Professional women beware: the dangers of the self-sacrificing women are many. You may be her and in that case, you are in danger. You may work in the same office she does and in that case, you are in danger. Finally, if you are a working woman, I am sorry to say you are in danger as your presence at work calls upon the unfortunate history of the self-sacrificing woman, for she has been where you are and her legacy lives on. In other words, all women suffer because of the self-sacrificing woman. The sooner we learn to distance ourselves from this role and to stop admiring or emulating the women who fail to see the harm they inflict upon other women in adopting the yoke of self-sacrifice, the better.
Who is the self-sacrificing woman? In one department with which I was briefly affiliated, the self-sacrificing woman was Bethany (a pseudonym). Bethany was a brilliant and talented young professor. She was very well-liked in her department and admired. She was a talented researcher but usually put her classes first as she felt strongly beholden to her students. Bethany was also involved in a few committees on campus, some of them high-profile. When one committee chair asked her if she would be interested in taking over as chair in the near future, Bethany was initially very excited by the prospect–it would be a great leadership opportunity and one that would help advance her career. But in the end, she declined. Although she loved the work the committee performed and had great visions for its future, accepting such a role and its responsibilities would mean a class or two of course release and Bethany worried about burdening her department with finding someone to teach her classes and creating any extra work for her colleagues. Bethany passed and the new committee chair, a gentleman in roughly the same stage in his career, accepted the post and the next year was named the director of a newly formed academic service on campus.
Bethany also had a baby while I worked with her; she delivered her baby 3/4 of the way into the fall semester and went on maternity “leave.” Despite her new responsibilities in the home, Bethany still attended campus events and conference-called in to faculty meetings. And despite the hard-earned victories of feminists and professional women in passing the FMLA, ensuring in part, protected time away from work to care for one’s new family, Bethany did her best to continue to perform as many duties as possible while on maternity leave.
While Bethany might sound like an amazing employee, her mantra of self-sacrifice is harmful to her and to other women.
First, Bethany is doing herself no service by putting the needs of others above her own. Women are socialized to do this from an early age, but it is a handicap we need to overcome in our professional lives. In her book, Women, Work, & the Art of Savoir Faire, Mireille Guiliano encourages women to understand how the company for which they work views them. She writes, “Understand that whatever your role, from the company’s perspective, seen from several cloud layers above your flying level, you are not a person; you are a box and function on an organizational chart. . . . Your needs as a person rarely figure in corporate decision making, even at small companies. . . . when tough decisions are being made, [higher ups] will make business decisions in the best interest of the company. It’s not personal, it’s business, as the saying goes.”
Bethany is very considerate when it comes to how her professional goals and ambitions may impact the institution. Too bad for Bethany this consideration is usually not reciprocal. The institution’s leaders will rarely (if ever) stop and think how their goals and plans for the campus will impact Bethany. They certainly wouldn’t decide against a particular course of action because it may inconvenience her. Bethany’s self-sacrifice is a one-way street and traveling down it will not serve her well. You know who it does serve? The guy who had no qualms about pursuing a career trajectory he found rewarding and desirable. That guy is now on the path to administration and making three-to-four times the salary as Bethany.
Second, Bethany is (albeit unconsciously) hurting other women by continuing to operate under a banner of self-sacrifice. When another woman in my department became pregnant a year after Bethany, there were many references to the tone Bethany set. The other woman was told she was expected to continue to attend department meetings, even if it meant via conference call, and to stay involved in the department while on leave via committee service and work on department initiatives. Bethany had established an expectation of what women in the department could and should do while on leave. Time after birth was no longer solely for family, recovery, and navigating the world of motherhood, but for demonstrating your commitment to the job and the unnecessary extravagance of maternity leave. Because Bethany did it, other women could do it, so went the department logic. This is dangerous logic that ignores a host of factors (like the different resources women may have access to). The bottom line is: Bethany shouldn’t do it. Even if she wants to, even if she can. Women have very little in the way of official policies recognizing their biological differences from men and the extra burden those differences place on their lives and careers. Brazenly flaunting the superfluity of those protections is extremely dangerous.
Third, Bethany has confused her coworkers with her friends. This is a mistake many women make. It may sound harsh, but it is important to keep these categories of interpersonal relationships distinct. When I consult with women on their professional communication, this is the point on which I receive the most push back. It is also the point on which I receive the most fervent agreement. The former comes from women who are convinced they can navigate the tricky terrain of close friends at work. The latter comes from women who used to think so until they experienced the inevitable disjunction between these worlds. As women, we grow up and are socialized to value relationships above outcomes, and this often does us a disservice in the professional world. I am not saying don’t be friendly at work. Be kind, be cordial; you can even care about your coworkers! But do not allow the relationship with a coworker to become the primary feature of your work, to the point where you are unwilling to take a step forward in your career or support a new initiative because it may harm your friendship. Consider appropriate distance and “keep in mind that your job is only part of who you are. Your work is your work, and your life is your life. . . . Always remember that making friends is not an objective of a business situation,” (from Gail Evans’ book, Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman).
Part of me should feel sad for Bethany, I suppose. But most of me is mad at Bethany. Of course, I have been a self-sacrificing woman in the past and I still find myself performing the activities and behaviors of self-sacrifice every-so-often (and to be clear, I think there is one big whopping difference between self-sacrificing and being a team player). I am trying to be conscious of both my internal dialogue telling me to go the extra mile and advise one more struggling student group during the academic year (a difficult and perhaps fruitless job–there is a reason no one else is clamoring for the role) and the external expectations cultivated by ghosts of self-sacrificing women, past and present.
Self-sacrifice is a professional impediment. Please, for my sake if not for your own, think about making career decisions that do not revolve around self-sacrifice.