Breaking the Glass Ceiling and Male Shrew in Academia!

Educated women of the upper middle class, who have made it to the higher echelons of their profession, live in a bubble. They live believing that as they got there, most women who make the right choices at the right time, with a little luck can make it too. After all, men require education, good choices and luck too. But as the cartoon below shows, there are many hurdles that a woman has to overcome in her career track. In this post I write about another hurdle that any woman who manages to break the glass ceiling faces.

Joan Williams, a law professor, wrote a thought-provoking article in the New York Times titled ‘How women can escape the likeability trap’. She argues that women who behave in an authoritative way are seen as insufferable prima donnas. Joan Williams found through a survey of 200 women, that women employ different strategies to survive and move up in the hierarchy in the male-dominated workplace. Some are nice 95 percent of the time, maintaining the simple, soft woman stereotype, and are tough five percent of the time when it is absolutely essential.

Joan Williams refers to a study by Mathew Lee and Laura Huang on female entrepreneurs that states that venture capital is more likely to fund women entrepreneurs if their enterprise claims ‘social impact’. This provides a ‘cover’ to help women overcome the mismatch between the stereotype woman and a hard driver entrepreneur.

This assertive, aggressive, ‘insufferable’ woman was who Shakespeare termed the ‘Shrew’ and made famous in his play ‘Taming of the Shrew’. The shrew was depicted as an aggressive, assertive and ill-tempered woman. In the end of the 16th century when he wrote this play, it was bad enough for a woman to be bad tempered, but to be aggressive and assertive was like committing the ultimate sin. It appears that these unspoken expectations of women have not changed.

Andrea Calem tried to find an equivalent for the male in her article ‘Shrews in Male Form’ in the New York Times in 1983. She wrote, ‘there is an equally vivid version of a male shrew….I have encountered the elder petty tyrant, the pedant, the bombast, the frustrated sulker, the-I’m-losing-control-so-I’ll-make-all-the-decisions-now male, all of which are variations on the traditional scold’. This is a story of a woman who takes charge of an educational institution and her encounter with this species that Andrea Calem has so colourfully described.

After gauging the existing teaching and nonteaching staff she wondered why men who were assertive, ambitious and competitive, trying to curry favour with the management, and sulking when unsuccessful, were not termed ‘insufferable’ or a ‘Shrew’? There really was no male equivalent to the word ‘Shrew’. ‘How gender insensitive is the English language’ she thought.

Unlike the women described in the Joan William’s article, she did not care if she was seen as insufferable. She also did not fall into ‘the likeability trap’. These institutions were run in a decentralized manner where major decisions were taken by committees appointed for the purpose. She discovered early that managing and administering the institution was like a game of chess. She decided to play the game. The ambitious male ‘Shrews’ were all after something, some were after money, some were after power, and few were aiming for academic excellence as was expected of them. There were few bullies who were testing whether she was a pushover. But she knew how to deal with bullies having had enough practice in her previous positions and at home.

The institution had an incentivize system for teaching staff to increase productivity and bring in extra resources. Extra income earned from consulting assignments and teaching assignments outside the regular teaching programmes was shared between the teaching staff bringing in the resources and the institution. A third component was the ‘common pool’ shared with the non-revenue generating teaching staff and the non-teaching staff. A faculty committee, constituted to review the older scheme, decided to remove the ‘common pool’. The male Shrews saw this as a huge loss of the booty and questioned the institutional process and ‘rules’ through which such a decision was taken. After much back and forth she convinced the majority that the decision was taken in a decentralized way. This is the bane of a decentralized system of administration where authority and power are coveted, but not the responsibility that goes with it! The male ‘Shrews’ were silenced and they returned to sulking, awaiting the next opportunity to strike!

 In many of the tasks and decisions the woman head encountered what Andrea Calem called the ‘elder petty tyrant, the pedant, the bombast, the frustrated sulker’, the male ‘Shrews’. It requires a strong and assertive head to deal with the resistance to change coming from the internal teams. Being a professional and handling these problems in a professional manner is a solution, but easier said than done! Most professions and institutions have variants of the male ‘Shrew’. If the head of the institution was a man, would he have encountered such pettiness? I guess he would have, but the male head would be seen as doing a good job! The woman has to prove herself at every instance and every day! The cost of breaking the glass ceiling!

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