What harm can it do? The emotional cost of asking for something in academia


In academia, people tell you all the time to just go ahead and ask for what you need. ‘What harm can it do?’, they ask. Or, being a woman, they say, “Think what a man would do and do that”, as though it’s literally that easy.

Of course, it should be that easy, but we all know that it’s not.

It’s well understood that women are socialised to undervalue our authority, to put other people’s needs ahead of our own, to think we are not worth what we are actually worth, to not want to be a bother, a burden, or to annoy people by asking. And we all know we should just be our feminist hero selves and get over it, as studies repeatedly show how embedded sexism is in the academy. Sometimes, though, there’s more going on than just gender socialisation.

A recent experience of mine demonstrated how many layers there are to a simple ‘ask for what you need’ instance, and how much more there is to overcome than what society has already told you. For me, I realised how much my own emotional baggage shaped my fears, and how very realistic fears generated by the deliberate precarity of the academic workplace make it genuinely hard to ask for what we need.

I am an Assistant Professor on the tenure track at a private university in the United States. I’m Australian, and I’m also odd in that I’m a historian in a health-related discipline. I’ve spent four years trying to make my mark in a culture I don’t entirely understand, and that’s meant a lot of negotiating about outcomes, teaching, expectations, and salary. Plus, it’s a new position that we’ve been making up as we go. So, it can be hard to ask for what I need in this environment.

Recently, I was awarded a large grant – well, it was large by historian standards. The way it was going to be applied to my work effort was shaped by how large science-type grants are applied, and it was difficult to explain how that wouldn’t work for me. After some back and forth, I was able to negotiate a stop-gap arrangement that I appreciated, but it still meant more work for me later on. Every time I thought about it, it had this sting of unfairness, like looking back at a bad break-up where you didn’t say what you really meant. But there were a number of factors that stopped me from raising the issue again.

First, there is the reality that my tenure line is in a school that attributes workload in a particular way and expects particular types of research outcomes. Yet, I am not a clinicial and I don’t do that kind of research. I felt frustrated at having to explain that again. I worried that I could never make this role work, that I was a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. This one little negotiation revealed a whole underlying sea of stress that I was carrying about my work and life here.

That’s where the personal emotional baggage kicked in. Over and over, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me that I had no right to ask for any special consideration, that I was not entitled to any needs of my own. Of course, I wasn’t having to just defend myself from the voices in my head, but I was also projecting those voices outward. Having to justify and explain my work to my manager – a woman and a scientist – was acting like a childhood trauma trigger.

Once I had that realisation, I wanted to change things quickly. I understood how the reality of the academic workplace was adding to my genuine fears, and not just the triggered ones. My application for tenure is currently in the pipeline and I know that, in a few months, I may be in a position to renegotiate my whole working arrangement. This fact hung over my head like a Sword of Damocles. Should I leave things how they are for a few months, or should I persist with this particular problem now and possibly annoy people and put my tenure application in jeopardy? Many of my colleagues are in the situation of holding their breath until tenure, not wanting to say what they really think until they’re over that hurdle. That is a deliberate feature of academic structures. It’s designed to keep you on the wheel of research production, not causing trouble or asking too many questions. To interfere with that takes more than just feminist bootstraps. It’s to literally put your livelihood, your whole career, on the line.

But I decided to do something anyway. I made some strategic phone calls to make sure that what I wanted wasn’t unreasonable and I got a lot of support. Then I decided to talk to the Dean of the School. That conversation took all of five minutes. She recognised my problem immediately and agreed that what I needed wasn’t unreasonable. She said she would take care of it. Problem solved.

I can’t explain the relief I felt. The size of the relief again signaled to me the size of the stress I’d been carrying. Since the issue has resolved, I’ve felt a million times lighter. I love my job and my workplace again. I’ve been incredibly productive in my writing and feel inspired to keep applying for more grants. I feel positive about my future.

I realised that no-one was looking to fire me, that no-one thought I was a troublemaker. It was encouraging to feel that people wanted me to succeed, because my success is their success. And this resolution didn’t take a lot. I wasn’t asking for more money, just a small reallocation of my workload.

It took a lot for me to get to that space where I felt I could ask. If our workplaces were more collegial and less adversarial, I would have gotten to that space quicker. If I didn’t carry a lot of past trauma or had been socialised a different way, I would have got there quicker again. But I finally did get there, in my own time and in my own way.

So it’s not really that helpful to just tell women to do what a man would do. It’s more helpful to acknowledge the emotional labour that goes into being an academic, and to make people feel that they’re safe and valued. It’s more helpful to acknowledge the very real structural issues that keep people quiet. And it’s also helpful to have structures in place that support truly interdisciplinary work, and not continue to force square pegs into round holes.

Author Bio: Kylie Smith is Assistant Professor and the Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow for Nursing and the Humanities in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta