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Feb 13 2014
Sometimes, women need to set aside false selflessness.

If both blog posts hadn't caught my attention on the same day, I don't think I would have seen the connection. The first, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, noted that female graduate students were significantly less likely than their male counterparts to ask for full reimbursement for conference-related travel expenses. "Women Really Don't Ask," author Minerva Cheevy observed. The second, from the blog Momastery, celebrated all of the people who rallied around a mother facing a serious health scare. "I do have a village, and I need them," the stricken mom, Glennon Doyle Melton, wrote. "I need them. Like folks traveling at night need stars. We need people like we need light."

So, what's the connection?

I know all too well the fear of asking. I recently drove to a faraway academic conference, rather than flying, because I needed to bring along my nursing infant son—and my husband (to help with the baby), and our daughter (who couldn't very well be left home alone). Adding up the mileage, my travel costs were well above the standard amount allotted for faculty members at my institution. Like the women in Cheevy's article, though, I was inclined to ask only for the standard amount and cover the rest out of pocket.

I also happen to chair the committee that approves travel funding requests. I knew that our pool of funds was up this year, while requests were down. I knew that if the "extra" funds weren't used within the fiscal year, they would be wasted; we can't, by law, roll them over to the next year. I knew that seeking additional funds would not affect consideration of my future requests in any way.

And I still hesitated to ask for full reimbursement! My own money already spent on the trip, I delayed submitting my request and dithered about the amount. If I asked for too much, would the fund run dry? What if someone traveling later in the year unexpectedly racked up even higher bills? Was it fair to ask for more money because I brought my family, a "personal" rather than "professional" expense?

Here, I think, is where the insights from the other article come in. Women tend to have a village mentality, acutely aware of interdependence. We want to direct resources where they're needed most. Occasionally, we send up a flare and call those resources in for ourselves. More often, we try to do our bit to keep everyone else's needs met. In either scenario, we're constantly attuned to the flow of supply and demand, hesitant to upset the system by asking too much, or giving too little, or making any miscalculated move.

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