The 5 Top Mistakes That Women Make in Graduate School

Next week I’m offering a new workshop for the UO McNair Program:  “Yes You Can!  Women and Graduate School.”

( Wed Feb. 26;  PLC 51 11-1:30; RSVP to Carrie Stampe at stampec@uoregon.edu if you’re interested in attending).

It’s a workshop I’ve led quite a few times in different forms, formally and informally, over the course of my 15 years in academia.

I created it, and keep leading it, because I just can’t bear to watch all the ways that women shoot themselves in their collective feet in academia (and other professional settings too).

Starting with myself.  I made a lot of mistakes on my path through graduate school, my first job, tenure, move to a new institution, and departmental headship.  And I watched my female colleagues make them too.  And then I watched my students make them–most especially the graduate students I’ve mentored personally through their Ph.D.s.

The mistakes arise from a single source: Women’s lifelong training, in our culture, toward various forms of self-effacement, both obvious and subtle, that undermine their authority in the institution, handicap their effectiveness in speaking and acting in the institution, and block their feelings of entitlement to claim the rewards of the institution.

I work with some powerful and fierce women.  Heck, I am a powerful and fierce woman.  But even so, one after another of us falls prey to patterns of speech and thought that position us as “less than,” “secondary to,” “less deserving than,” “less intelligent than,” “in service to” the professors, administrators, and colleagues we encounter in the university.

Let me be clear:  At this point in feminist time, it’s not likely that any woman in the American academy would consider herself less intelligent or capable or deserving than an equivalent man, simply by virtue of her gender.    And for sure I’m not claiming that women are to blame for sexism and institutional gender discrimination, which persists in large and small ways! (the topic of other posts).

What happens is subtler.  What I am claiming is that women are frequently far from their own best advocates.  Women tend to speak and behave in patterns, usually unconsciously and derived from their socialization from childhood, that through their repetition, “perform” a “role” of being less intelligent and capable and deserving than some imagined peer or competitor.  These same patterns are ones that men, by and large,  because of their socialization from childhood (and of course with some exceptions), avoid.

Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively, and seeking a collective experience rather than firmly expressing an individual viewpoint.

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized, circular, non-linear manner that muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish through the interaction.

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

While women together have to combat institutional sexism and the glass ceiling, women individually can vastly improve their scholarly achievements and career prospects by being alert to self-defeating patterns of thought, speech, and behavior from their earliest days in the field.

And that’s what my workshop does.  Especially when we get to the role playing.   From shaking hands to asking for a letter of recommendation, to expressing major disagreement with a colleague—we learn how to display the decision, confidence, and authority that gets results.

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About karenkelsky

I am the McNair Advisor in the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program. I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and have had tenured positions in four departments. I have helped scores of students get into and succeed in graduate programs around the country. I'll be sharing 20 years of information and skills here. When I'm not doing this, I make and sell jewelry and explore Eugene with my partner and two kids. View all posts by karenkelsky

One response to “The 5 Top Mistakes That Women Make in Graduate School

  • Christabelle

    I can’t wait Karen! Your experience and knowledge is immeasurable and guidance is very much appreciated! Thank you in advance for offering a very appropriate and exciting seminar!

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