Excerpts from Experts

Excerpts from Experts: Women in Education from Dr. Jennifer Lieberman

The following personal essay was written by Dr. Jenni Lieberman.

“I’ve been asked to write about what it’s like to be a woman in Higher Ed and to offer some advice. Like women in many (or even most) fields, we face extra biases. I’ve had a superior tell me he didn’t care about women writers; I’ve had students who insisted on calling me Mrs. instead of Dr. as if my marriage defines me more than my Ph.D.

These responses aren’t merely personal; they’re systemic. A former mentor of mine discusses those biases here. This mentor also taught me a lesson I pass onto my students: when you’re a woman or marginalized person in these spaces, people might expect you to offer your emotional labor* for free. (*Emotional labor in the academy can mean doing tons of service work, supporting student and colleague feelings while subordinating your own, sharing your research to help other people understand your area of expertise with no compensation, etc.) But we have the right to say no. 

Women are often asked to put ourselves last: to prioritize our relationships, our caretaking (for children and/or elders), our work. We have the right to set boundaries to those expectations and cultivate our own joy and health, too. Saying no is underrated in our eternally precarious economy. We have to be competitive, the job market tells us. We’ve all been trained to believe that failure is a personal flaw—that success will come to us if we work harder, do more, enhance our resumes.

But academia is not the meritocracy it appears to be.

As an undergrad, hard work can tangibly pay off; students who have their eyes on graduate school probably know what they need to do to get A’s in their classes. But getting that four-point-oh and writing phenomenally doesn’t guarantee you a spot in a Ph.D. program. Conversely, not getting into those programs doesn’t mean that you’re not as good as someone who did.

When I tell students these things, I see two responses: fear and magical thinking. The fear makes sense. It is scary to know that we can’t control our futures. The magical thinking makes sense, in a certain way, too. You know how great you are; admissions officers and search committees should see that too. But often they don’t. So what can we do? Be more depressed and anxious than we already are? 

We have another response available to us, though in my experience it comes less automatically: a paradigm shift from product to process, that I think we all need to thrive in Higher Ed and out. When we focus on product, we’re only satisfied when something is finished and when we receive external validation. For me, that might mean the acceptance of a publication. For a student that might mean getting into X program or nabbing Y job. But we can’t control those outcomes. However, we can make sure that the work we do as we strive for those goals feels intrinsically meaningful to us. You can’t guarantee that writing a paper on a certain topic will be the writing sample you need to get you where you want to go; you can absolutely guarantee that writing a paper on a certain topic will challenge you and help you think through the problems that pique your curiosity and grow you as a person.

For example, when I was in graduate school, I was advised against writing about electricity. But I was excited by the topic. I knew my dissertation couldn’t guarantee me a job, and I couldn’t make myself write hundreds of pages about something that seemed less interesting to me for the sake of a job market that might reject me anyway. So I wrote something that excited my geeky curiosity—something that was fun to explore and research. The other thing I did in graduate school, which paid off even more than my dissertation, was cultivate strong, supportive friendships—especially but not exclusively with women. Whatever your next step in life, you need people who will help lift you up through the inevitable rejections. Look for the people who will help you say no when you’re afraid you “should” say yes to exploitative extra labor; the ones who can commiserate with you or support you when you face discrimination; who can share bad movies and great books; who make you laugh and remind you that the future is for fun and not only for work. We are struggling in an economy that asks us to be competitive, but we always have the option of saying no to that pressure and choosing to be cooperative.”

Dr. Jenni Lieberman (she/her) is an Associate Professor of English at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where she teaches and writes about the frictions where gender, bodies, and science meet.

4 Comments

  • Betsy Nies

    Thank you, Dr. Lieberman, for your insights on life and the challenges particular to the struggles women (and others) share in academia.

    I, along with you, believe that process matters more the product (although a finished product and outside acceptance can bring great satisfaction). In a world of uncertainty, we can celebrate the ongoing process of unpacking, discovering, exploring, and researching; reading, writing, and sharing; AND throwing paint on the canvas, putting plants in the garden, and loving those around us.

    We are all in process. And nurturing ourselves (threw boundary setting and quietness) matters greatly.

    Betsy Nies (aka Dr. Nies, and on occasion, it seems, Mrs. Nies, even though I am not married to my father 🙂

    • Brooke Davis

      Dr. Nies,
      Thank you so much for your comment! We agree completely! It is so wonderful to listen to and learn from other women at different stages of the “process” than ourselves. Thank you so much for your insights!

  • Sara M

    I enjoyed reading this Dr. Lieberman. I have been in the process of learning how to say “no” for several years. Taking on more than I’m able to maintain with my health is tact (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual), is a tendency I’m trying to move away from. As I get further into academia I’ll need to keep improving on this since there’s so much to get done! Thank you for sharing these experiences. They are helpful for me.

  • Chris Gabbard

    Very nicely stated, Jenni! I’m thrilled to see that students have created this site and have given you a forum to speak about important issues. It is crucial that male colleagues be made aware of these disparities in treatment if equal treatment in the profession is to become a reality.

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