On Ambition

on ambition
It won’t be long until this is my office and you can’t find me.

I took on another committee position at my job. I’m a tenured professor who overdoes it in the “service to the university” category regularly. In addition to being the vice chair of the faculty, I’m now the chair of promotion and tenure–the committee which initially handles and judges all applications for promotion and tenure. I was terrified of this committee when I first started my job. Now I’m the boss.

I took the spot in part because no one else wanted it–three of us were qualified, and the other two were “not it” before I could speak. “Not it” is a pretty common phenomenon in higher ed–in part, because we’re all teaching and already doing a zillion ‘service’ jobs (service is the name for committee work and other voluntary activities done outside of teaching. It’s one of the three legs of the higher ed stool–if you’ve got a coveted and unicorn-rare tenure-track position, you usually need to provide evidence routinely of the three legs in order to move through the pipeline to tenure. The third leg is research).

Major positions like this one have long been the bastion of men, as they’re pretty powerful in terms of one’s campus. I didn’t think much of it, because my university is heavily populated by women. But when I told another group of women from other unis that I would have to leave my work with them in order to take on chairing promotion and tenure, they were full of congratulations–not just because I’d gotten the position, but because I’m one of few women to do so.

That gave me some real pause. And what had felt, in part, like a job I had little choice in doing, I now felt loomed with significance. I was proud to take on the chairperson-ship. And I began to think about my ambition, however subtle, in wanting the spot to begin with; and why I’d been quiet about it, deferring to the others (all women) before saying I’d chair.

Are we as women sometimes ashamed of our own ambition, particularly when it’s not expected of us? Even those of us who are really tuned into the way our sexist society works have evidently consumed enough of the Kool-Aid to participate in sexist thinking from time to time, as I did. I was all “well, if you want me to chair,  I will” rather than “I’d like to be chair, everyone.” Women have long learned to couch what they want in subtle language, deferring to others, apologizing. How often do you start a convo, ladies, with “I’m sorry to bother you but…” Hell, I apologize to inanimate objects when I bump into them. I am not so different from most women, even though I’m tuned into the “don’t take up space, don’t demand” ethos in which women are socialized.

Even so. In any case, as my colleague at work said, I’m now “a really big deal.” And I’m glad of it.


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