Some Friendly Advice for Female Graduate Students by Grace Yia-Hei Kao


I’m officially in “back to school” mode, as I put the finishing touches on my syllabi, get my course websites ready, and prepare my 5-year old son for Kindergarten.

As I think about new graduate students studying theology or ministry, I’m reminded that while women make-up approximately 1/3 of all seminary students nationwide, at the place at which I work  (Claremont School of Theology), they comprise half of the student body.

In honor of all the new, especially female, matriculates (at my school or elsewhere), I’m reposting below one of my first entries on this blogsite. It was entitled “Undermining Our Own Authority.” The advice I gave then still captures what I’d say now.

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“I’ll be the first to admit that it can be difficult, if not exhausting, for women professionals to discern how to be strong and assertive (and thus be taken seriously) without coming across as arrogant or b*tchy. But there is indeed room for play between over-deference and cockiness, and the ability to code-switch while in formal settings would be a good step in the right direction for many of us.”

Whatever your take is on Madonna’s feminist bona fides, she was definitely on to something in her 2001 hit “What it Feels Like For a Girl.”  Madonna sang about the tremendous pressures females of all ages face to conform to gendered norms of physical appearance and demeanor. I use her lyrics below to discuss some ways I have seen young women in academe subtly undermine their own authority.

To cut to the chase: female students and junior scholars have a greater tendency than their male counterparts to engage in self-sabotaging patterns of speech, writing, and body language. I say these things both as someone who has worked with undergraduate and graduate students for the past 10 years and as someone who has had (and still has) to train herself out of certain bad habits.

Many of us have been conditioned under mainstream conventions of femininity to self-efface, remain deferential toward men, and project an aura of a soft and inviting presence. The problem in academic settings is that these “ladylike” behaviors lead others to see us as insecure, under-confident, and unqualified.

“When you open up your mouth to speak / Could you be a little weak?” (Madonna)

Let’s start with public speaking. While there are several pitfalls to avoid, the one I’ll focus on here is very common: the tendency among women (and also, anecdotally, among “out” gay men who have affected speech) to end their declarative sentences with an upward lilt or inflection, effectively transforming their statements into questions.

What I mean is the following. Instead of hearing this:

“Today, I’m gong to talk about Kierkegaard. I’m going to argue that standard interpretations of his Fear and Trembling are mistaken.”

I effectively hear this:

“Today, I’m going to talk about Kierkegaard?  I’m going to argue that standard interpretations of his Fear and Trembling are mistaken?”

To state the obvious, the speaker in the second set of sentences projects uncertainty, tentativeness, and a desire to please others. Those might be good things if the speaker is an already established senior scholar or is otherwise speaking in a context where s/he is clearly the one with more power or status (e.g., a veteran teacher to students), since the upwards lilt “works against type” in suggesting openness and an accommodating posture.

But the upwards inflection generally won’t help those students or scholars who are trying to establish themselves as credible, competent, and authoritative. Embodiment, in short, counts. Speakers who appear younger or smaller in size than those in the audience or those who present themselves as über-feminine in appearance or demeanor should be extra careful about their inflection, lest they feed into existing stereotypes of their submissiveness or lack of seriousness.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m neither saying that women should be trained to “speak like men,” nor that there is no space for hesitation or vulnerability in academe. I’ll be the first to admit that it can be difficult, if not exhausting, for women professionals to discern how to be strong and assertive (and thus be taken seriously) without coming across as arrogant or b*tchy. But there is indeed room for play between over-deference and cockiness, and the ability to code-switch while in formal settings would be a good step in the right direction for many of us.

(As an aside that I won’t flesh out here, I mapped out in my head the above points last Sunday in church while watching an ASL interpreter. That led me to wonder if there were comparable gendered patterns of communicating through sign language among the deaf community as well).

“When you’re trying hard to be your best / Could you be a little less?” (Madonna)

Let’s now move onto writing style. Students who submit philosophical or argumentative essays for my classes know that they will be evaluated not so much on the conclusion they reach, but on their justification for it (e.g., the adequacy of their textual support or analysis). What I often see among my students—especially, but not exclusively among young women—is that they weaken their claims with unnecessary qualifiers at the beginning of their sentences (viz., “In my opinion….”, “I believe….”, “As I see it….”, “From what I could gather….”)

Notice the difference between these two sentences:

Sentence 1: “Neighbor-love is the most important norm for Christians because of X, Y, and Z.”

Sentence 2: “I think that neighbor-love is the most important norm for Christians because of X, Y, and Z.”

Not only is the “I think” of the second sentence obvious, but the use of a softening or hedging qualifier suggests insecurity on the part of the author to allow the argumentation to stand on its own. It’s as if the writer wants the reader to minimize her findings (i.e., no one in the world but her would have come to that conclusion and, more importantly, the conclusion is unsubstantiated).

Now, I don’t mean to imply that there is never an appropriate time to qualify one’s points. Two exceptions come immediately to mind:

(1) Qualifiers that appropriately signal cases where the writer has not provided sufficient evidence to justify a particular claim but wants to make it anyway (e.g., “While the nature vs. nurture question may never be conclusively resolved, I think that….”

 (2) Qualifiers that are intended to connect the writer’s unique social location to the claim being made (e.g., “As a Californian, second generation Taiwanese American, and progressive Christian, I am appalled that….”)

But bracketing these (and possibly other) exceptions, writers should avoid using these self-undermining qualifiers when composing argumentative essays because their addition weakens the overall tone of their work.

Body Language

Since I am running out of space to address the issue of body language properly, I will close by quoting Dr. Karen Kelsky of the “Professor Is In” blogsite.  The following passage is taken from her helpful post entitled “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)”:

“And lastly, the handshake. Oh my god, the handshake. If you do nothing else from this post, please, I beg you, do this. Get up from your computer, go find a human, and shake their hand. Shake it firmly. Really squeeze!  Outstretch your arm, grip their hand with all your fingers and thumb, look them firmly in the eye, smile in a friendly, open way, and give that hand a nice, firm shake. Repeat. Do this until it’s second nature. If it doesn’t feel right or you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, find an alpha male in your department, and ask him to teach you. Seriously, grad students, butch it up.”

Good advice for all of us.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two co-edited anthologies: one on exploring women’s theological lives, the other on introducing Asian American Christian Ethics. She invited you to read more about her work on her website.

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Categories: Academy, Gender and Power, Women and Ministry, Women's Agency

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14 replies

  1. Listen to this woman. She is an AWESOME academic!

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  2. Great advice, Grace! Better to appear (a little) intellectually (and even physically) intimidating than seem to be a milk toast, who will be eaten alive in the next, usually self-important, overconfident, masculine response. In another, but related vein, I remember Helen Reddy, who could sing “I am woman, hear me roar,” because her voice sounded like a sweet, unthreatening pop singe (which, of course, she was). But can you imagine Odetta singing that? Or Bonnie Raitt?

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  3. Very weird to read hetero women talk about ” speaking like men.” When I speak, I am a butch dyke who takes no prisoners. I have zero patience for men who get in my way. There have been men who have mistaken me for a door mat. They don’t make the same mistake twice.

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  4. Thank you for the repost, Grace! Back in October 15, 2011, i first read this post and wrote the following, which you replied to. I still want to share it, very slightly amended.
    “I don’t have a lilt in my voice, but i especially find your second point regarding a voice that speaks academic confidence to be entirely applicable to me. Believing that i was showing intellectual humility, what i really lacked was the confidence to take a stand on my own ideas in light of the many who have thought through them before me.
    But regarding the last point, i i make no effort to “really squeeze” and read nothing into “firm” handshakes. I am old enough to have known confident people with gentle handshakes, and others with esteem issues who tried to mangle my hand in a vice grip in a silly attempt to compensate for their insecurities through a (failed) attempt at intimidating strength. I think (“i think”- sigh) that, more important than consciously molding our behavior to adapt to those who read too much into it and presume to know our character based on it, energy needs to be put towards educating those who assume that they can define us based on such arbitrary criteria.”

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  5. I hear what you are saying, but I am not satisfied.

    You are telling women to have the courage of our convictions. That is good.

    At the same time, white male speech patterns in the academy efface positionality and standpoint. If it is never true “that x is true” with no qualifications of context or standpoint, then what do we do. When we assert our positionality by saying “I think” or “as a white feminist, I think” we are rarely met by the rejoinder “as a dominant white male in a position of power (over you) I think.” Still, I don’t think women should necessarily be told we are wrong when we preface statements with “I think.” Perhaps this locution is not simply lack of confidence but nascent recognition that all statements come from standpoints.

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    • Good point, Carol. Intellectual humility and intellectual confidence can (an should) go together. We’re human, not divine. AND I believe that in at least Grace’s other two points, she’s taking about first impressions, which can be very important. In order not to be written off from the very beginning, it’s important to play their “confidence game.”

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  6. I find women and our speech patterns delightful within our women centric groups. There is no reason for this posturing. One must have an aggressive in your face stance with men naturally, because they are the patriachs and the oppressors. Never give them the benefit of the doubt. And really, I have no desire to ever study with or listen to males blathering in the academy again. It’s why women’s colleges are so powerful, why women who graduate from these places do so well, because it is pretty worthless engaging men.

    And I know women who are physically weak, and straight men are such thoughtless aggressors with handshakes, that my women friends in this situation, have to just back away and never shake their hands period. Gay men, interestingly enough, never seem to injure women with their handshakes I notice. I think the aggressive straight white male handshake is an unconscious form of woman hatred, the desire to dominate and injure, just as they are domineering in the academy as well.

    All women groups! Leave the boys to their worlds, and women unite — half the world walking out on those male lectures! Why do women bother anymore?

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    • I have to agree with you, Turtle Woman, about how some men shake hands. I had a mean uncle, who used to crush our hands whenever he came to visit. I think he “crushed” his wife and daughters, too, and he bullied my father when he was a kid.

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  7. Great advice here, this is so important for young women like me. Dr. Kao, I don’t know if you remember me, but I had a class with you at Virginia Tech about 5 years ago (Women, Ethics, and Religion). I absolutely loved that class! I still think about the things I learned in your class and how they apply to my life. I’m glad I happened to come across this post, hope you’re doing well!

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  8. Thanks, Grace for the good advice. It’s a timely reminder for me and my students!

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