On bringing the whole package

A while back, a colleague received feedback on their promotion prospects that went something like ‘it’s not just about the metrics, we are looking at the whole package’. Needless to say; this was much discussed since, from our perspective, neither metrics nor the whole package (if that meant well-rounded person) appeared to be the criteria applied to academic promotion. I was reminded of the concept again in an interview with Rick Hanson(1) for whom ‘the whole package’ meant being like a decathlete, excellent at many things but probably not superb in any single pursuit. In his view, pretty much anyone can be excellent in a given area with enough time and/or a willingness for sacrifice (health, family etc.). The point being that broad expertise is more adaptive and likely also harder to achieve than a single niche skill. That’s probably not what Faculty meant about promotion criteria, but it’s exciting to think what our institutions would be like if it were.

What if we brought all of it? CVs might hold the standard papers, grants & leadership; but other subheadings for expertise I could add would be:

· Conflict Mediation (a given for a middle child)

· Service Mindset (all those years waiting tables)

· Explicit-Skills Teacher (primary role as a mother at home)

· Social Engineer (an unexpected role of being a mother in public)

· Translator (of contemporary life to aging parents/relatives, ‘No it's not selfish for a woman to tend her career as well as her family’)

· Risk Management (basically all of us facing a career full of failure, negative reviewer commentary and plummeting grant success-rates)

· Chameleon (“a person who often changes his or her beliefs or behaviour in order to please others or to succeed” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chameleon)

Yes, this blog is about being that chameleon; adapting to the environment by changing our colours. As women in STEM, we don’t show how we smart from the thousands of tiny cuts that compound, with time, into gaping wounds. To avoid the perception of ‘being difficult’, we don’t always call it out when our own accomplishment or those of others is diminished (2). We don’t say that it feels like the very definition of gaslighting when our managers flip-flop between patronising and negligent (3) and call it mentoring. We show up, we join the committee, we volunteer (4), we lean-in, but inwardly we seethe. I’m proud of most of what I can bring, but I’ve also been a chameleon for too long.

In the coaching world, being a chameleon is being a liar, seeking safety in camouflage. It’s comfort in the moment, at the expense of who we really are, what we really want and will serve us long term. I have a long list of Chameleon-defaults (internalised biases, thought-loops and behaviours) that, if they were ever true, don’t reflect who I am now. Just writing it out makes me want to puke. Some unhelpful responses for common circumstances that spring to mind are:

Confrontation= avoidance

Success= shame

Authority= submission

Anger (felt in myself or from others)= tears

Requests= compliance (a desire to please)

Criticism= defeat

Compliments= deflection

Praise= distrust

These are what the Chameleon in me produces; they make zero sense and are not who I am when I’m in my element. In 2020 I listened to, and for the first time really heard, the experience of women in the Black Lives Matter movement (5). I had thought I understood unconscious bias, but I only knew one narrow slice. We cannot operate at our best, or expect it of others, without recognising the deep internalisation of systemic racism, misogyny and patriarchy. It shapes how we are treated, how we treat others and how we treat ourselves.

So, to bring the whole package, and I think we should, we also need to accept that there’s a lot of baggage. In coaching, the idea is that we can do little to change other people (tempting as it is to try, it fails most of the time!), but we can work to rewire the thoughts our own brain offers, many of which aren’t even our own but come to us directly from the culturescape (6). The first step is to accept that the programming exists, the second is to decide which parts we want to keep, and which are optional. As it turns out, chameleons don’t change colours just to hide; it’s also about self-regulation and communication of emotion. But for us now, waiting for others to learn how to interpret our chameleon-code is just too slow... So, let’s try to stop lying and tell our truth. Sometimes this will mean that I’ll accidentally respond to anger with tears, and I might sometimes distrust praise, and that’s OK. If it happens again that I’m in the promotion meeting and my anger at being misunderstood defaults to tears..., I’ll just explain that that is how my defaults sometimes go and keep going.

My self-coaching is always about reframing my internalised programming so that I can spend more time in my true colours; curiosity and joy.


1. Rick Hanson is an author of books on philosophy, mediation and positive neuroplasticity (https://www.rickhanson.net/rick-hanson/)

2. Its surprisingly difficult to do this in real-time, I couldn’t count the number of times the women/quality conversation has been held in my presence, including by people I like. It's only recently that I can simply point out that diversity is part of my institution’s policy so suck it up or take it up with management.

3. Ironically, I did rant a bit about gas-lighting, to a senior Faculty member just recently, who probably didn’t deserve it… But I was pleased to say it out loud (via an email)

4. ~2 years ago, I started giving a conditional ‘Yes, I’d love to help provided $xx,xxx.oo lands in my lab account’. I have yet to receive such funds and have unfortunately had to go back on the condition more than once because my refusal just kicked the problem to someone who, being more vulnerable, couldn’t say no… but I stand by the idea that we should ask to be compensated for our time/energy/expertise.

5. The first voice I heard was Ivirlei Brookes @Mavenelle reposted on Instagram. It changed who I am as a white woman.

6. The idea of thoughts being absorbed from the ‘culture-scape’ comes from Vishen Lakhiani in the ‘code of the extraordinary mind’. He also introduced me to the truly liberating concept of feeling ‘unfuckwithable’

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