Thursday, May 26, 2005

A major crisis of confidence

It figures that on the day that I have my biggest mental meltdown to date (on this job, anyway), neither of my mentors are around....and this is something that I don't really feel comfortable talking about to anyone except a "safe" person. I'm hoping blogging about it will make me feel better.

So I'm having a major crisis of confidence right now. It's not the usual "I'm a fraud" crisis---the one area of my professional life that I feel very comfortable about right now is my research. (Ironically, it's also the one area that I have no time to work on right now. I hate this time of year.) No, this crisis is all about my position here, about the repercussions of being the sole female faculty member.

I won't go into all the reasons this particular crisis came about. Suffice it to say it was a series of unrelated incidents, each of which chipped away large pieces of my self-confidence, that's occurred in the past 72 hours or so.

When I went on the market a few years back, I had a list of qualities that I wanted in my new position/new school. One of my top priorities was to go to a place where I was not going to be the first and only female faculty member in my program. I did not want to be the trailblazer. I did not want to deal with all of the crap that being the first brings with it. In fact, I only interviewed at one school with no female faculty in my program....and that's where I ended up.

Why I violated one of my top priorities to take this job is another story for another time, although it very well might out me so maybe I'll keep that story to myself. Suffice it to say that I did have options, but that this position was so compelling for so many reasons that I thought it was a worthwhile risk. Plus, I hoped hiring me would pave the way for hiring other women. I thought I could manage the crap I knew I'd have to face, that somehow it would all be fine.


I love my job and I love my school. But I am now starting to get a sense of the consequences of being the "token female". Getting low enrollments in my classes while those of my colleagues are high, and the stigma that's attached to that. Having to prove to the students, male and female, that I'm just as good as my male colleagues. Feeling like I have to fight twice as hard for everything, especially for "legitimacy". Not fitting in to the established culture and not fitting the "norm" that's been established for professors in this program, and all the negative energy that goes along with that.

I'm finding it really hard to articulate exactly why I'm so upset and so frustrated.....but I'm sick of feeling like every day is a battle---with societal "norms", with preconceived notions, with entrenched culture. Some days I feel like I'm trying to climb Mt. Everest. I am tired of climbing this mountain. I just want to relax, for once. Will I ever get to that point---the point of feeling comfortable, of not needing to watch what I say or do, of trying to simultaneously fit in to the prevailing culture and change it?

Does anyone else ever feel this way? If so, what do you do to get over your crises of confidence?


C said...

I'm not sure I have anything helpful or empathetic to say to you, but I do sympathise.

I'm also a female academic in computing (at a UK university) and I've worked in three different universities. At the last two, I have been privileged to work in departments with probably some of the highest proportions of women in the country, at 1/3rd women and 1/4th women.

The first job I took was in an entirely male-dominated department (no female academic staff in that dept for several years), but it was not a traditional academic position, it was more of a TA, so I didn't find myself on the end of any situations like being compared badly to my colleagues, instead I was the helpful person that others had a tendency to dump some of their teaching on.

I've also been very lucky to have some kind of a talent for teaching, in particular to explain difficult topics to students, at least I've always got very good feedback comments, so I've not been in a position of having to try extra hard to prove myself in the teaching arena just because I was a woman. But what if I wasn't as good at teaching? What if I was in a more male-dominated department? I could really easily imagine being in the same situation you're in, and feeling a big pressure to be "good enough", even if in practice my performance wasn't any worse than average.

When I left the male-dominated dept and went to a mixed department, it was a much nicer atmosphere. It was one of those funny things: you only realise how it was was bad in the previous job, when you're out of the male-dominated atmosphere and realise how much better a mixed atmosphere can be, with less testosterone flying about, less pressure, more friendliness.

My take on answers to your questions:

Will you ever get to the point of feeling comfortable? You might. You might when you've got to a point where you feel that the available evidence about your performance is objectively at least as good as the average, and if the people-to-whom-it-matters actually see it that way too.

Alternatively you might get to that point where there are several women in your dept, not just you, and the culture has actually changed.

As to whether I've felt this way, well I haven't about teaching. But I have about research. There are certain pressures on research and I wasn't sure whether the extra pressures on me (in my previous job, not this one) were a result of me being a woman or not - were they raising the standard just because I was female? Or were they cracking down on everyone?

Fortunately I didn't have a crisis of confidence. Again, this was luck on my part, because I had objective evidence that there was nothing wrong with my research performance, and I could see clearly that their view of what was going on had to fit within certain parameters, parameters that ended up with them having an unreasonably negative view of me. So my strategy was just to tell myself firmly that they didn't know what they were talking about, because they couldn't see a proper view of the evidence, and just to press on with my research regardless, ignoring the discomfort that came from that particular quarter. Fortunately that didn't have to last too long, because I then changed jobs (for unrelated reasons).

If I was in a situation like yours, I'd probably try and see whether I could change teaching to one of the popular courses, so that my enrollments wouldn't look too bad. I'd also probably end up also furthering the idea that women have to try extra hard, by deliberately trying to offer certain things in my teaching that would make my courses more attractive (e.g. fun assignments, fun practical work, extra resources and help), in a way that hopefully wouldn't take up too much extra time (short time to invest, long time to reap the benefits). I'd also probably vent a lot on an anonymous blog in the hope that venting about it would have some cathartic or helpful effect.

I don't know whether it's of any use, but if you're interested in corresponding, then I'd be happy to send you my email address. I am interested in issues faced in the discipline of computing, by those who are female and/or new to academia, still learning to play the academic game (I count myself in amongst those still learning).

Turtle said...

Shoot. Hearing what's happening to you makes me so angry!! My situation is different in that I'm not in a male-dominated environment per se, but I am in an environment that is hostile to the exploration of gender as relevant. Outside support has been crucial. As much support as I could find, from as many sources as possible. Intellectually, being accepted to conferences and having articles published was the foundation of recognizing that the environment is the problem and not me. [Sounds like you already have this foundation.] Institutionally it helped to talk to the office of Gender/Women's Affairs" - for one thing it began a paper trail that would help anyone in the future who made a complaint about my department wrt gender, as well as document that I had concerns about possible gender bias early on in case my department later failed to support my progress. They also advised me to keep a handwritten log of events and my reactions to them. Emotionally what helped was having friends who were tolerant of a lot of anger and venting, and who believed in what I said about my experiences. As for my confidence, it was also crucial to have some champions. One of my champions was local within the institution, and I also actively sought champions from other institutions. Accessing feminist networks at conferences at various levels -- some knowledgeable about gender issues in my discipline, some knowledgeable about women and academia generally, some just knowledgeable about feminism in general). It's also on-going work. I would not willingly do what I've been doing again. Probably what has helped me the most though is knowing that I am not the problem and that my crisis in confidence stems from my academic environment. Not sure if it helps, but I am really angry that someone as talented as you is being made to feel so unsure. The whole situation stinks. I hope you get good advice from knowledgeable advocates.

Jane said...

Thanks, C and Turtle, for the very supportive comments! I appreciate that you took the time to share your experiences and insights. This week, my despair has turned to anger...not sure if that's healthier or not, but I'm dealing. :) C, my email address is (or should be) on the front page---I would love to get in touch with you and talk about this some more. thanks for the offer!

Turtle said...

Anytime! I'm always glad when my despair turns to anger, because it means I'm not taking it out on myself as much. I find anger an intense emotion to deal with, but can be very energizing and supportive when I'm able to channel it in that kind of way. So I think you're on the right track :-).