By Helen De Cruz
Over the past couple of years, I have been an informal mentor to several people, many of whom are women.
They include graduate students, postdocs, and also peers (see here for more thoughts on mentorship, including peer mentorship). I have been incredibly lucky to have had mentors who offered advice and support when I had to take difficult decisions, on publication strategies, work/life balance issues and much more. So to give back to the community, I have been involved in several formal mentorship programmes (such as this one), and have started - with Marcus Arvan - the Philosophers' Cocoon Job Market mentoring project, which will be relaunched next spring with new sets of mentors and mentees, next to informal mentoring. An important part of mentoring involves looking over a job candidate's covering letter, grant applications, etc.
In such materials, whenever I see hedging or phrases that could be seen as self-undermining, e.g., candidates professing a love and passion for teaching, mentioning how fortunate they were being a graduate student under X, how honored they would be to be part of institution Y, I mark such phrases and encourage deletion. Women are not the only ones who write such phrases, but I am vigilant about them especially, given that women already are less likely to than men to be described as outstanding candidates in letters of recommendation, and more likely to be described as 'hard-working'. When candidates unwittingly enforce such stereotypes through their self-descriptions, it would seem important to alert them to this.
Until recently, I believed my remarks to be mostly helpful (and indeed, the fact that some people I have helped received interview requests and job offers bolstered my complacency), but of late I have been wondering if such editings of tone and content aren't a form of policing women's speech, feeding into our insecurities, and perpetuating gendered norms of how we should navigate the social sphere.
This article by linguist Debbie Cameron criticizes such attempts, including a recent app "Not sorry", which excises words such as "just", "actually", and "sorry" from e-mails. As she writes:
The fact that women are still buying into this is an example of the proverbial triumph of hope over experience. Though the same top tips have been repeated ad nauseam since the 1970s, the pay gap and the glass ceiling are still with us, as indeed is the ‘problem’ of women using powerless language. The only people who’ve ever benefited from this advice are the ones who make a living dishing it out.
The sobering reality is, indeed, that for all our leaning in, we have not closed the gender disparities in academia or elsewhere. Yet, I do believe that editing language can help individual candidates. Karen Kelsky's professor is in (a private company that offers mentorship for a fee) is a particularly vocal proponent of excising female-gendered speech: appear more confident, lower your voice, don't doubt yourself openly. Present yourself as an expert and researcher first, a teacher only second. In this blogpost she writes
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.
So should we continue to point out such patterns of thought, speech and behavior, if there is no tangible evidence (that I am aware of) that this aids women? I think it is sometimes appropriate for mentors to do so, but it is not always clear-cut.
One incident I remember well as a mentor (details left vague to keep confidentiality): a woman mentee sent me her cover letter for a tenure-track position. I read the letter and thought it was very good, but I expressed concern about a passage in the letter where she mentioned the maternity leave she had taken. Looking over her CV, she is a very productive scholar, and so I advised her to take the passages out about the maternity leaves, since she did not have to explain any productivity gaps, and since she could if she wished mention it as a section in her CV. She replied that she would not take out the passage on maternity leave, since she thought it was important such things weren't taboo; it should be discussed as a totally normal part of one's career and not as something one should try to hide or cover up. And that is how the candidate phrased the section in her letter on the maternity leaves she had taken.
I was very pleased to see she did get an interview for this position. The story illustrates that while it is a buyer's market, it does sometimes pay off not to try to streamline our writings and speech in such a way that it would be acceptable to the male-dominated academic culture we navigate. If more women write about maternity leaves in their cover letters, it becomes more normalized to do so. Be yourself is usually bad job market advice, since yourself is often an anxious, insecure person beset with impostor syndrome. It is important in such cases to fake it until you make it. But in some cases, it is part of personal integrity to not try to efface those aspects of oneself one values. To what extent this means sculpting one's language to get all the "not sures", "actuallys" and "justs" out, I am not sure about.