I consider myself a social justice educator, and as a social justice educator, I understand the importance of doing “my own work.” Essentially, I recognize how vital self-knowledge is to my ability to educate. And though my work in self-knowledge and social justice will never be finished, I very much feel that my exploration of my identity as a woman has only just begun. I owe a debt of gratitude to the community I’ve found through social media, on the WISA blog and with #wlsalt. Without these two things, I’m certain I would not be this deep in my journey.
As this August rolled around, a time student affairs folks both anticipate and dread, I found myself preparing to tackle a new challenge: supervising an almost entirely female professional staff.
Some context for this particular challenge: last year was my first year supervising professional staff members. I directly supervise five resident directors. In 2011 – 2012, four of those five were men. For the 2012 – 2013 academic year, four of those five are women.
Any time a staff almost completely turns over, change is expected. And while I champion the need for change, I still dislike the uncertainty it often brings. An uncertainty sloshed around inside me with added anxieties of my “new” role. In addition to thinking about the general needs of several new staff members, most of whom are beginning their first professional job in student affairs, I began to consider what it meant for me to be the woman supervising these women.
In all honesty, the first thing I wondered was “how will I connect with a bunch of women?” Like many women, I sometimes find myself putting other women down – considering “other” women dramatic and high maintenance. I hear myself saying how much easier it is to connect with men. We can talk about sports together (I truly love football at my core). How in the world would I deal with a bunch of women and their drama?
But then, I began to ask myself all sorts of “real” questions. How can I be sure to give them what they need? How will I be a strong role model for them? What will I do when I see them making mistakes I’ve made – will I be sure to help them avoid those errors or instead guide them through the learning afterward? What if I can’t do enough, be enough for them?
I’m not sure when it happened, but eventually I realized that my questions became more about me than about my supervisees. I realized that I continue to feel unsure of myself in my role and very uncertain about my ability to be a “strong” female role model. What does that even mean? And that uncertainty and vulnerability helped me to realize the best thing I can offer these women – ME.
I will make mistakes. I will be vulnerable and authentic. I will have emotional moments (I am a crier). I will stand up for them. I will disagree with them. I will support them. I will push them to be better. I will allow them to stretch and find their own voice. And among all those actions, we will all grow, as individuals and as women.
In our short time together, their individual voices are already emerging for me. I see strength, confidence, honesty, persistence, support, and humor. I also see questioning, moments of insecurity, disagreement, and maybe even a little bit of drama. In some ways, I have seen more of these moments, particularly of their worries and anxiety, than I ever saw in my staff last year. While I have no doubt those moments existed for the men I supervised, it seems as though these women are more ready to share those moments with me. And I am so grateful. It is in those moments I most see myself; in those moments, I feel most like I can make an impact.
Looking back to my first positions in student affairs, I know I asked a thousand questions, apologized incessantly, and needed a great deal of validation. Some of those things lurk around, needing attention even six years into my career. I remember the men who supervised me handling those needs in different ways – some who nurtured me and helped me gain confidence in myself through that nurturing and others who pointed out my lack of self-confidence and wondered with me about the learned gendered nature of my actions. I feel so much of myself in these four young women, excitedly starting their new roles at my institution. They are asking questions and directly or indirectly looking for feedback that lets them know they are on the right track. I hope I can be what they need in a supervisor and in a woman. I hope that I can connect with them and cultivate a staff dynamic where they can continue to connect with one another. More than anything else, I am excited to share my journey with them.
Do you supervise women differently? What do you do to be what your supervisees need?
Erica K. Thompson www.ericakthompson.com www.twitter.com/EricaKThompson