Earlier this week, this tweet really unsettled me:
(It was in response to a thread about the life of #KathleenLonsdale).
I thought: hang on a minute, I can tick those boxes but that doesn’t mean I’m a woman who has it all….. but then I realised – that’s the problem. It’s all about perspective.
In the midst of making the most of some of the opportunities that have come my way lately, I’ve been sucked into an academic self-promotion world of “look at me, look at me” (OK so those outside Australia might not get that reference, but hopefully you know what I mean).
Not that I’m assuming anyone is looking at me thinking that I have it all – but just incase you’re tempted, I feel I should let you know: I am muddling through – and I’m pretty sure every other woman who from the outside appears to “have it all” would say the same.
It’s just that you don’t see my crazy messy house, how terrible my cooking is, how lame the cut-up oversized t-shirt that my 1st grader is wearing as a cape to tomorrow’s Superhero Day is going to look…. (Sorry @academicbatgirl – she won’t be as cool as you…)
But it’s the fact that we don’t often admit this out loud, that perpetuates this ideal / façade / unrealistic expectation that if you only try harder, work longer, improve some area of your life, you too will “have it all”. To be honest, in my case, these boxes are ticked largely because of luck / fortunate / blessing. And a woman who “has it all” because it’s been handed to her is hardly inspiring.
But as long as we keep putting a value on these things as worthy of inspiration, we’ll continue to feel terrible when we don’t measure up….
So I propose that we change our perspective. That we define an alternative set of criteria that marks a “woman who has it all”; one that is truly inspirational…..
Ok, so I may not be the smartest person. I distinctly remember sitting next to my extremely intelligent friend, Brad, at graduation from our honours degrees in advanced mathematics thinking it was way too unfair that after 4 years we both walked away with the same piece of paper when there were several subjects and assignments I would never have passed if it had not been for his help! But there is research now that genes can have up to 80% influence on student performance anyway. So I have my folks to thank for my good grades – and for raising me in a home that valued education. But how inspiring is it to see the determination of a woman who overcomes obstacles to pursue her education. Teenage mothers who go back to school or university; friends pursuing PhDs in Australia when English is not their first language, who have the added burden of writing up their work in a language they don’t naturally think in (as a monolingual myself this is particularly inspiring to me!) Or my friend who almost completed a bachelor’s degree in her 20s, only to abandon it, then return more than a decade later, having to start from scratch, now with a family as well, in order to pursue a better career. The determination of these women inspires me.
I didn’t have to look hard for my husband, he’s been a good friend since we were 14, we’ve been dating since we were 18 and married when we were 23. He continually inspires me to be a better version of myself. I don’t take my marriage for granted, but do you know what I admire? The courage of the women around me who either long to be in a relationship, but can’t find that “someone” to do life with; those who thought they had found that someone only to have the relationship end in heartbreak; or the woman in a damaged relationship, who fights to stay together because of a commitment she wants to honour. The courage of these women inspires me.
Back in January 2008 when I was in a bit of a rut in my career in middle management at an equipment finance company I made some New Year’s Resolutions. One of them was to become a mum in 2009 (we moved from tiny apartment to a small house in Christmas 2008 to be ready, and then September 2009 by daughter was born). What’s the point in admiring someone just because they can breed? Isn’t it more inspiring to see the strength of a woman who desires to have children but is unable to conceive, who endures several heartbreaking rounds of IVF to fall pregnant; or those who must battle through the tough job of parenting on their own with limited support; or raising kids with additional needs? These are just some of the remarkable women in my life, and their strength inspires me.
Career Generous with a sense of Humour
Well, I guess I don’t really have a career just yet in academia, so perhaps this box isn’t ticked, but just looking around, I can think of several women (Genevieve McArthur, Kate Stevens, Sophie Scott and many more..) in senior positions within different academic institutions around the world. They are great advocates (particularly for women in science) and what is most inspiring in their leadership is the generosity and humour they display while working. They generously encourage, mentor, and find time to be available to early career researchers, and all the while, with the ability not to take themselves or academia too seriously. It’s not the careers of these women I admire, it’s their generosity and humour that inspires me.
Awards / Accolades Humility
I’ve always been into entering competitions – winning free gym memberships, mystery flights, even a punch bowl set…. (Yeah, ok so I’ve only actually used it once in the last 15 years, but that’s beside the point). I approach academic opportunities and scholarships in the same way – “gotta be in it to win it”. But almost every award, scholarship or opportunity I put my hand up for, it’s because I’ve seen the example of someone else who entered. I was inspired to enter the 3 Minute Thesis competition in 2014 after watching this entry by a former colleague, Shu Hui Yau; I applied to be in Soapbox Science, after I saw Athene Donald had previously participated; I applied for a PLOS Early Career Researcher Travel Award because I recognized Alienor Chauvenet (one of the organizers of Soapbox Science, Brisbane) as a previous winner. Yet it’s not their achievements that I admire, but their humility that inspires me; their willingness to share advice and encouragement (sometimes even admitting their own surprise at their success!)
So can’t we do away with the old checklist and appreciate that all women are running their own race? Stop the comparisons and just start cheering on the women around us. Or better yet, why don’t we use an alternative checklist of the woman who “has it all” one who is determined, courageous, strong, generous, with a sense of humour and humble. In the end we are all muddling through to some degree or another. So take your eyes off the achievements of the women around you and look instead at their characters.
Find inspiration and be an inspiration to others.
- Determined: Malala’s Story
- Courageous: Katie Mack’s (aka @Astrokatie@Astrokatie) blog about Academic Scattering highlights the difficulty of maintaining long term relationships in academic life.
- Strong: Sole Parent Students and Higher Education by Genine A. Hook
- Generous: If you’re looking for generous encouragement for Early Career Researchers check out Words of Wisdom recently released by Global Young Academy
- Sense of Humour: Sophie Scott’s TED talk on why we laugh is a must see (with over 2.1M views!)
- Humility: Even the Harvard Business Review points to the importance of humility in the workplace