The following is a speech I will deliver later this week. Names have been changed or removed to protect the innocent (with the potential added bonus of confusing the guilty).
I am going to preach to the choir today about the importance of networking and partnering with other women in higher education, and I mean all women -- no matter if our work is as a faculty member or an administrator, a researcher or a policy wonk.
I rarely actually prepare a speech, preferring instead to speak off the cuff more often than not.
But those speeches are generally about data, or persuading an audience to take a public policy stand on a particular issue. This – what we are talking about today – is much more personal, almost sacred. These lessons are so important to me, and so important for you, I think, that I actually wrote this particular presentation out…
I hope as you listen that you will think about your own experiences as I share mine -- think how your experiences have helped you grow and become leaders in higher education, and how you can continue to grow and share what you know with women who work with you
or for you,
or with women you teach
or women with whom you collaborate...
or even the ones you haven’t met yet.
Twenty years ago this very month, I learned my first hard-learned lesson as an adult female in a higher education setting. An undergraduate in an honors program chemistry class, I was also six month’s pregnant with my daughter, Bird.
I was the only female student in this class of twelve. The professor was an older man who wore government-issued black-rimmed glasses; he was almost an archetype.
By this time, of course, we were almost at midterms and I noticed that the desks were getting smaller every day – it was just Bird, of course, growing by leaps and bounds within me.
As the desks grew smaller, one day I decided to begin sitting sideways in class, and would cock my desk off to the side, so I could still face forward in class.
After a week went by, with me sitting sideways, the professor asked to see me after class. I followed him to his office, young and guileless. He shut the door and asked me to sit down.
And then he peered at me through the thick lenses of his black glasses and said: “There is no room in my class for a pregnant woman.”
He went on to suggest that more appropriate behavior for a young lady such as myself would be to stay at home and take good care of the child growing inside me. It was clear, as he continued lecturing me, that he was asking me to drop his class, or he would drop me himself.
My heart broke that day.
I wasn’t the wiser, older and more experienced me that I am today, or I would have fought him and his antiquated, mean-spirited and discriminatory behavior. Instead I dropped the class, just as he wanted me to do.
Thank goodness, he didn’t sour me on college altogether…I had a wonderful undergraduate advisor who never let that happen.
Having had delightful and supportive teachers my entire life, starting with the nuns who taught me in early elementary school, this professor’s assertion that I was not adequately fulfilling HIS idea of my “appropriate” gender role was a shock.
It was the first time I’d encountered someone who talked to me that way, and the unfortunate thing was, my first encounter like that was actually on a college campus. The campus was supposed to be the place where we were all created and treated equally -- or so my naive young self believed. Today, I look back on this chemistry professor’s behavior as a learning experience.
Since that learning experience, though, I have had many occasions in which I’ve learned the precious value of having supportive female colleagues in higher education.
Truly, this business of higher education remains a business dominated by white males.
In fact, I just returned from a conference sponsored by the American Council on Education in which there were several sessions on how to make it in this field as a woman of color.
How sad, I thought, that even today, we still have to have sessions like this.
But we do.
Still, all around us are dynamite, smart, assertive women, bent on punching through the glass ceiling in academe, making strides year after year, in eliminating that ceiling altogether.
Incredible women have come before us, making the first cracks in the ceiling, opening the way for the rest of us.
It remains our collective job to make the openings in that ceiling larger, easier to navigate, and to continue to fight for equity in remuneration and in other areas of our work. But we can only do so by being supportive of one another and working together.
Think back for a minute to our days on the playground...
Girls played with girls, boys played with boys. We formed little clubs, we girls did, clubs that were exclusively for girls only.
Mostly, of course, we talked about boys in these clubs, giggling and just acting silly more often than not. In the winter, my little club of girls would gather and use our winter coats, all together, to create a warm little tent in which to have our special club meetings at recess.
I can even remember that we discussed politics – and one girl asserting that her parents were going to vote for Nixon because McGovern was going to make kids go to school on Saturdays. Shocked, we all believed her, and among our little cadre, “McGovern” became a bad word.
Politically astute, we weren’t -- not in third grade, anyway.
These playground clubs, the separation of boys and girls in play, was actually a natural progression for most of us. When I taught courses in psychology, I found that many of my students – male and female alike – would express surprise during my lectures on how families begin teaching gender roles to their children from the day their children are born. Though they expressed surprise, the students had to admit that they had all – all engaged in the very behaviors I articulated -- behaviors that promoted different gender roles for boys and for girls.
We can’t help ourselves…girl babies and toddlers are given gifts that represent female gender roles -- often associated with housekeeping. And those of us who got those toys as little girls, well -- we loved those toys, and our daughters loved them, and our grand daughters probably will, too.
No toy was quite so sexy for us to play with than the pretend iron and ironing board, or the plastic toy kitchen with the plastic food. The Easy Bake oven. The Fisher Price vacuum cleaner with colored balls representing dirt.
All toys that taught us to identify with our mothers – and we WANTED to identify with our mothers, so we loved these toys.
Girl babies are even held more gingerly than boy babies by adults and are taught to engage in passive play.
Boy babies, however, are tossed up in the air, given cars and loud toys, bounced around on knees harder than girl babies are and are taught early on to play more aggressive games.
Even today, with more androgynous toys available, we still buy boys the official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifles and big cars or trucks, while we buy girls dolls and housekeeping-type toys, on average.
Now, of course, I was quite “allergic” to dresses, preferring blue and white-striped denim coveralls.
And I always wanted a toy toolbox for Christmas – a toolbox like my Daddy had -- the one with the REAL saw in it that would cut stuff – but the best I ever got was a toolbox with a rubber saw.
What good is that, I ask you…a rubber saw???
Ah, but the other present I always wanted but never got was really very girly – the red and white gingham-checked cowgirl outfit with the white naugahyde boots with fringe down the sides -- complete with the red felt had that tied under your chin – as pictured on the well-worn page in the Sears Christmas catalogue.
Hey, I was a balanced kid. Not unlike my love today for both Beethoven and NASCAR, for poetry and literate fiction versus my tattered copies of Calvin and Hobbes.
Balance – keep that in mind.
One reason we buy these different toys and treat boy and girl babies differently is because girls are, indeed, different from boys. We’re different, and naturally, we have different experiences growing up -- but all that really means is that we bring different sets of experiences to our COMMON work in higher education.
My favorite author and poet, Canadian Margaret Atwood, characterized this “being a girl” kind difference many times over in her novel “Cat’s Eye.”
Her protagonist, Elaine, is encountering the culture of girls for the first time…Elaine, just starting elementary school, had spent her early years sheltered with her family in the wilds of Canada, with only her older brother to play with, because her father was a field scientist.
Upon going to a formal school for the first time, Elaine says,
“I begin to want things I’ve never wanted before: braids, a dressing gown, a purse of my own. Something is unfolding, being revealed to me. I see that there’s a whole world of girls and their doings that has been unknown to me, and that I can be a part of it without making any effort at all. I don’t have to keep up with anyone, run as fast, aim as well, make loud explosive noises, decode messages, die on cue. I don’t have to think about whether I’ve done these things well, as well as a boy…this is a relief.”
Through the child Elaine, Atwood does a great job of characterizing the special relationship that girls have with each other. And if we take that sense of relief, that sense of belonging into our adult lives, in a career still dominated by “boys,” what we’re really talking about is a special collegiality that exists among women – a set of relationships that and comes easy to us…especially in higher education.
I learned first hand about this special collegiality among women in higher education when I was in graduate school.
One of a few single mothers in my very traditional Ph.D. program, we helped each other. We watched each others’ children so we could do our research. Most of us barely eking out an existence on our teaching assistantships, when one of us had food, we shared with the others.
But it was from the female faculty that I learned how precious the relationship among women in higher education is. My male major professor and I “divorced” each other just as my final year in graduate school began – oh, and it was an ugly divorce, too, just full of those irreconcilable differences.
As we “divorced,” he took “custody” of all the data I had collected over the summer before my final year in grad school.
So there I was, in September of the academic year, finding myself back at the drawing board, and so unfairly placed there.
Instead of feeling great because I was three-months ahead of schedule for completing my dissertation research and work, I was facing having to:
re-form my entire dissertation committee,
lose all of my data and begin collecting it again,
and potentially having to spend an additional year in graduate school.
My EX – my ex-advisor, that is -- was the only faculty member at the entire university with the same scientific expertise as mine, so I didn’t even know the first place I would start – how on earth would I be able to begin again? I began to feel lost.
And then, my phone began to ring...
A good girlfriend who had done the same kind of research that I was doing called to say that she was going to take all of her vacation time from her job in the private sector and travel to stay with me and help collect data.
All she wanted in return was my good cooking and a place to sleep at night. She believed in me and in the research. Having her expertise beside me was a godsend.
A female faculty member in a completely different department on campus called to say that her very well-stocked laboratory was mine for the taking. All of her equipment, her chemicals, her safety equipment, everything….she gave to me, along with a key to her lab. No strings attached.
And do you know…this wonderful, kind, female faculty member was not granted tenure? No, she was told that her research focused too much on helping Indian children advance in their educational pursuits and not enough on pure, published research.
Two other female faculty members in my own department called me in to see them. They declared their desire to serve on my dissertation committee, even though they did not have any expertise in my research area. I had never even had these women as teachers for any classes, so different was our work from each other’s. But they were there for me.
Don’t get me wrong, these women didn’t go easy on me. No, these were tough faculty members, they knew well what good research design looked like, they were expert statisticians, and they did me the honor of trusting my own knowledge in my field.
And if that wasn’t enough…
Another female faculty member in a completely different state who was familiar with my work mailed me a check to purchase anything I needed in order to complete my research. I am not sure to this day how she heard about my “divorce.”
Truly, I was humbled, moved, and honored by the support, kindness, collegiality, and caring that these women showed to me. On their shoulders, and with their help, I was able to begin my data collection again,
complete the research,
defend my dissertation,
and complete my Ph.D. on time.
I think of all of them often and have, since then, worked very hard to emulate their heart-felt support and collegiality among other women I’ve met through the years.
A week after defending, I went to work at [PLACE THAT I WORK]. Early on, it was my research and statistical expertise that got put to work. Gradually, though, I’ve held many positions and claimed many different titles…and have had the chance to meet some of the brightest women in the United States and call them my friends and my colleagues.
With all of my colleagues who work in the public policy arena, it is an unspoken thing, this quiet knowledge that we work well together because we ARE women, we are friends, colleagues, partners in crime. We help each other -- a lot.
We help each other be successful at what we do. The additive nature of our work and life experiences come together often to create real change in higher education law and policy – not just in [my home state], but in working on federal legislation, or helping each other with student-focused legislation in each others’ states.
Oddly enough, with everything I have said before now, I didn’t learn the tangible lessons about the importance of networking from a woman. I learned them at the feet of our dear [esteemed former boss, aka, Dr. X].
Dr. X showed me that it was important to be AT the table or IN the heart of public policy actions. Dr. X and I were alike in many ways – we came into higher education as “outsiders.”
He came from the position of immigrant to the U.S. – I came from the wrong side of town.
We both lived hard lives and had the shared experiences of sometimes not knowing where your next meal was coming from. I know, as he knew, that these experiences always keep us grounded – so grounded that neither of us forget where we came from.
I always, always, keep it real, much to the chagrin of people who are quite attached to their jargon, or the chagrin of beltway insiders who have never seen a real school or a real college campus, or who know not what it means to live in rural America.
Dr. X was right, so remember this, if nothing else:
If you are AT the table, you will have a say-so in decisions that are made. The same holds true for research, for innovative teaching, for administrating programs or departments.
Being AT the table requires time, effort, blood, sweat and tears. But the efforts are made much easier when you are seated at the table with women (and men, too) with whom you’ve developed a healthy working relationship. When you know that the skills that each of you bring to the table complement each other – when you know that what you will accomplish together is much greater than what you can accomplish on your own.
This is why, oddly enough, most of the women I consider my “best” friends and colleagues don’t live near me – they live in Washington, D.C., in Austin, Texas, in North Carolina and California, in Iowa and in Colorado. In Chicago or South Carolina.
Together, the cadre of women who work together regularly have accomplished a great deal.
You don’t read our names in the papers every day, but that’s fine. The collective light of this cadre of women is so bright; it is best hid under a bushel, out of the limelight. It is less threatening to others that way – and unfortunately, that is still how many women have to work (even when working together) to create positive change, even in the highest levels of government.
There are so many similar opportunities for you to work together and do great things – and many of you do so already, so you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Others here may be searching for ways to build partnerships, to learn networking skills, to conduct research together, or to share teaching strategies.
I want to tell you about one opportunity to do that very thing that we bring to you through [my work place]. We are providing grantsmanship expertise through mentorships, through grant searches and information services, through grant partnership opportunities. We can and will match you with other researchers who can mentor you, if you are a novice grant writer.
Or, we can match you with other researchers in [home state] whose work might complement your own. And we will help you work toward raising external funding to put forth your great idea, your great research question, or your great program.
All we ask is that you take us up on the offer to help.
I was very fortunate in graduate school to have had a course on grant writing – yes, a very practical course, created by a fabulously bright female entomology professor.
So many of us go through graduate school without having had anyone to really teach us the “ropes” of what skills we need to hone in order to be an entry-level faculty member.
But I had a semester-long course through which we took our dissertations and turned them into grant proposals – for NSF, NIH, the Department of Agriculture, you name it. We created mock panels; we each served as grant panel chairs. And we all exited that course with some very important skills – the ability to write grants, to turn a good idea in to a fundable proposal. Very critical skills for surviving in academe, for gaining tenure and/or promotion.
This kind of help is available to you through my shop at the [place I work]. Together with [important quasi-federal research program], we are committed to helping ALL institutions raise more external funding – regional and community colleges especially. And I have helping me with this effort an incredibly talented right-hand, Dr. Cool Chick.
While our support isn’t, of course, limited to women, we love helping women get together to help each other be successful. I hope you will call on me or on Dr. Cool Chick to help. That’s our job, but more than that, we love doing it.
Much has been made in recent years in the public policy literature about the “feminization of higher education.” The overarching concern in all of these articles is the proportionally higher rate of college attendance by women. Policy leaders are positing ways to reach out to males, to get more males into college.
There really ARE very serious policy researchers who have worked themselves all up over this statistical shift.
But, ya know -- every time I read these articles, I think how interesting it is to be calling this particular policy issue a “problem.”
Not so long ago, women were fairly limited to teaching or nursing as a career. Or, women could dabble in the liberal arts.
But women weren’t seen much, then, in the halls of academe. Today, we are in the halls, lining the halls, and in some cases, even building the halls. Not a public policy problem, this is just another step in a public policy victory…
Ours really is a brave new world, but we will still hear people question us about our priorities.
On one side will be those old-school types who ask if we put our work before our children.
On the other side will be the strict academic or administrative constructionists who ask if we put our children before our work.
We all know perfectly well that we can do both – we can love our children and love our work and excel at both – especially when we’re getting by with a little help from our girlfriends.
Finally, this summer I had the chance to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. In the first part of the museum is a series of the gorgeous photography of O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Steiglitz. We see O’ Keeffe’s hands, her long, thoughty face, her jaunty hat. The photographs alone are enough to bring you to your knees, Steiglitz’ work is so compelling.
And then…you round the corner to the second gallery – the first gallery, though, with Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings on the walls.
When I found myself in front of one of her amazing calla lilies, I was surprised to find tears rolling down my cheeks…and as I stood before her poppies, more tears. I couldn’t stop the tears, hard though I tried – they were involuntary, in every sense of the word.
Even O’Keeffe’s cityscapes of New York moved me. I couldn’t figure out what it was about her work that day – so much of it I had encountered before in books or galleries with similar pieces – what was itthat was pulling this unwated eotion out of me?
It really was puzzling, ‘cause I just don’t cry – well, I don’t cry much, anyway.
(And that is another very important lesson, one that I don’t have a lot of time left to go into, but never, EVER, EVER, cry in front of men at work. Enough said, you know exactly what I mean).
Still with the question of my tears unanswered, I later bought a book of poetry in Santa Fe – poetry written by a woman named C.S. Merrill, who served as Georgia O’Keeffe’s companion during Ms. O’Keeffe’s later years in New Mexico.
Through this book, I fully, finally understood Ms. O’Keeffe's empathy with less-than-well-behaved women. I understood that she was a maverick in thumbing her nose at the art establishment, and that, as a pioneering female painter in the modern art world, she’d been through a lot…and had taken it in stride...
And this understanding, I think, is what made me weep.
I saw ME in her calla lilies. ME in her poppies.
A word person, it was odd that I experienced this incredibly meaningful sensation through a painting, a wordless art form. And I believe that my tears happened involuntarily that day because there WERE no words adequate to that very deep, almost primal, understanding.
And even though I’ve said a lot of words here today, when it comes to women, there really are no adequate words to describe what it means to be one of us, and especially no words to express the synergistic dynamism of "us working together."
However, Merril’s Poem Number 27, penned in 1974, made me smile about Georgia O’Keeffe’s saucy strategies for handling her life as a female pioneer:
Last Saturday at lunch
O’Keefe said she read
Good many articles about women
Accomplishing much in sports
Going faster and longer.
She thought it was a mistake
For women to tip their hand,
“We can act weak and sick
and female – all the while
we are very strong.”
Pretty smart, Ms. O’Keeffe was, for her time. For any time, really…
In our time, we must be skilled at both strategies – knowing when to keep our strength to ourselves and knowing when to wear it on our sleeves.
Even more important, though, we must know when to link our strengths and skills with the strength and expertise of our female friends and colleagues.
And then, do something AMAZING together.