Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for October, 2014

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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How NOT to Give a Talk

lectureI think we can all agree that giving talks about your research is pretty darn important in science. Given how important it is, and how often we do it, it is surprising when you witness someone giving a bad talk.  I had a prior post about some specific things to do/not to do when giving a talk (express yourself). Today, I saw a stunningly bad talk, and I wanted to give some tips on what not to do when giving a talk.

1. Paragraphs. Do not write out long paragraphs on your slide and then read the paragraphs to the audience. I find this is the most common slide format faux pas for WMs over 65 years of age. I am not sure why they think this is a good way to display their information of what they want to say. In general, say what you want to say, show what you want to show, but don’t show what you want to say.

2. Turning your back on the audience. I know that this seems silly to have to say, but you shouldn’t not face the audience. You should speak to the audience and make eye contact. even in a really big room, you should try to make eye contact with people you can see.

3. Don’t make racist or sexist remarks. Do I really have to say this? Apparently, I do. Don’t make jokes about having sex. Don’t make jokes about erections. Why do I have to say this?

4. Do you really have to name drop? How many Nobel Laureates’ names do you drop in one talk? I typically don’t mention any, but if you are working on something related to something Nobel-worthy, you should describe it. But, if you are just friends with some smart dudes, we don’t need to know about it.

So, my thought/comment question for tonight: If you see a talk that has #3, what do you do? The others are annoying, but #3 is potentially damaging. should I mention to my colleagues that I, and many other women, were annoyed by the talk? We were more than annoyed, many of us walked out after the 3rd inappropriate reference. So, what should we do? Post or comment here. (To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.)

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