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The Path to Success as a Woman Academic

If you want to do your best work, you must begin not by focusing on the work but on who you are.
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I am a philosopher's daughter. Raised by a single mother who taught philosophy and later became a university administrator, Aristotle's golden mean was something I knew about in the fourth grade. While a part of me longed for a "normal mom" who stayed home and baked cookies, I also saw when I visited my friends' homes after school that those moms were not very happy.

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer and I have spent my adult life balancing writing and teaching--first in academia and now in my coaching practice with women academics from around the globe. I bring this experience to The Feminar, which combines mindfulness and feminist theory to help women academics make powerful contributions to the world.

School was a haven for me. It was where I could excel, gain recognition, and feel esteemed for my performance. But as I changed from an A student to a teacher in the academy, I started realizing the limitations of focusing only on the mind, the intellect, and the quest for achievement and success.

If you want to do your best work, you must begin not by focusing on the work but on who you are. This is made up of your particular culture, history, geography, race, sexuality, and perspective. It is about claiming your voice by knowing that what you bring to your teaching and research and writing is different from anyone else.

In Audre Lorde's "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," she asserts, "It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences." Just because we share the category "women" does not mean that we are alike.

Let's take a look at what some participants in The Feminar wrote when I asked them to rewrite "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" in their own words, given the new understandings they acquired after examining the origins of the key words in the phrase.

One woman wrote, "By cultivating my own unique voice and using innovative approaches, I will carve out my own place in my field."

The phrases "my own unique" and "my own place" show me that this woman places a high value on being autonomous, not trying to copy or emulate others but having a sense of independence and freedom in her work. It reveals a particularly American set of values.

Another woman wrote this: "The Master's soul will always give rise to the Master's house."

This woman is originally from Egypt, and now, as a professor in Europe, she shows that she is a practicing Muslim by wearing a head scarf. This visual marker sets her apart from her colleagues and students, and so her statement focuses not so much on the values of independence and freedom (which she is already demonstrating through her dress) but on how her commitment to a spiritual depth leads her to a sense of mastery and security in her work.

Here's another woman's statement: "Authority 'out there' is an illusion and I need to strip off the layers of anything hiding authentic work."

This is interesting because she rewrote the word "master" in two ways: as authority and authentic. Both of these words derive from the same root as "author," and The Feminar is a way for women to become the authors of their own lives. We might say that this woman's statement combines the external freedom of the first woman's statement with the interior focus of the second woman's.

When we begin with our differences, not only do we gain a better sense of who we are and what we bring to the discussion, but we are able to appreciate others' unique perspectives, as well.

Lorde writes, "For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive."

In the context of academe, we live and work under an economic model that assumes there is a finite pie of resources and only so much to go around. This leads to a sense of competition and comparison between our colleagues and us.

But one woman's success does not diminish the success of another. Therefore, to nurture another's well-being by acknowledging her differences is the way we "dismantle the master's house."

Another woman in The Feminar wrote this: "I will create and write on my own terms."

This is a short-hand version of Lorde's conception of how connecting with other women is empowering for our creative work: "Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative."

Isolation, sameness, and competition: these are the values through which the academy functions to silence women and keep them from their best work.

But by applying the golden mean to our understanding, we can come to see the need for connection, difference, and cooperation.

By beginning with who we are, expressing our differences, nurturing each other, and knowing there is no limit to the possibility of new ideas, we empower ourselves and begin to do the work we've always dreamed of doing.


I designed my class for women academics, The Feminar, as a way to give support and accountability to women scholars who struggle with questions of privilege and oppression, reason and emotion, sabotage and empowerment. This is the second in a series of five posts on these themes, and you can join me for a free tele seminar on "The 5 Mistakes Academic Women Make" this Wednesday.