Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for August, 2015

Act Like A Woman

Think-Like-a-Man1I feel like a lot of advice for women in male-dominated fields leans toward the “act like a man” type. I have definitely given that type of advice here. For instance, in previous posts (here, here), when I advocated to modulate your voice during public speaking about science. And I also have given advice about what types of clothing to wear (here, here, for the men: here), and I typically say to error on the side of modest. There is also advice about acting confident and negotiating for yourself. These actions are stereotypically seen as male-oriented traits, and women are stereotyped as “less aggressive” and “less self-confident.” Frankly, I know a lot of really successful women who do these things really well, and they are not particularly gendered – except as how society views such activities.

Sometimes, fitting in is important and “acting like a man” in some ways can be helpful. But, in general, I think there are a lot of great things about being more stereotypically “feminine” that can really benefit collaboration, criticism, and science in general. So, I titled this post, “act like a woman.” I do understand that every woman is different, and I do not mean that all women act as I might describe (I include caveats below). Rather, I think that, in our society, women are socialized in certain ways and men are socialized in certain ways. Women are socialized to be better communicators (but, women are not all great communicators) and men are socialized to be more aggressive (but, not all men are aggressive). My point with this post is to point out some of the stereotypically “female” social constructs and how they could be beneficial to science discourse. I also want to say that many of my male colleagues do already act in these nice ways that I describe below, and it is enjoyable and a pleasure to work with them. If you disagree or have other points, I missed, feel free to comment or write a response post for me to post up here.

Saying “I’m Sorry” There was a fabulous sketch on Inside Amy Schumer where she shows a panel of high-achieving, amazing women and they spend the entire panel saying “I’m Sorry,” (episode, sketch, interesting articles about the sketch: above average, Huffington Post). As often with comedy, and especially with Amy Schumer, the sketch had a social point and then went haywire when one of the women apologized herself to death, basically.

I find myself doing this all the time. I apologize for things that are and are not my fault. In my very progressive local environment, many people will actually respond, “There is no need to be sorry.” True, sometimes I say sorry when it isn’t needed, but what I am really saying is, “I see you. I recognize you are there and you are a person who deserves a comment.” It doesn’t always actually mean, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes it means, “I empathize with you,” or “I acknowledge you.” I suppose I could say those other things, but “I’m sorry” is what always pops out of my mouth.

Saying “I’m sorry” is one of those things that men, women and others try to de-socialize out of women. They say it undermines your power to apologize all the time. But, does it? I have male colleagues who are sweet and kind, and guess what? I have noticed that they apologize a lot, too. It doesn’t seem to take away their power. Plus, it is not exactly distracting or bad or anything else (unlike in Amy Schumer’s sketch). In general, it is minor and not even noticeable. Why are we trying to remove people acknowledging each other and, in a sense, just trying to be nice? So, I am keeping the “I’m sorries.” I’m sorry if this bugs you.

Saying “I was Wrong” I find it ironic how adamant scientists can be even in the face of their utter incorrectness. We have to be able to acknowledge that we are wrong, or we might as well stop doing science at all. In general, although, again, not always, I find that women are more capable of accepting their incorrectness, moving to a new thought and accepting the possibility of other options in their science. But why? Is the proverbial woman more empathetic and thus more capable of seeing someone else’s view? Is it that we are bashed and criticized so much (more?), that we are more open to such critique?

Whatever the reason, the ability to accept that you might be wrong is essential, especially in this time when about 30-60% of studies have been shown to be “false.” There was a nice NPR story about this, just this week, actually, talking about the fact that many studies, especially in medicine or biology, are shown to be incorrect. In my opinion, this has to do with:

(1) Biology and parts of science are inherently statistical, yet we do not do a good job of quantifying our results and making the uncertainty clear. For many of their fields, a one-sigma difference is called “significant.” Think about that. One sigma. That means, statistically speaking, you are likely to be incorrect about 30% of the time. That is what a one-sigma difference means!! So, why are we shocked?

(2) People have a hard time admitting their uncertainty in their publications. Indeed, there is not incentive to accurately report your uncertainty when we are pushed to make big, broad claims about our work to publish in “high impact” journals. I find it weird that the old standard journals with good, solid work, much of which is reproducible, have the lowest impact factors. I find it even weirder that the newest journals on the street often have crazy high impact factors, when they have only been around a short time. That system is clearly flawed even more than the one-sigma significance system. At least one-sigma significance has a quantifiable uncertainty!

In the NPR story, the scientist double checking all the work said that he had some of his own original work debunked. He was asked why it is so hard for scientists to face the fact that they might be wrong. He said it was because we feel like the fact we discovered is a personal procession – we own it. I disagree. I am not so tied to my personal possessions, and many scientists are similarly minded. I think it is more that it feels like family or even a part of your own self-identity. Your scientific discoveries define you. To realize that they may be wrong is like realizing you, yourself, are not who you think you are.

So, I see that it doesn’t pay to clearly say “I could be wrong, and it may be by 30%.” On the other hand, your short-term gain is science and society’s long-term loss because we are working off of faulty data. So, overall, I think we could all benefit with being a little more honest with ourselves about our short-comings and admitting that we could be wrong, by as much as 30%.

Listen and summarize – don’t just contribute your own ideas all the time. There is a saying, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.” I have a majorly hard time with this, especially when the topic is something I am excited or passionate about. But, I have found myself in a number of meetings, especially over the summer, where the room was dominated by big voices and personalities talking about things I wasn’t as interested or passionate about. I noticed that the domination was coming mostly from males… OK, entirely. This is partly because I am in a male-dominated field. But, it was more than that. To me, in these meetings, I distinctly had the impression of male animals marking turf and competing with rivals for dominance of the room, ideas, and airtime. If I were to draw a picture, it would look like this:

 

WomenAtMeeting

This situation happened twice in recent memory. In the first instance, I was one of two women in the room. Both myself and the other woman worked with the group to synthesize the discussion and the loud ideas coming from the men. I also contributed many ideas that were incorporated. I felt valued and heard in that instance. It was clear to both myself and the other woman in the room that, without us, very little would have been accomplished because no one else was doing this oversight and group dynamic management that were were doing.

Another more recent occasion, there were three women. We all shirked our responsibilities as the “women who help” to synthesize and steer the conversation to productive avenues (see this article). Why did we do this? It seemed fruitless and a waste of time, given the personalities in the room and the way they interacted with each other. It was easier to keep our heads down. Every now and then, we three women would discuss separately, come to a good idea, and then patiently wait, literally with hands raised, until the males calmed enough to see us. We would give our idea, which was good, and often accepted, and another topic would follow with more “hoo-hoo” and “haa-haa” (gorilla noises in my head, see image) about the next topic. In this second venue, all three of us felt under-valued and unheard, despite the fact that our contributions were significant to making progress for the group. It is demoralizing and marginalizing and off-putting, and worst of the worst – wasteful and impeding to progress.

Again, yes, “Not All Men” and “Not All Women” but what I am advocating is the end of that type of behavior at all. Good leadership and meeting management can help avoid these types of meetings and interactions, but it would be better if such people just acted politer and more gracious – act like a woman – in the first place. I guess I am just saying that the aggressive posturing doesn’t actually work to make progress to solve problems, so why bother doing it?

Be constructive and nurturing – not destructive and critical for the sake of being critical. Many scientists are teachers, many are not – even if they work at a university. Even those who do teach, don’t always value or develop that part of their jobs. Teaching, especially at the K-12 levels, is a primarily female occupation these days, but the opposite is true at the professorial level. Why? Is it because the endeavor of actual teaching is seen as more nurturing and caring than other professions (such as scientific researcher) and women are the nurturers of the society, so they are steered toward those jobs? Whatever the reason for the switch from women educators at lower levels to men at higher levels, is not really my point here – sorry to lead you astray.

Here, I am advocating that science would be more fun, more collaborative, more productive, and more welcoming to under-represented groups if we could be more pedagogical with our criticism. As I have said before (above and in prior posts), criticism is vital for the re-evaluation and assessment needed to understand right and wrong (see above). What many people say though, is our current form of critique is too harsh. This relates to the points made above about impact factors and the cut-throat granting environment. As an editor and scientist who is reviewed, is that reviewers are often emotional, unhelpful, and frankly, a$$h0les, when doing reviews. This attitude doesn’t help science or the authors you are reviewing.

Instead of being harsh, I wish people would try to be educational. As with everything I am saying, there are always specific places where this is not true. I have a favorite “home base” journal where I like to publish. This journal is great because mostly, the reviewers are helpful and pedagogical without being pedantic, patronizing, or condescending. The reviews are helpful to making our papers better. Needless to say, this is not a “high-impact” journal in the short-run. But I have been able to replicate experiments published from that journal, AND using the experimental methods outlined in the papers as published. In the long-run, these papers will be the truly impactful ones – the ones that are correct.

I would like to note, when being pedagogical, try not to be patronizing or fatherly. This can be a hard line to walk. Just remember that the thing you are reviewing is actually written by “the expert” on that subject. You are brought in as an expert on what you do, which is not exactly what the authors you are reviewing do. They are the experts – it is their science. You are there to offer advice to help improve the manuscript or proposed science. Consider them a colleague seeking advise. If you blast off a review and act like a know-it-all, that is a$$h0lish, too. Basically, follow the golden rule – treat these authors the way you would want to be treated by a reviewer. Keep calm, don’t get emotional. Stick to the science and the facts – not your opinion of science and the facts. And, for heaven sake – cite your references in your review!

Man, that was a long one. What do you think? Comments are welcome. If you want to get an email every time I infrequently post, push the +Follow button.

Giving GOOD Talks

Ferris_Bueller's_Day_OffI was recently at a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) for a field I am tangential to and want to learn more about. If you are in science, and don’t know what GRCs are, you should. They are small conferences on more focused topics. The one I was at can only have less than 200 participants. That means you can talk to many people deeply about science. Further, the GRCs are structured such that the afternoons have free time for you to socialize with the participants. I think that socializing in this way is essential for networking and forming stronger bonds, perhaps even friendships, with people in your field. At the GRC, there is only one session at a time (no concurrent sessions) and long discussions afterward. The GRC is good for learning science without getting overwhelmed or worried about not going to the right session. So, if you are a student or postdoc, especially, you should ask to go to a GRC. I think they are especially good for your career.

But, this is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to talk about talks. I think a lot about how best to present my work to people. Even if my work/publications are boring, my talks never are. They get people excited. I guess I feel more comfortable pushing the envelope in person than in writing. This is probably why I don’t get published in HighImpact-OneWordTitle-Journals. At this conference, as in all, there are many different speaking techniques. All the talks are by professors who are doing excellent and interesting work, but they don’t always speak in the best manner. It got me to thinking about some advice for giving good talks. This is not the first time I have given advice on this topic. General information can be found here.  In this post, I am talking about other aspects that I didn’t touch on previously.

***Disclaimer: The advice given here is not meant to shame any particular person. I am not talking about you. This post is only meant to give advice to help people interested at self-improvement.

Up Talk, Vocal Fry, Voice Tone, Using the Pointer, Body Language:  This was all discussed in detail in previous post. Here is an over view. Don’t sound like you are asking questions (no up talking). Make declarative statements. Use a lower voice, if possible. Two hands on the pointer if your hands shake. Don’t fidget – gesture.

Don’t Yell Your Talk: I have noticed a number of people, mostly women, basically yelling their talk at the audience. It is like a string of words without pauses at a very loud tone. I personally, find this hard to take and a bit off-putting. I am not sure when this style got developed or taught, but I have noticed it more and more. It feels like I am being blasted by the person’s talk instead of engaging with the information.

My advice: insert pauses. If you have a hard time remembering this, put things into your talk that will make you pause. A white rabbit. A small smiley face. Use these cues to remind you to pause. You need to let the audience take in the scientific information you have delivered. When you present the method or experimental system, put in a pause and ask the audience if they have questions. When you present an important result, pause and let it sink in, then state that this is remarkable or significant and why.

As for the yelling tone, I think the only thing that will cure that is thought and practice. I think the yelling is caused by nervousness mostly. This is why I am surprised to see it in experienced scientists with tenure who have been doing this for a long time. You might need to practice using inflection. Inflection is not necessarily up talking. Maybe the yelling monotone comes from a fear of up talking? There are other ways of speaking with inflection that does not sound like asking a question. Instead of thinking of a talk like a public presentation, think of it as a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what you do where you have all the information with you and arranged on slides that you just happen to have up on the screen. If you design the talk this way and maybe pick someone in the audience to talk to, you might be able to blot out the fear of “public speaking” that I think could be driving the yelling. Of course, I grant that I could be exactly wrong. If you have insight as to the yelling your face off style of giving talks, please post or comment.

Engage the Audience: I said this before, but here I am being more general than just using demonstrations. Also, audience engagement goes along with the issue above of having a conversation with your audience. In theater, there is a concept called “breaking the 4th wall,” where the character on the screen talks to the audience. Remember in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, when he looks at the camera and talks to you. Ferris is breaking the 4th wall. It is the invisible wall between the action going on on the screen or on stage and the audience.  When you give a talk “at” an audience, you have the 4th wall up. I recommend that you try to break the 4th wall in your talk. You can walk into the audience, although that is not always sensical if you are tethered to a laptop at the front. You can also ask your audience questions. Give them a quiz. You’re probably a teacher of some sort if you are a faculty. Or maybe you aspire to be. Putting a question on a slide by itself and asking the audience to vote on the answer is a good way to engage the audience and to wake them up.

Use Humor and Analogy: Some people are naturally funny. Some are not. If you are funny, try adding some humor to your talk. If you are not, I don’t advocate trying to include it. On the other hand, non-funny people can include analogies to well-known, modern, or macroscopic systems and objects to help improve understanding during your talk.  A few well-placed analogies with images in your talk can go a long way to taking your talk from boring or opaque to exciting and clear.

I said the same thing at the end of the last post that I am saying here, which is: I am sure there are even more helpful hints for how to give a good talk, but these are the ones that came to me just now. I realize the last post was about a year a a half ago, but maybe going to conferences makes me thoughtful about giving talks.

The Only One: Speaking Up

TrixiefriganzaThere was an interesting NPR story about being the only X in the room, where X can be anything, but is typically some under-represented group.  The story was spurred by an interview Marc Maron (love) did on WTF? with Wyatt Cenac (love). As a WomanOfScience, this has definitely happened to me where I am the only woman in a room. As a friend of many WomenOfColorOfScience, I understand how it is so much worse for scientists of color. I have a suspicion that white men have probably never had this happen to them. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be times (not times in science, of course) when you are the the only white male in a room. I asked HusbandOfScience, and he cannot recall one time when he was the only white man in the room. He says there was a time when he was almost the only white man in the room, but he was never actually the only one.

An interesting part of the original story and the report from NPR was the pull the “only one” feels between fitting in and speaking up when some racist or sexist shit goes down. They rightly point out that your ability and willingness to speak up as the “only one” depends on your personality, your stature within the group, and your level of power. I definitely have done these calculations when deciding if I should speak up about something. Now that I have tenure, I let loose all the time: with ally-colleagues, at faculty meetings, at a grant panel, at a government funding agency workshop, etc… Oh yeah, I speak up, make a joke and point it out. But, before getting tenure, I was very hesitant to speak up if I could not judge the situation, and I would seek guidance and advice from colleagues in the form of “mentoring” to let people know about certain situations.

Now, I will regale you with a tale of a time when I spoke up. I am sorry if this story is embarrassing to my department, college, or university, especially since pretty much everyone and their mom knows who I am (pseudonym WomanOfScience didn’t last as a pseudonym for very long). But, again, this is part of speaking up. We cannot hide our past like Ben Affleck wishing he was not descendant from slave owners. It happened, and I am retelling it to inform and move forward. Here is the story:

In my first year as an assistant professor, I had several run-ins with a particular senior colleague. This person was an EmeritusProfessor (EP). My first encounter was before classes even started when he approached me about another excellent ScientistOfColorColleague of mine. He asked if he thought my excellent colleague’s new paper in some “high-profile-journal-with-a-name-that-is-a-single-word” was total crap like he did. Of course, I said “no,” because I respected my ScientistOfColorColleague’s work very much. Also, this guy, EP, really creeped me out.

While at a conference, the same semester, I was fortunate to be invited to a women-only dinner with some BigFancyWomenOfScience in my field. At some point, they started talking about times they gave seminars at each other’s schools. I was so mortified when one told a story about speaking at my university and having EmeritusProfessor grill her at her seminar about the jargon of the field. Even more creepy than that, he started stalking her long distance. Except, he is old, so he did it the old fashioned way – via snail mail. She was really grossed out by his letters because they were very fawning and discussed her appearance. Again, I was very embarrassed for my department. I asked some people about it at my university, and I realized that was the last time my department was invited to seminars from the other departments. They stopped sending us the emails for fear that EP would show up and embarrass them.

My next run-in with EmeritusProfessor was at lunch with a seminar speaker. He started being very obnoxious to the speaker and me because of our subfield and the funny language it sometimes uses. This is the same jargon he harassed my WomanOfScience colleagues about, above. I told him that it is true that jargon can be annoying, but when in an interdisciplinary sub-field, you must be able to speak both languages and translate between them. He became pretty irate that I did not agree with him.

The third run-in I had with EmeritusProfessor was at a luncheon for a colloquium speaker, who happened to be a young woman. He sat right next to her, kitty-corner from me, and was creepily all over her during lunch. Yuck! At some point, he said something I thought was too far over the line. I called him out on it at the table, in front of some of my senior colleagues. He snapped back at me that I must be part of the PC police force. I made a joke about PC standing for Port Chester (a stupid reference to the movie “PCU” – love you Jeremy Piven!). We let it drop, but there was tension at the table. I approached my senior colleagues later to tell them both about the other run-ins I had with him and the story of my colleague from the conference dinner. He said he now understood my outburst, but felt it was rude at the time. Ugh. I had been worried about that, which was why I went to smooth it over with him. I was right to worry.

After that, I decide to go have a conversation with some senior people and my chair about this. These were all one-on-one conversations where I went for advice and help. Asking for advice plays well with senior white male colleagues who will always see you as a youngen in need of help.  It is not their fault that society grooms them that way. It can be annoying to play this sometimes, when really you just know better and want to suggest to them what to do, but it is the card I play most. Also, I am often seeking their support and help, so it isn’t as difficult to act. In fact, I prefer they see me as young and in need of mentoring, because the alternative is to be their competition and get no support. OK, these are extreme views, but I have heard from many women that once they reach a certain level/age, the help mentoring into resentment and competition. Perhaps another story for another day.

With SeniorColleague, I asked if EmeritusProfessor would have any say over my tenure case? I wanted to double check that he would not be apart of the discussion. In asking, I relayed the stories from above. He was actually friendly with EmeritusProfessor, but said he understood my side. He guaranteed that EP would not have a say in my tenure case, since emeritus status means they are not on the faculty. SC also admitted to me that EP had “woman problems” his whole life. SC didn’t elaborate, but I could imagine, considering how he treated women, that it was probably EP’s fault.

With the DepartmentHead, I actually asked that EP be excluded from seminar speaker invites. I cited the three seminar related issues and the fact that our entire department paid for EP’s actions by not being informed about seminars. Since I was interdisciplinary, this exclusion affected me more than others, and was unfair. Further, his rude behavior at two lunches with seminar/colloquia speakers led me to suggest at he be excluded from those activities. I said that it was embarrassing and was making the entire department look bad. I guess he agreed because EP stopped showing up for several years.

After these conversations, I felt I had a green light to fight against EP when needed. Luckily, I didn’t need to very often, as he was not being invited to seminars anymore. But, this is not where the story ends. For my RoundNumber-ith birthday party, I decided to have some catering done. Someone recommended a person to me who happened to be an alum of my department – a young woman who graduated undergrad from my university with a major in my department. We had much in common coming from the same field of study, and she actually had jobs in the field, but did catering as a sideline. At some point, she asked about EP. I was a bit cautious. Did this student like him? Hate him? I asked her story. She said that he taught her in a lab course and he disgustingly hit on her in class. He asked her to take a romantic boat ride with him. She refused him, but worried that it would adversely affect her grade. This story was outrageous, and yet expected. I mean EP was a real creep. I never asked, but I always wonder if any of his/my colleagues knew how he acted when he was a professor. I mean, they clearly knew he had “woman problems,” but did they realize how far over the line he stepped? Did they turn a blind eye? Did they purposely ignore it? It still bothers me to this day.

So, the day finally came when EP kicked the bucket. OK, that isn’t a nice way to talk about someone dying, but I cannot be nice where EP is concerned. Despite many other emeritus faculty passing on and never doing this, for some reason, some of the senior dudes wanted to take faculty meeting time to talk about EP. Ugh. I boycotted. I could not stand listening to fond memories of someone who sexually harassed his students. I let it be known to several of my colleagues that I was purposely boycotting and why. I asked how long it would take, so I could make sure I could show up afterwards. I texted my colleagues, who didn’t boycott, to figure out when to show up, because of course it took more than the allotted 15 minutes. After that, I came in, and faculty meeting proceeded as usual.

And that was the last time I had to deal with EP-related issues. I always worry I might run into some other woman alum who might have a worse story. I’m not even sure how to report something like that. The student is long-gone. I am sure it is way past the statute of limitations and now the guy is dead. She didn’t exactly disclose it to me in a way that meant she wanted me to do something about the information. She was basically telling me in a conversation of camaraderie – two WomenOfScience regaling each other with war stories from the front line of the ScienceGenderWars. Comparing battle scars. Hers were far worse than mine.

At this point, I want to also address something that was commented on from a previous post because it is related. I had a post about Why I am a Feminist. Among that list where a couple TV shows, including the Cosby Show. Someone posted a comment later if I would change my mind about the Cosby Show now that it is clear that Bill Cosby is a huge creep – most likely way worse than the EmeritusProfessor I describe here. So, I will set my record straight. Bill Cosby is a disgusting pig of a man who raped women. There is no doubt. I wish we lived in a society that valued women enough to make rape a crime without a statute of limitations, so he could be prosecuted and go to jail. The comments I made about the show were about the premise of the show rather than Cosby himself. The premise was that an upper middle class African American family in Brooklyn existed, and the mom was a lawyer, and the dad was a doctor, and they cared for their children. I value that vision, and I despise the man who presented it to me.

So, what do you think? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email whenever I post.

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