Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Working like a Woman

What's hard about my job isn't the work, and it isn't the people (though believe me, I have my days). What's hard about my job is me - specifically, the fact that I have never learned how to not take things personally. Part of this is A Heather Problem: I tend to be intemperate, drawn to extremes. I love what I like and I hate what I dislike, and there is a special place in my heart for the Brussels sprout (a mean little vegetable). So, sure, part of it is me.

But I suspect that it's also A Gender Problem. Having been "made" a woman (Beauvoir), I am now someone who acts, and feels, and responds, like a woman. What does that mean? Among other things: I want my colleagues and students to like me. That's certainly not the only thing I want, and I wouldn't say it's what I want the most - but do I want it? Yeah, I do. Also, I work to make people happy. When they are unhappy, I don't shrug it off; I work harder. Although I don't mind honest confrontations, it upsets me to be in the middle of intractable discord, particularly with people who have no interest in working things out. Other examples: when a journal turns down a publication, I think I'm stupid. When a colleague attacks a process I've put together, I assume s/he speaks for everyone. When I find myself in a why-do-the-wicked-prosper moment in public, my blood boils, my face reddens, and my voice shakes. The strongest emotions - fear, rage, frustration, incredulity, resentment, envy, homicidal PMS - are disfiguring for everybody; for women, they can be professionally debilitating. Angry men are respected; angry women are shrill. Etc.

Understand, please, that this is not an intellectual problem. Philosophical disagreements?: you win some, you lose some, you change your mind on some. I am fine with the fact that we academics make our living on principle. Nor am I asking for therapeutic advice. I don't wish to be a different kind of person. I don't imagine the academy to be my world; my job is not my life; I know that institutions have no soul. I know all of that, in my head. But in my heart? I've never figured out how to park my emotions at the committee room door. I can't seem to find a way to care less.

And here is the real kicker. The very things that make me susceptible to bruising (bruise = internal bleeding, remember) are the things that make me really good at my job. As a woman, I have developed exceptional emotional intelligence. I can read the feel of a room within seconds. More importantly, I can work with that. To tension I bring peace, to shyness I offer inclusiveness, and I ease social awkwardness with good humour. When I'm confronted by someone who is angry, or upset, or frightened, I know what to do - I know intuitively, I want to say, though what i mean is: I know because I have been made a woman.

I believe these are important skills - important to the individuals involved, but also important to the institution, and therefore important to all of us. (See "cycle of abuse.") But these so-called soft skills play in the most undervalued aspects of our universities: teaching, meeting, mentoring, supervising. When it comes right down to it, whether by reputation, by conviction, by tradition or by culture, the university still values the disembodied thinker above all.

And that - I find enraging.

(Okay, readers: some hefty claims here, I know. Bring it!)

7 comments:

  1. I do not think those are hefty claims at all. I think they are quite accurate. The institution of the university was built on the binary of knowledge/passion. Which is still maintained to this day...and I am going to be a little general and say that the majority of jobs use the same sort of binary.

    I cannot count the number of times I've gotten so frustrated and angry that I just start to cry, because, as i like to call it "I'm just wired that way". That equals comments from both men and women stating that I need to calm down, and that they are sorry I'm so upset. (When your frustrated in particular, those comments tend to elevate you into rage, and then your hope of stopping the waterworks is totally gone, but you start to have the urge to hit things instead).

    However, I think this is tied into the lack of value and respect of emotional work. The annoying bit of it all is, exactly what you said, men who are smart, sensitive and passionate are respected for their passion and sensitivity (to a degree...of course the reactions change when they are too sensitive or passionate). Women who are sensitive and passionate as well as smart, are overshadowed by their sensitivity or passions, because they are seen as emotional, and...as women. The whole smart thing seems to fly out the window the moment a cheek turns red, or a consoling glance at a struggling student is offered.

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  2. I've been reading a lot about public sector leadership lately. And much of what you describe is also what might be called highly developed leadership skills--especially those connected to your relationships with others in a professional context--your real kicker. I'm not at all suggesting that the gender divide you describe isn't a lived reality too--I know that I am sometimes read as "hot-headed" instead of "passionate about what matters," or as you note, "shrill" instead of "angry." But, I am suggesting that the skills you bring to a room (intuitive and otherwise) are more than valued--they are aspirations for many. Undervalued in pockets? Yes, probably. But, not universally.

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  3. Intractable discord! Oh, yeah. My impulse is to do anything to solve the crisis in order to relieve the emotional distress this inflicts on me.

    Being drawn into emotional highs (and lows) is also exhausting, I find. I thank goodness when I can close my office door and refocus myself.

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  4. There are a few lessons we could learn, if we want to. And please take that "if" seriously. I've noticed that "successful leaders" (which is to say, administrators who get institutional rewards, promotions, etc., etc.) control the narrative, including the narrative of their own careers. They don't say "I am intemperate." They say "I do what it takes to get the job done." And then other people say "He may rub some people the wrong way, but he gets the job done" (male pronoun kind-of intended). I think we've all seen this logic at work in teaching evaluations. People who let students know (by all kinds of cues) that they consider themselves to be good teachers tend to get good student teaching evaluations. It's possible, of course, that that kind of confidence helps to make a good teacher. Nonetheless, I stand by my premise that controlling the narrative contributes to a successful career. To paraphrase Ondaatje, it's a trick with a knife you can learn to do.

    But to return to the "if." Not everyone wants to adapt/adopt the tactics that appear to be increasingly necessary for advancement (or promotion or reward). Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, I guess we could argue that learning these tactics/skills is a professional responsibility. It is a professional responsibility to take on leadership positions of one kind or another, or to sell oneself as an outstanding researcher or teacher (the whole Faculty/Department benefits from the bounce in reputation, etc etc). On the other hand, it's also pretty important that some people continue to resist professional culture.

    I'm probably setting up a false binary here. I had planned to conclude this comment by quoting Miss Ellen from Romper Room -- "Turn that frown upside down!" -- but then realized that her advice isn't about controlling the narrative at all. So I won't quote her.

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  5. @ Jo-Ann--you bring up an interesting point. Should we (collectively as humans) have a responsibility professionally or otherwise to meet the characteristics of what is currently considered good leadership? Not only because it would help to actually further a personal career, but because it is almost expected in order to have professional respect. Despite the notion that indeed some people are resisting current professional culture, I'm inclined to argue that from a logical standpoint, won't most people choose to succumb to current stereotypes and norms in order to make sure they have a secure income, or a larger possibility of promotion or recognition in their field? Especially now when jobs are harder to find, and harder to hold onto.

    So this idea of professional responsibility, I think, is important.

    Perhaps the problem isn't so much so that emotional labor is taken for granted, but more so that we aren't including it in our own careers to be important. To use a quote from someone that I don't know the name of "be the change you want to see in the world".

    Maybe the reason why women are seen as shrill instead of angry, or upset instead of legitimately frustrated, or the reason mentoring, and actually showing that you give a crap about your students, or your colleagues, or your families....is because as women, we allow that to happen. Dare I say that we are submitting because of a concept like "responsibility".

    It's a thin line to walk. Demanding recognition and equal respect for the work you do regardless of what it is, is considered...male. Since the very act of demanding anything..is aggressive, and therefore attributed to the men.

    I think that unfortunately, in order to be the change, women might have to perpetuate a gender stereotype in order to get the power required to engineer that change.
    Does that make one a hypocrite then?

    I'm concerned.

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  6. Yeah. It's all so unclear. @Christie: I've read some of that stuff too, and I agree that the soft skills are highly touted, and rewarded, I'm sure. But at what cost? As Jo-Ann says, we need to be sure we want in.... @Cheryl: please don't start hitting! LOL And, isn't it Gandhi who said that about change? I do love the idea of controlling your own narrative, a lot.

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  7. What I meant, with sincere respect for Jo-Ann and Heather:
    1. I want to see more women in leadership positions.
    2. I think some of the most envied--and studied--leadership qualities come naturally to many women. I don't think it's best to park our emotions--or emotional intelligence--at the door. And I don't think we need to.
    3. I know the game needs changing--and that there are other games to play. And, no, we don't all need to put on a jersey, and many of us don't want to. But, see 1 and 2.

    (P.S. I'm not sure what this says about controlling my narrative--something, I suspect--but I too love the idea.)

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