Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Leonardo_da_Vinci_043-modDiversity. It is something we all say we want, and struggle to figure out how to get it in the white and male hallowed halls of academia. But, there is one way in which academia is actually pretty diverse, and that is in the mixture of introverts and extroverts. I have discussed before that I have had people take the Myers-Briggs test as a way to understand their own selves better. For those who haven’t read that post, the point is not to evaluate or judge anyone, but to have people realize that there is a diversity of personalities and styles in the research group. If you read the post, you will see there are interesting and helpful activities associated with the test – it isn’t meant as a label.

Understanding my students better, including their personalities, especially if they are an introvert or extrovert, helps me to mentor and reach them. It also helps me to explain to them how I function. When talking to my students – especially new students – I often tell them that I am an extreme extrovert. This means that I will think out loud, I will say things that I am still testing and might not mean, and I will throw out unformulated and untested ideas. If they are less extroverted or introverted, this is likely not how they operate.

Introverts, at least in my lab, are often very careful about what they say. They do not throw out half-baked ideas or plans. They think internally and very carefully before they speak. This is very admirable, but it is not how I operate. I tell them all this. I also tell them that I will try very hard to give them time to think and speak. I will try not to speak over them. But, that sometimes I will, on accident, and to please excuse me. This conversation has worked pretty well, and I sometimes repeat it, if the person works for me long enough and we both need a reminder. Most introverts are happy to have it explained and to see that I am trying to understand how they best operate.

I think one reason for the high incidence of introverts in academia is that it is seen as not only acceptable, but normal to be a focused, introverted academic. You know the old joke:

“How can you tell if an {Insert STEM label here, i.e. engineer} is an extrovert? They look at your shoes when they talk.”

Indeed, the stereotype of the introverted academic is not exclusive to science, engineering, or math. Some of my friends are introverted sociologists and economics professors.

But, my question for you, dear readers, is this: Is it harmful or helpful to you to be an introverted scientist? Are introverts excluded from the highest levels of academic achievement? I wonder this, because I feel it is true in other areas of achievement, outside of academia. Indeed, we live in a world of extrovert achievement. Just take a look at our current presidential race. No matter what you think of the candidates, it is obvious that one is an extrovert and one is an introvert, and there is an inherent distrust of the introvert (of course, it could just be old-fashioned misogyny, too?). Is there a level or a time where being an introvert can actually hurt your career because you are not pushy, not loud, and therefore not heard?

There is also the flip-side: Introverts who speak infrequently, can carry an extra gravitas when they do speak. As if their words are more important, better formulated, and more powerful because they come so rarely. So, I ask the opposite: Is it harmful or helpful to you to be an extroverted scientist? Are extroverts excluded from the highest levels of academic leadership or power?

Each label, extrovert and introvert, comes with positive and negative stereotypes, like almost anything else. So, how does one influence people to spin the positive stereotype over the negative one? Does it matter if you are a woman or minority? What if a white male is quiet most of the time (an introvert)? Now picture a black woman acting the same way? Are your perceptions of that person’s power or gravitas altered by how you imagine them? I don’t think I have any answers or advice on this. Just something I have been pondering.

Whatever you or your colleagues or students are – introvert or extrovert – I think my most important advice is to communicate to them your style so they know what to expect and how to interpret your words. What do you think? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Comments on: "Introvert vs. Extrovert Divide" (1)

  1. An introvert who is absolutely brilliant as a researcher may find that their low-key presentation style puts students right to sleep in the classroom. So introverted scientists can either learn to kick the energy level up a notch or two for teaching, or else seek employment outside of academia. Some of the best teachers I know are introverts but when it’s time to teach, it’s as if someone stuck a key in the back of a toy and wound up the spring.

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