I was 22, fresh from undergrad, and, as a child of the “girl power” 1990s, entirely unused to the idea that anyone would take me less seriously simply because I was not a man. I soon learned that being taken seriously depended on style and self-presentation as much as on intelligence and insight.
The male graduate students in my cohort displayed their academic seriousness with an ease that I found impossible to imitate. They knew how to dress for class (blazer, oxfords, a touch of tweed); how to speak forcefully in seminar, without making apologies or soliciting approval*; how to shake hands with male faculty members in a way that was both chummy and professional.
…”Women are welcome,” announced the male graduate student who directed the Hegel reading group, as if women needed his permission** to think dialectically.
…Anxious and confused about how to establish a suitable academic self, I spent my first few years of graduate school vacillating between girlishness and a kind of steely professionalism. I started wearing dresses, then chopped off all my hair. I spoke with ingratiating, self-effacing “uptalk” one day, and was entirely too strident the next.
As the years went by, and I advanced toward the Ph.D., the rules for women became more numerous, and the box for acceptable behavior grew smaller still. Do be an approachable teacher, but don’t be too friendly with your students, or they’ll take advantage of you. Don’t wear a dress to your MLA interview; you’ll be in a hotel room, possibly proximate to a bed, and men won’t be able to stop themselves from sexualizing you. At your job talk, be sure to say “thank you” after each question; men shouldn’t do this — they would appear obsequious — but women must (or so a female faculty member advised me). Be extremely careful when speaking about partners and families, or you might not get the job.
…Hierarchies — of gender, race, and class — are established and reinforced through hirings and firings, handshakes and outfits.
* – one be inclined to add, without fear of their confidence being interpreted as being over-the-top, bitchy, unfounded, or inappropriately aggressive, and giving rise to reactions like, “Who do he think he is?”
** – (or encouragement and support)