A Good Girl

In the last many weeks, I have spoken to several women working in higher ed about career development, advancement, and professional development. And over this weekend, I watched a Law & Order episode that, surprisingly, brought some things together. I won’t add more specifics here because of the confidential nature of those conversations. This post is a meditation on a swirling synthesis of things related to what might be called “good girl syndrome.”

The women I spoke with are all at professional crossroads or considering a next professional step ahead.  They are all afraid that asking for more in their careers will make them seem greedy, selfish, self-important, aggrandizing. I have long held the philosophy that we work in a business that won’t ever tell us we are good enough, so we had better start telling ourselves and others that we are, but that is not the way of many or most women in higher education or any work environment.  We are often told, as are many women, that if we wait long enough, if we wait our turns or allow others to take what should be our first turn, we will eventually be recognized, be acknowledged, be chosen.  These are dangerous things to accept.

This is not to say that I have not accepted them.  Most often, for me, such things have come in the guise of being a good deputy, which I have been for many, many years. But those discussions have not been gendered.  When I am asked to present a certain position publicly, I am being a good deputy.  When I am told to present it a certain way that seems more feminine or soft than a male colleague or superior, that is wrong–and it is asking me to be a good girl.  When I am asked to let a male colleague take public credit for my work because it will be easier (because he wants to or already has), that is wrong and is asking me to be a good girl.  When I am told to wait because I am not senior enough even though a younger, male colleague with less experience is green-lighted, that is wrong and is asking me to be a good girl.

You might be asking why this matters to the future of higher education and what this blog is about. Well, ask yourself what a young woman who sits on a committee with me, studies in a department where someone like me is a senior faculty member, works for an office headed by someone like me, thinks when women like me are told to wait even when it is our turn. The colleagues I spoke to were all women who have spent many years in higher education, all under 45, all advanced in their tracks of work, all with superior credentials.  And they were all asked or told to consider “being a good girl” and waiting to be chosen or asked or moved ahead or allowed to take the next step. And they all felt like they should–given how many times they have  done this same thing before. But our daughters are watching, and as much as we tell them they can do anything, how often do we show them that?  Let’s remember that they are well over 60 percent of our students in higher education today in the U.S. Shouldn’t we be showing them that women get there–but also get there on their own merits, hard work, and personal strengths? That means ending “good girl syndrome” and no longer asking talented women to wait because some gender bias indicates that they aren’t ready, even though men with less have been.

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