I am prompted to ask this question by a whole slew of different events and stories this past week. The question is in part a general one about what is good for careers, and in part it reflects gender issues – as they impact on both men and women. Let me start with the general careers’ question: how do you decide when something you have been asked to do is a wise thing to accept? There are a wide range of situations, and I’m sure I will omit many, so please feel free to add comments to open the debate up wider.
1 It’s something you’ve always wanted to do – the obvious answer is say yes. At once. But two notes of caution. Firstly, check that it really is something that is still desirable, rather than something that was exactly what you wanted to do two, or perhaps five years ago. Maybe your circumstances have changed sufficiently that it is now a distraction rather than a delight; or maybe your own aspirations have changed in the light of other circumstances. Secondly, even if you are going to say yes it is always wise to say to yourself ‘have I got time?’ (If you don’t say this, your family probably will). To fit in this new role/responsibility, what do you need to give up? It may give you the perfect excuse to drop something that has just become a tedious chore, or it may be it simply gives you more clout to carry out the roles you already have. But a quick sanity check is always in order.
2 It looks desirable but you are extremely nervous whether you’re up to it. Think hard before giving your answer in this case. Are you suffering from impostor syndrome, holding yourself needlessly back? Or are you genuinely not ready to step up to this new challenge? Getting other people’s opinions may be helpful here, but it is worth pausing to remember you have been asked to take this new role on by someone who presumably thinks you have what it takes. Few people are deliberately set up to fail by malicious colleagues; that would be a rare phenomenon in my experience. It is also worth asking around to see if there is any training or mentoring that would rapidly give you the skills you need to fit right in. Sometimes you are right to feel nervous, but impostor syndrome can be the devil. You could always agree a let-out with the committee chair (or whoever it might be) by saying that you’ll take the task on ‘on probation’ as it were, and that you will resign if it isn’t working out after some fixed time, which should be agreed in advance.
3 You have a strong suspicion you are being asked because half a dozen people have already said no because it’s a thankless but time-consuming task. Or you are being asked because they’re short on their quota of (wo)men on the committee (for instance) and are just desperate to find someone who will make the membership look reasonable. You might well want to say no quite rapidly in these cases, unless it’s a cause close to your heart however greedy of time or however much you feel you’re not genuinely being asked because your talents are appreciated. Sometimes thankless tasks can win you many friends just because you show a willingness to take something important seriously when others have not.
4 Much more difficult to decide are those requests where you feel in principle it could be interesting but you know you will permanently clash with one (or more) of your bête noires (e.g. already serving on the committee) or that there is a real danger of the task expanding to fill all available hours and that it will keep you awake at night. On such occasions working out the balance of where the plusses and minuses work out may take a while. I do feel a gut reaction one way or the other is often the right thing to follow, although others will no doubt produce careful lists of pros and cons (think Charles Darwin trying to decide whether to get married here). Whatever, if you say yes (or no) and wake up the next morning feeling convinced you got it wrong – tell them. Changing your mind, as long as it’s fast enough for nothing to have been cast in stone, is better than enduring something in the long term that you realise only looked good on paper but actually will be a nightmare for you personally. I did this once with quite a key role, one that had all been resolved with my department in advance in terms of buy-out, but still within 24 hours I knew that the way the negotiation had been carried out meant there was little likelihood of a happy working relationship transpiring. I never regretted walking away, nor did I detect a loss of respect because I had done so.
But the other situation I want to raise is rather different. I posted a tweet this weekend to a very thoughtful post, by a man, about manels (a male-only panel) and what they indicate about the working environment for men and women. Be you, dear reader, male or female, please read this article because it neatly illustrates how something that can look trivial can form part of a culture that is actively damaging for everyone. If you are a man and think agreeing to sit on a panel that is all male is OK then I’d urge you to consider what message that gives to the audience about the power balance and structure of research in the topic area under discussion. There may be times when it is indeed appropriate for all kinds of reasons, but it is worth considering before you participate in such a panel.
However, it isn’t always clear cut. When agreeing to serve on a panel, in my experience you usually get asked without being told who else is involved – after all, everyone may be being asked simultaneously. It may seem ‘difficult’ to say you’ll agree if there is appropriate gender balance, but perhaps we all should. Until this week I would have said that such a question would be redundant in my case since I’m always the minority gender, but now I realise I’m wrong. I was sitting on a panel which was, in essence, all women. It was a bit more complicated than that as it was a single session in which different people were on stage at different times and a couple of school children were also involved one of whom was male. Nevertheless, the key ‘advertised’ speakers were all women. Did this matter? We were, after all, specifically reflecting on the world 100 years after (some) UK women got the vote, but I do wonder if it was healthy. Perhaps I should have pushed back at the outset, but it simply didn’t cross my mind. The original plan had been to have a male chair (although he had to drop out); does that make it better or worse? I feel in principle single sex panels should simply always be avoided. I’d be interested to know readers’ views about such a ‘womanel’, to coin a phrase. What do you think?