No More Mean Girls

Finding joy in your work.

January 27, 2022

In today’s post, I’m continuing with lessons from Marjorie Hass on finding joy in your work from her book A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education.

Noticing What You Enjoy

Hass recommends keeping a list of things that you enjoy about your work, reviewing it regularly and keeping it up-to-date. My list of energizing activities has quite a bit of overlap with hers. These include:

  • Inspiring others
  • Creating opportunities to speak, write and create
  • Learning new things every day
  • Meeting interesting people
  • Making change happen

I also have a couple of items that are not on her list:

  • Finding ways to bring the assets of higher ed—through our faculty and students—to our local communities. I thrive on community-engaged work.
  • Empowering students as change makers in the world. I am an eternal optimist, and I believe in a better tomorrow. Our young people inspire me and give me hope that a better tomorrow is possible. They are amazing, and my job is to support and amplify their amazingness.

Mean Girls Are Barriers to Joy

Hass also talks about what gets in the way of finding joy in our work, and she highlights criticism that targets you personally—often it is about your style, personality or an imitation of the way you talk or the things you say. She points out that when this comes from other women, it is even worse. I have called this “mean girl culture,” and she also uses this term. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is all too common in academia. It is the whispered comments and conspiratorial laughter in the hallways, the eye rolling and raised eyebrows exchanged at meetings, and the gaslighting that occurs. Too often we forget that we are role models for our students—particularly those actively trying to figure out who they are. We have undue influence on them, which means we need to do better.

We don’t talk enough about social class in higher ed. Maybe I feel that way because I’m from a working-class background, or because I’m a sociologist, or both. I can’t help but see social class boundary maintenance and punishing behavior in so many interactions on our campuses. In many cultures, women are seen as the keepers of culture. So it is not surprising that mean girl behavior is often class boundary maintenance behavior. When another woman acts in a way that goes against the class norms for a woman, she is brought into line.

Universities and colleges are institutions of social mobility. Many of our institutions are selling a path to a better life, and an unstated part of that “better life” is often a rise in social class. Our first-generation programs on campus have helped us develop the language to be more transparent about this transition.

Unpacking Your Stress and Managing Your Energy

It is important to unpack your stress to give you the tools to start to address it, and this often requires that we look at the emotions that are causing the stress and name them. For women in higher ed, common stressors include anger, fear and shame.

Closely linked to stress is your energy level and the importance of managing your energy. This requires that we notice what brings us energy and what depletes our energy. I recommend engaging in energizing activities before and after an event that you know will be energy depleting. Keep track of your day-to-day activities and rhythms, and give yourself breaks before and after a difficult meeting. Hass refers to these activities as integrating activities, and her list includes activities that resonate with many of us: yoga, meditation, walking in cities, deep conversations with colleagues and visiting art museums.

Keeping your stress to a manageable level and bringing joy to your work life will also help keep a healthy alignment between work and home. Something we could all benefit from.

Now if we can only find ways to reduce the mean-girl eye rolling!

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement and director of the Higher Education Administration program at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.


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