My university has recently run a consultation exercise for women from different parts of the university and across the different grades (with the exception of researchers, for whom a separate event will be held later). Various key messages have come out, which will be mulled over by the appropriate bodies in the university. One that came out loud and clear is that many women disliked the apparent need to ‘self-promote’ in order to get on. Not just a message from the academics either, but across all the grades.
To take a specific example, the annual university promotion exercise requires individuals to put their names forward. This scheme was introduced a good many years ago to replace what was seen as an old-fashioned and distinctly untransparent (and undoubtedly, upon occasion, unfair) system, in which you could only be considered for promotion if your head of department put you forward. This was obviously very unsatisfactory because it meant (too) much power rested with the head, who may not have always exercised that power appropriately. Any system that enables ‘old boy’ cronyism to be perpetuated has to be regarded as a somewhat dubious process.
The idea of a self-nomination process was meant to be much fairer, leaving the decision to apply or not in the hands of the potential applicant. However, the downside of this is that the applicant then has to try to judge when they are ‘ripe’. In some cases, they may feel they don’t know when that right moment is and feel awkward either about asking for advice or doing it cold. Some may even feel they have to wait for that magical tap on the shoulder from someone higher up the ladder, encouraging them to throw their hat into the ring. Undoubtedly sometimes that tap will come from a mentor or senior colleague who has your interests at heart, but – and almost certainly more often for someone who might be classified as a minority, be it by gender, race or sub-discipline – very often you can wait for ever and no one thinks to give you a nod. Thus, this more transparent system may still disadvantage those without a combination of strong self-confidence, mentors and/or a thoughtful head of department. This, it would appear, may well still mean women unintentionally get held back.
In order to try to help people in this position, this year the University has rolled out a ‘CV mentoring’ scheme, so that people can get an objective view of how strong their case is before they decide whether or not to apply. This scheme has been run for the past few years in a more informal way by our Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI) – and so was limited to women in STEM – but has been seen as so constructive that it is now, in the jargon, ‘mainstreamed’ for all disciplines in an official way. It operates by women letting the centre know they would like advice, and the centre then matching them up with a mentor, usually in a related discipline. By running this scheme for women, we had hoped to get beyond the need for self-promotion, but (as one woman apparently put it to the person she went to for mentoring), ‘you need balls to approach someone for this advice’; even this step appears to be challenging for some. We’d hoped to get round this by issuing the instruction to the mentor that they should make contact and not wait for the mentee to pluck up courage to ring up someone they may regard as liable to be too senior to want to spend time with them. The mentee who made this remark, clearly did have balls enough to get the help she wanted; maybe we are still failing others.
The ideal solution would be for heads of department, or their nominated deputies, proactively to discuss just how strong their case is each year with all those – men and women – for whom an application might be a possibility. This happens to be something that has been done in my department for many years, by a succession of heads of department, but quite obviously it is far from universal. If the head of department approaches the individual, and if this is the expectation year on year, then the need for anyone to ‘self-promote’ would be removed, even if the ultimate decision to apply or not rested with them. Advice to all heads of departments to do this proactively is now being promulgated; this too may help the less assertive.
Self-promotion of course has the potential to turn up in many other instances beyond the formal promotion process. If men are – stereotypically, certainly not all men feel good about it either – more likely to ask for an invited talk from conference organisers, or more likely to ‘volunteer’ for some high profile committee (let us note research council committees now operate much more by self-nomination to sit on the higher committees than was the case in the past) or ask for a pay rise, or any of a host of other roles or rewards, differences between career progression for men and women will continue. The system still works on a ‘male-by-default’ pattern of behaviour which has the unintended consequence of rewarding people for a character trait that most certainly may not be in the organisation’s best interest. It most certainly will equally disadvantage a certain proportion of the men, who feel no more confident self-promoting than many of the women. Equally, those women who aren’t so bothered may thrive. These comments are all vast stereotyped generalisations by way of illustration.
I don’t have a simple answer to this. People are different and no system can be perfect. However, it is clear that we, in our organisation at least and probably throughout the sector, need to make sure that it is made clear to women that a bit of self-promotion may be healthy rather than immodest and to provide confidence-building and assertiveness training for women from early on in their careers. Indeed, I would say throughout their lives. Equally, we need to be sure that our processes don’t simply favour the loud-mouthed or well-networked. These statements are easy to make and much harder to accomplish in practice.
But – and there is always a but – there is an additional twist in this story for the women. Study after study (although not specifically related to academia) has shown that women who ask for a pay rise, or push in other ways, can actually suffer for this. They may even get the pay rise, but their card has been marked as someone who is ‘not nice’ to know and thereafter held back in other ways. In that situation it would seem women can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I have heard Londa Schiebinger, an academic based at Stanford who is Director of the EU/US Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, and Engineering Project, tell a worrying story of what happened a few years back at Stanford. Women were coached in negotiation to help them get a fair salary. The administration was entirely used to men behaving like this, but in many cases the negotiations broke down when women attempted to do just the same; the administrators had not themselves been trained to adjust to this superficially ‘unwomanly’ behaviour and so reacted badly. Sociological and psychological studies by Madeleine Heilman have shown how
women are penalized for being successful in domains that are considered to be male, and are disliked and interpersonally derogated as a consequence.
The issue of whether individuals need to self-promote, and if they do attempt to do this what the consequences are, is clearly not only pervasive across many sectors, but also immensely complex. Academic self-promotion when it comes to applying to move up the career ladder is just one example.
Finally, it isn’t only in our formal careers these issues may come to the fore. The recently announced UK science blogging prize from the Good Thinking Society required self-nomination. Maybe the organisers should scrutinise the applicants this first year, and try to deduce if their own process has deterred an appropriately representative number of women from applying. If the organisers are seeking young as well as older bloggers to participate, the lack of self-confidence may be even more apparent by the absence of youthful self-nominations. It has certainly been a topic of concern amongst my own particular circle – although heartening to see women pushing other women to overcome their reluctance and enter the fray, to the extent of ghost-written nominations being proposed, although I don’t think carried out.
I would be interested to hear to what extent people from other organisations feel the issue of self-promotion is a substantive one. Maybe many readers will feel that Cambridge is inherently a culture more prone to arrogance and self-interest than their own friendly working environments. However, I think the problem is likely to be widespread, if for no other reason than that academia has become so competitive.