both that good?

I was suddenly filled with doubt.  Perhaps it was inappropriate for me to be offering advice to anyone.  Isn’t offering advice a form of bragging and isn’t bragging something that is unbecoming in a woman? As a professor of gender and women’s studies, I am intimately familiar with the scholarship on the social constructedness of what we consider appropriate feminine and masculine behaviors.  In American culture, self-assured men are considered to be confident; self-assured women are arrogant.  Driven men are called ambitious.  Similarly driven women are called selfish.

Studies suggest that one factor underlying the wage gap is the differential propensity for men and women to negotiate about their remuneration.  But further research suggests that if a woman does try to negotiate for a raise based on her performance, both male and female bosses will negatively perceive her as self-promoting and greedy.  Good girls don’t talk about their achievements.  Good girls certainly don’t ask to be rewarded for them. In academia, so much of scholarly success is linked to our ability to promote the originality of our ideas.  No one ever got tenure by writing a demure self-evaluation statement.

Today more than ever before, social media demands that we be the primary advocates for our research and writing, and university presses are now sending out lists of things you can do to electronically promote your work.  Women are told that they need to be confident and self-assured, but just not too confident or too self-assured lest we rub people the wrong way.  The balancing act can be exhausting.  Sometimes it is just easier to keep quiet.

I have a nine-year-old daughter who is in the process of learning all of these implicit gender roles even as I try desperately to fight against them.  Last summer, the pop singer Keri Hilson had a hit single called the “Pretty Girl Rock,” which my daughter loved to put on auto repeat in our car.  The song was transgressive because Hilson spends the better part of five minutes singing about how pretty she is compared to other women.  Although I wish the song had been about how smart or successful Hilson was, my daughter loved it because it was a woman being openly confident, something girls are taught from an early age not to do.

Recently, I had the great fortune of winning a third major prize for a book I published in 2009.  My college has a policy of announcing faculty honors and awards on its website.  When I think about emailing the publicity folks at Bowdoin about this last prize, I find myself hesitating.  They have already run two stories about the previous awards; it might be unseemly for me to ask them to run yet another one.  It’s not that I am not proud of this award.  I worked incredibly hard on that book, and it is wonderful to have that work recognized by my scholarly peers.  But I am still afraid that my colleagues at Bowdoin will think that I am conceited.  Despite all of the good feminist reasons to click that send button, I still find myself paralyzed by the thought that I will be hated because I have the audacity to win book awards and to want the world to know about them.

We live in a meritocratic society where personal effort and ability are supposed to be rewarded.  But in our hyper individualized work lives, the only way our peers and superiors find out about our achievements is if we occasionally tout them.  Nowhere is this truer than in academia where we often toil in obscurity on our projects for years before they see the light of day.

If it is more socially acceptable for men to brag than it is for women, then it is no surprise that men continue to reap a disproportionate amount of the financial rewards and scholarly accolades in our respective fields.  It is hard to fight against these deeply held cultural assumptions, but women (including me) have to do so if we are ever going to reach true equality with men.  Perhaps what we need is the academic equivalent of the “Pretty Girl Rock.”

Kristen Ghodsee is the John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, the author of three books on gender and economic transition after communism: The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (Duke University Press, 2005), Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2009) and Lost In Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism (Duke University Press 2011).   She is also the co-author of Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield 2011).


Professor Mommy (http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=1442208589

My faculty web page, http://www.bowdoin.edu/faculty/k/kghodsee/

Keri Hilson’s video for “Pretty Girl Rock” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtXOVKNazYU

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Wanted: The Academic Equivalent of the “Pretty Girl Rock” — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this much needed post. I’m a grad student in a predominantly male discipline and I find it very hard to be assertive about my work, even in casual conversation. I got my B.A. from an all-women’s college with completely different social dynamic. When one of my friends completed her art project for a B.A. thesis she called all the local TV stations–they all came and filmed her art show. I don’t know anyone who thought she was “selfishly ambitious.” If you were pushing something important, something the larger community should know about, you had to get out into the wider world and tell them. That was the culture of my all-women’s college. But boy was it an eye-opening experience “tooting one’s own horn” in my all-boys discipline as a grad student. Even interjecting with “here is what I’m working on and this is why it is relevant to issue X” would cause (a) gentle eye rolling, (b) small, charming, condescending smiles or (c) change of topic. I’m a rather shy person, but reaching out and connecting through my work (though not only my work of course) is very important to me. I am still struggling on this front. On the other hand, our star (male) grad student is an incredible self-promoter (I can tell lots of stories about it) and everybody buys it wholesale.
    What are some practical tips for those of us (women academics) whose voices are pushed aside in male-dominated fields?
    P.S. Very much looking forward to reading your book _Professor Mommy_.

  2. What a wonderful posting! I am a professor in a so-called “feminized” field and the disparity between male and female professors actually feels greater to me than what I observed in other fields. Part of this comes back to the self-promotion issue, but also I think to mutual promotion. The men on our faculty promote each other’s work in very systematic ways that the women openly discuss as unfair or “old boy’s club”, but don’t realize that by not either calling out the practice or engaging in it, we are being disadvantaged. Thanks for a thought provoking post… as a mamascholar myself, looking forward to the book.

  3. Pingback: Wanted: The Academic Equivalent of the “Pretty Girl Rock” | Professor Mommy

  4. Hip-hop offers an excellent framework for a minority subject to assert themselves. Though male-dominated, hip-hop culture allows for women who are bad bitches and independent. Keri Hilson’s “pretty girl rock” is a more pop example; Nicki Minaj’s entire persona is too. (Look at Todd Boyd and his stuff as the Notorious PhD or this article by Phil Ford comparing Biggie’s 10 crack commandments to rules of academia: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/08/28/ford )

    My friend and I wrote an academic equivalent of Big Poppa 🙂 Check it out: http://youtu.be/tZDIVl26Itk

    • ha, love this! Love your rap! And loved the Phil Ford thing—–but I’m not going to forget that appalling comment stream for a long time…

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