GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Men Swagger, Women…?

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/03/26 at 09:00

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Since I became an administrator, I have had a yearly performance evaluation.  Overall, they have been positive, but I am consistently criticized for one thing, year after year: my lack of “swagger.”

It is a confusing thing to be criticized for.  When I look up “swagger” in, I find:

–verb (used without object)

1. to walk or strut with a defiant or insolent air.

2. to boast or brag noisily.

–verb (used with object)

3. to bring, drive, force, etc., by blustering.


4. swaggering manner, conduct, or walk; ostentatious display of arrogance and conceit.

It is difficult for me to believe that this is a desirable quality.  Swaggering makes me think of bullies and cowboys; it is very macho.

Is it swagger that I need to be successful as an administrator?  When I was a full-time teacher, the qualities that made me successful were patience, knowledge, authority, and perhaps my sense of humor.  These qualities made my students feel comfortable and helped bring them together.  However, in my role as an administrator, I have been trying to develop my swagger.  I have a fancier notebook and nicer pens.  I wear more blazers.  I think before I speak.  I smile less.   I feel lonelier.

Moving from a teaching role to an administrative role was moving from a traditionally female role to a typically male role.  When I was teaching, it was easy and natural for me to be in a collaborative, friendly environment.  Administration is more competitive, political, and ruthless.  I need to rely on a different skill set to navigate my way.

Although I have made improvements, I still feel like I am missing the mark.   I know that I don’t actually want a swagger.   I want to improve my confidence.  I want to raise my game.  What is the feminine form of swagger?

Meg Palladino

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  1. Ok. This is not an easy thing to explain, especially not to someone who doesn’t appear to listen to much hip-hop. It’s kind of like explaining the joke. Sometimes that means it’s a bad joke, sometimes it means there’s a disconnect between joker and listener. But I’ll try.

    First – have you considered listening to some hip-hop? Because the dictionary definition of “swagger” is a mile wide of the mark when it comes to the real meaning of swagger. And I don’t think it has to be macho or masculine. Missy Elliot is a great example of swagger. Check out Busta Rhymes for a very fun, not particularly mysogynist (I’m gonna get slaughtered for that one, but it is a relative statement) swagger sample.

    It doesn’t have to be bluster, though it can be. It doesn’t have to be dick-swinging, though it can be and often is. I think that the feminine form of swagger is cleverer, sometimes more complex, sometimes nastier, and sometimes just the female version of dick-swinging, but I sure think it exists.

    As a personal example of swagger – I used to walk into boardrooms-full of middle-aged white men as a 22-year-old cee-ee-oh of a small comapny, often in blue jeans, and talk them into doing things my way. The absolute only reason they listened to me was swagger. I knew what I was talking about, but so do plenty of other people: the reason I was there to begin with was swagger.

    The language of swagger is more often masculine – brass balls, dick-swinging – but I don’t think the *nature* of it necessarily is. I just think women (including me – I don’t usually talk about my swagger; I think that was the first time I’ve ever written the above) keep it on the down-low. It’s more of an element of a woman’s arsenal when it’s there, not something one necessarily needs to set down a track about.

  2. Clay Shirky recently wrote a great post “A Rant about Women” ( on his blog about these subjects. the post set off a minor firestorm in techie-bloggie-tweetie circles — all of which is to the good, I think. Regardless of where you come down on the question — should women be transforming themselves to fit these expectations or should the expectations be changing to fit women? — they are questions we should be talking about head on.

    • I was just about to post that same link! I think Clay and Meg are raising similar questions. I hope there is a “middle way” between too much male swagger and being too accommodating, and thus are not taken seriously.

  3. Wow, it is exciting that this post has generated so many comments! Thanks!

    Katie, I am a big hip hop fan! I have even been to a few Busta Rhymes concerts. I understand that swagger, but i wonder if it is a different story when you are working in middle management of a HUGE institution…I am not sure.

    Rachel, thanks for the link. I am glad that I am not the only one worrying about these things.

    Heather, I hope that there is a middle way too!

  4. I hate to say it, and a few of my feminist friends would shudder to hear it, but I found my swagger in…my high heels. Yes, I said it. High heels, cute dresses, raging blonde (now red) hair. I went from being what I thought a woman professor was supposed to look like–frumpy suits (like a man), low heels (like a man), conservative hair, no makeup (did I mention I looked pretty unhappy, too?) to deciding to be a bit wilder, a bit sexier and showing off a lot more sass. It worked. I feel more confident, a lot bolder, and suddenly people seemed to notice. Yes, the way I looked got attention, but my new attitude, I think, was the real thing. Hell yeah for lady swagger!

  5. I’ve read Meg’s post and all the comments and the Clay piece and I agree with some of everything (of course!) – First, I agree with Meg – there needs to be a better way that isn’t so stupid and bullying and Katie gets at this when she says that it can be cleverer – I think that when women have self-confidence and they hit the mark, they are passionate and sexy (thanks denise) and it is so much smarter than a swagger. a swagger is like a balloon – fragile and filled with hot air and so easy to deflate/disarm. When women are on, they can be both tough as nails and soft as butter – in the same sentence, not only rising to the occasion but making up the rules as they go along. And I do think it links to being sexy and feeling sexy and an awareness of sex appeal – for some that is high heels, blonde hair, and lipstick for others that is hair dyed pink, steel-toed combat boots, piercings, and a tattoo. It is about knowing yourself, feeling comfortable in your own body, and not letting anyone else make you doubt yourself – it is chutzpah, nerve, verve, the sheer audacity of believing in your cause and believing that your idea is what’s best for everyone involved – NOT JUST FOR YOU (thank you jim)

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