You may see them in the women who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.
They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice queens,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Women” -- the women who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “bro-hood” of academic administration.
Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Women have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Women and listen to them.
They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Women have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts -- among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices.
There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are moms, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.
Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Women with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced -- and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.
It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry female colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Women is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest women hold the floor longer than their male colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their male colleagues.
In fact, you may begin to see them as men should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Women take on the feminine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their male colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Women. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of women who have joined its ranks and obtained success.
But instead of dismissing Prickly Women, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Women -- they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.
What Prickly Women have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.
Prickly Women on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Women know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.
Prickly Women very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Women are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Women have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Women’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.
Prickly Women are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.
Prickly Women work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.
Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Women, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Women are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.
Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Women. Find and engage them.
And, if you are a Prickly Woman, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Women everywhere. Persevere.