Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Sequins_macroToday I have a cool post from another WomanOfScience. It is once again on clothing choice, which is difficult to decide for many women, and is becoming more confusing for young men, as well. I have had a number of prior posts about clothes (here, here, herehere, here, here – OMG, that is so many!), but I really love this one!  Thank you for your post!

Our department’s Women’s group has been having a discussion today about femininity in STEM professions. Many women feel they need to masculinize themselves in order to be taken seriously. This seems like a great forum to continue this discussion and hear the perspectives of other brilliant and successful women scientists.
My view is that this presents a three-fold problem in attempts to achieve equality in STEM professions. On one hand, it sends a message to young women that they have to check their femininity at the door — they shouldn’t wear dresses or makeup. This discourages young girls from wanting to be part of this field because a significant part of their identity is manifestly not valued at best and unwanted, or deemed inappropriate, at the worst.
Worse than sending the message to the next generation that they are unwanted is that current students, postdocs and faculty may feel that they have to deny part of themselves for the sake of their careers. That can wreak havoc on the mental state of women and deeply impacts their career satisfaction. Feeling that they are not accepted and have not community, no support system, is one of the leading reasons women leave STEM careers.
At the highest levels, making people feel like outsiders for not being white or male or western reinforces a dangerous stereotype that there is only one “correct” point of view in science. That leaves no room for creativity or thinking outside the box. How many of your biggest breakthroughs have come from tiny iterations on a single project? None of mine have. They all require creativity, ingenuity, hard work and moreover taking many other perspectives into account. When we dictate the singular validity of an established point of view, we negate the insights and perspectives to be had from listening to women and minorities. A broad diversity of backgrounds leads to better critical thinking. Yet, the insular culture of the status quo suppresses the very essence of what makes for good science.
Having role models who feel the need to cloister their femininity, nullify their gender, or conform to other people’s ideals does not bode well for the future of women in STEM.
As some of you know, I am unabashedly, unashamedly feminine. I wear dresses, stilettos, makeup and perfume. I do it because it is who I am and that makes me feel good about myself. I get a secret kick out of being a science version of that famous quote about Ginger Rogers “sure he [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels”.
I know that sometimes people don’t take me seriously. That is sad, but ultimately their loss because they won’t be able to appreciate good work that has been done by someone with a different background. The flip side is that me being me is something that resonates with my female students, particularly in my intro physics for engineers course. They get to see someone who isn’t much older than them and looks like them confidently doing physics and calculus in front of them, and they realize that despite what they’ve been told in high school, perhaps they too can succeed and do well. Female students have come to me in my office hours saying that they had expected they couldn’t do better than a middle B, but we’re thrilled that they had earned an A. The best part is I get to see the confidence they have in themselves growing over the semester.
I am by no means advocating that everyone be ultra feminine. What I am advocating is to inject a bit of your personality into your work uniform — wear a bright color, that funky pair of shoes you only wear on special occasions, some cool science earrings, or any article of clothing or jewelry that you love. The confidence that comes from being happier and more yourself sets a great example for your students and colleagues.
Thanks for that insightful post! I wholeheartedly agree. One idea is that we can stick to discussions of “professional” attire. I think we can all agree that it would be inappropriate to wear a bikini to give a talk at a conference! So, there must be a line somewhere, and that line is different depending on what you are doing that day, who you are talking to, and the venue.
What do you think? Have a good idea for a post or want to make a comment, do it here! Push the +Follow button to get an email overtime I post.

1160px-Eleanor_Roosevelt_receiving_the_Mary_McLeod_Bethune_Human_Rights_Award_from_Dorothy_Height,_president_of_the_National..._-_NARA_-_196283Hey Ya’ll, It’s Awards Season! As I do every year at this time (post, post, post, post), I am going to remind you to nominate women and minorities for awards at your favorite society. This year, I am writing to remind you that

It’s an Honor to be Nominated!

What am I sending you this public service announcement? Because in my discussions with women and awards committees, a number of women who are thinking of nominating other women or being nominated have asked me, “Are others applying? Maybe I shouldn’t…” To that I say, “Pshaw!”

I know what they are thinking. They think, “Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I shouldn’t compete against other women. What if my nomination keeps another awesome woman from winning?” But taking yourself out of the running does not help yourself or the other women. Here is my justification:

  1. Just being nominated is an honor. Whether you ask to be nominated and someone agrees or they decide to nominate you out of the blue, if they are taking the time and energy to get a set of letters together for you, it is an honor.
  2. There is no downside to being nominated. When you are nominated, you get to put together a packet where nice people agree to write nice letters about you. That packet is read by a fancy committee of fancy people. Even if they think you don’t have the strongest packet, just being nominated means they will learn your name, learn what you do, and recognize you later. Sounds like a win-win situation.
  3. Who cares what the odds are? Let’s think about probability. If you don’t apply, your odds of winning are a big fat ZERO. Even if 100 people apply (which isn’t likely for most awards), you still have at least a 1 in 100 chance of winning, which is better than zero. If you have a nice packet written by nice people, maybe the odds are even better. Finally, the odds of your packet being read is 100% (see #2 above).
  4. Women can support other women in a pool. I am a firm believer that when multiple women and minorities are present in a pool of applicants, that can subconsciously make women more appealing. In fact, there was a non-scientific initial study in Harvard Business Review that says just this for hiring. So, don’t worry that you might be competing with other women for an award! In fact, your application might be the tipping point that normalizes women being in the pool. Your contribution may be to enable another women to win… Or, their contribution might be to help you to win.

So, what do you think? Are you convinced? You’ve got 5 days until May 1 (if that is the due date for your awards). Get on it! Nominate someone for an award! Comment or post. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

In Bathroom News!

2016-10-18-15-55-27In bathroom news this week, the crazy potties (see picture) have been replaced by regular potties in my building! See my previous post about these crazy potties.

Actually it happened a few weeks ago, and the women in my lab are overjoyed. I was so excited about the change, I made an announcement in my department faculty meeting. I was actually curious as to how the change came about. My department business manager and space manager knew nothing about the change. My chair had no idea. Was it my dean, who reads this blog? If so, thank you!!

At faculty meeting, many of the men were surprised that there were urinals in the women’s rooms. At which point, I tried to explain that they were urinals for women. We even found an advertisement from the sixties trying to say that they were hygienic and women loved them! so they should be installed in all bathrooms for women. This is a great example of why you need women’s voices at all stages and levels: engineers, architects, administrators who make decisions. No woman would even have bought these for other women!

My colleagues then disclosed that some of the men’s restrooms also have them, and they thought they were weird… It turns out that in the other building (my department is split into two buildings – soon to be three), the men’s rooms and women’s rooms are on every other floor. Sometimes they are flipped due disability accommodations or other issues, and so it seems that many of the men’s rooms also have women’s urinals in them.

As funny, fascinating, and weird as this conversation was, my bringing this up allowed another faculty to broach the subject of gender-neutral bathrooms in our buildings. With the number of openly transgender students who feel comfortable enough to make the transition in college and grad school, having gender-neutral bathrooms is very important for inclusion and diversity that students have a place to go to the bathroom where they feel safe and comfortable. We were asked about where they were in my building. Thank goodness someone (not me, but one of my white-male allies) knew where they were. I was just happy we had them! Thanks to this faculty member, we were all made aware of the location.

Even better, the location is catalogued on the website of one of our diversity websites on campus, so students can look them up in each building and find them. I used one this week, because I teach on the same hall, and they are the only bathrooms in that part of the building. They are nice – one stall, single sink, outer door that locks.

Next steps: putting up signs to let people know where they are. But, where to put them? On the gender separated bathrooms? Around the building? On my office door? Any comments or suggestions will be greatly appreciated! Post here.

And that is all for the Bathroom News this week! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Body Language: Act Big

BodyLanguageAt the recent big physics conference this year, there was a really great pre-conference tutorial on how to give good talks. I have had a couple posts about giving good talks (here, here). One thing that was stressed at the tutorial was body language. One of the presenters (really, I should say workshop-runners) was an actor who thinks a lot about body language. Her advice included things such as keeping your feet firmly planted about shoulder width apart, opening up your shoulders (not hunched), and holding your head up. Also, you should use your hands effectively to help elaborate points, but do not put them behind your back or crossed over your chest.

This is all excellent advice! I definitely do all this stuff when I give a talk or in class. But, this is good advice for all the time – not just when giving a talk. In fact, I walk with such confidence and purpose, that I have been stopped on campus more than once by someone who commented “You look like you are going to kick someone’s ass.” And that is exactly how I want to look. In fact, I am there to kick ass, everyday. Walking and holding myself confidently actually helps give me the confidence to do my job. I started doing this as part of my mantra of “fake it until you make it.” I practiced, and I don’t have to fake it anymore. I especially like walking briskly down the hall with my tall boots under a flowy skirt and making a lot of click-clack noise. People know I am there. I walk with purpose. I feel and look large and in charge.

If you are a woman or under-represented minority, thinking about and using your body language and appearance effectively are essential to your success. I have written about this previously here in the context of the classroom. Your body language can communicate to the class how competent (confident) you are, how serious to take you, and that you care about the students and their learning. When paired with your words, body language can be powerful to help you make your points and connect with them.

When your body language is at odds with your words, people feel uncomfortable. Because people’s perception of body language is subconscious, they may not understand where their discomfort comes from. That discomfort and uncertainty mix to make them even more uncomfortable and distrustful. This is a bad combination, especially because women have a harder time engendering trust, in general due to sexism (see article).

Outside of classes, I also use the same tactics. At the conference, I stood with my feet apart. I noticed other women of approximately my stage and success level were also standing feet apart, heads up, shoulders back, and arms either animated or crossed. I find that, as a woman, crossing your arms doesn’t look closed off if you stand with your head up and expression open. Instead, crossed arms gives you an air of competence and healthy skepticism – a good stance for a scientist. It was cool to notice that we were all standing in basically the same stance. Most importantly, you do not want to shrink back. You want to take up space. If you are thin or short, this is even more important.

In faculty meetings or other committee meetings, I often purposely take up a bit more space than is strictly necessary. I cross my legs with my ankle on my knee. I put my arm on the neighboring chair. I make myself larger because I am often physically smaller than my colleagues (although I am by no means a “small girl”). Whatever I do, I do not shrink in or try to take up less space than I need. Taking up more space sends a sub-conscious notice that I deserve the space, and I deserve to be heard.

Why is body language effective? Most body language and facial expressions are important forms of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication allows you to communicate silently and subconsciously about yourself. Because it is subconscious, you can use it to communicate your assertiveness without actually acting overtly aggressive.  Talking over men, interrupting, or speaking loudly can get you labeled as pushy, bossy, and aggressive. Using body language to communicate your place at the table is physically assertive, but it is not perceived consciously.

So, what do you think? Comment or send your own article to post. As always, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.


1600px-Solvay_conference_1927I am a woman in a male-dominated field. In my department, being cis-white male is being apart of a 67% majority when you include all lecturers. If you reduce your scope to tenure-track faculty (the upper class), cis-white male is 74% of that group. So, although I am a white woman and in the privileged class in the country. My intersectionality comes through fighting every day for women and under-represented groups’ equality within my field and department.

I was recently talking to my unicorn friend (she is a black woman in my cis-white male field), and she said something extremely important that I hadn’t thought of before: When you are a minority in a field, it is hard to tell if the problems you face are normal or due to your minority status. Because it is difficult to tell, and because it can be embarrassing or difficult to ask majority-members about your problems, it is easy to conclude that your troubles all spurn from being a minority. If you chalk every problem you have up to being a woman, you quickly become labeled as a whiney minority who wants special treatment. This is a common complaint which is spurned from both your unicorn status – the fact that there is legit racism and sexism against you – and your not knowing what is “normal” for majority-people.

Another issue that minorities face is that we can become isolated. Once you are labeled a whiney minority, it can be difficult to make friends and get to know people. That can be isolating. Isolation results in marginalization. Marginalization results in more whining, and it is a vicious cycle. I have noticed that this often happens to senior women in cis-white male dominated fields, and they are written off as “crazy” (see this blog post). Further, despite the marginalized person being about as productive, funded, etc as other majority-persons in the department, their contributions don’t seem to count as much and they cannot maintain respect from their colleagues. I have noticed that the senior women who are marginalized are not asked to lead important committees in the department. Younger women are not yet qualified and that keeps the leadership within the majority group’s leadership.

When a junior woman/minority breaks through the glass ceiling, typically by being an absolute superstar who must win more awards and have more papers and grants than others, they get singled out as the unicorn who is acceptable to the majority. The majority wants diversity, so they will then overburden that “acceptable minority” with more work, service, and leadership. Simultaneously, the “regular” egalitarian-shared work load is not removed – because it wouldn’t be fair for you to do less – what you think you are so special you don’t have to pull your weight in the department? If you complain about the service load, you are risking being a whiney minority.

So, women/minority superstars end up doing a lot more work and it goes unnoticed. Further, the minority superstar must keep up their superstar research status, as they are constantly at risk of slipping into whiney minority-marginalized status if there is a dip in paper production or funding. Yet, majority-member colleagues with a dip in funding or paper output are still allowed to serve as leaders, and they are allowed to ask to be taken out of service roles that are overly burdensome without consequence. Thus, women/minorities must do more to earn the respect of their colleagues and they must do more to maintain the respect of their majority counterparts.

An additional burden of being a minority-status person in a department is the constant fight just to maintain normalcy. I have written about this previously here. Because, frankly, shit does happen and it does happen more to minority-status people. Add on top of that the fact that we can’t always tell if stuff is real or we are being too sensitive, but erring on the side of doing nothing can have serious negative impacts.

Now, these are not the only issues under-represented groups face, but these are the ones I that are often hidden or difficult to understand by majority-persons. Ultimately it comes down to cultivating the opinions of others about you. It is a PR issue. I spend a lot of energy on these PR issues. Brainpower I could be using to be smarter in my science. But, it is worth it to me to stay in the non-marginalized demographic.

The spirit of this blog is not just to explain and complain, but to come up with solutions that all parties can take back to change the situation.

Hire more minorities. OK, this is perhaps obvious. If you just hire more minority faculty, it is harder for them to be singled out in a variety of ways. They don’t feel as isolated and walking on a knife-edge. They can ask each other for advice. The majority people are also more comfortable with minority-status peers when there are more of them. Because we are not all the same (shocker!). If there is only one woman, you might be confused about how she responds to things and why she is getting upset. (I am assuming you are a nice person who wants your minority-status peer to succeed.) If there are 8 women, probably one of them can help you understand what’s going on.

Make friends. Many minority faculty feel isolated because they don’t make friends at work. Not having friends at work sucks. Even if you are a total introvert and are rejuvenated by being alone, I still advocate making friends. If you are a majority-status person, make friends with minority-status people. If you are a minority, make friends with your majority-status colleagues. It is vitally important that you have a diversity of friends (we all value diversity, right?).

You also need to have friends who have the same or similar minority-status as you, because there might be things you can’t talk about with majority people. We all need to have people we can whine and bitch to. You also need friends who are majority-status. Why? Because you need people you trust who can tell you if what you are seeing and feeling is racism/sexism or just regular old periodic suckiness of this job? You need to know how a cis-white male would deal with the same situations you are dealing with.

How do you make friends? Ask people to go to lunch. Invite them to your house for dinner. Invited them out for drinks after work. Assemble a group to see a campy movie. I know it feels weird to make friends as an adult, but you need to do it. Also, people are busy, just as you are busy as a faculty member. If you don’t get a response or get a no, you have to try again. Spending time with friends outside of work helps you realize your shared values as scientists, researchers, teachers, and even parents or members of the town. Having shared values builds trust. Trust is essential for sharing difficult or embarrassing situations where you might need help.

Have mentors. Some departments have assigned mentors and you might hit it off – that is great. Much like you should not have one set of friends, you should also not have one set of mentors. You also need to make sure your mentors are many different types of people (diversity!). You need to trust them, and that might mean being friends with them (see above). The principles of cultivating mentors is similar to friendships. The main difference is that you should come with questions and ask for help sometimes.

Ask for help. I have said this before when talking about sexist evaluations, but you will have to swallow your pride and ask for help about embarrassing situations. As I said, if you are too embarrassed to do what you have to do in order to be successful at this job, you are at risk of losing this job. You are also at risk of becoming marginalized.

Let me give you an example from a recent experience of my own. My first few students weren’t working out in the lab. The first, I fired because he wasn’t working or showing up, and I couldn’t really tolerate such work ethic in a lab at such an early stage. The second student quit because the work was much harder than anticipated. This was followed by another and another. Luckily, I recruited a good postdoc and a student from a different graduate program who could handle the work. I could have just kept quiet and hoped that my colleagues didn’t notice the number of students running through my lab. Instead, I went to my mentors to tell them what was happening and get advice on what to do. I also asked if my having no graduate students from my home department would hurt me at tenure time. By asking for help and being frank and honest, I was letting my mentors (and colleagues) know that I know my situation was not ideal, but that there were good reasons for what was happening. I also told them my solution and tried to gauge how much it would matter for my career.

Also, this is not just for women or minorities. Men who have bad teaching evaluations, overloaded service, difficulties managing your students, or other issues should also speak up and talk to your mentors. I know it is scary, but not getting tenure is scarier to me.

Identify bullish*t. When you are a woman or minority in a majority white-male-cis world,  you will get treated differently because of your status. It will happen, so how do you identify it, so that you are not complaining about something that is normal? If you are a majority-member wanting to be an ally, how can you tell if the situation you are being told about is sexism/racism? Well, you can always try to picture a majority-status person in the same situation and try to decide if it seems “weird.”

For instance, when a woman tells you that she was told she cannot go to full early because, “Why should she go before her male colleagues?” that might not seem weird because she may in fact be the only woman at the associate professor level. But, if you change that scenario, and think of the personnel committee chair asking a male associate professor, “Why should you go up for full before your female colleagues?” you realize that it is weird.

What do you think? Have you ever had a situation where you thought, “Does this happen to everyone? Or is this because I am a woman/minority?” I have. It is hard to determine if things that happen are because of your status or because it is normal, everyday assholery of academia. Are there other ways to figure this out? If you have other ideas, please share! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.



Plan B

fightpowerI never thought I would have to write a blog entry like this one… Not in this country. But, here I sit. This article is about how to help your student escape from the USA if the Muslim bans become worse.

As I write this, there are still people in limbo about their status to enter the USA. These people have visas. The executive order restricting travel by persons from 7 countries was made on January 28th. That morning, I read the New York Times and asked myself, how does this affect my student who is from one of these countries?

Immediate concerns: My student is supposed to present our work at an international conference in March. BTW, my student won a travel award to present at this conference! My first worry was that my student would be detained and not allowed to get on the airplane. After reviewing the executive order, I realize that *technically* my student should be allowed to travel within the country without barrier. That being said, I also do not trust TSA agents. Here is what we are doing to facilitate the travel:

  • We are all traveling together. We will be getting our tickets together. I will use my priveledge as a white, American citizen, and professor to make sure my student is not harassed at the security and makes it onto the plane. This is crazy! I should not have to F-ing chaperone adult graduate students… but, now I do.
  • My student will not use a passport as an ID. My student has a drivers’ license, which is valid at the airport, and will use that as identification so that the TSA agents will not know the country of origin. It isn’t their business anyway.

Future concerns: Given that my student is from a listed country, and that this might not be the last action, what should we do so that my student can (1) survive and (2) finish the work we are doing? Here is our plan:

  • I contacted a colleague in my field in Canada. I know this lab’s work, which is excellent, and I know they have the equipment needed to complete this work. We will meet at a conference to discuss the student’s work, the student’s progress, and make a plan for how the work would proceed.
  • We will figure out how to get a visa for my student to be an academic visitor at my colleague’s institution. We will get the paperwork ready in advance, and get some vague approval.
  • We will have a housing plan made up, so someone can house my student in an emergency.
  • If something comes down that means my student cannot be in the USA, we will work quickly to get travel arrangements made, get the visas finalized, and get my student to the lab in Canada.
  • Worst case scenario, and we do not have time to make changes (we just saw that this can happen), I will personally drive my student over the border. I am relatively close to the border, and I picked a colleague on my side of the USA in Canada. I will declare my student a refugee of the USA, and get my student to Canada where we will have time to finish the paperwork. In Canada, where they have worked on immigrant reform, it is difficult to be an illegal immigrant, but they have rules that allow reasonable times of stay to help people become legal. Since we will have the backing for two professors (one in the USA and one in Canada), I have more faith in the Canadian government to be able to help and do things in a civilized and rational manner.
  • Once in Canada, my student will continue to work as a visiting scientist. I will use funds from foundations to fund the work, if there is some edict against funding foreigners with federal grants (I know, I am not trying to give them ideas, but they could totally do this to punish and push back against scientist protests, so we need to be aware). If I don’t have funds, my colleague has said we could discuss some way to get my student paid another way (of course this might mean my student working for my colleague and not me…, but that is a more minor concern. As I said, my colleague is excellent!). Remember that survival is # 1, science is # 2, and ego and credit should always be # 3 on the list of priorities.

So, what are you doing? If you have a student who is from one of these countries, I encourage you to have a Plan B ready. We have already seen that we will not have much time to think after the fact. Get your ducks in a row now. Our vulnerable students should not be the fodder in our fight with fascism.

Comment of post your ideas here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

dumbledores_armyI’m back. Did you miss me?

Honestly, although I had been giving good advice to people one-on-one, I couldn’t put idea to computer for a few months there. You know what helped me? Teaching. The idea that I was now about to teach and, yes, influence young minds. I am excited because I am teaching a cool course that I invented that has a lot of hands-on work, tinkering, and active learning.

I was also assigned an extra course: Freshman seminar. You might have one of these courses in your department. It is the class where the faculty are paraded through to give undergraduate level talks about their research. The goal is to get the students acquainted with the department and oriented somewhat. Honestly, it was always a good opportunity for students to take a nap. Being the sort of person who can never leave well-enough alone and wants to destroy terrible and boring, I am revamping the ENTIRE CLASS. I will NOT have a parade of faculty lulling the students to sleep. Instead, I decided to actually orient and prepare these students for the next 3 years of college, science in general, research, careers, and ADVOCACY. Think of it as Dumbledore’s Army for science (I have been re-reading the Harry Potter series – seriously important reading for these dark times). I want these kids to understand how the scientific process works – including failure, uncertainty, and funding – so they can be voices for change when they go back home.

Will this land me on the Professor Watchlist? God, I hope so! Let’s fill up that list with scientists and engineers.

OK, let’s talk about the class. This is what I am planning (list of topics). I have 12 more weeks. I would love your ideas and suggestions on this list.

  1. What is science? It is a method to find the truth. It is not a bunch of facts we make you memorize.
  2. Who are scientists and how do they think? Why diversity of opinions and ideas is important in science. Scientists are not smart because they *know* a lot of stuff – they are smart because they know *how to find out* a lot of stuff.
  3. Why are scientists never 100% certain? Measurement certainty and precision. How well *can* we measure something? What does that mean about truth and facts?
  4. What is an expert? What is the difference between and “expert’s opinion” and a regular person’s opinion?
  5. The importance of failure in science. Why we try to *disprove* models and theories – not *prove* them. Ethics of reporting true results – even if they are “null” results.
  6. Careers for Scientists outside of the academy. Why a science training is the best training for ANY career.
  7. Where does the money come from for science? Federal funding agencies, Congressional discretionary spending, corporations, foundations. How we write proposals.
  8. Dissemination of scientific results. Why do we need to tell people our results? Different forms of dissemination.
  9. Peer review for journal articles. The mechanics of peer review. Peer review of grant proposals. What does it mean to have expert reviews?
  10. How to discover the truth behind something you read or hear online. Reading a science article. Reading a political article.
  11. How to describe something complicated to someone who doesn’t do science. Dissemination of results to the public. Why does the public need to know about science?
  12. Advocacy and being a spokesperson for science. Talking to everyone about science, what it is good for, and why they should care about it.

So, this is getting me through the day (and night, since I am spending so much time working these days!). How do you feel about this? For me, this is grassroots action. They gave me the perfect class to do this. The course is pass/fail and filled with freshmen. I can’t pass up the opportunity to shape these young minds. I love being a professor sometimes.

What do you think? Comment or write a post yourself. I would love to hear from you! To get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button and sign-up.

PS. In case you didn’t see it anywhere else:

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