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.