Supporting Women at Work in Academia

Professionalism is a lot like maturity; the more you think you have it, the further away you get from it. But when I use the term “professional,” I simply mean doing your job and doing it well. The details on and definitions of “professionalism” vary from person-to-person, often with heavy consideration to position and experience.

Professional, Not Likable

So you know now that when I use the term “professional” I don’t mean likable. In this post I am in no way endorsing a workplace where everyone is likable. The demands on women to be likable are so pervasive (and annoying), there have been several blog posts and articles about the very subject. See Chimamanda Nigozi Adichie’s great speech on how women absolutely don’t have to be likable.

Not a relevant question.

My post today comes from a few places, but most essentially I attempt answer why it is important to support women in the workplace, even when they aren’t likable. I believe this support is an integral part of “doing your job well”–i.e. professionalism. And I realize that it’s all easier said than done.

It’s nice to imagine that people can keep it relatively professional at work, but that doesn’t always happen. I’m guilty too. Bullying, passive aggressive/outright aggressive behavior, and conflicting opinions/personalities often make the theoretically simple task of professionalism impossible. I find this is particularly true in an academic workplace, where budgets are being slashed. Because of this, there is increasingly more and more call to not only justify the why of one’s research, but also the legitimacy of one’s discipline or field altogether.

But supporting your colleagues certainly is important.  Even when they aren’t likable. Sometimes especially when they aren’t likable. Why do I keep italicizing likable?Probably because I want you to know how ridiculous the entire concept is.

Likable? Meh.

Supporting  Women at Work

So how is it possible to build collegiality and camaraderie amongst colleagues in this type of working environment? Why is it even important? And what does it have to do with women?

Penny Herscher answers many of these questions in “Women Need to Support Women at Work.” She notes the lack of women in executive or senior management positions, and the woman-on-woman bullying that often happens in the workplace. Indeed, a 2009 New York Times article revealed that 40% of workplace bullies are women, and that 70% of their targets are also women.

On top of everything we already know about gender, race and the pay gap, it is important to keep in mind that women are often trained to view other women as competitors rather than collaborators, and that we must actively seek woman-produced models of women’s collaboration.

For a not-so-serious (but I think fairly awesome) model, just look at Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj’s ability to share the spotlight rather than compete for it.

OK, OK… I confess, there are maybe better examples of collaborative women.

I tout the collaboration game hard, but even I sometimes find something jealous creep inside of me when someone I know receives an honor, praise, or award that I don’t. And I don’t think this makes me or anyone else who feels this way a terrible person or something, but instead it only indicates that feelings of jealousy emerge when we’re feeling down about ourselves, insecure, or threatened.

As the new academic year starts, consider the simple ways you can offer emotional and intellectual support to your colleagues, particularly if you’re in a male-dominated field in academia. This could be a nod in passing, sharing CFPs or articles that could be of interest to a colleague that you happen to come across, engaging your colleagues about their research, simply saying “congratulations” to colleagues after she has received an honor, and many others. Keep likable out of the equation as much as possible.

It is important for me to reiterate that support amongst women at work doesn’t mean you have to be friends–i.e. no one is going to make you socialize when or where you do not wish to socialize–but instead you have to be present, mindful, and collaborative to foster a sense of support amongst your colleagues.

Final Thoughts

I realize fostering camaraderie can sometimes be thankless work, particularly if you’re doing more giving than receiving. Sometimes you will find people who do not want your support at all. And it is impossible to say why some people are better collaborators than others, but still we should challenge ourselves at the start of this new academic year to build one another up, to offer support, to provide a second chance.


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