Unwritten Rules

Last week I had a meeting with a professorial colleague, a woman from a Humanities Department who is heading up a working group within the university. We were discussing how to ensure she got the information she needed and I suggested she wrote to the Heads of School (who in other universities might be known as Deans or Faculty Heads). Oh, she said, she hadn’t thought of that, of approaching people herself. She supposed that would be OK rather than relying on people in the administration to try to extract information from reluctant heads of departments. It made me realise how much we are conditioned by rules that don’t exist. We – and I don’t just mean women here, although this case involved one – assume that there is a correct way of doing things and that upon occasion, if we aren’t given explicit permission or the structures make it obvious, we may therefore end up assuming that it isn’t ‘done’ to ask, to push, to try to achieve some end.

Socially, rules have always existed and typically they were unwritten. Read Victorian novels and there is so much about convention (for women at least) regarding hours of visiting, how many yards of crape a widow had to wear for how many months, whom you could leave a visiting card with and the etiquette of who partnered whom at formal dinners. Thank goodness we have moved past that. (Read Georgette Heyer and the tricky question for men in the Georgian era seemed to be how they tied their cravats, but that is not necessarily an accurate assessment of the mores of the day.)  Part of a young girl’s upbringing in the past was to educate her in these tricky social conventions. For most of us in academia there is no similar education, but still, I suspect we all continue to believe that other people know the appropriate way to behave under all circumstances, and it is only ourselves who are in a fog.  This is, I suppose, merely another manifestation of the impostor syndrome, but it matters because it causes us to hang back and be less effective than we should be.

In my own university we are very democratic, the phrase used (overly used I would say) is we are a bottom-up university; this could be translated as anything goes. I have come across eminent professors from the US who see Cambridge as an attractive place to be enticed to come to specifically because we have the freedom to find our own paths without too much structure hemming us in or too many bureaucrats driving the agenda. But that presupposes people are willing to use this freedom – for instance to obtain evidence for a working group as I mentioned at the outset. And not everyone has the chutzpah to do it – or even recognize they lack it.

I can’t help thinking about this in the context of the discussion that obviously transpired at SCIO11 (I wasn’t there) and the various blogposts thereafter exemplified by Kate Clancy in her article which discussed whether women behave differently from men in the blogging sphere.  (This debate has been continued across many blogs and I don’t want to get into the specifics so ably covered in these posts.  Many of the pertinent comments are summarised by Daniel Lende here)  All the evidence supports the view they do, and in large part it is because what women somehow believe is suitable behaviour differs from male beliefs. Reading the comments it is clear that my own beliefs also tie in with the position of the majority of women. But no one has told us this is what to do, it is just a natural extension of what seems appropriate to us in many other situations. We appear to believe rules exist that actually don’t, but we are sufficiently conditioned we act as if they do. In the specific case of the blogging/tweeting domain, as highlighted by Ed Yong‘s comment covered in Kate Clancy’s post, the issue was asking for one’s blog post to be retweeted, for instance by a direct message to someone such as Ed. I think the mantra would be ‘Nice girls don’t ask’. But it could apply equally well to many situations way beyond that of blogging but pertinent to academia: asking for a slot as an invited speaker – or even to give a plenary talk – at some key conference or seeking an invitation to serve on some high level committee.  Of course, many men wouldn’t consider making requests along these lines either and possibly for exactly the same reason: it would be forward.

So I believe the discussion of the behaviour of bloggers is only one specific example of how we assume a certain type of behaviour is appropriate or acceptable without ever realising – until it is spelt out clearly and often accidentally in passing during some general conversation  – that not everyone takes the same view. This is where mentoring is so valuable. It offers a friendly voice who can say ‘why don’t you….ask for a promotion, a pay rise, a slot at that big conference, a bigger office, a graduate student…’. It provides the validation that it is OK to ask which may make all the difference.  It opens one’s eyes to the fact that the reason progression seems slow is that other people are rushing in where you didn’t know you were allowed to tread.

The ASSET survey, that I have discussed previously, showed that the percentage of women who claimed to be aware of the procedures and criteria surrounding promotion was lower than for men. Is this because their heads of departments weren’t discussing it with them? Or because they lacked a mentor who thought to bring it up? Perhaps men simply assumed they knew the procedures when they asnwered the question and women didn’t make the same assumption? But it might also be because the women weren’t seizing the bull by the horns and taking steps to find out since they didn’t think it was appropriate unless someone tipped them the wink. The survey doesn’t give us that information but I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter applied to at least some of the respondents.

In academia, in the blogosphere, in our daily lives we are bound by rules but some of them are of our own construction, and they may be severely limiting.  We, perhaps particularly women, need to check that our actions are indeed not being unnecessarily constrained by our unfamiliarity with custom creating artificial boundaries.  Of course, we will still always find occasions when we are tripped up. Shortly after I became an FRS I was serving on a Cambridge Board of Electors for a named chair, the first time I had been involved in such a process. The chairman turned to me early on in the meeting and said to me ‘Right, let’s ask the newest FRS here what she thinks of all the candidates’ and I was floored. I had no idea how such meetings ran, and consequently whether I was supposed to provide a thumbnail sketch of each candidate or a long eulogy on my preferred one. I think in the event I was commendably, although probably unhelpfully, brief. And I am sure the chairman did this to me deliberately to disconcert me, as a trivial exercise of power.  It hardly mattered, but it was embarrassing at the time.

Rules are a way of knowing what to do and where at all possible – and knowing your own university’s promotion criteria is a clear example where it is possible – we should seek out all the information we can. That at least will minimise the constraints upon us.  It is for this reason that the Athena Forum drew up a set of 10 questions that early career researchers should be asking themselves in order to empower them to progress. This was  in the form of  a bookmark, with the hope that institutions and organisations would locally ‘personalise’ them with relevant websites and resources. Few did, but more information was also provided on the Athena Forum website.

Beyond explicitly seeking guidance where we can, all we can do is watch others and try to deduce if they are playing by a different set of rules. If they are, then we need to challenge what we believed was the status quo. And that takes courage – and the assistance of others (such as Ed Yong in the female science bloggers case) – to identify where our assumptions are leading us astray and quite possibly holding us back.

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14 Responses to Unwritten Rules

  1. biochembelle says:

    Excellent post, Athene. This whole idea of unwritten rules is one that I’ve thought about considerably over the past year or so-and has been the subject of many debates with my spouse.

    An unwritten rules I integrated at some point was that you don’t bother people in positions above your own unless you have good reason (e.g. you need an evaluation, signature, etc.). The result is that I have been hesitant to reach out to faculty outside my lab or committees and have failed to appropriately cultivate network connections.

    I realize the importance of establishing a professional network and mentoring circle as a young scientist and that the responsibility for establishing it lies solely with me. I made a first real attempt at this last fall. I agonized over the ‘right’ wording of the contact email, which I had a couple of people look over and edit before sending. I felt that uncomfortable lurch in my stomach upon hitting the send button, throwing it irrevocably into the internet ether. I waited and waited for a response. I agonized again over re-sending the message, in case it got lost in the shuffle, and finally decided it couldn’t hurt. After round 2, I received a response pretty quickly and set up a meeting. I was surprised at how receptive this faculty member was to talking and offering assistance. Without the intention, the meeting laid the groundwork for a potential collaboration.

    Of course, I don’t expect every experience to go like that one, but in the first round, I realized that there was little harm and potentially high reward in the action (which ended up being higher than I anticipated). I am trying to use this experience as a stepping stone. Now that I’ve broken that unwritten rule, maybe it will become easier to break it again.

  2. Biochembelle, your experience exactly typifies the problem – and solution. Thank you for expressing it so elegantly. In many cases we feel there is an insurmountable hurdle to doing something like asking for advice but, as you say, there is little harm (in some senses little risk of harm ) in reaching out and potentially much to gain. But, if you don’t spot the rules you are constructing it is all too easy to remain passive and wait for others to come offering help,which by and large they won’t because faculty are busy folk who simply may not think of it, however well-intentioned they may be. As a postdoc, the bookmark the Athena Forum designed is precisely aimed at you and your contemporaries. The hope is it will prompt people to realise they do have to take active steps themselves to get the answers they want and need, and not just sit back and wait for solutions to fall into their lap. I am so glad you not only felt able to work out what you needed, but also to take the next step of finding someone to help – and that they did! There is no point in pretending that this will always be the happy outcome….

  3. Jim Smith says:

    Speaking for myself (and probably for many other people in some sort of authority), I like it when more junior staff approach me for advice or to criticise something I’ve done. It’s the best way to find out what is really happening, and I encourage it as best I can.

  4. alice says:

    The face-palm moment at SciOnline when Ed said that was amazing to see. A whole room seemed to go “but, but.. people DO that?!” My personal response was more to turn my nose up though, if I’m honest. “Nice *people* don’t do that”. Maybe it’s a cultural thing as much as gender (by which I mean, “it’s just not cricket”). My point is, I’d rather blokes weren’t so pushy as much as women were more so. Perhaps that’s naive.

    The point you make about knowing your uni’s promotion criteria is important, I think. I remember noting that at Imperial, they don’t disclose wages over a certain scale (can’t remember what, you could easily hit it as a prof though, if I remember rightly) and my office-mates pointing out that this disadvantages women, because they won’t be so bold as to ask for large payrises unless they can see that others have too. Like people asking for promotions for their blogposts in twitter DMs, I really think we should be discouredging behind-walls networking/ information like this. The more transparent it is, the more open it is for everyone.

  5. rpg says:

    Yeah, I’m also uncomfortable with asking for RTs, unless there’s something I think is really important—and then in a ‘public service announcement’ way rather than simple self-promotion.

    I also tend to unfollow people who ask me for pointless RTs, especially if they do it to more than one of the accounts I manage.

  6. Jim, I quite agree. But it is difficult to offer advice unless asked without looking patronising – so younger researchers please think about this and realise it is incumbent on you to raise your hands if you want something from us old fogeys. It is certainly the case I often learn a lot from these interactions – keeps me on my toes, points me in different directions etc.

    Alice, I tried to indicate that much of what I wrote applies to men as well as women, but I guess it is one of these things where the mean position (of how much people are prepared to ask) may be slightly different for the two sexes. I am glad to say my university publishes all its pay scales, right through the professorial ranks, and it is undoubtedly then the case that it is easier to know what one is asking for. We also publish statistical data regarding applications and success rates for them. So Cambridge has gone a long way towards transparency – further than many UK universities – on this front. But still it requires people to look at the criteria and be prepared to ask to be considered.

    To try to encourage women to apply for promotion, WiSETI in Cambridge – which I direct – runs a CV mentoring scheme for women contemplating applying for promotion. The idea is that a senior member of the university looks over their CV and proffers advice on it. Women who wrote in asking for this were then paired with an appropriate senior member of the university; they were each told who the other was. But when the onus was left on the junior partner to approach the senior they didn’t always have the courage to do so, even though they knew the professor was waiting to hear from them. So, to make it even easier, we changed the process so that the professor would initiate contact to remove the fear of making contact from the junior staff member. It is something that would be good to roll out as good practice across the university, but it is of course resource heavy to set up and may not happen for the time being.

    As for the specific point about RT’s maybe the answer – to both rpg and Alice – is that people should refuse to RT in response to a DM. That should stop some of the less attractive pushiness in that particular sphere, but that is only one tiny instance. All of us can choose how pushy to be, as long as we realise there is a choice. I suppose my contention is often we aren’t aware and fail to do something pushy because it doesn’t cross our mind.

  7. Tideliar says:

    “We – and I don’t just mean women here, although this case involved one – assume that there is a correct way of doing things and that upon occasion, if we aren’t given explicit permission or the structures make it obvious, we may therefore end up assuming that it isn’t ‘done’ to ask, to push, to try to achieve some end.”

    This is certainy something I’ve learned over the last couple of years of working in academic administration. If you need something, just go ask for it. Relying on faux-etiquette, often inculcated by ‘unwritten rules’ means either something important doesn’t get done, or more likely, it takes twice as long and three times the effort.

    Be polite, be deferential when need be, but be forward always.

  8. cromercrox says:

    I did my first degree at Leeds University, where people take you as they find you and call a spade a spade in true Yorkshire fashion. When I came to Cambridge to do my PhD the culture shock was profound, indeed disabling. There seemed so many rules, so much etiquette, all of it unwritten, and with nobody to explain these things, I was lost.

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    Another fascinating commentary–so much to think about! While this may be off the ‘direct thread’, it fits in a little with Henry’s comment about etiquette at different universities. Compared to the system in Israel, where everything is very direct, I found that in coming to the US it was necessary to learn the dialect of understatement and subtle hints.

    However, there is a price to pay for directness as well, as people are inevitably more rude, obnoxious and pushy. Striking the right balance is an art, and that “right balance” apparently fluctuates greatly from institute to institute and country to country.

  10. @cromercros @steve you are undoubtedly right. The unwritten rules are location-dependent, which just complicates things even more. However, directness isn’t necessarily going to make people feel more comfortable, they’ll just understand better why they’re uncomfortable. The British system of queuing, for instance, may be incomprehensible in parts of Europe (the Netherlands comes to mind) but their very different and to them acceptable behaviour makes someone brought up in the UK system feel rather trampled upon.

  11. Sherry Martin says:

    Very interesting article and comments. A pleasure to read. I believe I will review my work situation in a new light, thank you. I am surprised to find myself doing this because I thought I had fully absorbed the unwritten rules lesson. Here’s why.
    I am currently in mainland China, where lining up for a bus is a demonstration of dramatically different unwritten rules. After some months of careful observation of bus queues for buses supplied by the university to take academics from campus to campus, I concluded that the person with the most dominant behaviour gets on most quickly. Usually this meant the older professors or bigger men. I imitated their behaviour by walking forward steadily as if I was convinced that the seas would part for me and they did. I got much better seating in general, in a shorter time. No one seemed surprised or upset with me. Also works for crossing streets. Yes, the cars do get out of your way. On days when I feel a bit fragile or low energy, I note it does not work half as well.
    Unwritten rules are everywhere, and sometimes clearest in an unfamiliar place. The lesson is valuable and can be applied in so many different areas of life. And you can indeed be blind to the self-written rules regardless. Thanks for the analysis of the work situation, which was like an elbow in the ribs, so to speak, even when I thought I knew better.

  12. Sue Halliday says:

    Perhaps being British and too self effacing, being of a certain age and too polite plus being female really does tick all the wrong boxes. So what do we do about it?

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