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As with many academics, my current career goal is to be promoted to Professor (“full professor” in USA). This usually brings with it increased managerial responsibility and it is not unexpected that I would rotate to being head of the research group or Dean of the School. This promotion process is done on merit and the fact that I am a woman is not allowed to have any explicit bearing (although clearly it does in other ways, e.g. small children limit your ability to accept the international speaking engagements needed for promotion – but that is a different story!!).

I had lunch yesterday with someone who is currently a female professor within our faculty (i.e. a university administrative unit) and head of her research group. She described how incredibly difficult it was to operate efficiently in an environment where she was required to implement the faculty and university dictates and policies, yet had no real power. In addition, at faculty and university levels of management, she feels that only those who manipulate, stab in the back and 'play the political game' are given any power and the only women who gain such power are those that are worse (or better, depending on your perspective) than the men. This confession greatly surprised me, as she has never come across as a ‘weak’ person. Indeed, we were having lunch to discuss her being my mentor (which she declined). However, she isn’t the first to tell me about this aspect of life at the top.

Having just written that, I reread the first paragraph and thought ‘am I mad?!’ However, within this university when you move up the food chain, this is what you will encounter and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon. I would rather equip myself with the necessary political skills now, rather than sink later. Clearly, this isn’t just a problem for women, but in a very male dominated faculty it just makes the problem that much worse. And, unlike my behaviour or knowledge, it isn’t something I am likely to change anytime soon!

Does anyone have any advice as to how to operate within such an environment in such a way that you can sleep at night? Are there any books out there that you would recommend? Or other resources?

Mary

rthibode's picture

Hi Mary,

I'm sorry to hear your mentor pitch didn't work out. You must be pretty disappointed.

I've worked in a university for 10 years as a "non-academic" supervisor (my work is in a grey area that includes staff development, widening participation initiatives, etc). From what I've seen, the need to play politics is very real and applies to academic men as well.

As I'm sure you know, the single most important thing for most academics these days is publication (and obtaining the necessary research funding). If you are junior faculty, you may find the work of Robert Boice helpful. His "Advice for new faculty members" is based on his research comparing junior faculty who did and did not make a successful start. In particular, he discusses the teaching and research strategies used by a group of "quick starters."

I also think analysing the differences between typical male and female communication styles can be very helpful. I would recommend the book Talking 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen. It is a popularisation of her academic work. It is not a how-to book but does a very nice job of describing workplace communication and how differences between (most) men's and (most) women's styles can can play out for women in positions of power.

Chapter titles:

Women and men talking on the job
"I'm sorry, I'm not apologizing." Conversational rituals
"Why don't you say what you mean?" Indirectness at work
Marked: Women in the workplace
The Glass Ceiling
"She's the boss." Women and authority
Talking up close: Status and connection
What's sex got to do with it?
Who gets heard: Talking at meetings

I hope you'll keep us informed about your experience. There aren't many academics in this group as far as I can tell.

tcomeau's picture

The environment at my Institute is very much like a university astronomy or physics department, only worse. We have a science staff of about 55 to 60, only two of which are currently women. About 35 of the science staff have tenure, and about 20 have an academic rank equivalent to full Professor. Instead of having undergraduate students that must be educated, the other 400-odd of us support the "fifty seven people that matter" and two major observatories (the Hubble Space Telescope and the planned James Webb Space Telescope), plus a bunch of smaller initiatives.

Our Director, Matt Mountain, is originally from the UK, and has worked in Chile and Hawaii. He told us in one of his early meetings that, for dealing with US academics, the most useful thing he has ever read is "The Prince."

"The Prince" is available from [url=http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1232]Project Gutenberg[/url] and from the really cool [url=http://www.dailylit.com/books/prince] Daily Lit[/url] service, which sends you a chapter a day.

Matt's view is that University departments are little princedoms, and if you apply Machiavellian principles, you can best understand how the University system works. Tenure is, to a large extent, something like being ennobled.

How you apply that knowledge depends in some part on how you resolve the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared.

I have my own problems with dealing with this environment. I'll have to try using the forums for advice myself.

tc>

mptully's picture

[quote="rthibode"]
I'm sorry to hear your mentor pitch didn't work out. You must be pretty disappointed.
R.[/quote]

Thanks. It wasnt too bad - she had some very good reasons why she couldnt commit to it at the moment. I have another mentor (male in another school in the same faculty) who has been helping me with standard career progression stuff, political awareness etc. I had approached this potential mentor because of her evident experience of being a [i]woman [/i]in that milieu, which would have helped me enormously. I will continue to look for another woman, but they arent many and some of them dont fall into the category of 'people I admire'!

As you say, its publish or perish! Thankfully, things are going well on that front - I was promoted to equivalent of associate professor last year, have tenure and my mentor reckons I would be appointable as full professor within 5 years. Hence the reason for thinking strategically about what I need to learn (can you tell I had my performance review last week?!) for when that happens.

Thanks for the recommendation of the book - I will certainly look it up. I totally agree that being aware of those differences is necessary. I wonder if they map onto the DISC differences in any interesting ways!

Mary

mptully's picture

[quote="tcomeau"]
Our Director, Matt Mountain, is originally from the UK, and has worked in Chile and Hawaii. He told us in one of his early meetings that, for dealing with US academics, the most useful thing he has ever read is "The Prince."

"The Prince" is available from [url=http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1232]Project Gutenberg[/url] and from the really cool [url=http://www.dailylit.com/books/prince] Daily Lit[/url] service, which sends you a chapter a day.

Matt's view is that University departments are little princedoms, and if you apply Machiavellian principles, you can best understand how the University system works. Tenure is, to a large extent, something like being ennobled.

tc>[/quote]

Thanks for that thought - it is really facinating! It reminded me of a quote from Robert Hutchins that a university was a “collection of independent entrepreneurs connected by a common heating system”! I guess that realising things like that about the way that the system works, helps enormously in identifying your place within in it and where to apply leverage.

I will certainly read "The Prince" - Now that you mention it, I think that they must have bought a job lot here and passed them around the senior management!

Tenure is a lot easier to get in the UK - I certainly dont feel like I am ennobled!

Mary

Mark's picture

"The reason the fights in academia are so vicious is because the stakes are so small." That's my favorite quote on academia.

I think Mike and I have established over the last 2 years that we are not chauvinistic in any way, despite common stereotypes of former military officers (and in the combat arms no less).

That said, this isn't a gender problem.

I've worked in MANY universities, and I find the politics to be cloying and vicious and ugly and unethical. In my opinion, it is much worse than in large for profit corporations. There are lots of reasons (including ego and skill and narrow intellect and rewards systems (see quote above)), none germane here.

I'll tell you how to sleep at night, though, like a baby. Every night. And be able to look your kids in the eyes, the one who keep you from those international speaking events that seem so dear, so that when they are older they will come to you and say those sweet words: "you were always my hero."

[b]Do the right thing.[/b] Be an ethical, honest, caring, open, direct, intelligent leader and manager. Say no to those efforts that require you to put personal gain (yours or someone else's ) over the mission.

[b]Do the right thing.[/b] Don't accept half truths when the whole can be won. Choose the harder right. LOSE a promotion because the path to it smells bad.

[b]Do the right thing.[/b] Do not be shortsighted - no one who says, "I can't afford charity today, but when I'm rich, why, I'll give it all away." Life isn't like that. Those that back-stab and connive and cajole their way to the top are FOREVER stuck with that mantle. FOREVER. Those that are kind and ethical - yes, maybe you have to be a little smarter and work the system a little harder - will always be seen that way.

Reach for the stars (ethically). You may not get one, but you won't end up with a handful of mud, either. (Apologies to Leo Burnett).

Mark

mptully's picture

[quote="mahorstman"]"The reason the fights in academia are so vicious is because the stakes are so small." That's my favorite quote on academia.[/quote]

I love that! It is so true.

[quote="mahorstman"]I think Mike and I have established over the last 2 years that we are not chauvinistic in any way, despite common stereotypes of former military officers (and in the combat arms no less).

That said, this isn't a gender problem. [/quote]

I hope that I didn’t give the impression that I thought you were chauvinistic. Because that certainly isn’t the case! I particularly love the way in your podcasts you just flip between male and female examples all time.

I guess why I feel that it is a gender problem is that within this university, and especially within this faculty, there are a lot of men in power and the few women who succeed are viewed (by men and women) as being more aggressive than the men. There is no quarter given for anything that is seen as being weak. We have had a series of leadership seminars this year, where one of the remits for the speakers was to give the aspiring leaders of the organisation an understanding of the problems that they had faced and how they had addressed them. What was fascinating was that the people speaking from our faculty, universally, presented ‘problems’ that were designed to show themselves in the best light possible – they were always someone else’s fault and they triumphed over adversity. The people from other faculties talked about a huge variety of problems, some of their own making, and what they had learned from the experience. The difference was striking.

[quote="mahorstman"]I've worked in MANY universities, and I find the politics to be cloying and vicious and ugly and unethical. In my opinion, it is much worse than in large for profit corporations. There are lots of reasons (including ego and skill and narrow intellect and rewards systems (see quote above)), none germane here.

I'll tell you how to sleep at night, though, like a baby. Every night. And be able to look your kids in the eyes, the one who keep you from those international speaking events that seem so dear, so that when they are older they will come to you and say those sweet words: "you were always my hero."

[b]Do the right thing.[/b] Be an ethical, honest, caring, open, direct, intelligent leader and manager. Say no to those efforts that require you to put personal gain (yours or someone else's ) over the mission.

[b]Do the right thing.[/b] Don't accept half truths when the whole can be won. Choose the harder right. LOSE a promotion because the path to it smells bad.

[b]Do the right thing.[/b] Do not be shortsighted - no one who says, "I can't afford charity today, but when I'm rich, why, I'll give it all away." Life isn't like that. Those that back-stab and connive and cajole their way to the top are FOREVER stuck with that mantle. FOREVER. Those that are kind and ethical - yes, maybe you have to be a little smarter and work the system a little harder - will always be seen that way.

Reach for the stars (ethically). You may not get one, but you won't end up with a handful of mud, either. (Apologies to Leo Burnett).

Mark[/quote]

Thank you very much for this advice. It is how I want to do my work and run my life. I particularly agree with your point about the back-stabbing ladder-climber. I sort of feel that doing it the ‘right’ albeit harder way will make the victory, if I do get it, all the more worthwhile.

I heard recently of a book ‘True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership’ – have you read it, and would it be a valuable place to start? After having read ‘The Prince’, so that I know what not to do!

Mary