Out of Time, Out of (My) Mind?

I never planned to write this article. In fact, originally, I was meant to write about something completely different. However, plagued with an array of different commitments at the start of the semester, I had to concede to Bronte, Bossy’s inestimable editor, that no, I no longer had the time to write an article on my experiences wearing a “Refugees Welcome” shirt. As I wrote to her, the reason I could no longer complete the promised piece was that I had too much on at uni (in week one). This situation, as my classic but problematic fave Carrie Bradshaw would say, got me to thinking: why is it that myself and so many other women at ANU always seem to be so damn busy?

When I began thinking about how this situation had come about, the first culprit that sprang to mind was the high-pressure work ethic encouraged by third-wave feminism. I thought back to my high school years at an all-girls school where, since beginning our studies as early teens, we faced a deluge of forcefully optimistic messages. Remember, our teachers crowed: “Girls can do anything!” At every speech day alumna who had worked for the United Nations or become CEOs trumpeted the possibilities of what we could achieve if we too worked hard enough. I still remember realising the magnitude of the fact that I had grown up without any sense of limitation on what I could achieve, unlike my grandmother’s and even my mother’s generation.

However, as the trope goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Now, although obviously not broken, the glass ceiling has been chipped enough so that the broken shards offer women a reflection of life at the top. This is one explanation for why there are now so many women taking on extra commitments. By stacking their resumes with enough unpaid internships and voluntary leadership roles, women can gather the 100 per cent confidence that studies have shown they feel is necessary to apply for a job (compared to 60 per cent for men). Recently, despairing that my pithy legal experience would not be enough to apply for advertised paralegal jobs, a wise friend reminded me of this statistic. “If you were a man”, she noted, “you would apply despite the two-years-experience requirement.”

So yes, women’s newfound ability to enter previously inaccessible workplaces may be part of this over-commitment problem. However, I still feel like this issue can be traced to some deeper causes. To uncover them, I consulted some other busy people I know from around ANU. The students I spoke to were both woman and man-identifying, and mentioned a broad variety of commitments including: study, work, internships, passion projects, creative commitments, social life, exercise and personal rituals and habits such as meditating or reading. Participants revealed a number of different, albeit often connecting, reasons for why they felt they had taken on so many responsibilities.

Difficulty with saying no was a common issue identified by the women I spoke with. I personally find this very difficult at times, and so was eager to find out why other women believe this tendency exists. One participant, Freya, traced it to self-imposed high expectations that made her feel like she always needed to be doing more. This pressure makes her feel the need to prove herself, and she further noted:

“Even when I am equally qualified and experienced, men often don’t treat me as an equal. That just creates more work, both to assert myself externally and to overcome internal self-doubt.”

Another related factor that drives women to take on extra emotional labour roles was traced to gender conditioning. Another participant, Aditi, eloquently summarised how this operates:

“Societal structures [compel] parents to raise their sons and daughters differently, [which] holds women to a higher standard thereby demanding a level of emotional competence not expected of men, and that negates our womanhood if we don’t adhere to these characterisations. It essentially relinquishes men of their complicity in the system, which can be through holding explicitly gendered expectations, or implicitly by way of maintaining their ignorance or privilege without the willingness to learn and share the burden.”

Until more men who remain both implicitly and explicitly complicit acknowledge this truth and act on their awareness in a practical sense, women will continue to be weighed down by the clout of emotional labour that pervades many aspects of our lives. However, women must also take similar steps based on self-awareness in order to affect this change. Several participants noted that their feelings of being overburdened were self-imposed to a large degree due to an urge towards constant output. Sarah, another participant, referenced her impulse towards taking on commitments because the more she has on, the more productive and efficient she feels. Several participants linked this experience to the added pressure that women feel “to work twice as hard just to get the same opportunities as men”, and “to build their resumes and pack out their lives to feel secure heading in to the future.” One participant, Laura, highlighted the impact of ANU’s “stress culture”, which “glorifies over-commitment”.

At this point, I think it is important to state that it is true that men at ANU may experience feelings of being over-burdened. However, this article is based on my personal experiences and those of the people I interviewed, and none of us could think of nearly as many examples of men who seem over-committed. This is not to imply that men are lazy or apathetic about non-academic pursuits. A male participant, Archie, accredited the perception that men are less fazed by over-commitment to the fact that men are often better at mentally compartmentalising their obligations, whereas women are more likely to keep them running in the back of their minds.

This astute analysis aligned with what many of women said made it hard for them not to feel pressured by their commitments: that it was more difficult to divorce the stress caused by their extra-curriculars with their daily life. Additionally, my interviews revealed that women may be more emotionally affected by their over-commitment because women involved in activism are driven by the fact that the personal is the political. For example, given that the majority of sexual assault survivors are woman-identifying, it is understandable that women they are the driving forces behind the campaign to end sexual assault on campus.

Moreover, in my experience, campaigns focussed on refugee issues and law reform and social justice projects have been overwhelmingly comprised of women. My theory as to why this is so is that all women, regardless of intersecting identities, experience oppression due to their gender, and can therefore more easily develop compassion for other oppressed groups.  While the strong presence of women in activist circles should be celebrated, it should be done so with the understanding that their over-representation can leave an emotional burden and takes up time others spend on study and paid work.

This article has illustrated some of the reasons why women at ANU appear to take on so many commitments. However, it feels somewhat wasteful to diagnose these issues without providing some sort of treatment. So, to conclude, here are some choice tips from participants that may be useful to anyone with a tendency to over-commit:

  •    When that voice inside your head that is encouraging you to keep pushing yourself further causes you to sacrifice some important parts of your life – whether that be friends, relationships, study or general downtime – I think that that’s when you need to step back and ask yourself if it’s really worth it.
  •    For me, the thing that works best is keeping a journal which tracks all my time. This includes fixed things I cannot change (work hours, class times), self-care time (a compulsory one hour a day), and spare time. When I can physically visualise my time I am less likely to overburden myself.
  •    I set clear and communicated guidelines with those who set me tasks/those I work with so that I am accountable to both myself and them. I also make sure there are clear expectations that fit within both our schedules – particularly for unpaid work – so that I am not made to give up the necessities in my life.
  •    I often need physical distance, because if I am around and people ask me to do something or I am thinking about my co-curricular work I won’t switch off. I’m lucky that I can go home to Melbourne quite often, but when I’m in Canberra I try to do things like delay meetings for a few days so I can have some downtime. It’s also about the choices I make – I’m trying to cut down on the amount of unpaid labour I do.
  •    I have been trying a lot harder to be patient, and instead of doing other people’s work helping them to do it themselves. The first time this might take longer and maybe you have to remind them 10 times before they actually do it – but that way you are actually training up the next generation of leaders. The next time they can probably do it themselves!
  •    Ensure you have individuals or a group of people that you can fall back on when you’re having a hard time. Remember that it’s okay to take a break – you don’t need to be always available or on call.

Thanks to Sarah Barrie, Aditi Razdan, Cameron Allan, Dominic Cradick, Freya Willis, Archie Chew and Laura Perkov for their contributions for this article.