An alternate view on “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings”

Last week, RSA blogger syntaxfactory reposted a list from academic advice blog The Professor Is In, entitled ”The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings.” The five gaffes listed are typical communication “problems” that are frequently trotted out in an effort to assist women in getting ahead in masculine workplace environments.   For example, in 2011 CNN posted a list on ways women can get ahead, and rounding out the list was “number 8. The way you look and talk matters.” While I appreciate the attention to talking about ways women can succeed I object to the idea that the only way that can happen is to “masculinize” themselves, which only serves to support and preserve a system in which difference is punished, undermines new ways of thinking and communicating, and ignores how systems of power and dominance are perpetuated through “advice.” In addition, in begins with the assumption that a “feminine” style of speaking can only undermine female academics. What Karen Kelsky, the professor behind The Professor Is In, ignores however, is the productive ways this communication style contributes to the production and dissemination of knowledge both in the academy and in our classrooms. So I would like to take this opportunity to present my own list:


The Top 5 Ways Women’s Communication Patterns Are Better Than Men’s

1) According to Kelsky women have the habit have of ending sentences on a “a verbal upswing or ‘lilt’” that “communicates self-doubt and deference.” To be sure, ending every sentence on a question mark can be annoying, but it also can have the effect of inviting responses and opening a space for further discussion. In an academic setting this is particularly useful as we use presentational moments as a time to elicit feedback from our fellow professors in hopes of improving our argument. Delivering your research in a declarative tone, as the article tells us to do, closes that space of exploration by presenting yourself as the final word on a topic, and can turn a conversation into a confrontation.


2) Kelsky writes that women tend to “wait their turn to interject their contributions” rather than “diving in assertively.” In essence, we undermine our authority by raising our hands. Not only is this advice ridiculous for disciplining women for being polite and undermine the rules we’ve been teaching our students since kindergarten, it cedes discussion to the loudest voice in the room and discourages respectful dialogue. We’ve all had that encounter with a student or a colleague (or relatives and friends!) who think their opinion is so important they need to interrupt in order to “interject their contributions” and I think I can say with some confidence this rarely leads to productive discussion, and in fact shuts it down. And all it takes is one know-it-all student “diving in assertively” to silence a classroom.


3) When women do finally get called on, we apparently undermine our points by beginning with what we don’t know, for example, “I’m not sure if this is always the case,” or “I’m not an expert, but I think…” etc. While Kelsky doesn’t go into any detail on why this undermines our authority, I argue that it leaves open a space for others to participate and contribute their own expertise. Rather than using definitive statements that ignore the width and breadth of knowledge on any given subject, this communicative habit acknowledges the complicated nature of a topic and that they don’t have all the answers, and instead calls for a dialogue among scholars that encourages multiple views and voices within a conversation.


4) Perhaps the most baffling of the ways women undermine their authority is through their body language—“smiling too much, laughing too often” and “taking up too little space.” I’m unclear how expressing your enjoyment in your work and your colleagues undermine authority, but more importantly, I find great irony in the charge that women take up too little space—as though taking up more in a fat-shaming society will gain women more respect and authority. I’m also curious as to how I might take up more room—spread my legs when sitting? Square my shoulders? Swing my arms as I take long strides? I suggest checking out this excellent tumblr for advice.


5) I come now to the last item on my list in which Kelsky advises women to stop expressing themselves in “a disorganized and emotional manner that muddies their main point and obscures their actual achievements.” While there is merit it asking people to be clear and organized in a comment, I both object to the idea that emotion must be absent from our comments and from our work and the idea that crediting others work obscures our own achievements. Her example is as follows “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx, which, you know, a lot of folks haven’t really done, even though of course Nelson has done some important work on xxx, but still in my own work I try and extend that…” But let’s do an alternative reading, shall we? First the speaker introduces the topic, i.e. “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx.” While Kelsky apparently thinks female academics are as eloquent as our 18-year-old students, this is a decent topic sentence for an off-the-cuff comment. Next, the example comment touches on the importance of the topic (not much work has been done on it) while still acknowledging her colleague who has presumably done some tangential work on the subject and could serve as another voice in the conversation (Nelson has done some important work on xxx). Lastly, the speaker moves on to her own research (still in my own work I try and extend that), giving a verbal nod to the fact that her work was not done in a vacuum but in fact is part of an on-going conversation. Think about your work—if someone else was using your work as a jumping off point wouldn’t you want some credit for all the blood, toil, tears, and sweat that have gone into your scholarship? In the end, this is an example of a fairly clear cut comment that situates itself in on-going conversations, and is not, I would like to point out, “emotional,” though Kelsky listed this as a particular problem women have in her topic sentence—it seems merely being a women speaking is just too “emotional” for academics.


Kelsky ends her post arguing that the result of these patterns are that women students and faculty suffer both academically and professionally, accruing “less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.” Ignoring the specious cause-and-effect argument being made here, I would argue that the disciplining of women who communicate like this has led to an atmosphere of competitiveness, selfishness, and a lack of dialogue between colleagues and departments, which does nothing but stifle creativity and collaboration. Instead of scolding and punishing women who talk this way how about we turn the spotlight around and write articles telling men how their communication habits hurt the academy.

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One Response to An alternate view on “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings”

  1. Joy

    Thanks for this excellent analysis. I have often thought that, while “speaking like a female” may sometimes be the less successful option, there are many times when it is exactly the right vernacular: when working in customer service, when attempting to get my students to express their thoughts, when working with a team of colleagues to brainstorm or achieve a goal. Rather than telling me to stop talking in ways associated with female society, I’d much rather someone analyze when and how communication strategies are actually of help (as you have begun to do). That would help me better use different communication strategies based on situations and purposes. Sometimes it is helpful to taken the advice of that blogger you mentioned; for instance, I have needed to learn how to express myself decisively when that is what I actually want to do. But using delivery and language appropriately is just as powerful as delivering in a powerful style.

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