A Monthly Column on The Art of Giving Unrequested Guidance.
I had noticed it before, but it was not until working on the 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts notebook project for Documenta 13, at the point that we were fully engaged in sending out invitations to potential authors, that I had absolute proof. Every time we invited a male author, with very few exceptions, a positive response came the same day or the day after. When the same letter was sent to a female author, the response took much longer, and very often took the form of a carefully written text that showed that the person had given thought to the matter but had decided in the negative.
Reasons included having too much work already, and the fact that taking on another commission could result in a poorly written piece. I was possessed by panic and frustration, since all the female and queer writers I most admired said no, one after the other. I couldn’t accept this, so I decided that it was my mistake — that my letter carefully explaining the request had added more anxiety to an already anxious subject. So, instead, I went in person. Agreeing to meet was easy, and every one of those many meetings felt like the beginning of a friendship. Because of the reason for the meeting, Documenta, people were willing to make the effort, and those visits became a core part of my research. They were a wonderful way to actually experience how each writer approached their practice. Spending time with all those authors felt like a gigantic pedagogical exercise, one that only made the notebook project more meaningful and more sensitive to the fact that a piece of writing was being born — one that was still in note form, an intuition. To fill the world with speculative hypotheses could only help all of us to better understand coexistence and creation and the Earth and the vernacular and quantum physics and extravagance and pain… These one-to-one conversations were a kind of architecture in themselves, building a larger and more accessible space in which thought and voice and poetry might offer hope to the world. But also, after every one of these meetings, I left trembling, feeling that I was at risk of being perceived as too pushy. But I simply could not give up on any of these wonderful thinkers. One by one, everyone eventually said yes. This time, the argument about having too much work was pushed aside: “Let me see how I can encompass your expectations and find a way to respond.” I felt blessed. But also, I was left with a horrific thought: “What if I had not gone in person?”
The experience, however, showed me that women are ambitious and want to succeed in what they do. And this can result in too high an expectation of perfection from oneself, and a keen awareness of the consequences of delivering a job that may be perceived as “not as good as expected.” I would have assumed that all genders shared this fear. But that is not the case, and there are reasons for it, one being that no one turns a blind eye to the work of non-males.
So, the answer was to send a short, less explicative letter requesting a conversation, in the hope that through such a talk a bond might form, as well as a sense that it was very necessary to accept the job.
More recently, though, I have been facing some of the same problems when offering demanding but great jobs to women. Seated before hiring committees, far too often female candidates explain their time concerns, their capabilities and their willingness to take on the tasks required, only to conclude that the reality of the demands will make it impossible. You cannot stop an interview and beg the best candidate to simply lie. So many times I’ve wanted to say, “Please say you’ll take the job, and once you are on the inside you’ll force them to figure it out.” But, of course, these same women would also consider this to be unacceptable and dishonest. I disagree though. My hope — and it is happening in certain places, but not many — is that those qualified candidates, faced with various responsibilities, with their various concerns and views on life, power structures, and identity, would be given the opportunity to apply collectively or find more flexible structures to accommodate those responsibilities. In the meantime, accepting far too much responsibility can also be a way of drawing attention to the very important question of how the positions we want can accommodate us.