#heforshe · administration · equity · ideas for change · modest proposal · role models

What can I ask for? A modest proposal

Academic women are often confounded when presented with the opportunity, obligation, or occasion to ask someone for something: money, teaching release, academic accommodation, etc. This confounding almost invariably results in women structurally under-asking and under-receiving, relative to male peers. And I know how to fix it.

What am I talking about?

Let’s say you are applying for a grant that requires matching funds. (Matching funds: some combination of you, your institution, partners or sponsor kicks in some money, and the granting agency matches it.) Let’s say you are asking your research office or some other funds-holding body on campus for these funds. My dearest spouse has been the receiver of such requests, for a variety of programs, for the last ten years, from hundreds of researchers. Here are the two far ends of the spectrum of requests, composites and only slightly exaggerated.

Professor A: “I need the research office to give me $50,000 in matching funds for this big important grant because I am big and important and if I get this grant the university will look bigger and more important.”

My spouse: “Well, no. We don’t even have $50,000 in that entire fund, and we must serve multiple researcher requests.”

Professor A, ten seconds later: “How much is in the fund?”

My spouse: “$10,000.”

Professor A, five seconds later: “That’s not very much! I need that $10,000 and who can I write to to ask for more? Is it the VP Research? What’s his email address?”

Professor B: “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to ask you for some matching funds for my grant? It’s a funder requirement. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”

My spouse: “Of course! How much do you want?”

Professor B, after delay of three days: “I don’t know, is maybe $1000 too much?”

My spouse: “Don’t you need more than that? How much do you need?”

Professor B, after a further delay of three days: “I don’t want to be a bother! I’m so sorry I’m doing this wrong! What can I ask for? Maybe I shouldn’t submit this grant, I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.”


Guess who gets the most money here? These are composite cases, but the gist of it is incredibly common. Professor A asks for the moon, and when shut down proceeds in a completely unembarrassed way to find out what the maximum is, and then to ask for that. Professor B is cringingly embarrassed to have to ask for anything, tries to ask for the absolute minimum, and upon receiving a followup suggesting the ask be altered, assumes they themselves are incompetent and withdraws from competition.

I leave you to guess the gender distribution into A and B categories.

I leave you to guess who wins the most grants, get the most matching funds, gets better funding, thus puts themselves in line for accolades and further prestige. Guess.

Me, there are a bunch of opportunities I don’t pursue because I would have to ask for resources. My first year as grad chair, I missed out on some recruitment funds because I wasn’t sure if I was entitled to ask, if my asks were reasonable, who I was being compared against, what the priorities were, and how much money I could ask for and for what. There was a “cookie jar” of unallocated funds. All the grad chairs could ask for funds from it, as needed. Well, shit, I don’t perform well under those conditions. No rules, no criteria, no guidelines on what and how much and how often and when. I’m getting nervous just thinking about it. I also hate it when people ask me my fee for talks: shit, I don’t know. How much are you paying the other speakers? What’s your budget? What would be reasonable? Just the other week I was on the verge of a clinical breakdown and my plan was to complain on the internet instead of asking for help that would cost someone money–like a good girl I waited for it to be offered to me. I know people, by contrast, who legit fight to get their teaching all arranged on ONE day of the week so they never have to be on campus.

People who aggressively ask, get more stuff. Aptitude for such aggression is often gendered. Institutional acceptance of aggression is often also gendered: you know, “God, she’s so pushy and demanding, who does she think she is?” versus “He really has no tact, but what a genius!”

A modest proposal 

In the spirit of He for She, I’m going to ask the mostly dudes who are in charge around here to do something pretty simple to make the soft-money and informal-arrangements a little fairer to the shy people as well as the bold. The team players as well as the out-for-themselfers.

Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.

For matching funds, why not have a page describing the process, something like this:

For X Award, researchers must secure matching funds from private and public sector partners, and from their institutions. Normally, the Office of Research can offer between $2500 and $7500 in matching funds in support of applications to this program. We are happy to work with you to determine your needs and to help you fulfill them. In some cases, extra funds may be deemed necessary, and such requests will be considered by the Important People Committee. 

Me, if I knew the parameters of the possible, I would feel WAY more comfortable making an ask. If I knew that the whole thing is negotiable and contingent, I would feel WAY more comfortable with a fuzzy rather than perfect ask.

I think the Powers that Be also need to note that many women are going to be more Professor B than Professor A. And even with clear parameters, are probably going to ask for less. I know it is tempting to let the shy and accommodating people just take less money, so you can get the aggressive and self-aggrandizing Professor B some more money so that he will leave you alone. But maybe that’s not, actually, fair. Maybe that’s not, actually, about whose proposal or whose research is actually better or more worthy, but about who is the squeaky wheel, and who is not. It’s resource allocation based on noise, not quality, frankly.

We can figure out new ways to be transparent about teaching allocation, and informal accommodations, and all the other “soft” requests that we always resist formalizing because of a desire to maintain “wiggle room.” I suggest to you, though, that some people are wiggling a lot harder than others, and tend to jostle the rest of us right off the bench and onto the floor. Wiggle room is often an excuse for the arbitrary distribution of resources, even if we like to frame it as room for empathetic discretion.

A modest suggestion

Many Hook and Eye readers, I am sure, identify way more with Professor B than Professor A. And that’s fine. So do I. But it’s worth learning a little bit about how the other side lives. I have learned, for example, that it’s not necessary to be embarrassed by asking for too much or not enough. Someone will tell you “no,” but it’s not “NO BECAUSE YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT OMIGOD I CAN’T BELIEVE WE HIRED YOU.” It’s more, “no, can’t do it — reframe the request and I’ll consider it again.” Or sometimes it’s just, “no, sorry, ran out of money, oh well.” Seriously. I just learned that, like, this year.

It’s admirable to want to be a good team player. But not to the point of total effacement of your own needs and desires. I deal with enough Professor A types to never want to be that person. But I have been Professor B enough times to know that I’m never going to reach my potential that way either.

So if you are a B type, see if you can push yourself a tiny little bit out of your comfort zone. Maybe you have book deadline in a teaching term — maybe ask if you can do some repeat courses instead of new preps in that one term. Maybe you have taken on a big admin role — maybe you can ask to have your courses compressed into fewer days to buy yourself some breathing space. Maybe your one course consistently overenrolls way higher than other similar courses — maybe you can ask for TA or grader support. Just ask; maybe it will be no, and that’s ok. But maybe it will be yes.

8 thoughts on “What can I ask for? A modest proposal

  1. Yes to all of this. Other things it might be okay to ask for.

    No classes scheduled before 11 a.m. (would give you the ability to write every morning before you come into the office).

    1 day per week WITHOUT scheduled teaching. (this is VERY reasonable, unlike the “all teaching on one day” request.) Be clear that this is so you can have a RESEARCH DAY!!

    Admin support for big admin jobs. Admin support for your research (paid out of your grant, maybe but ask how to get part of an admin person).

    Help from the Research Office or the Advancement/Development Office to secure matching funds from other organizations.


  2. One place where steps have been taking to create exactly this sort of clarity, where all used to be unspecified “send us a request and we'll think it over”, is in the Arts Research Office at Waterloo. It was put in place for reasons very much like the ones described in this post. Credit where it is due, I think … a very progressive move by an Associate Dean.

    In response to JoVE, one suggestion makes me a bit itchy, though I'm a bit worried about how to get across what worries me about it.

    Let me try to explain. Of course, how scheduling works varies a lot between universities, and a mercy of centralized systems is that they tend to take the ability to meet some requests out of the hands of Chairs … but even if it is in a Chair's hands, the advice about asking for no teaching before 11 is only reasonable if you're also going to be reasonable about being told “nope, can't do it, at least not this term.” Somebody has to teach the early morning classes, and sometimes it's going to be your turn to do it. I'd personally be concerned about asking in a way that sounds like “Your scheduling needs fail to match my working style,” which invites a response along the lines of “you realize that you've got a job, right?” So careful how you phrase this one. Of course,knowing that you, TOO, prefer a later teaching start is a way to make sure that the Chair isn't always giving the plums to someone else who asked for it. So ask in a reasonable way, and bear in mind Aimee's remark about how sometimes your requests will be deemed unworkable, and people might frankly tell you so.


  3. “Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.”

    So much “Yes!” to this. Honestly, over the years I have been shocked many times to discover what some people were getting, or getting away with, either by just assuming they could or by the lack of any mechanism or leverage to get different results — and this always happens at the expense of the diffident or the cooperative.


  4. This works all over in academia. I got bored and wandered off for a bit and when I decided to come back to academia, I saw a job and at the interview I told them that I had to be paid at the top of the pay band. They said 'em..' and then paid me anyway. It turned out the way they did this was to pay the other person appointed less to make up the difference because they never asked.


  5. I was thinking about this the other day – it's partly I think to do with the fact that prof. A will seek out advice on how to negotiate process x. Prof. B works on the basis that process x is simply a way to filter people and actively looks at ways to ignore it or get around it. So take promotions – prof. A will take the process very seriously and make sure they absolutely exceeded every aspect on it before appealing it. Prof. B likely doesn't even read the promotional criteria and looks for the political influence to simply circumvent the process. They will work out who to do a deal with.

    Underpinning this is that Prof. B doesn't look at processes as something to engage with and build toward but simply to overcome. You can spot them because they get funding requests looked at out of cycle and get promoted without going near a promotional panel.

    Prof. A thinks it is about work ethic, prof. B thinks it's about deals and networking.


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