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.]

16 thoughts on “mistake #102: behaving like a little girl

  1. Toril

    My God, I have a lot to learn, and I definitely need to read this book. I shall try
    to improve my SELF in the course of the summer! If that isn’t a fabilous idea I
    don’t know what is!!

  2. Jose Angel

    So no impending name change to jillwalker/txt?

  3. Jill

    Toril, you can borrow my copy when I’m done, if you like! And no, no way I’m changing this to jillwalker/txt! No!!!

  4. Mark Federman

    What an amazing hegemonic discourse that comes through in that book. A direct retrieval of the 1970s during which women were coached to act like men in the workplace. The problem is, of course, the male-role-dominated workplace is, by any critical account, dysfunctional (not to mention simply unhealthy) and needs the feminine-role influence to first make it liveable/survivable, and second to enable the collaborative processes we hear so much about to spur innovation.

    It’s entirely a crock, aimed at people who are insecure in who they are, defending a hegemony that is is way past its time, but holding on for dear life.

  5. Anonymous

    Looks like a new theme for reality TV, something between ‘Your fired’ & ‘Extreme Makeover’ with female candidates being psyched into shape until they’re, well, just like GUYS.
    I’m unconvinced that the listed ‘errors’ have anything at all to do with not getting corner offices (if you want corner offices). Women can hold out and succeed on their own terms (i.e. own definitions of success which don’t necessarily include corner offices) AND be themselves at the same time. Maybe even write books about how to smile & sit with foot under leg.
    There’s something tragic about being coached to suppress some of our best traits …

  6. Marika L¸ders

    My first thoughts reading this post was along the same lines as Mark Federman. Lois P. Frankel is a woman, and although her advices may very well work, I don’t I buy the package. Sitting on your foot is out of place when attending more formal meetings, but so is other comfy ways of not sitting straight on the chair. Polling before making a decision. Clearly this is not only a negative thing. I’m quite aware that decisions often needs to be taken without too much hesitation, that you can hardly ask for advice before every decision that has to be made. But. Without having read the book, the general advice seems to be to behave according to the patriarchal norms that are so dominating that they appear self-evidently rational and right.

    I often smile when I’m a little insecure. Then again, I smile when I’m secure and confident as well. Why is the latter appropriately and the first inappropriately?

  7. Jill

    No, Mark, actually, that’s not what the book says – it advocates that women act like women, not like men, not like little girls. The author also says that in leadership courses she runs for men, she teaches them to act more like “women” too, because “female” skills like listening, empathy, cooperation are desparately needed in the workplace. Women often already have plenty of those skills, and so often won’t need to improve that aspect of their approach at work because it’s fine. Women may have a need to work on other aspects that are more traditionally “masculine”, like being assertive and not presenting oneself as incapable. That’s the idea of the book, anyway, and while I’m not going to swallow it raw I think there’s plenty of sense to be gleaned from it.

    My reaction was somewhat similar to Mark’s and Marika’s after reading the back cover and writing the beginning of this post, before the update. After reading more, I’m a lot more positive to the book, though obviously any strategy to succeed as a woman without changing society is to some extent going to be working within patriarchy. But heck, the way I act now is completely caused by the mostly patriarchal society I’ve grown up in. Why is that better than something else?

    Really, I think these quarrels about whether or not women should act like men are dead ends. That’s not the point. Men have insecurities too, after all, it’s not as if careers or lives are dead simple if you happen to be a man. Some of the problems will be different, most will be the same as for women, I think. What I like about this particular book is that it suggests that a lot of typical “feminine” habits, many of which I know I have, are about acting like a child, not about being a woman at all.

  8. Anonymous

    Gosh, there are all those rules and standards. However, quite often itís just about putting on a good show. I cannot remember what movie this is from, where the key motto of the main character is something along the lines of if you want to be successful you have to make it seem that you are successful, no matter what. I thought maybe Tom Cruise was in it but after looking through his filmography I couldnít make a connection. Yet in the end, as clichÈ as it may be, being just yourself will last the longest. Itís ok to smile a lot but itís also ok to show discontent. There are certain socially accepted rules one should follow but they shouldnít take over your personality and who you are. There are some people that you just know are putting on an act but are this totally other person behind closed doors. Has anyone seen Desperate Housewives? Bree Van De Kamp. Need I say more?

  9. chris

    Wow, going from a student to heading the dept is certainly going to bring up these issues, especially working with people who were your teachers! As a male academic who has a tendency to sit on his foot from time to time and even at 39 gets continually taken for a grad student by university administrators I have a little sympathy with the issue of not having sufficient gravitas.

    While all the corner offices in my area are occupied by women who’ve been there since the dawn of time. I’ve been thinking recently that it can be very deadening personally to allow your job to have too much of a role in shaping your personality as this sort of thing tends to seep into all areas of your nature beyond the person you project at dept meetings.

  10. scott

    I think you that for purpose of comparison, you should try this for a couple of weeks, and then try the opposite for a couple of weeks — try to act less adultlike and more girllike in department meetings and such. You know: frilly pink dresses, satin bows, carry around one of those gigantic swirled rainbow lollipops instead of a cellphone, use the phrase “We’re not going to cuz I don’t wanna!,” revel in tantrums and do flip-flops down the hallway.

  11. David

    I sit on my foot too. Does that make me look like a little girl? Or does the rest of the anatomy clear that up?

  12. Mum

    Keeping some of the mannerisms of the child can make it easier for women & men to bring forth some of the other things they often leave behind with childhood, like creativity, playfulness, role playing skills, curiosity, audacity & so on.

    In later life Picasso visited an exhibition of children’s drawings. He observed, “When I was their age, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.”
    (He is also reported to have said “It takes a long time to become young.”). I bet he sat on his foot too.

  13. Leslie

    After reading your comments, I am going to get the book. I think I need this, living/working in a sordidly chauvinistic south-east Asian society.

  14. Doctor Who

    There’s no point in being grownup if you can’t be childish sometimes.

  15. Administrator

    Since the beginning of time have been trying to fill roles assigned to them by parents, teachers, etc.

    It is time women stepped up to the plate and stopped being some pathetic extension of everything in everyone’s idealistic daydream.

    I managed a welding supply business from 1965-1990; I experienced everything from complete resistance to my gender to, in the end, complete acceptance for my my ability as a good businessperson to supply good products, excellent technical expertise and great prices.

    I have continued on in municipal administration as a strong leader, encouraged by fabulous managers, and do not (nor, ever have) employed any of the sappy, self-deprecating phrases, words, gestures or demeanor of the so-called “woman” employee.

    Other managers have respect for me because I do not “kow-tow” to men, I stick to facts, figures, reality.

    Women need to realize that “pleasing Daddy” has no place in the Board Room; that you can still maintain your feminity all the while being a formidable manager.

    Additionally, I suggest, always dress like a top manager.

    I do not care if you are in charge of the mail-room, dress like you are the CEO. ALWAYS wear a jacket. Always accessorize correctly. Invest in good clothing. Invest in a good hairstyle, maintained scrupulously. Be well-groomed. Conduct yourself as though you are the General Manager, CEO, or whomever is the top person. ALWAYS watch your demeanor. Don’t get too chummy with co-workers. Remember, if you are in a lower position, you will NOT be there very long.

    AND, most importantly, always know your stuff! KNOW your work, and let the top people KNOW
    you know your stuff.

  16. […] I’m rather shocked at this story, I must admit. Obviously it’s hard to know whether you’d have more success as a man when you always present yourself as a woman. I’ve never experienced obvious discrimination, though I’ve certainly felt uncomfortable in meetings where everyone else is male. Oh, and fumed at the difficulties of breastfeeding while travelling and noted that applications aren’t evaluated equally and that I have (had? have…?) a tendency to act like a little girl, a typical mistake women make. […]

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