Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Management: Effective Meetings

hold-a-meetingThis week at my supervisory management course, we learned about something I wish every single one of my colleagues would learn: how to have an effective meeting. As I am one of only a couple of faculty members in this course, it was quite startling to compare/contrast the types of meetings I am used to, to the types of meetings my colleagues on staff have. I would say that many faculty meetings have a lot of talking. In fact, in recent meetings that I have run (poorly), all I did as the meeting lead was stand at the front, mentally note who raised they hand when, and make sure people spoke in order and didn’t trample over each other. We spoke for over an hour! Just talking one after another. I also took notes in a notebook or on a black board so that I could transcribe them later. There are so many things wrong with how I run my meetings, it is ridiculous. But, these meetings are weird, because they are between a bunch of people who are basically equals who all like to talk – a lot, and all think that they are the smartest person in the room. That makes faculty meetings harder. When I have a lab meeting, where I am clearly the top of the hierarchy, they run very differently – maybe more like my counterparts’ meetings. I run the meeting, I set the agenda. People talk and comment, but I control it and don’t let it derail. Actually, sometimes I do let it derail because I like to make a fun environment and chatting is part of that.

What is the definition of an effective meeting? Meetings are effective when the goals of the meeting are achieved using a minimal amount of time and all participants are satisfied. Most meetings can be classified into two types: Information and Decision Making. Information meetings are used to convey information to a group or convince a group of something. Decision Meetings are used for goal setting, problem solving, and action planning. Most of the meetings I seem to have in academia, both with my research group and with colleagues on committees seem to be the second type. Straight information is (thankfully) usually conveyed in email format. Although sometimes it is useful to convey information in verbal forms (if it might get people upset, for instance).

Below are 10 characteristics of Effective Meetings. Here is a fun exercise: score your typical faculty meetings using the following rubric:

0 points if this never happens/never done for meetings,

1 point if you are not so good at this or this rarely happens in your meetings,

2 points if you are OK at this, or this occasionally happens in your meetings,

3 points for being generally good at this and this normally happens in your meetings,

4 points is your meetings always have this.

Score       Attribute

____     Seating in the room is arranged so that every person can see everyone else.

____     Equipment is available at the front of the room to record ideas/plans.

____     Your meeting has an agenda.

____     The agenda has time estimates for discussing each topic of the meeting.

____     At least 1-2 times in the meeting, there is a probe into how effective the meeting is going.

____     During the meeting someone records the ideas and decisions of the meeting. The data is prepared and handed out afterward to all concerned.

____     Meeting notes indicate who has agreed to do what before the next meeting.

____     Dates of future meetings are set in advance so people can arrange to attend.

____     Those in attendance decide who else should be involved for future meetings and those people are included.

____     At the end of the meeting, people review and confirm who is doing what.

 

So, how did you score? I score quite badly (about 13 out of possible 40) – getting a zero in many of the attributes. I often do not have an agenda and it certainly doesn’t have times set for each part. We always have a place to write notes – chalk/white board and projector, but most of the time someone doesn’t take note. I usually take notes, but sometimes I don’t have the time to transcribe and distribute them. Have you ever been to a meeting where it was stopped and someone asked how it was progressing? Big, fat goose egg on that one for me. Never, ever happened ever. Dates of meetings set in advance. Does 24 hours ahead of time count?

Are these things feasible to do at meetings in academia? I think they are, and I think it would make meetings more useful and less dreaded. I am going to endeavor to implement these attributes into my meetings from now on. I hope my colleagues say, “I love having meetings with WomanOfScience running them. They are so efficient and effective. We get stuff done without wasting time!” OK, that might be wishful thinking! What do you think? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

IMG_0104I train a lot of undergraduate scientists in my lab. I have already discussed all the managerial methods I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a list of the top-ten reasons why I love working with undergraduates (in no particular order):

1. They are funny. Obviously not all people are funny, but every now and then I get a really extroverted and funny person in the lab. Maybe because the undergraduate lifetime in the lab is shorter (0.5 – 3 years) than a graduate student (4-5 years) or postdoc (3 years), so there are more of them in general coming through the lab, but there have been a higher frequency of funny undergrads. I realize that some people don’t like when students have a sense of humor, but I do. Mostly the students are self-depricating, and are not making fun of other people. Sometimes they rib the other students, but they are often too shy or scared to make fun of anyone much more senior to them in the lab hierarchy. Of course, there are times when the humor should be turned off, and they are able to understand that and act professional when needed. But, I love that they are funny.

2. They are brave. Approaching a professor about doing research in his/her lab – especially a professor you have never had for class – can be very daunting, yet undergraduates do it frequently. In my lab, most undergraduate researchers work on independent projects without the direct supervision of a postdoc or grad student. In a sense, they do science without a wire, but there is always a net. They often come into the lab not knowing what to expect or what they will do. But, they overcome these anxious feelings because they are wonderfully brave.

3. They are shy. Despite their bravery, many undergraduates are introverts or just shy. This is quite an endearing quality, especially when they put it aside to present their work and truly get into talking about the science they did. Being shy is not the same thing as being disengaged. They overcome shyness for science, even though, they are shy.

4. They are honest. Since they don’t usually know much about the science, undergraduates present what they think honestly. Sometimes knowing too much can be a hazard to discovering the real answer. They present what they see, even if they are shy or even anxious about it. I often give undergraduates high-risk problems that we have no idea what will happen. These problems are great because they sometimes result in very cool, unexpected results. If they had some idea that what they were seeing wasn’t right, they might be persuaded to alter their presentation of their results, but their naiveté helps them stay honest.

5. They are resourceful. Since I give my students new problems with unknown answers and no direct mentor in the lab, this allows them to own their projects. The goal is to teach them that they can learn these things on their own, and many times, they realize that they can use anything and anyone to help them. Through the process of doing independent scientific research, they become resourceful.

6. They are driven.  It is so easy for students to not do undergraduate research. At UState, we have no requirement for research in any major. Driven students seek out research opportunities and can get an immense amount of work done. The student who seeks out research is often very driven.

7. They are young. I love that the undergraduates are young. I love working with young people. It keeps you young. I don’t want to get mentally old. I want to learn new things, and so do they. Sometimes being young means they can be immature, but many of my students are very mature – it’s all apart of them also being driven. Mostly, they are fun and open because they are young.

8. They are smart. Undergraduates can be very smart. What does it mean to be smart? It can manifest in so many different ways: having a good memory, ability to represent complex information clearly, ability to explain things verbally, ability to make connections from old content/knowledge to new content/knowledge, ability to do math in their head… These are all good attributes for someone doing scientific research.  Do not confuse a lack of knowledge of content with smartness and ability to learn. Undergraduates don’t know everything or anything, but that is not the only marker of smarts; undergraduates are smart.

9. They are pliable. One goal of doing undergraduate research is to learn. It isn’t just about learning concepts or skills of the research, but learning many other types of professional skills such as writing, presentation, communication, and working in a group. College, in general, is a time we use to also learn who we are and who we want to be. Luckily, unlike us old-timer professors, undergraduates can still alter their personality. You can help them to identify what type of person they are and what type they might want to be. You can help them to become that new person inside and out, and this is only possible because undergraduates are still pliable.

10. They are open to fun. The main reason why I have so many undergraduates is because they are fun and open to doing crazy/fun things. When I say, “Let’s make a lab music video,” they say, “Yay! What song?” When I say, “Let’s try this experiment,” they say, “OK. How should I do it?” When I say, “Let’s have a party,” they say, “Woot! When?” I want my lab to be a fun place to be and a place people want to come to work. Undergraduate researchers are essential to that formula because they are open to fun.

So, what about you? What is your favorite reason for doing research with undergraduates? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I write a post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Difficult Convos

ConvosOne of the most important and difficult things about being the boss is that you have to tell people things they might not like to hear. I have written about this before, but this time, I am going to actually have some advice for how to conduct these types of conversations from my recent supervisors management course.

One thing I learned from the course is that in the corporate world people don’t get feedback very often. Sometimes people do things incorrectly or poorly for years without being told. Supervisors often give a performance evaluation once per year, and if they chicken out about telling it straight, people can go for years without getting correction. One main point of this class was to say that supervisors need to give rapid and specific feedback to employees as soon as possible. That means having a conversation with the person as soon as possible addressing the issues that are occurring.

At first, I was surprised to hear that feedback is so slow in corporate situations, because I feel like in scientific research, we are constantly giving feedback to make sure our students are doing the work correctly. Then I thought about other things you have to give feedback on, personal things that you may not want to have to say. Like, a student who won’t wear shoes at his desk. These types of things are easier to try to ignore, but probably shouldn’t be ignored.

OK, so what is the best way to give difficult feedback? Here is a synthesized strategy:

  1. Make a plan for the conversation and write it down (an agenda) so that you don’t forget or lose track.
    1. First, start with something positive that your student is doing. Are they punctual? Did they come up with a good idea recently?
    2. Second, state the issue. If there are several, limit each conversation to 2 issues at most. You should have several motivations for why the person should make the change you need. If you are worried the person will be challenging, you should make sure you understand all the expectations and rules for the person.  Example: If your student is not coming into lab enough, you could remind him/her that the lab is a team that that other people rely on him/her to be present. If the person is a senior personnel in the lab, the junior people will need him/her to be present for safety reasons.
    3. Finally, make plans for corrective actions or ways to help the person overcome the issue. For example, if the student is missing time in the lab for a personal reason, perhaps the person needs to take some personal time to figure out the situation. Maybe the person really didn’t realize that they needed to work in the lab and was working at a coffee shop, but they were not letting you know. Clarifying the expectations of the position and setting clear methods of communication.
  1. Control Your Emotions.

You cannot have these conversations if you are emotional. You have to stay calm. If you are very angry about their person’s behavior, you should give yourself time to calm down before you have the conversation. For instance, I know that I am more likely to get upset if I don’t get enough sleep. Thus, I will cancel a meeting over a difficult conversation if I did not get enough sleep or have other stressors. If you feel like you are losing control, ask to stop and reschedule the meeting for another time when you are in control.

  1. Start positive.

When you get in the meeting, use your plan and start with the positive thing about the person.

  1. Focus on Actions and Behaviors – not on personality.
    1. Use your plan to make sure you are only discussing the behavior of the person. What are they doing that needs to be corrected.
    2. Most importantly, the discussion can not be about their personality nor about how you are feeling or how they perceive things.
    3. If they try to derail you, make sure you stay on topic of the behavior and the corrective actions. For example, they might say, “Well, no one else has to be in the lab. How come I am the only one being singled out?” You can say that this discussion is not about other people, but about their actions.  Such derailing comments or details are meant to try to make you defocus from what the real issue is. They are defense mechanisms, but you have to be strong against them. It can be very difficult. Role playing or practicing with someone else may help if you are particularly susceptible to these types of comments.
  1. Stop Talking. Seek Confirmation.

 Once you outline the issues, make sure that your student understands what you are saying. You may have to get them to say it back to you. This step is especially important if you are an extrovert and the student is an introvert. They may need time to think about what you said and process it. If you are an extrovert who hates silences in the conversation, you will have to try to control the urge to speak while they process. If you are an introvert and they are an extrovert, they might become defensive quickly. Make sure they understand exactly which actions or behaviors are being described and don’t let them derail you.

  1. Reaffirm your confidence in them.

 This is an affirmation of the positive. You can say something like, “You have been doing great work, but I just need to see more of you in the lab, so that the lab can work more productively as a team.”

  1. Determine the reason for the behavior.

 This is part of your plan (see #1). You should try to figure out why the behavior is occurring? What is the underlying reason for the actions that are not good. Is it that an expectation was not conveyed clearly? Is it there a personal reason for the change in behavior? Is there a new policy that was not made clear?

  1. Suggest solutions to solve problem.

Sometimes it can be as easy as letting the person know, and having them say, “Oh, I didn’t realize. I will fix that.” Unfortunately, sometimes the problem is more difficult, and you need to suggest solutions that will help rectify the actions. If it is a personal issue, you have to be able to suggest a solution without trying to be involved in the problem. Sometimes, that just means they need time, or they need to take sick leave or family leave. You should make sure that the expectations of the leave are clear, or you will find yourself back having another conversation about how they need to come back to work. Set timelines for any alterations and make sure the changes jive with the person’s job expectations and any union contract rules. This is what I mean by making sure you know all the expectations and rule for the person’s position. Many people in academia (grad students and postdocs) are now unionized. Make sure you are aware of all the rules for the union so that you comply with the rules. Have your ducks in a row before the meeting, if possible.

  1. Document the feedback.
    1. After the conversation and the agreed upon solution, you need to document the solution and let all parties who need to know the result in writing. This usually means sending an email to all parties, but if the person’s issue is that they don’t check email, print a copy and give it to them.
    2. In the email/letter make sure that you detail what the issue was (what behavior or action was not good and was discussed) and also document what was decided for the solution with as much detail as possible. If the student is taking time for a personal issue, make sure that you set specific dates and times for expected return to full time.

Notice that there is a right and wrong time to communicate over email. When documenting the conversation and the solutions, you email. Do not email to discuss. That is never good! These conversations should be done in person and in private – in your office is probably best with the door closed.  Don’t have these conversations in the lab in front of other people.

There is a big, big difference between being a research PI and being a supervisor in an office. For instance, we are actively trying to change our supervises through active training and mentoring. Supervisors in other settings cannot expect to change their personnel, but should work with the people they have and place them in the best positions and project to play up to their strengths. As PIs, we are suppose to build on strengths, but also work on weaknesses (such as writing or presentation skills). PIs have to provide constant constructive criticism of our students to help them grow and to learn. This type of criticism is another type of feedback about the science and the work, and it is better to do in public so that the entire lab can learn from the scientific mistakes of the others in the group. This type of feedback is not personal and is not really behavioral. Unfortunately, sometimes students can be very sensitive to the critiques offered about their work. They take it personal. If you sense that your student is becoming defensive or upset about your feedback, it is best to probably address this in a private conversation. You may need to think about how you are delivering your critiques – ask them about exactly what they are reacting to and why they are getting defensive. Don’t let them derail you or avoid the answer – make them be specific, or else you cannot change. It is also typical that the student is actually being too sensitive. The student may need to think about how they are receiving your feedback.

So, what do you think? Is this doable? It will take practice. I printed out a cheat sheet and tacked to behind where most of my students sit in my office. I am hoping that will help me stay focused and stick to the plan for my conversations. Post or comment your thoughts. To receive an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

Myers-BriggsThe first week of the supervisory management course was all about getting to know who you are and who the people you manage are. The course I am taking decided to go the classic route: Myers-Briggs. The Myers-Briggs is a personality test that classifies your personality using 4 descriptors. Also, did you know that Myers and Briggs were a mother-daughter science pair? Pretty cool. Anyway, in the test, you answer some questions, and it uses your answers to give you some feedback about your personality. You can find an online version here. Other versions cost money, and are more detailed, but they are pretty similar. I should say that almost everyone I talked to who took a management or leadership course started by taking some sort of personality test. It didn’t really matter on the exact type of test, but they all basically had the same result – getting to know yourself.

After you take the test, you get put into personality type categories. For the Myers-Briggs, the four categories are:

Extravert (E) or Introvert (I)

Sensing (S) of Intuition (N)

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Some of the names are unfortunate because there are good/bad connotations, but you have to understand that each one is a measure of how you intrinsically deal with the world in a variety of ways. Also, the personality type you get depends on where you are and what you are doing. For instance, my personal personality type was different when I was at home with my kids than when I was at work.

Extravert (E) or Introvert (I): This is about energy. How do you draw energy and what spends your energy. If you are an extrovert, you get energized by hanging out with people and talking. Being alone is draining for an extravert.  If you are an introvert, hanging out with people is tiring and takes up energy, but being alone is revitalizing.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how extroverted or introverted they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: How do you feel and act if you have to go to a party for work? Do you want to go to the party? When you are there, who do you talk to? The answers are quite interesting. You will find the introverts will not want to go to the party and will only talk to people they already know. Extraverts will be fine or excited about going to the party and will talk to all new people.

Things to think about when managing or talking to extraverts: They think out loud and may say things off the cuff but not truly believe them. They may seem more into or excited about things than they really are. They often hate silence in conversations.

Things to think about when managing or talking to introverts: They are more likely to think before speaking and may need time to think about the ideas before they answer. They may seem unexcited or less attached to ideas than they actually are. They are comfortable with silence in conversations.

Sensing (S) of Intuition (N): This is about information gathering. How do you notice or take in information about the world around you. Do you notice the forest (broad, general) or the trees (individual components, close). If you are a sensing, you are interested in the details and have a high attention to detail – you are interested in the trees.  If you are an intuition, you are interested in generalizations and larger concepts – you are interested in the forest.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how sensing (detailed) or intuition (general) they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: Give directions from the room you are in to your house. Sensing people will give very specific directions using cardinal directions, street names, and landmarks. They will likely even give directions about how to get to the street from the room. Extreme intuition people will give very general directions – maybe point toward their house and say, “that way.” In my research group, people were pretty in the middle, which I think is a good thing for experimental scientists. They are focused enough to see the details to follow the directions correctly, but are interested in the big picture about what the experiment is saying.

Things to think about when managing or talking to sensing: They will need a lot of details. Giving general directions about what you want them to do, will not work. If you are an extreme intuition person, you will have to try to be a bit more specific when talking to students who are sensing.

Things to think about when managing or talking to intuition: They will be fine with less detail, and will think you are micromanaging, if you give them too much detail. On the other hand, they might not be able to determine the details and might not have an attention for detail needed for complex experiments or analysis.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F): This is about decision making. What do you consider most when making a decision? Do you rely on facts? Or are people’s feelings more important to you? If you are thinking, you make decisions based on the facts and that is more important than people’s feelings. You will be a hard-ass, if you need to be. If you are feeling, the most important thing to you is how others feel. The facts are not as important as making others happy.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how thinking or feeling they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: How do you pick a gift for someone else? Thinking people will try to pick out something useful and extreme thinkings will just opt for money – the ultimate useful gift. Feeling people will not just want to buy a personal gift, they will often want to make the gift for the person. As a follow-up question, ask them: Do you want to be present when the person opens the gift?

Things to think about when managing or talking to thinking: They will value and be convinced by facts over emotions of feelings. Use data and facts for examples and to convince them of your decisions.

Things to think about when managing or talking to feeling: They will care more about the personal feelings of people. You can make emotional pleas with them to convince them of your decisions.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P): This is about how you organize yourself and your work. Judging people will pursue things linearly. They make lists, and they have a straight-forward approach to solving a problem. They don’t necessarily have clean desks, but the mess is organized. They prefer deadlines and might self-impose deadlines. Perceiving people work sporadically seemingly on disparate parts of the project. They can seem disorganized and often work best under pressure of a deadline.

There is no fun exercise on this. Most people think that the judging way of doing things, with making lists and approaching problems linearly, is the best way to go about getting work done. Because of that, most people will think they are judging, even if they aren’t.

Things to think about when managing or talking to judging: They will work best when given direct instructions in a linear fashion. It is best to give them deadlines and specific straightforward instructions.

Things to think about when managing or talking to perceiving: They will work best on a variety of things within a bigger project at the same time. They will need help keeping track of what they have already done, and making sure they don’t lose track of the tasks needed to be done. Many people are naturally perceiving, but try to force themselves to be judging. By understanding their true nature, you will at least understand their natural tendency, even if you both agree that a linear fashion is the best way – it might not be possible for a perceiving person to perform their tasks linearly.

 

I did these activities with my lab and I asked them to take the Myers-Briggs. They thought it was fun and interesting. It was a great way to get to know their peers and how they experience the world. It was super fun! I have a WomanOfScience friend who says she has always done this with her research group, and it really helps her to understand where her students are coming from and how they make decisions and can be convinced and persuaded of what is best for them (this is important when giving feedback – more on that in future posts!).

What do you think? Do you do this? Do you already know how your students are? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

More Management Stuff

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009Over the past year and a half of this blog (has it been that long?) I have had a number of posts about research group management (i.e. here, here, here, here, herehere, and here). Wow! That’s a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage my group well, but I don’t always think that I succeed. I had previously lamented before that I could not find a course locally to help with leadership or management. Well, I am happy to say that I have found and I am currently enrolled and taking such a course at my university.

How I found a course: Every year, we get a flyer about workplace development at UState. In some years, I went through it looking for interesting courses that would help me, but found nothing. Other years, I was so overwhelmed with stuff and getting tenure that I have no idea if i even got the flyer. This year, I noticed, looked, and saw two courses. One was half day workshop on stuff that seemed useful, but the one I signed up for meets 7 weeks for three hour sessions and is about being a Supervisor. A supervisor! That is what I am! I was using the wrong word before. This is why I stink at Googling. Anyway, I found the course and signed up.

Who this course is for: This course is geared toward anyone at UState who supervises others. It is also geared toward staff. The course has a majority of participants who are on campus staff, several participants who work for local non-profits and the local town governments, and two professors – myself and another WomanOfScience I convinced to take the course. The sessions are 3 hours every week for 7 weeks, and the time is during a seminar that I normally attend, so I am giving up some things to attend this course. I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t professors take the course, but we were welcomed to the course.

Is it good?: We have had two sessions (I will talk more about them in follow-up posts), and I am very happy with it. I feel like I am learning a lot! I would highly recommend taking  course like this. Also, having the course mostly filled with “normal people” who do not live for their jobs, but rather deal with a 9-5 business is good. It is great to see that they have similar issues that academics have. The course is taught in an active learning style where we discuss in small groups, share with the class, role play, and often do kinesthetic activities. Also, even though it is 3 hours, the time flies by, because the topic is interesting and I am very excited in learning about it.

So, I will be giving some updates about both the lessons I am learning and the effectiveness of trying to implement these lessons over the next few weeks. Stay tuned to have a bad version of a second-hand management course. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Miscarriages Happen

ICSI_WebAlthough a lot of the advice and stories on this blog are not necessarily for women only, there are some issues that are specific to women. For instance, I should have taken more bathroom breaks during my recent seminar trip. I was saved by wearing very dark jeans… The women know what I am talking about.

During my seminar visit, I had an explosion of women’s issues emails from 3 different women. Many of these were really specific women’s issues, and this post is one of them. Please enjoy!

I’ve had three miscarriages. There, I said it. I asked to write this guest post to highlight the cultural taboo against discussing miscarriages and infertility, and argue that this is a BAD THING. It’s a double standard that hurts women, especially those in academia with the special time pressure associated with being on the tenure track.

I am an assistant professor at Average Private University; this is my fourth year on the tenure track. Overall I really like my job and my department is great and friendly. My husband is also an assistant professor at APU, so we managed the two-body problem, which is a whole separate post. I have one wonderful daughter who is a year and a half old. Between her and the three miscarriages I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for about 3 of the 3.5 years I’ve been on tenure track.

Only two of my department colleagues know this. I have generally been fairly sick during the first trimester of pregnancy: vomiting, dizziness, extreme fatigue. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling most work colleagues about these issues, because you’re not supposed to tell anyone you’re pregnant until the second trimester. Why? Because what if you miscarry?

All three miscarriages also happened late enough in the first trimester that my doctor recommended surgery. In some sense I was lucky; I can’t imagine having a miscarriage or stillbirth in the second or third trimester. But in any case, I had to go in for outpatient surgery three times over the past three years. Of course, all three had to be scheduled during important faculty meetings. Did I feel comfortable explaining to my colleagues why I was absent from these important faculty meetings? No. Now I wonder how many of them think that I’m flaking out on faculty meetings and shirking my responsibilities as a faculty member.

This is bull. If my non-pregnant colleagues had the same symptoms I did, they would definitely go see a doctor, perhaps even take a few days of medical leave, and most of them would be perfectly willing to explain to other colleagues that they were behind because they weren’t feeling well. They would certainly tell a colleague they missed a faculty meeting because they had surgery.

This is not just academic. I know of a colleague who struggled with infertility (which can also be a taboo subject) and missed a lot of department functions/meetings while dealing with testing and treatment for that issue. Her department did not strongly endorse her for tenure, and the tenure process turned into a mess. While of course there’s a lot more to the story, I think the fact that she was dealing with infertility instead of a different medical issue made it more difficult for her to get the time off of work and the empathy and understanding of her peers.

And its not just work colleagues. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve turned down countless social invitations and opportunities to have fun because I was too “morning sick” to go or I didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t drinking alcohol or I was too emotionally/physically exhausted from the miscarriages themselves. In many cases, people have just stopped inviting me because I never say yes, and I don’t blame them. I’ve also heard more than a few stories of women who went to great lengths to hide the fact that they weren’t drinking due to pregnancy; one friend would fill up an empty beer can with water and carry it around for an entire party. Can I just say that THIS IS INSANE? I – we — should be able to explain to social acquaintances and potential new friends that we are sick and/or pregnant and provide some context for our absences or behaviors.

Why are miscarriages and infertility such a verboten subject? Many reasons, of course. It probably ties into our society’s general ambiguity about the human status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. I think it mostly ties into the fact that for almost all of human history, women who couldn’t (or chose not to) have babies were third-class (or worse) citizens. Women were supposed to have babies, and if they couldn’t, it was due to an inherent flaw in their womanhood. While most of us would acknowledge that this is complete crap, that narrative persists in our collective inability to discuss miscarriage and infertility.

It’s certainly not uncommon; unfortunately about 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage. To me as a scientist, it’s amazing that something as complicated as human development works out at all. (Of course, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) According to the US Department of Human Health and Human Services, about 10% of women struggle with infertility.

The statistics on miscarriage and infertility especially suck for academics. As discussed elsewhere, we often have to make difficult choices about when to try to have children, if we want them. Many folks (including me) decide to postpone until we get a tenure-track job (typically late 20’s, early 30’s) or get tenure (typically mid-to-late 30’s and beyond). This puts us at greater risk for miscarriages and infertility issues, and it also puts an increased pressure to keep trying NOW despite the emotional and physical toll of dealing with these medical problems.

So, what can I (we) do? I think that if I do have another pregnancy, and I have medical symptoms, I am going to openly tell colleagues early in the first trimester. It may make them a bit uncomfortable, and it will be difficult if I have to tell them that I miscarried again, but I think it beats the alternative, which is worrying that I might have a problem with tenure because of it. It also means that I can finally explain to people why I’m turning down social invitations, and say that I’d sure like to be invited again in about three months.

In general, I think women (and their partners) should be more willing to talk about our miscarriages/infertility and the way it affects our lives. By talking about it, we can make sure that women who experience these issues get the support they need instead of falling behind. Miscarriage or infertility is not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly shouldn’t hurt a person’s career.

So what do you think? What would you do? Tell early so people understand your medical conditions? Or not let them know because it is really none of their business. It is a tough call, but one we all have to make. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Bravery is…

Being a WomanOfScience often involves being brave. Last week, we had a seminar from a big fancy, OWM, Nobel Laureate. The OMayerWM-NL was to be giving an inspirational talk about basic science and all the wonderful things that can come from the basic science. During the talk, his slides looked like a cut and pasted wikipedia page of other Nobel winners. Oddly, he didn’t mention a single woman. Not even Marie Curie. He was obsessed with only his subfield. The OWM from this field were geniuses. He barely talked about other fields of science, and when he did, other fields were all about luck – not genius.

He did actually mention (briefly in passing) two women. One was the girlfriend of another NL who he hooked up with at a conference while the other NL was organizing the conference. The other was a joke about serendipity, “sometimes when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, you find the farmer’s wife.” So, basically, the only two women mentioned in the entire talk were sluts.

Many of the women of the department walked out the talk. It was in an auditorium that sat 350, so we felt pretty self-conscience about telling him off at the talk. Walking out was a silent protest. After the talk and the next day, the women discussed and decided to feel out the department. Did the men sense the same thing we women felt? HusbandOfScience did. He was texting me during the talk about all the BS that was streaming at us. Did others?

At lunch with our normal crew the next day, the dudes were totally backing up old OWM-NL. They pulled out the old chestnut, “It’s just a joke,” and “You are being too sensitive.” That was annoying, but the decision to take action was made by my colleague when her grad students and undergrads said that they felt the sexist comments and jokes were very hurtful. One of the undergrads was actually asked by the OWM-NL to pour him coffee. (No, sir, it is not 1950.)

For me, I talked to some senior WomenOfScience, and they all said it was par for the course – they barely noticed because it was tame by the standards of their generation. Not-uh. Not on my watch.

We decided to write a letter to the chair and send it to the faculty. This takes bravery. We had no idea what the aggregate reaction of our colleagues would be. Would they call us crazy? Would they all say they were “just jokes”?

I paste the letter in here (redacted/edited), to serve as an example for you to use:

Dear DepartmentChair,

After the lecture on Day, and conversations with students and colleagues, we (names), consider it is a responsibility to communicate to you and the whole faculty that we were very disturbed by OWM-NL’s lecture.
We will not dwell on the content or quality of the talk, but there are two aspects that we must comment on:

1. The sexist jokes were beyond inappropriate.

We counted at least three, and those were three too many, especially since the jokes were the only references to women in a lecture entitled “Basic Science is Awesome” (not real title). Women were only referred to as literal sexual objects throughout the talk – prizes of fights or findings – while seemingly actively written out of the history of the sciences (see point 2).

We were appalled to learn the speaker asked a female undergraduate to pour coffee for him.
The next day one of us witnessed male undergraduates repeating one of the jokes; clearly, it made an impression.
What example is this setting for our students?

When we mentioned this to some of our colleagues, we had responses along the lines of “those were just jokes”. If you wonder what poisons the climate for women in STEM, this is an answer. It is important you are all aware the female constituency of the department, faculty and students, did not find those to be “just jokes”. None of us was amused, and the chuckling by the audience was not comforting.

2. This was an egregious example of old-boy-network talk, potentially damaging to the retention of underrepresented groups in our department.

One of our graduate students defined it “oppressively exclusive: he went out of his way to avoid mentioning any woman and we got the message that science is done only by privileged white men who went to the same high school”.
No Marie Curie, no Maria Goeppert Mayer, no Rosalind Franklin.
We agree with the student. OWM-NL mentioned the most impactful discoveries were made by white European men; he also said that now people of all ethnicity and genders can do science too, “well, sort of”.
We found this parenthetic remark dismissive and offensive.

We are worried that this lecture has sent a bad message to our graduate students, our undergraduate students, and our colleagues in other departments.

While we recognize it is hard to predict these aspects about a speaker in advance, we should all make an effort to be aware of such pitfalls.

We are grateful to KnownDonors for endowing this lecture series, it is an important medium to increase the visibility of TheDepartment and Science on our campus and in our town, and acknowledge the significant effort that went in organizing this event.
But we also do hope and expect the Department will make all efforts to identify an outstanding woman and minority to invite for future lectures in this series. We will be happy to assist with suggestions.

Best wishes,
WomenOfScience, HusbandOfScience

What was the outcome? The outcome of this was actually really good. The chair who said he had no idea and was truly just in awe of OWM-NL, said that he believed that the lecturer was offensive after reading our letter. We asked him to offer a statement to the entire physics community, and he did this week. Other male colleagues who were not there said that they would have also walked out, but better yet they claimed that they would have spoken out at the lecture. This was a happy surprise.

I think the problem with these situations is that they can catch you off guard and you may not even realize what is happening or how bad it is at the time.  One of the problems with not addressing it, as outlined in our letter, is that the students will either (1) be angry and feel like the department doesn’t support them, especially if they felt the talk was sexist, (2) feel uncomfortable about the talk, but not really know why it bothered them, (3) think that type of talk and behavior are OK. The last one is the worst outcome because it propagates to the next generation the idea that only white, European-decent males can do science, and that women and minorities are outcasts. We didn’t mention that he also said a few racist things in the talk, but our colleague, who is a person of color, noticed. At a time when women are getting a backlash of negative sentiment after many years of progress: Yes, this still happens. Yes, we need to point it out. And yes, the fight is still going strong.

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