Nice Girls Finish Last

“When I first got to Brown, there was no model for me,” [Brown University Associate Professor Tara] Nummedal said, but she is determined to make a difference, which has at times led to uncomfortable conversations with colleagues.

Yesterday’s Atlantic article outlining how gender discrimination works in academia has already made the rounds – it’s the “most emailed” article of the day. Why? My guess is not because a higher proportion of academics read the Atlantic, though that may well be true. It’s because the difficulties outlined in that article are faced by women across professional fields.

Women are still expected to subvert their own careers for the sake of their families, even if – as was the case for my working-class parents – a wife out-earns her husband. We are fairly ingenious at adapting to difficult circumstances, which I think leads to the perception that we are “okay with” these compromises. In fact, we’re simply used to making sacrifices.

We are also team players, believing, often naively, that this will be recognized when promotion time comes. Nummendal blames at least some of women’s slower advancement on their inability to say no when the community “needs” them – for example, needing them to serve on committees so that departments can show off their diversity, even if the committee itself is not representative of overall hiring.

I love working on teams, and I gain a lot of professional satisfaction from being part of a community. Problems arise when that obligation to community, rather than boosting our prospects, condemns us to thankless work. I have seen plenty of people – including other women – prey on women’s sense of duty to get them to take on less rewarding work. Their willingness to “take one for the team” over and over frees up the higher-profile work for others. In fact, were it not for the helpful intervention of a woman mentor, my first job would have been well beneath my abilities. That would have stuck with me throughout my career. She encouraged me to fight for a better position, and I was surprised but thrilled when I got it.

No wonder successful women leaders admonish us to demand more. But it’s harder than it looks. Our positions are often precarious to begin with: Untenured, unprotected by the old boys’ network, afraid of being perceived as bitchy, we feel intense pressure to say yes to things we’d rather not – perhaps not so much out of the mistaken hope that we’ll be rewarded for it as the fear that we will be punished for saying no.

That’s why women have to play as a team. I applaud the women in this article for having the guts to speak up, even though some of their colleagues – including females – will no doubt brand them as whiners. I know there will always be women who try to get ahead by slamming other women. But I would remind them that someday, they, too, will need to say no. And a collective no has a lot more power.

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