Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for October, 2015

Everyday Self-Management – As A Woman

USAFbrochureI am a women in a male-dominated field. You may have guessed that, considering I am a scientist. I think a lot about how I am perceived – a lot more time than my male colleagues do, and a lot more than males probably think I should. In fact, the typical male response when I try to explain this stuff is, “Why do you care what others think?”

Frankly, we all care. In fact, your reputation is a very important asset in science. Good reputations can get OK work into Science or Nature. Bad reputations can kill your funding, publication, or student acquiring opportunities. So, the advice to stop thinking about what others think is complete BS, in my opinion. People who don’t care about what others think aren’t making it in science. In addition, as a woman, there are a number of ways I think about how to carry myself and interact, even dress. I am going to share a few recent experiences and thoughts about interacting with others and representing yourself as a woman in a male-dominated field.

  1. What to Wear. I recently was part of a site visit from a funding agency. We already got the grant, and it only started a few months ago, so we don’t have much progress, yet. But, the funding agency wanted to meet us and see our plans. I had absolutely no idea what to wear. I am the only woman on this grant, and I am, of course, the youngest. I knew enough not to wear my jeans and Chuck Taylor’s, but how dressy? How casual? I also was self-conscious about asking the lead PI about it. Sometimes when you ask these types of questions, men think, “Why are you thinking about these things? What a waste of time?” So, I contacted some of my WomenOfScience friends, and they helped me out.  I decided to error on the side of over-dressed and wore a full suit. I didn’t wear a button-up – just a nice shirt underneath. I also roped in the female administrative assistant to do some reconnaissance about what the lead PI was wearing. One friend suggested I wear make up (I didn’t) and to put up my recently purple-tinted hair (I did). One of my friends warned me that older, male program officers are likely to be patronizing. Luckily, of the program officers, only one was an older male. There was a youngish/middle aged woman, and a second young woman of color (woot!). They weren’t patronizing, and they weren’t as dressed up as me, but they were wearing blazers and slacks, so I was doing good. It turned out to be a pretty good visit.
  2. Looking young.  I have had other posts about looking young (post). In the past, it was annoying, because I didn’t like being mistaken for a student. Now, I prefer to be mistaken for pre-tenure or a young person who needs help. Studies have shown that, as women get older, their likability goes way down. Now, I strive to stay young in people’s minds and eyes, so that they will continue to want to help a youngster succeed, and will be less threatened by me. Since society already thinks that women are incompetent, it is better to be young, and have a good reason to be incompetent, rather than old and annoyingly incompetent. (BTW – women are NOT incompetent – we all have strengths and weaknesses.) So, I decided that I prefer to stay young-looking for as long as possible. It’s isn’t a vanity thing – it is a survival thing.
  3. My voice. Recent studies have shown that when women are frustrated or emphatic, they are misconstrued for being angry or overly emotional. There was a recent edition of Lenny Letter that got a lot of press where Jennifer Lawrence wrote a piece about her wage disparity. She told a story in that article about how she was speaking her mind and was chastised by a dude. She writes “A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.” It seems that women’s words get misconstrued as angry and upset, when really they are stating opinions directly. I think it is because when men get angry, their voices go up in pitch. Women’s voices are already higher, so maybe we sound angrier than we are. I have certainly gotten this when even recounting stories of things that mad me upset. People worry that I am still so upset, but it turns out that I’m just trying to convey the story. I’m not actually upset myself at the time. I am working on trying to convey anger and frustration without alienating people.
  4. Comedy. There was a nice blog article recently on Tenure She Wrote about if you curse at work. There were some interesting scenarios, and actual positive reasons to curse and break the ice. I have to say that I swear like a sailor. I tone it way down for this blog, at the request of Robin. Cursing definitely breaks the ice. In addition, I diffuse a lot of tension about me being the only woman in the room using humor. I try to make a joke early in each meeting, so people realize that I am not uptight. Women who are successful are often seen as uptight. For me, this comes naturally, because I like comedy and try to be funny all the time. I understand that this cannot work for everyone, but even telling a bad knock-knock joke can help some people realize that you, surprisingly, are a person, and not a judge for the sexism police.

So, these are some of the extra things I carry around and constantly consider everyday. Exhausting. It reminds me of that scene in Harry Potter where Hermione is explaining to Harry why Cho is confused about her feelings for him. Ron can’t believe that someone would be feeling and thinking all these things at the same time. Frankly, I think women do this all the time. It is why I truly think women are inherently smarter than men. If we could ever not need to think about these things, and refocus all this mental space to science, we would dominate.

What do you think? What other things do you constantly consider? Comment or post. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Guest Post: Rant and Meta-Rant

GuestPostEvery now and then a friendly WomanOfScience graces me with a guest post. This is one of those times. I think it is interesting and funny. The advice is buried in self-reflection, so please read deeply. Enjoy! (BTW: to get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button).

Rant and Meta-Rant (a personal diatribe by a woman of STEM currently up for tenure in a research-intensive Engineering department)

PART 1: Rant (in which I say many wrong things)

My immediate reaction to the tenure vote in my department (about two weeks ago) was anger and rage and sadness.

I’d made a concerted five-year effort to network with the right people who would support my tenure case in an alien field; I’d taught classes mere weeks after learning the required content; I’d written grant after grant, which returned rejected with a constellation of insightful, occasionally deprecating, but usually all-too-apt criticisms; I’d spent uncountable hours training the students working in my lab while feeling that progress was painfully, glacially slow; I’d written and rewritten manuscripts to the point at which I’d lost faith in our work; I’d carefully circumnavigated the departmental and college politics as one of the very few women; I’d toiled (albeit not uncomplainingly) in the shadows of my colleagues who received internal accolades and support for their successes in publishing and grant writing, and regularly congratulated them on their successes; I’d organized seminars and the occasional party as the good wife of several organizations; and, most notably, I’d managed a time-consuming internal service duty for two years that was above and beyond what was typically asked of junior faculty. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was angry. Why had I bothered with any of it?

I suppose that I have should mentioned first that my colleagues voted to give me tenure, right?

Dear readers: as the doyenne of wildly inappropriate emotional reactions, I wasn’t happy or proud or pleased. Instead, I lost my shit completely for two weeks.

I was sad that my department had not noticed that I was doing sound scholarly work; I was angry that said scholarly work wasn’t rewarded; and I was enraged that the non-scholarly demands on my time would only increase in the future. I grumbled (nay, raved) to anybody who would listen — and to the friendliest and most supportive ears (and in particular to one close friend, a junior superstar colleague who had tried to give me helpful advice for navigating my less-starry academic career) I was cruelest and most cutting. I wallowed in misery, loudly.

Then I ranted to two friendly WomenOfScience (the blogmaster and a colleague of similar status and seniority) and got walloped by a clue-by-four.


PART 2: Meta-Rant (in which I analyze the wrongness and try to refocus)

Long ago my graduate advisor told me that I was going to have to learn to live with myself; that, like it or not, my outsized over-the-top reactions were apparently hard-wired, and that I was going to have to figure out how to manage them whilst staying productive.

My mien is not that of the logical, dispassionate ur-scientist. I am enthusiastic and elated, then morose and melancholy. Charming, then churlish; articulate, then profane. (A colleague once asked me: “Is it a taxing effort to speak as precisely as you do?” My response: “No, but it’s overwhelming for the audience— that’s what the profanity is for.”) Bluntly, my disposition is not stereotypically “male.” (Neither is that of many men. Conversely, some women are dispassionate. YMMV. This is about my reactions.) To manage this roller-coaster, I relied upon my generation’s snark-and-irony filter: snide comments about rejections and failures generated the needed emotional distance. I made frequent comparisons to bigger / faster / stronger / greater accomplishments by others to openly disparage anything I’d done — and I used those comparisons to justify not seeking the support that would help me to further my career.

When I ranted to my Women of Science friends, I was hoping for validation — I wanted to hear that I’d been poorly handled by my department, that I had a case for complaint. Instead, I heard that (minus the sturm-und-drang) many academic scientists experience similar feelings during and after tenure. My WoS friends also had similar issues, but had gauged what they needed to further their careers and hence were more adept at asking for and receiving support.

This is all to say: I fucked up like whoa, dear readers.

I agreed to write down my rant for the Woman of Science because I think it is useful to identify those features of my larger-than-life emotional reactions that did not help me during the first five years of my career. I write this with some trepidation; my stylistic choices may be an obvious identifier for close friends and colleagues. I note also that many of my issues are more likely to arise in the context of research-intensive tenure-track positions; my colleagues at teaching-focused institutions or in adjunct positions may have very different sources of sadness and anger. Nonetheless, I hope that, by talking about my sea of troubles, I can help others of similarly non-stereotypical dispositions more readily navigate the slings and arrows of an academic scientific career.

(1) I had let the incessant and vocal self-criticism become unhealthy. Unhealthy for my career: I refused to put myself forward because I could always find a reason to not do so. (Similarly, I used my inclination to not self-promote to whine about others doing so.) Unhealthy for my well-being: I have destroyed several long-standing professional friendships in the last year through my litany of constant negative chatter. (This I deeply regret.)

(2) I had let stress dislodge my horse sense. Academic careers can metastasize; and mine had engulfed much of my sanity and physical health. (I get vigorous exercise several times per week, but less regularly than I had five years ago. Similarly, I eat more foods of convenience and cook less than I used to, due to time demands.)

(3) Most deleteriously, by focusing on external markers of success I’d forgotten the joy in doing my science. About five days before the tenure vote, one of my graduate students produced data that strongly supported a tentative physical picture that we had suggested. The data clearly and uncontrovertibly confirmed our speculative picture and suggested a range of follow-up studies. I was thrilled! And yet, five days later I’d completely forgotten how happy and rewarded I’d felt by careful, detailed, dedicated work.

The solutions are easy to state and difficult to implement (for me, least):

(1a) Be passionate about my work. Toot my own horn when appropriate.

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

(3b) Tired of some annoying aspect of my job? Do my science.

(3c) Frustrated with politics? Do my science.

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.


PART 3: Going forward: I hope that my tenure case will be successful, but it’s out of my hands. I’m working on repairing the friendships that I’ve damaged in the past years of self-focused misery. I’ve asked for aid with the more onerous service tasks. I’m writing positive emails to my graduate students to reinforce good work and professional development. I am taking joy in a friend’s recent announcement — as a sign that thoughtful scholarship can indeed be valued. And finally I’m focusing on my science when I feel the urge to rant and rave, trying to redirect my passions towards healthier outlets than my native pessimism.

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