mistake #102: behaving like a little girl

I just got two books from Amazon: Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, and Women Don’t Ask. Hanna’s reading Women Don’t Ask, and it keeps getting mentioned. The Nice Girls book is a list of 101 mistakes women make without realising it, that the book claims stop us from being successful. I bought it simply because of mistake #73: “Smiling inappropriately”. I have been harbouring a suspicion for years that I smile too much. On the one hand, that’s an expression of who I am, on the other, I worry that it signals uncertainty and too great desire to please. I do mistake # 81, too, “Sitting on your foot” (which makes you look like a little girl, apparently), and mistakes #56 (“Couching statements as questions”) through #66 (Using nonwords), as well as #47 (“Using only your first name”), though that’s a cultural thing, all my colleagues do, and often mistake #3 (Working hard), #7 (Pinching company pennies) and #15, “Polling before making a decision”.

Of course, it’s hard not to notice that some of these mistakes seem impossible to avoid. For instance, surely one must either commit mistake #16, “Needing to be liked”, or mistake #17, “Not needing to be liked”?

And what if I like putting my foot under me when I sit? Damn it. First society teaches us to behave these ways (oh, and I think that I also commit mistake #77, “Tilting your head”), then we’re told that to succeed we have to behave differently. Even our new recommended behaviour patterns are minutely described.

I’m going to read the book. I want to be aware of these things, and actually, finding myself at department head meetings with the 60-year-old professors, 80% of whom are men, I’ve found that the foot under my leg thing doesn’t quite feel right. And yet I don’t completely want to shed that me-who-learnt-to-smile. She’s me. I like her, though I’m coming to feel a little sorry for her. You’re worth more, I want to tell her. You don’t have to smile to them all. They’ll like you anyway, most of them, and the ones who don’t, well, they probably wouldn’t have anyway.

I wonder what it’s really like to just be male. You would have never learnt to put your foot under your leg, or to tilt your head or smile inappropriately.

How alien.

[Update: I changed the title. The book’s not about not being a woman, it’s about not acting like a little girl. The basic idea is frightening yet rings true: these mistakes are mostly to do with acting like a girl instead of like a woman. The transition of the last few years from being a student to now suddenly being head of department has certainly had me thinking about how to be taken seriously as an adult. A woman, not a girl.

The professor I’ve known since I was twenty who told me the other day I still look like a student (it was framed as a compliment but two-edged, disarming), or my colleague who in shock said “You’re going to be boss? You really think you can do that job?”, well, I guess they’re seeing a girl not a woman. I definitely deserve my job academically and in terms of teaching, and would have fought for that, but I’ve been less enthusiastic about shouldering the administration (that may be childish but it’s also following the advice of other academics who don’t like the way admin eats up research time) and I’ve not been projecting an impression that I’m in total control of the head of department side of my job.

It’s not just administration, anyway, I’ve discovered now I’m learning the job a little better. Why downplay it? The secretary and administrators do the paperwork, once I’ve made decisions. The worst paperwork task so far was figuring out our ideal schedules for next semester to send to the student affairs person who coordinates it with the central scheduling department. That was hard: who on earth will teach this course this autumn? Do we need to teach it? Should we redesign it? But it’s also important, and more than administration. I’m a manager, in charge of personel, in charge of developing the curriculum and our profile. I’m the person staff and students come to when something needs fixing. I need to know who can do what and what to do when somebody’s not doing their job. I need to represent the department well when meeting with people from other departments, which often seems to happen in corridors and by chance. It’s challenging and it’s a lot of work and as I’m figuring it out it’s also a great deal more than paperwork.

I’d still prefer to be a full time researcher. But I think being head of department is going to help me become a mature, empowered woman, and I think that will spill over into everything I do.]

08. April 2005 by Jill
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