No Girls Aloud

Brian Taylor

March 27, 2011

Question: (from "Katie Anne"): I'm a new, young assistant professor in a department of older, mostly male, tenured faculty members—and I have a reverse superpower. In meetings, I somehow become invisible and inaudible. I do make a point of speaking, but nothing in the minutes except the attendance ever verifies that I was there.

Just now, in a meeting with a campus visitor, one senior colleague pointed to the full professor next to me and said, "Oh, and Professor Mighty is on that committee as well"—ignoring me. Later, I said—with much ingenue-like shrugging and laughing so as not to be seen as difficult—"Say, you know, I'm on that committee, too." "Oh, yes!" he said. "You are! And you're very important to the committee because you take such good notes!"

What to do? Do I insert myself even more vigorously into conversations and risk being obnoxious? Do I accept the fact that nobody is going to see or hear me and stop beating myself up over it? I hate this. I wonder if there is a special secret I somehow failed to learn.

Answer: Ms. Mentor would first remind you that, until recently, women were novelties in American higher education. It took two centuries after the founding of Harvard (1636) before a women's college appeared (Mount Holyoke, 1837). Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elite universities remained all-male until the 1970s. Most of them admitted women only reluctantly, sometimes by annihilating sister schools. As late as 2005, the oldest women's college in the South, Sophie Newcomb, survived under Tulane's umbrella—but after Hurricane Katrina, Tulane pounced and swallowed. Newcomb no longer exists.

Ms. Mentor sympathizes with Katie Anne's fear that she doesn't exist. People with disabilities, fat people, and people of color all know about being ignored. But acknowledging that doesn't solve the problem. So how can Katie Anne turn things around?

Ms. Mentor would, of course, like to smite, or at least box the ears of, Katie Anne's colleagues. But Katie Anne has to fight her own battles. The only behavior we control is our own, and she must get her colleagues to listen to her and to take her seriously as a peer, not as their secretary.

(Ms. Mentor hastens to add that secretaries do have secret superpowers. Administrative assistants keep departments functioning, and even the temporary secretary at a faculty meeting keeps the only record of what's been done and decided. That's an opportunity for great mischief.)

But Katie Anne's job is to come across as a grown-up. That could mean calling herself "Katherine." It means talking more about her research agenda and teaching techniques. It means a serious demeanor: smiling, eye contact, but not flirting. A determined stride can convey authority. Jackets and dark colors always do. No wild hair, no egregious cuteness, and no cleavage ("Why waste it on them?" says one of Ms. Mentor's consultants).

"But they're still not listening to me," Katherine may find, and Ms. Mentor wonders how Katherine might be voicing her thoughts. Can she be heard easily? Middle-aged men do lose the ability to hear higher registers, and they may tune out high-pitched or breathy voices. Women can train themselves to speak in lower, more resonant tones. The best female voice to imitate, according to Researchers Who Know, belongs to Julia Roberts.

Senior professors also may not take seriously any comments that seem apologetic ("I'm not sure this is right, but ...") or sentences ending with a raised inflection, as if they're questions ("I think we need to punish plagiarists?")

Sometimes it's appropriate for Katherine to be deferential. The old boys do know more about academic politics and what's possible at the institution. If she makes impossible suggestions ("Let's require more French") or criticizes what can't be changed ("This town's abysmal"), she'll be considered an impertinent crank.

Academe is full of past feuds and hidden meanings. "Collegial," for instance, means "We like you," and "fine mind" means "We like you, even though you don't publish." For decoding academese, Ms. Mentor recommends Kathryn Hume's Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt and David D. Perlmutter's Promotion and Tenure Confidential.

Katherine will be more listened to if she's liked. She can have coffee, individually, with her colleagues. She can invite them to lunch (use the campus cafeteria to avoid romantic or poisonous overtones). She can ask advice through positive questions: "Who are the best teachers in other departments?" or "Who was your best teacher in undergraduate school?" Coffee/lunch is a time to ask for decoding: "Could you tell me why the school seems to fund agriculture more than political science?" ("Seems to" is always wise.)

The good feeling thus generated also opens the floor for Katherine's "elevator speech": a 30-second, well-phrased distillation of her latest teaching achievement or research breakthrough. That kind of sound bite makes her memorable in a world of bloviators.

Who wouldn't cherish such a bright, precise, accomplished young woman?

Once you do get tenure, and you're eminent and older, you'll stop being invisible. You can get a cowbell or a bullhorn and become a powerful and tyrannical dean. That'll get everyone's attention—but so will being a kind and inclusive mentor, who tries to get all to listen and speak. You'll know how.

Question: I used an archaic nasty word to describe my boss in an e-mail to a treacherous friend, who forwarded it, and it wound up on Facebook, of course. Am I to be forever lambasted as a lollygagging poltroon?

Answer: Mayhap.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor welcomes more nominees for a future column on academic novels. Hynes, Lodge, Russo, and Smiley are all in the Hall of Fame, and some 21 other authors have been suggested—among them Aird, Beerbohm, Bourjaily, Fuchs, Goodman, Lipman, Pastan, and Smith. Recent favorites are especially sought.

Ms. Mentor always invites queries, rants, and ripostes. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and identities are always masked in published columns. No one will recognize your dulcet voice.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is