Sunday, 22 April 2012

Should women fail?

It seems that we are all imposters. Judging by the comments on Athene Donald’s excellent blog on the subject, it appears that many of us feel, not so secretly, like fakes in our professional lives. Scicurious also argues that it might be welcome if senior scholars, especially women, felt able to admit to their failures and didn't seem to need always to look like perfect, successful academic exemplars. Her argument, which is a convincing one, is that if those in senior positions could be seen to have feet of clay, then it would make them seem more real, and as a result easier to emulate for those earlier in their careers. This makes a lot of sense, after all, which of us, really, is perfect? We all fail; we all doubt ourselves and feel that we are not doing as well as we ought to be. Some of us feel that most of the time, however it might look on the outside, it's just that in academia we don't like to admit it. The projects that go sideways are the ones about which we publish little or nothing, thus the illusion remains in place.

However, much as I'd like to follow her recommendations and go round admitting to everyone about how useless at my job I regard myself as being, I think that there is a real problem about this for women in senior, or leadership positions. The sad fact is that numerous studies have suggested that women actually do have to be better at a given task than men before most people will regard their efforts as equal (the multipliers vary according to studies, but it seems to be about three times) When women scientists, for example, apply for jobs or promotion they need more publications than men for their CVs to be rated equally, but often actually publish less, for various perfectly legitimate reasons. When letters of reference are written men tend to be described in more positive terms, and more active, assertive descriptions are given of their virtues. Even if a woman, trying, perhaps unconsiously to make up for these disadvantages, is assertive in a job interview, she is likely to be perceived negatively compared to a man. If a woman and a man in a leadership position act in the same way, one is likely to be perceived as decisive, positive and acting as a leader: the other tends to be regarded as a bossy, bitchy termagant. Guess which gender tends to get the negative reviews. This is horrifying, but it seems that studies are well founded and can be replicated. I’ve only linked to a selection- sadly there are plenty more, and the more you read, the grimmer the picture gets.

How could this happen? Well, it is a truism that the most effective espionage works by convincing people of something that they were already disposed to believe. Thus, in World War II it was possible for the allies to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings would happen in the Pas de Calais, because this seemed the most obvious location. I fear, therefore, that there is a deeply-rooted belief in our society, on the part or many women as well as men, that women simply are less good at things, especially being leaders or being truly excellent in their chosen career or craft, than men. Even most women want to work for a male boss, after all.

As a result therefore I am very chary, as a senior woman in a leadership position, of admitting in public to any failures, doubts or weaknesses. It seems to me that what follows from the findings of such studies is that if a senior male admits to doubts or failures, he will be regarded as charmingly modest- a trait of which I actually do approve. But if a woman in the same position says the same things, I fear that most people will believe her simply because she is female. There are also very few people of either gender who are so successful that there is nobody left to impress- university senior management, research funders, academic peers etc. Thus we still need to big ourselves up to create a good impression, however distasteful an activity we may find this.

Also, and admitting this may make me sound unutterably sad, I have always rather liked the people I work for, and my academic heroes to be just that: people I admire, look up to, and actually regard as slightly super-human, rather that rubbish like me. If someone who is managing me admits to doubt, failure or weakness it tends to make me feel a bit anxious- after all, if they don't feel they are in charge, then who is? If someone who is very successful, can't do something, what hope have I of managing it? Also, as I have written elsewhere, I am rather wedded to the ideal of being a swan: grace under pressure is always more impressive, in my opinion, than loud, panicky splashing.

I am aware however this does not help the next generation of academic women to progress in their careers or to feel that they do not have to emulate what is an unrealistic standard. After all, the studies I've referred to above suggest that we are all doing that already- trying to be three times better than men, just to be regarded as equal. What therefore can be done? Given the societal prejudices that appear to exist I think it's too early for women to go round admitting loudly and publicly to doubts and failure. Such things are, perhaps, better dealt with between consenting adults in private; with close colleagues, academic friends, between mentor and mentee. It follows, therefore, that if you are an early career woman, and you want to know what it really takes to climb that proverbial greasy pole, and how we really feel about doing so, you may just have to make friends with someone more senior than you, be they male or female. In doing so you might just gain a powerful ally and mentor with whom to share the successes as well as the tougher times.

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