Known as the “fairy godmother coach to academic women,” I’m always looking for lessons in fairy tales to share with clients to help them achieve success. While I watched the Disney classic “Cinderella” recently, it struck me that this version of the Cinderella story was very similar to the experiences of my clients and me in the academy.
Like Cinderella, we may have a kind father-figure advisor who protects us as emerging academics. But all too soon, he is no longer there and the true nature of higher education shows through.
Our stepmother, the institutional culture, pretends to welcome us to the family, but we are relegated to subservient roles. Much to our surprise, we discover stepsister-like behaviors in our peers—competition, mistrust and pettiness—from whom we were expecting support.
If we’re lucky, a fairy godmother appears to mentor and support us so we can rise above the negative aspects of higher education. We are then able to live happily ever after—with success on our own terms as the princely prize.
Thinking about the movie led me to ponder what Cinderella would do if she were a professor who encountered the same issues as most academic women. The following ideas are based on my experiences as a mentor-coach to new academic women (and some men, too) and the issues that come up over and over. Here is how I think Cinderella would navigate higher education.
• Cinderella would recognize that not everyone is going to like her, and it has nothing to do with her.
Almost all of my women clients and none of my male clients struggle with the issue of wanting to be liked by their colleagues. Women are socialized to behave in ways to ensure that they will be liked. They are led to believe that if they are not liked, they are deficient in some way. Men are not socialized this way.
As a result, women use a lot of energy obsessing over whether or not their colleagues like them. They start to feel unwelcome by their peers and interpret every slight as a confirmation that their colleagues regret hiring them.
For example, I had a client who was the only woman in her department, as is often the case. She noticed that one of the senior professors was rather rude to her and interrupted her during meetings. In those same meetings, he also took away her opportunities to work with graduate students. She spent a lot of time wondering why he didn’t like her and had trouble focusing on her work.
During our coaching sessions, we nicknamed him Alpha Male. I suggested that she start observing how Alpha Male treats his male colleagues. Much to her surprise, she discovered that Alpha Male treated everyone with disrespect.
I then suggested she observe how the men responded to Alpha Male and to incorporate the strategies that she was comfortable using. With this information, she was able to unhook her need to be liked by him. She realized his behavior had nothing to do with her and was able to respond to his disrespect from a place of personal power.
• Cinderella would find a support group, even if the group was non-traditional.
So many of my clients and other academic women I speak to feel isolated and alone, which I believe is the academy’s dirty little secret. Women quietly confess to me that they feel overwhelmed or like an impostor and know that they are the only ones with those feelings. To them, it seems like everyone else has their act together. More than one woman has thought about quitting the academy to work in a bookstore or become a barista at a coffee house.
When I tell them that their feelings are normal and they are not the only one struggling with these issues, there is a notable sigh of relief. Women know they need to create a support group, but finding time to meet with other women seems to be the greatest impediment.
In the Disney movie, Cinderella’s support group consisted of mice and farm animals. Our heroine reframed the notion of what is a support group and so should we.
The support need not be real-time or face-to-face. Online groups are becoming more mainstream, but we have to be careful in our choice of an online group. Too often a person asks for help, only to be judged and criticized by respondents. This barrage only reinforces feelings of isolation.
Because these highly toxic environments masquerading as support groups horrified me, I created The Safe Haven discussion forum as part of The Faculty Center. Members are free to ask questions without fear of ridicule, share concerns without being told to stop whining, celebrate successes and collaborate with other women across the country.
In our not too distant past, women were able to get the support they needed through sewing and quilting bees. Quilting bees are non-existent in the academy. But that doesn’t mean we need them any less. I view The Safe Haven as a modern-day variation of the quilting bee. Cinderella is smart. She recognizes how invaluable her support group is to her ultimate success. So should we.
• Cinderella would get noticed.
Women are socialized to be humble and not attract too much attention. Unfortunately, this has dire consequences on our professional lives. If we aren’t noticed, we miss out on great opportunities and possibilities to advance.
For example, during one of our Around the Academy podcasts, co-host Jason Curtis and I were discussing the importance of academic women considering everything they do as worthy to include in their tenure and promotion file.
He pointed out that, at least on his campus, there is usually a huge difference between the men’s documentation and the women’s. He noted that it isn’t a case of women doing less than men but rather that the women are reluctant to toot their own horns. He said that this reluctance could literally jeopardize a woman’s ability to achieve tenure or leadership positions.
When Cinderella arrived at the ball, she was noticed. As a result, she got what she wanted: living happily ever after.
• Cinderella would find a fairy godmother as mentor.
Many articles in Women in Higher Education attest to the importance of mentoring as a key to success for academic women. But finding a good mentor is not an easy task because of the low proportion of women, compared to men, who make it through the tenure gauntlet and are able to secure leadership positions.
The time required to work essentially two jobs—as an academic and a home-keeper—also makes it difficult for women to connect in a mentoring relationship. Finally, most of my clients chose to work with me because they are concerned that intimate conversations with an on-campus mentor might put them in jeopardy if the mentor is on a personnel decision-making committee.
In my faculty development work at universities, I read a lot of literature on the struggle to create successful mentoring programs. Some programs work. Most do not. In the meantime, academic women are falling through the cracks because they are feeling isolated and alone.
I recently launched The Faculty Center: The Safe Haven for Academic Women as an online resource for academic women who do not have on-campus mentors. Members not only receive the benefit of my mentor-coaching expertise, but they also are part of a community of women dealing with issues we encounter in the academy.
Although Cinderella’s stepmother did her best to keep her from getting what she wanted, Cinderella’s mentors helped her hold onto her dream and create a way to the ball.
Fairy tales have a bad reputation. Modern women often dismiss them as romantic indoctrination designed to keep us subjugated. While there is an element of truth to that accusation, academic woman can learn a great deal from classic stories that can help us succeed in the academy.
I still believe in fairy godmothers who help us succeed and my right to live happily ever after…by my own rules.
Julie-Ann McFann has been a faculty development coach at several universities.
Her Web site is http://facultycenter.newprofessormentor.com/