Monday, May 08, 2006

Stepping up?

I've lamented the dearth of women in positions of power in politics, academia, and business. Getting into positions of power requires one to start small, balance options, give up some opportunities for others.

In academics, it often means taking on extra responsibilities, dealing with the good and the bad, taking the heat for things you can't change (state budgets, for example), and not focusing on the stuff you really love (Shakespeare).

There's maybe an "opportunity" coming up. Someone's going to have to step up, and I'm looking around at some of the women in my little corner of the Northwoods, including some who complain loudly about the few opportunities for women to move into positions of power. Some complain more loudly than I do, even.

Sometimes, I think Nietzsche is totally wrong about the will to power. In Measure for Measure, Escalus (the guy who's second in command in Vienna to Angelo when the Duke goes off) questions Elbow, a constable who's completely inept.

[Okay, what you should know is that there was no standing police force in early modern England. Within parishes (the basis of civic organization), "responsible" citizens (those perceived as responsible by the locals, so usually male, landholding or leaseholding, married, fairly stable, guild members, etc.) were elected or selected to small time posts to keep the peace. They might be responsible for setting a city watch, making sure that people didn't make too much commotion, or whatever. Big problems would get big attention, but most petty stuff got handled at the local level, at least initially.

The job seems to have been somewhat onerus, and not really rewarding mostly, and most people didn't jump at the chance to do it. But it got done.]

Elbow is that guy, the constable. In Measure for Measure, he brings the tapsters before Escalus, complaining that they've abused his wife about some stewed prunes. Except he's a stereotypically comic idiot, the kind who's full of malapropisms, more Car 54, Where are You? than CSI.

So Escalus asks him how long he's been a constable (seven years and a half; 2.1.260 in the old Riverside edition), and then questions how he's been put upon to serve in the position so often.

At that point, Elbow reveals that every time someone else is chosen, they pay him off to do the job. (Escalus then asks for a list of six or seven of the most "sufficient" men of Elbow's parish, and you get the sense that someone else is going to actually have to do the job for a change.)

The difficulty is that no one wants the job, really, but when the job's badly done (as it is by Elbow), it results in problems for the community. Academics and self-governance works that way: if we don't do it ourselves, then someone is going to impose stuff on us, and we're not going to like it. If we want the freedom we say we value, we have to put in the effort to make it work. (And it's not like I'm talking about getting shot at in the army here, either, so let's not panic.)

I have a feeling that like the men who've paid off Elbow, many of the women (and men) here, would rather someone else take on the responsibility of this "opportunity." Some, like Elbow, would be ill-suited to take on the task, but there's a risk to all that they'll end doing it because no one else steps up. Elbow volunteers, and people are too embarrassed or reticent to nominate someone more qualified, so Elbow ends up on task and the community suffers.

I've been doing some self-evaluation lately. I don't think I'm Elbow, but I'm also no Escalus. I hope I'm neither Angelo or the Duke here, to be honest, but I think I'm not Angelo, at least. The Duke is somehow more insidious, using inside information to manipulate people paternalistically (well, that's a generous way of saying it) or just nastily.

I know I'm capable of working with certain kinds of responsibilities. I'm even good at some things.

I worry more about my wisdom in working with people. I don't like everyone in the world, alas. Can I be fair to everyone anyway? Can I communicate with someone well if they screw up and I need to get them to change what they're doing? Can I not only BE fair, but be SEEN as fair? (Does that worry one male administrator who lets on about hanging out with the guys, sipping whiskey and discussing official decisions?)

I know someone who makes a big deal about keeping secrets while s/he's telling them. I worry about that possibility in myself. I've never really been tested, though; I never knew who DeepThroat was, nor could I have made millions selling insider information.

And yet, I also wonder at my self-doubts. Since I was a girl, I've been told that I couldn't do certain kinds of work, that trying to do X or Y was useless because I'd just get married and have kids and stop doing X or Y anyway. I'm not unique in this, and most women in the world have things far worse than I ever have. And I've been fortunate that mentors have encouraged me all along, in more ways that I could ever repay. Yet, I wonder if a male in my position would have the same kinds of self-doubts.

But someone has to step up, and maybe I am that person?

There are trade-offs and risks, of course. I would miss doing some things I love. If I put myself up, I might be rejected; it wouldn't be the first time, but that doesn't make it fun to think about, either.

In my fantasies, another, more perfect (easy that) woman (or man) steps obviously into place, providing leadership, mentoring, and wisdom.


  1. Step up, my dear! As long as it's a position that you wouldn't hate, and one that you think you could do some good in, I say go for it.

    That, at least, is my unconsidered opinion.

  2. I'd say go for it! Unless you'd be working closely with people you don't like.

  3. Go for it. One of my motives for first going into administration was a sense that, for all of my flaws, most of the people in administration were far worse than I would be. Years later, I still believe that.

    In a way, the fact that your self-doubts are about real issues (confidentiality, fairness) and not the usual ego crap (what if someone doesn't like me?) suggests that you're already ahead of the curve. I say, take the shot. If it doesn't work out, you can always go back.

  4. My hunch is you'd be very good at it. You should consider what you might lose (are you in the midst of a research project right now? Are your current passions ranked as teaching and publication rather than adminstration? Can these be balanced in a satisfactory way?) But I do encourage you to take the risk. You're such a thoughtful person that I imagine you'd be excellent in the job ... and may even enjoy it quite a bit.