Find the Middle Lane

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Oct 3, 2018

Oct 3, 2018 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

I write about mental health on the internet. I do this writing to help destigmatize mental illness and also to help those who are like me live better lives by seeing where I mess up. Typically, for this magazine, I write about activism in higher education. This month might seem like a departure from that topic—but it really isn't. This column is about how to push back against the gendered expectations that women do more work to succeed in similar ways as our male colleagues; that women never say “no” to things, lest we never get asked again; and the fear that if we don't answer an email right away, we'll be perceived as rude or disorganized.

We need to push back against the expectations of women in the academy—and in all workplaces really—that cause us to run ourselves into the ground.

Gendered Expectations

It's no secret that academia dumps more service work on women. In their research paper, “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?,” Cassandra M. Guarino and Victor M.H. Borden find “evidence in both data sources that, on average, women faculty perform significantly more service than men.” At the same time, the academy simultaneously holds women to higher standards in teaching and scholarship when it comes time for hiring and review. (See, for example, WIHE editor Kelly J. Baker's Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Academia about this very topic.)

Add race to the mix, and the load gets even higher. In “Maids of Academe: African American Women Faculty at Predominately White Institutions,” Debra A. Harley documents “the disproportionate role African American women assume in service, teaching, and research” at predominantly white institutions.

The point I'm making is that women are expected to do more than men in order to achieve the same amount—or less—in careers in higher education.

Trained to Overwork

This gendered training to overwork ourselves starts in graduate school, when we learn quickly to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes our way: every panel, every book review, anything that might push our job application up a little higher in the queue. We know that the market is tough out there, and we know it's even tougher for women.

But after being trained to say yes to everything, to work twice as hard to achieve the same or less, what happens? What happens to our mental health and our happiness? We end up where I am right now: overachieving, exceptionally hard working and near the breaking point.

I was so near the breaking point earlier this year that I nearly died.

And the funny and tragic thing is, what nearly killed me was my hobby. I made it to the state championships in tennis, a sport I picked up a couple of years ago, and in the brutal heat of summer in the South I played five matches in three days, got heatstroke and nearly died. That's not a hobby. That's obsession.

If that's the way I relaxed, then something was clearly wrong.

I went to see my psychiatrist for my monthly check‐in, and I asked her about the heatstroke. Not about getting it—no, I knew how I got it. I needed to know why I got it. Why did I risk my life for a sport I play for fun? Why do I push myself so hard when I have two kids waiting for me back home and a husband I love?

She said, “You play tennis the way you do everything else. You have no other way of doing things.” And then she said the words I haven't been able to shake ever since she spoke them. She said, “What you need is a middle lane.” She said, “If you drive in the fast lane all the time, you will eventually break down. You need to drive in the middle lane.”

I know I made a face as she spoke. I made the face you make when you smell something stinky. She asked me what was wrong.

I said, “The middle lane is the mediocre lane.”

She said, “No, it isn't. And until you can figure out why, you're going to keep having trouble.”

Finding the Middle Lane

So, I had to go home and figure out why I was wrong. And then I did figure it out. I had an epiphany, and I wanted to share it with all of the women who read this magazine.

Because you were trained the way I was. If you're reading this, you were taught to work twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as much, for twice as long. You were taught that if you weren't in the fast lane, you weren't working hard enough.

In short, you were lied to.

You were taught that if you say “no” to an opportunity, then the next time they won't ask you. That's not true. They do ask. I know, because I started saying “no.” And guess what: they ask even more now because they think I'm special or something because I say no. You were taught not to ask for too much money when someone asks what your fee is, not to “price yourself out of a job.” That's a lie too. I know because I've raised my rates—a lot. And now I can work half as much and make twice as much. And the people who are willing to pay that much—what I am worth—those are the clients who respect me. They respect my time and respect my work. That's the middle lane.

The middle lane is not the mediocre lane. It's the opposite of that. It's the lane where you call the shots instead of being jerked along by everybody else's demands. It's the lane where you set the deadline. It's the lane where you set the rates. Where one project at a time is enough. One conference a semester. Where talking about money isn't uncouth; it's standing up for yourself.

I know we can't be there all the time, but we can be there more than we think we can. We just have to overcome what we've been taught. That's harder than it sounds, because I've been trying to do it now for a while. But you can get there. I can get there. We can get there, together.


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