I love the start of a new school year. Even after 20+ years in higher education, I thrill to the new-ness of it all. Fall temperatures, new students, and that “anything is possible” atmosphere all bring me great delight.
Thus, I was both surprised and disappointed when I found myself in the emergency room the night before the start of the semester, looking at the possibility of needing a surgery that week [spoiler: I’m fine; everything worked out; my health is good].
So I missed the first week of classes, had my surgery, and, as you’ve probably already anticipated, the world didn’t end.
But neither did my fretting, fear of falling behind, or general anxiety about missing so much work. So I went back to the office the following week. And lasted about four hours. And then later that week I put in a twelve-hour day. Which turned out to be a very bad idea. I spent the next three days recovering from that decision.
Reflecting on the experience of those two weeks, I have realized that I let my desire to be a superwoman outweigh common sense. “I’m tough,” I reasoned, “I can go back to work.” I wanted to be some sort of shining example of resilience and determination. This surgery couldn’t slow me down. I’m a superwoman!
While I do not think that women exclusively fall prey to the temptation to be superheroes in these situations, I want to address this post to women in the academy and point out why this behavior and the temptation towards superwoman-hood does us a disservice.*
Senior superwomen: I suspect that we build this tendency towards superwomanhood when we are junior or contingent faculty, trying to be the best and most dedicated colleagues possible. But what dismays me is that this behavior continues even later in our careers. I was out once for drinks with a group of female colleagues who all held administrative positions at my university. At one point the conversation devolved into a somewhat competitive round of who got to work earliest/stayed latest/put in the most extra hours. It is telling that even senior women who are tenured and secure engage in this behavior. We are still trying to prove ourselves in a culture that whether explicitly or implicitly has not fully welcomed us. Some places are better than others, but overall, women in the academy as reflected in service obligations, teaching evaluations, pay scale, or any host of other metrics still fight an uphill battle for acceptance. So whether consciously or unconsciously we continue to try to prove ourselves and our worth and our right to be here.
That said, I try not to play along with my colleagues. Whenever possible, I leave work at 5. I don’t check my work email after I get home. Weekends are for non-work activities. Now certainly there are exceptions to this. Big projects or the inconvenient overlap of multiple deadlines sometimes means I stay late or work on the weekends. Sometimes my role as dean comes with evening and weekend responsibilities. But generally speaking, making overwork and the dissolution of work-life boundaries a competitive sport is not productive.
Which brings me to my next point:
Modeling and normalizing: What message are we sending to our female colleagues when we try to be superwomen who prove their dedication and their talent through overwork? We’re certainly modeling a behavior that says that self-care doesn’t matter. We’re setting a presumed standard that values and perhaps even rewards overwork. We are perpetuating the cycle and a culture that asks women to rise to the standard of superwomen at a possible expense to their health and well-being.
As I repeatedly argue on this blog, those of us in a secure position of power have an obligation to do the work to gradually shift the culture of academe. So I would ask you: what example do you set for the women in your office or department? If you are an administrator what policies do you lobby for at your institution? Sometimes, for example, our jobs require us to work nights and weekends. But if we’re going to normalize the expectation for that kind of work, then we also need to normalize the concept of comp time [this idea came from one of my wise female administrator friends]. Work four hours on Saturday at a recruitment event? Fine. The duties of the job require it. But then when you take four hours on a Friday afternoon to have a life, you shouldn’t feel guilty or have to explain yourself to your provost. We need to stand up for and beside our female colleagues when they make choices like these.
Talk about it: Wherever and whenever possible, we need to highlight this issue. I posted on Twitter when I started working on this post and was surprised/not surprised at how many people responded, indicating that these issues resonated with them. Despite an enthusiastic response for addressing this issue, I have never had a conversation about this with anyone on my campus. That needs to change. Again, those of us in secure positions need to take some risks and bring this up with the senior administration at our universities. We need to forcefully and vocally advocate for female colleagues who we see trying to take care of themselves while still fulfilling their responsibilities. We need to intervene when we see someone falling prey to the Superwoman Syndrome. This last one, I think, is particularly tricky; we tend to praise, and even reward, superwomen, not caution them.
Our efforts to speak up and highlight this issue probably won’t go terribly smoothly. We will probably be accused of whining or shirking. And I am the first to acknowledge that institutional structures and cultures do not always support our ability to take care of ourselves and have fulfilling lives beyond our workdays. But until those of us who are senior and reasonably well-protected begin modeling better behavior and advocating for ourselves and our female colleagues nothing will change. We will be very unhappy superwomen.
*I want to be quick to say that I think this issue is undoubtedly relevant for scholars of color, contingent faculty, and others who find themselves feeling unwelcome in the academy and/or needing to prove themselves through overwork.