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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Akaka

Cheerleader Blues

It’s been a while since I posted a blog. I’ve been…busy. During my blog hiatus I have spent a good amount of time thinking about how I respond to the question “how are you?” with something other than “busy” but alas…it is the only honest response I have that doesn’t trigger a 30-minute conversation about my mental health, or theirs. I’ve spent equally as much time wondering in between meetings, emails, and car drives, how did I get here? How did I manage to be so busy and will it ever stop?

To be clear, I’m not complaining. This year has been full of achievements and opportunities for me. Things I would have never imagined for myself 20 years ago. In 2023, I was promoted to Full Professor, a rarity among Asian American women in academia. Along with my promotion came a new job I really wanted – Associate Dean for Research. As I stepped into this academic year, I became one of three female full professors in my College, yes, the whole business school. Some of this is due to women leaving for other opportunities in recent years, but still – only three remain. One of my goals with this new rank and role is to bring other women up with me. But I quickly realized that there are brilliant, hard-working, accomplished women all around me who are stuck in a system that doesn’t reward us based on those things. It rewards us for being cheerleaders.

Twenty years ago, I was working in my first “real” marketing job after I graduated from college and my boss told me that what she needed was a “cheerleader.” Since I have verifiable albeit inconsistent high school cheerleading credentials (see photo as evidence), I said no problem, I’m your girl. And it turns out I haven’t stopped since. As I look at my ability to make this difficult transition into the highest rank in the academic profession (aside from an endowed chair, which of course, I would love), I realize that being a cheerleader may have contributed more to the advancement of my career than anything else I have done to date.

This is not to say I don’t work hard, because I do. I believe my achievements warrant this promotion. I'm also not trying to paint the picture that I’m overly optimistic, always positive, or never have anything critical or contradictory to say. I have definitely provided my share of opinions and critiques over the years. This is about me ignoring ridiculous comments, not fighting back when I know I’m right, smiling when I'm scolded, and letting go when some guy says the exact same thing I said 5 minutes ago in a meeting or repeatedly over the past 6 months and gets the credit. In my role as a cheerleader, I “sit still look pretty”. I didn’t really even realize what I was doing until recently. The awareness of this crept up on me this year as I listened to men tell me I don’t understand how hard it is to work and take care of children, I got things done because I batted my eyes, and I interrupt too much. I'd heard many things like this before, but this year I really listened. The worst part is that these comments come from men I enjoy working with telling me to my face. I can only imagine what others say behind my back.

The truth is, in many ways, I like being a cheerleader. I like having people come together to do awesome things, to collaborate and innovate. While I would like to say that being promoted to this position means I can stop being a cheerleader for others and focus on people seeing my individual value. I know cheerleading works - it helps people feel good about themselves, see a common goal, recognize the best in other people, and, I believe, bring a community together. However, like so many other women, I’ve been the head cheerleader at work and at home. It’s exhausting. In my strategic effort to bring people together to see and work towards a common good (metaphorically speaking, win the game), I lose part of myself and my voice, and I perpetuate the narrative that to be successful at work and in life, women should first and foremost be cheerleaders.

I don’t know if I can or should alter my aptitude for being a cheerleader, but I do wonder if I would even contemplate this condition if I was a man. I'm also beginning to believe my role as a cheerleader is the heart of what keeps me endlessly busy. I want to be a cheerleader for change – big social movements like equity, social justice, and, dare I say, peace. I can see opportunities for that across my administrative jobs, the research I do, the classes I teach, and the many, many committees I sit on. I can also see so many opportunities for this in raising three girls. But if I keep this pace, I know I will eventually burn out and give up, and then who will take my place? Would I even want someone to do that?

I don’t have a resolution, much less a solution, at this point (please let me know if you do!), but if you’re feeling way too busy and like you’re always on the sideline but not in the game, know that you are not alone. The world expects us to be cheerleaders. Sometimes this work can get us into positions where we can change the narrative. Now that I have a different point of view, I hope to alter the expectations around me and to be a little less busy too.

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