Something about this piece rubbed me the wrong way. While it acknowledged the very gendered perils that women in the academy face when they aren’t nice enough to their colleagues, the rather simplistic advice about a “charm offensive” didn’t sit well with me. The suggestion that the person in question just needs to be more social and charming is offered too blithely and with no attention to the possible consequences and underlying issues. The formerly withdrawn colleague who suddenly becomes outgoing and cordial risks being perceived as insincere or opportunistic. Further, simply instructing a woman to be nicer and more solicitous of her colleagues doesn’t address the deeper dilemma about perceptions of female behavior in the academic workplace. If, as the author argues, what she is proposing is a strategy for the time until “the patriarchy is overthrown,” shouldn’t we be working on overthrowing it while we address the problems of how the sociability of female academics is perceived?
Sadly, I am not going to figure out how to overthrow the patriarchy in this brief blog post. I am, however, going to suggest one strategy for helping this withdrawn colleague whose chances for advancement are being hurt by a perception that she is cold and unlikeable. The strategy is this: the individual posing the question on behalf of the withdrawn colleague needs to become her mentor. I realize that she probably thinks she is by posing the question and thereby implicitly (but unbeknownst to her colleague) helping. But, I would argue, she could accomplish much more by actively mentoring this individual. In the early days of my career, I’m not sure I was attentive to how colleagues perceived my behavior. I was too busy prepping lectures and trying to publish so I could get tenure. In addition, I don’t think I really thought about academe as a workplace in my first months at my university. Part of why we all got into this game is because we didn’t want a regular office job. So I’m not sure that I was attentive to workplace interactions and how my new colleagues might have been reading my actions and interactions with them.
Thus, a mentor would have been useful at this early stage. Even if I was doing everything “right,” it would have helped to have this landscape explained to me. A mentor is also someone who can help smooth those social waters and interactions. Rather than the entire burden being placed on me to make coffee dates and draw my colleagues out, a mentor could create opportunities to interact with colleagues: “Hey, Liz, I’m having lunch with Senior Colleague X, why don’t you join us?” A mentor could propose work on a particular project that would provide the opportunity for me to showcase my talents and insights. You get the idea. Finally, a mentor is an ally. If you are senior and in critical committee meetings where a junior colleague is being evaluated and confront either implicit or explicit comments that her behavior isn’t nice or sociable enough, you have an obligation to push back against this. You need to do more than shake your head ruefully, and wonder whether you should later counsel her to launch a charm offensive.
Will this take time? Yes. Is this hard work? Possibly. Is it fair that we need to do this? No. But do those of us who are senior—especially women who have risen to senior ranks as faculty and administrators—have a responsibility to do this work? Absolutely.