Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘ImpostorSyndrome’ Category

Awards: It’s an Honor…

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.

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Bias, Bringing it Up (Nicely?)

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

civil_rights_march_on_washington_d-c-_dr-_martin_luther_king_jr-_and_mathew_ahmann_in_a_crowd-_-_nara_-_542015_-_restorationI absolutely agree with this. I have discussed in previous posts how important it is to speak up and speak out (here, here, here) that I think it is important to point out “bad” behavior. There is sometimes evil behavior, such as the string of sexual harassment issues plaguing astronomy lately, but most sexist or racist behavior is subtle and bad, but not outright evil. I advocate for the approach to pointing out the behavior be commensurate with the level of badness of the behavior. For instance, ass grabbing should be immediately shouted about and pointed out strongly. Unconscious bias by a generally nice person who doesn’t really realize doesn’t need to be screamed about – but discussed in a civilized manner. Sometimes that doesn’t work.

In this post, I am going to tell two stories of times I had to point this out. Judge for yourself how it went. Always open to comments and questions.

Story 1: Game Over. Earlier this year, I served again on a panel. I had discussed this panel in a previous post on the blog. If you read this prior story, you might get an idea that I was already a strike down with this panel. This year, the panel was virtual. I have also posted about how I dislike virtual panels (networking panels) – strike two. This panel was made worse this year because one of the men didn’t show up. So it was just me, one other guy, the program director, and the admin for the program on a conference call.

It started off badly on the first proposal. I was set to discuss. My comments were quite long and honestly harsh. I gave a 1/5 because the proposer used a ton of jargon that I didn’t understand, didn’t explain the significance of the work, and instead repeatedly stated, “This work is of great importance to the field,” without actually explaining *why* it was important. My critique was long and detailed to give feedback to the proposer so that they could do better next year. I ended my overview summary by saying, “I feel like this person is trying to pull a fast one on us to trick us into thinking this is great science when nothing was explained.”

The other guy on the panel said, “Huh, well I guess it worked because I gave him a 5/5” Indeed, he did, folks. And you want to know another thing? His only one sentence review said, “This proposal exudes confidence.” What do you think of that? “Exudes confidence.” Honestly, I thought we were reviewing scientific merit, but apparently, we are supposed to be reviewing confidence. Oh no, wait. We aren’t…. And that was the first proposal.

The rest of the panel I was repeatedly ignored by my co-panelist. I would ask him to explain his review, and he would say, “Just read the comments,” instead of answering me. He would be working on something else and then not hear what I said and talk over me and basically repeat exactly what I would say. We went through almost all the proposals like this. The other reviewer? He never logged on.

And then it happened. We had a couple reviews left, and we were discussing a proposal by a woman that I really liked. I was trying to enthusiastically defend this woman and be persuasive about why I liked it. The program officer told me that, despite my enthusiasm and his also, that the woman had mis-proposed and missed the point of the call for proposals. The woman’s cool proposal was outside the scope of the program. I was bummed, but understood.

Co-panelist was supposed to be taking notes and writing a summary, but didn’t seem to be paying attention to our conversation. Of course I don’t know for sure, but I am pretty sure because at about that point, co-panelist said very loudly, “Well this is just very naive! No one does this type of thing anymore! It is just terrible.”

And that is when I did it. I said, “I understand what you are saying, but I would prefer if you didn’t use that word to describe the work. Let’s make sure we aren’t calling it naive in the summary that she gets. She just misproposed and it is outside the scope for this call, but when you say she is naive, it is… I don’t know… it sounds like you are the master and she is the novice. She is a full professor who just mis-proposed.”

He responded, “But it is naive! No one does this type of research anymore. It isn’t novel. It isn’t good.”

I said, “I understand. I just think that naive is one of those words that people use for women and it is code, and I don’t want to use it. Can you use a different word?” And this is bad, folks, because this is where I started tearing up and crying a little. In my defense, I was tired, we just moved across the country for sabbatical, I had to get my kids out the door with neighbors to be on the call on time (and my co-panelist was late, of course), and the stress of having to fend off this jerks’ comments all morning was taking its toll. Oh, and the heat in my apartment was out, and I had not had time to call the landlord.

At this, and his realization that I was crying, co-panelist stated, “You think I’m sexist!”

I say, “No, I didn’t say that. We are all sexist. I am just saying that I don’t want to use that word.”

More denial, “You think I’m sexist! You are just saying this to shut me up. To oppress my opinion. My opinion is reasonable and scientific, and you want to shut me up because you disagree and want to squelch my opinion.”

And this was where I really lost it because I was now being attacked. And honestly, in thinking back, I never called him sexist in that conversation. I never tried to shut down his opinion. I truly just didn’t want to use that word, naive, because it is condescending and it is code for incompetent.

And guess what? It deteriorated so bad that we couldn’t continue the panel. At the end, the program officer called me, and I apologized to the program officer for losing it. I still was upset and crying. He suggested that I call the co-panelist and apologize to him. I never have because honestly, besides getting upset, I do not think I did anything wrong.

You want to know something else? I was removed from the panel. Co-panelist? He is staying. He is an older white, male, well-established, leader in the field. This is how he acts, and I get kicked off. Is that fair?

Story 2: That’a Boy. I have been holding onto the story above for a while because it still hurts to think about, and I wanted time to pass before I communicated it. But this week, I was empowered to tell it because I have another story of doing the same thing that was amazing. And here it is.


I am on an international committee to help organize policies for an open access repository of scientific papers. It is the biggest and oldest in the world, so you might have heard of it, and I won’t drop the name here. Anyway, we were discussing a particular woman for a position on a committee. One committee member brought up the fact that she has kids, but they were older, so she might be more available to serve. The committee chair brought up a more relevant point that the woman is doing outsized service (aren’t we all?), and may not have time for this extra service load.

After that discussion, I raised my hand, and said (probably not this well-stated), “In the future, when we are talking about people, can we not bring up their personal lives into the discussion? If she can or cannot serve should be her decision which she can make based on what she knows about her own private life, but we shouldn’t bring it up or speculate.”

The committee chair said, “Yes, I agree. It has no baring. We will ask her, and she will decide. We only need to decide to ask.”

And the first guy said, “Yeah, I only brought it up because another guy is leaving because of having a new baby.”

I said, “Yeah, but he brought that up. We didn’t speculate. He decided and told us. That’s the difference.” and my face must have been beat red by this point, dying of embarrassment, but pushing on because I felt it was important and right.

And the guy responded with, “I’m sorry. You’re probably right.”

And I almost about died of surprise and shock and gratitude for him and the chair of the committee.  I looked at the other women in the room (yes, I wasn’t alone for once), and they smiled at me. And it felt amazing! Such a minor win, but so very important for me.

So, these two stories are reports, examples, of how you can respond to sexism, and how you cannot always control or even expect the response you will get. I think it is getting better. I think we can change. I have hope that my perseverance on this is not for nothing. I do not think I am in the same category at Martin Luther King, but his sentiment was not about special people. His words were about regular people. Regular people need to point things out, or they won’t get better. Protest is not meant to make people comfortable. I suppose what I do is a form of protest. It makes the transgressors more uncomfortable than the innocent. I suppose that is what my stories display more than anything else.

What do you think? Comment or post here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Getting Past Sexist Evaluations

WomanChemBlackBoardToday, I would like to comment on student evaluations. I have talked about them before here. There has been a lot of information about how sexist student evaluations are. Truly. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this study where the professor’s genders were switched in an online course where the students and professors never even meet. Male names get higher scores than female names – always. Other analysis of the words used to describe men and women on show there are gendered words for women vs. men. How many times do we have to show it before you just believe us? It is true – ask any woman. Another study shows that gender bias can actually cause women scores to be lower even if they are more effective instructors. These studies and tons of anecdata come to one fact: the teaching evaluations of a woman WILL be lower than if she were a man.

The point of this blog is to help people, not to complain. So, I aim to help both the women and under-represented minorities, who will need to figure out how to combat clearly sexist/racist reviews and the senior colleagues (probably mostly white men, let’s face it) who will be evaluating them and seeing clearly sexist/racist reviews, or at least gendered reviews. For fun, I will start by quoting some anonymous and real statements made in the evaluations of women (also this video is hilariously funny on the same topic), as an example to show you the types of things that are clearly sexist that you should look out for:

“She wears very bright lipstick that was distracting.” (This professor reports that she doesn’t typically wear ANY lipstick.)

“Prof. WOS shows too much of her body.”

“Her clothing is distracting to the male students.” (This professor reports that she wore pants, boots, and t-shirts through the entire course.)

“She would be better off teaching kindergarten.”

“Really sweet but her laugh is annoying and she touches her hair too much.”

“Seems like a b*tch but really nice and friendly if you go see her in her office.”

“Nothing more than a glorified Vanna White, without the looks. Her lack of self-respect was evident in the way she dressed, with her frumpy attire.”

“She has a very loud voice for a woman.”

“Pregnant.” (Yes, that was literally the critique.)

FOR THE WOMEN: So, what can you do to protect yourself if you are a woman/minority at the receiving end of these disgusting, sexist/racist comments?

Talk about it with your colleagues. Honestly, people are way too quiet about their evaluations. When they are bad, we are scared to share them because we are embarrassed. When they are good, we are scared to share them because it is bragging, and you might make someone else feel badly about their scores. I am going to encourage you to get over your self-consciousness and show your evaluations to your colleagues and ask for help. Yes, this means showing them the sexist ones where they call you a fat pig, mock your clothes, or say you don’t know anything about your subject. In order to make progress and defend ourselves, we sometimes lose privacy. You must decide what you value more. I personally value the academic freedom of tenure more than privacy, but that is me.

Don’t Assume Others Understand or Know This Happens. Honestly, most of my male colleagues HAVE NEVER READ EVALUATIONS LIKE THESE. They have no idea the kind of cruel and frankly disgusting things students will write to women/minorities. This is because we live in a society that is inherently respectful to older, white, males (OWM). Yes, OWMs get criticism, I am not disputing that (“I would rather chew a mouthful of glass shards than take another class with Prof. OWM.”), but the criticism given to OWMs is not so debasing as the comments women get (“Prof. WoS dresses like a whore.”) Can you see the difference? You will likely, in addition to discussing your evaluations, bring some data and literature (references above, linked) to support your case.

Choose Your Allies. No, I am not advocating showing them to everyone. Pick the people you are sharing them with carefully. They should be people who will evaluate you who you trust. They should also preferably be people who are trusted within the department (see this post). Talking about this with another marginalized woman in your department IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU. I am sorry, but I am being frank. You need to get the powerful, heavy hitting men on your side. (Having a powerful woman would help, but I don’t see as many of those in departments in the sciences.)

Make Sure They are Educated. When being evaluated (annually or at promotion), make sure someone on the committee not only knows about these comments, but can also point out that they are sexist and should be discounted. No one should bring up sexist comments in a case – they should be disregarded – but if they do, your ally can remind people about unconscious bias. Educate your allies about implicit bias with the references above and the implicit bias test. Arm your allies with the facts and data.

An example. A couple years ago, I co-taught with a white male ally in a class. We literally were in class AT THE SAME TIME. On the first day, we both spoke and went through the syllabus. He had spent an extra long time introducing me and giving my credentials. I, in turn, introduced him and gave his credentials. It was a pretty even split. At the end of class, he noticed that none of the students would come to ask me questions, but there was a line to talk to him. He pointed to me and said, “She is the instructor, too.” Afterwards, he said he was SHOCKED that the students did this. I wasn’t. It really opened his eyes to the bias of the students. At the end of the semester, my scores were significantly lower than his – despite the fact that we literally co-taught the course. I was there at the SAME TIME as him. In the SAME ROOM with him, talking to students, discussing the answers, etc… I talked to him about it, and it was clearly not fair. Luckily, he was on the annual faculty review committee (for yearly merit) that year. When my case came up, he described the sexism he saw and the fact that we co-taught the course – literally simultaneously. It was great to have someone to defend me in the meeting and set the record straight.

FOR THE REVIEWERS: If you are a more senior, more powerful, or more male faculty member, and want to help women, here is what I recommend:

Ask to Talk About the Evaluations. If you consider yourself a mentor or even a human being, it is not enough to just try to justify things after they come to a head, I recommend that you actually talk, discuss, and strategize with younger faculty about how they can combat the negative effects of sexist/racist evaluations. You will have to read the evaluations. If you think it is difficult to read these comments, just think about how the person being evaluated feels. Suck it up, and read them, so you know. Then, talk to the person. Try to cut through the bullshit to make the class better (take the criticism) and make some lemonade from those lemons. There are probably correctable actions in the comments. Fairness (or perceived fairness) in grading, being prepared, being on time, and returning assignments are all common complaints that are correctable. Other critiques, such as “Do more examples,” or “The exam wasn’t like the home work,” can be discussed. Basically every lazy student makes these same complaints. You can discuss how many examples are done and the exams, but probably the amount is just fine.

Evaluate the Person’s Teaching Yourself. You could sit in on a few classes and evaluate the teaching yourself. Many schools/departments already do this because they realize that evaluations are problematic. Many schools still don’t. There are some issues with this. If the person or students know there is an outside observer, it could skew the results – like a wave function collapse. What if the professor is rude, snappish, or otherwise terrible? You might not see it when you evaluate in person. Another issue is time. I understand it takes time to mentor someone and do these things. If it means someone’s career (tenure decision), isn’t it important that you do what you can – especially if the person is under-represented in your ranks?

Be an Ally. When evaluating the person for merit, promotion, or tenure, be an ally. Don’t let other colleagues gang up or misuse information that you know is biased. Remind your colleagues about unconscious bias. You can even go so far as to send out an implicit bias test, and challenge people to take it. Hopefully, you will have other allies. If not, you might have to discuss some things in private and let some other people know the types of terrible things students have written about the person.

These are my suggestions, but I am sure the readers have others. Post and comment here to continue the mentoring. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.


How to Get (the most) Out of Service

Nagasakibomb-colorThe recent linked post about being a “good girl” in STEM focused a lot on following the rules and how that can actually be bad for you. I was particually happy with the list of practical things that you can do to resist, but they were all geared toward “after tenure.” BTW – there is a male-equivalent to being a “good girl.” I call it being a “boy scout.” Many of the men in my department are boy scouts, which makes being a good girl not so out of the ordinary or weird.

In the original post, there was an undertone that you should be a “good girl” before tenure, because you don’t jeopardize your tenure case. Seeing how a large number of my male colleagues get away with doing little or crappy service – even before tenure – I think it is worth exploring things you can do to avoid or get out of service before tenure. This is especially important if your department doesn’t have a protection policy for untenured assistant professors. It is even more important if you were protected pre-tenure, are now tenured, and are staring down the barrel of a sh*t-ton of service.  Here are a couple solutions of some ways to get out of service, or at least spend time on service you value so it isn’t a “chore.”

  1. Mildly suck at your service. A senior faculty in an adjacent department gave HusbandOfScience and me some advice when we first got our jobs – don’t do a good job at your service assignments. This means not going the extra mile for service. You should prioritize it last, do it at the last possible minute, and perhaps miss assignments and deadlines sometimes. Spending only a quarter of the time on it you “think” you should. I definitely did this on some committees like graduate admissions and personnel committee stuff. It’s not that I did a bad job, per se. I am still basically a boy scout/good girl at heart, but I definitely didn’t spend a long time on these things. Why is this OK? A. Service is not going to get you tenure. B. On campus service never got anyone tenure. C. No one is going to not give you tenure because you sucked at your service. D. They might not ask you to come back.
  2. Play one service role off another. This basically means to use any other service you have as leverage to say no to the thing you are being asked. When I was asked to serve on admissions for GradProgramX, I was able to say no because I was already serving on admissions for GradProgramY. I ended up serving on both in consecutive years for about 4 years total – flipping between GradProgram X  and Y. This was great, because I learned a lot about how each program did things and could communicate successes and failures between the programs. Once you are committed to a big service role like admissions, personnel committee, or quals committee, you can use that commitment to say no to a lot of other department and college service.
  3. Make Up Your Own Service. When I got to UState DepartmentOfX, there was no women’s group, despite the department having a very small fraction of women and minority students. So, I started a women and minority group. We met for tea, and there was a lot of bitching because there was a lot to bitch about. The students told me they didn’t have a venue to give 1-hour talks, so I started a student seminar series where they could talk to each other and practice job talks and just exchange ideas. We discussed professional development and work-life balance. I told the department chair that I was doing this, and that it should be a service assignment (and not just assigned to women and minorities). And he made it one, and I got to do a service role that I really cared about. Along the way, I have invented or help invent with others other service assignments including Publicity committee (to fix and update the website more regularly) and a Departmental Teaching Luncheon working group. These were all things I cared about and were providing a service for the department. In addition, because I was doing these roles, I was also able to say no to other requests on my time (see #2 above).
  4. Question Yourself. One question you can ask yourself when considering a request of your time is: “If I had only a limited time to live, would I spend my time doing this?” If the answer is “Yes, this is important. It will help me leave a mark and affect a positive change,” then say yes. If the answer is, “No, this is a waste of my precious time,” then say no. I had a minor breast cancer scare a couple months ago (don’t worry it was a cyst!), and I went through all my commitments and thought, “If I do have breast cancer, do I want to work on this?” and for most of the things I was doing (my made-up service) the answer was yes. I feel like the service I am doing and have been doing is really good to affect positive change in the lives of students and my department colleagues, and it is worth doing.
  5. Armageddon: Blow Up Your Service. OK, I am NOT recommending this, and certainly don’t do this before you get tenure, but… another way to get out of service is to be so miserable and heinous to work with that no one wants to work with you. Call everyone assholes to their face. Accuse them all of being racists. Act racist yourself. Start flame email wars and never, ever let anyone else get the last word. Be super negative and disgruntled about everything. This behavior is what we call, “un-collegial,” and it will get you out of service. But, there is a price. Just as the price of being a good girl/boy scout is that you get dumped on. The price of being a truly heinous colleague is that you never get to do service. You are not trusted with the responsibility. You certainly will not be trusted to lead or have any important service. In fact, you might get stuck with the worst service, having no impact, but high work load, if you act this way. If you are fine with that, go for it. But, if you think you are important and you should be heard, don’t act like this.

So, what do you think? Are there other ways to get out of bad service? Not all service is bad, and you can get out of anything, actually. You can even back out of service you already said yes to. People won’t hold it against you, especially if you are over committed and won’t get the work done. Also, if you get better service and don’t have time for something that isn’t good or interesting to you, you should back out. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Importance of Minority-Only Awards


THE OSCARS(r) – THEATRE – The 88th Oscars, held on Sunday, February 28, at the Dolby Theatre(r) at Hollywood & Highland Center(r) in Hollywood, are televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST. (ABC/Image Group LA) CHRIS ROCK

Did you see Chris Rock’s monologue at the Oscars? At the end, he mentioned that there should be black-only award categories. He said there are already arbitrary men/women categories that didn’t need to be there, so why not arbitrary white/black categories? In science, we do have awards that are specifically for women or minorities. I have heard both men and women say that they are dumb to have for various reasons, but I would like to cast some light onto why they are crucially important with a some examples.

Example 1: When I applied and was admitted to graduate school, two different programs offered me little fellowships. One was not specifically for women and was a few bucks to help with cost of living or moving. The other was specifically for women and minority students. The point of offering me these minor pittances was to recruit me to the school that offered the fellowship over other schools. I am not sure if they realized it, but it had a secondary effect. I felt more welcomed at the school.Whether it was real or all in my head, I felt a little special that they had actively recruited me to the school. It helped mollify the imposter syndrome that plagues us all and the stereotype threat that only plagues minorities.

A few years later, I was in a lab and being productive. I was riding to an event with a new male graduate student who was trying out the lab and my female advisor. The male graduate student was complaining that he didn’t get a fellowship or enticement to go to graduate school, and he should have. It “wasn’t fair” that women and minorities get these things when he, a white male, did not. I probed a little further and realized that this guy wasn’t a stellar student. He had As and Bs, but I had a 4.0 GPA. I also asked him if he expected to get into graduate school, and he of course did. I explained that, this was a big difference between the two of us. Despite my 4.0 GPA and my extensive self-driven research experiences as an undergraduate, I did NOT expect to get into graduate school anywhere. When the first school accepted me, it was all I could do to not accept back right away. I had to actively be patient to wait for the others. I got into 6/8 school, but not the two most prestigious/highest ranked schools. My subject GRE was low – average for a woman from a liberal arts school – and many schools look at that exclusively (for a nice article on why that is a terrible idea if you want women and minorities in your programs, click here). I explained to the other graduate student that the purpose of the very tiny award was not to actually reward me, but was to say, “we want you, you’re ok,” when all other cultural signals were pointing to this being the wrong way to take my career. The purpose was to help my self-esteem and make it clear that I belonged in science.

Example 2: Recently, one of my awesome postdocs, who happens to be a black woman in science (sorry to my postdoc, I know you are probably reading this) was informed that she is being selected for a postdoctoral fellowship. This fellowship is specifically for minorities and had other stipulations. First, my postdoc would not read the email. I grabbed her phone from her hand and read it. I handed it back with a casual, “You got it. Why wouldn’t you read it earlier?” I told her to read the email that validated her excellence. And she began to tear up. And I totally got it. I knew why she wouldn’t read it. She was worried about not getting it, and what the blow would do to her self-esteem, which is already (unreasonably, considering how amazing she is) low. She started crying because she did not consider herself good enough or worthy enough for this prize. This award is only for minorities in life science. There aren’t that many. Further restrictions mean that there are very few applicants. That sounds like I am trying to diminish her award, but I am not. What I am trying to say is that, in my mind, there was no way should wouldn’t get this award. But, in her mind, there was no way she would. This award is doing for my postdoc what the tiny graduate award did for me. It is pointing toward the signs that “You belong here.”

And that is why we still, to this day, need minority only and women only awards. Because, despite all the grit and all the challenges, it is still not obvious to the excellent that they belong here. They constantly feel like they are doing the wrong thing because of their gender, their skin color, their weight, their country of origin, their health, etc…

Example 3: Finally, while I was at a meeting recently, my roommate and I were talking about the Society’s fellowships. My roomie successfully nominated some women in her field, and she was aiming to nominate more this year. A couple women protested saying, “I’m not old enough, I haven’t done enough, etc, etc…” These all basically translated into “I’m not good enough,” which is complete BS. If these women were not good enough, no one would think to nominate them. My roomie correctly pointed out that these women needed to win in order to “get out of the way.” What that means is that no other women who is younger will ever be able to win the award or fellowship unless these more senior, more established women get it. When put that way, many of the protesting women caved and agreed to be nominated. Interestingly, these women felt so self-negative that, despite their excellence and despite the call from others to be nominated for that excellence, they didn’t think they were good enough. It was only when the argument was framed as helping others (getting out of the way, so others can have a chance) that they agreed to be honored. Again, women/under-represented groups do not feel they are good enough or will ever be good enough. Society tells us we are not good enough because this is not what women do. I have advocated again and again in this blog to self-nominate and to try to win awards (here, here, here). It is hard to put yourself forward when society’s bar and your own bar are so damn high.

Example 4: I wrote most of this a week ago, but another thing happened just yesterday that also reminded me of this issue in the opposite way. As you know, I am on sabbatical. I have a desk in an office suite for three on a hallway of similar offices. These offices are filled with graduate students, postdocs, and some undergrads. It is close quarters, and I can often overhear the students’ conversations (including one where they were discussing golf and the penalty reward for scoring a hole-in-one, which was to have breakfast at a strip club {I can’t believe that is something anyone would want}). Anyway, yesterday a postdoc in some lab was discussing with a relatively new grad student about his job search. He was so, so confident that he was going to have an offer. He had about 6 interviews, and had heard back early from AnIvyLeague that he was not the top choice. He was confident that he would be hearing from the others soon. They all said the decision would come in 4-6 weeks, and this was week 6. Any second, he would get that call from PrivateSchool or BigMidWestU saying that he was the one. I was pretty blown away by his confidence. Despite having as many interviews and 3 solid offers from pretty good schools, I was never confident that I would get an offer from any of them. I was happy to have been given an interview. I think I performed pretty damned well at most of the interviews, but I never thought they would call me up for sure.

Further, if I am being honest, I didn’t even apply to the top schools. I had the excuse that I had a two-body issue, and I was pretty confident that the spousal accommodation policies were non-existent at these schools. But, mostly, I didn’t apply because I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell at getting an interview or offer. I may have been wrong about that. In fact, the one IvyLeagueU where I did apply, I got the interview and the offer. I’m not sure if other women held themselves back as I did, but looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I know now that the rejection is minor and hiring has many whims and issues (there are words like “fit” thrown around that are subjective), so I wouldn’t and don’t take the rejection so personally now. I do feel like I have more confidence now, but I don’t think I will personally ever have the level of ballsy self-confidence that I overheard from my office. I’m not sure many other women/minorities would either. How about you?

So, what do you think? Are minority-only awards good? Do we still need them? I don’t personally think we are post-sexism or post-racism yet in science. As Chris Rock says, “Is Hollywood racist? Yes. Hollywood is sorority racist. They’re like, We like you Rhonda, but you’re not Kappa material.” Replace Hollywood with Science, and I think the same sentiment is true. Scientists are nice, liberal people, but they want to hire, work with people who look like themselves. “We want opportunities!” (-Chris Rock). Since the bar is so high for us, winning awards (even ones where no one else is qualified) is important to helping us overcome the self-doubt and the unnaturally high bar of being an under-represented person in academic science.

Dignity in the Face of Jerks

catenary_bikeI swear, I do not ask for these things to happen to me. They just do. I am simply reporting the facts as they occurred…

It seemed to be a perfectly nice visit to a school with a good reputation who has enough money to purchase national academy members in order to increase their prestige. I was happy to have been invited to give a talk to this school. I was looking forward to impressing the scientists there with my cool science and my fast wit.

For those of you who don’t know, when you go to give a seminar, they put you through your paces. Not only are you there to perform for the people of the university who might happen to have the time to come to your seminar, but you also have 30 – 45 minute, back-to-back meetings all day with various faculty members. You typically eat lunch with students or faculty and then also have a dinner with faculty members. At each meeting you typically discuss the science of the person with whom you are visiting. It is possible to be talking about all matter of science within the span of 20 minutes, so you have to bring your A-game. I was ready for my long, exhausting day of fast-paced science. I wore a smart outfit and had updated my talk with some new data and cute animations and movies. I had great meetings all morning. The seminar is over lunch, but they gave me my food early, so I could eat (this sometimes doesn’t happen, so you should always bring snacks in your bag just in case). By the way, this is the same way an interview goes except for 2+ days.

So, I was having a good day. I got up to give my talk and just before it started an older gentleman came and sat in the second row. It was clear that he was a big deal. A national academy member (NAM). This group had three, and I know two of them pretty well. Of course, the two guys I know were out of town that day. I had never met this guy before, but the other two were pretty nice to me and liked my science. I began my talk with my usual quiz. See, I do a lot of active learning in my talks because (1) people remember it, and (2) people don’t fall asleep, and (3) people like it. Seriously, it is much more entertaining when you break the 4th wall (see post). 99% of people who hear one of my talks, love this style. At about the 3rd slide, NAM leans over the his neighbor and whispers something. Not too loud, but obvious to me what he is doing. I explain to the audience that I am using active participation of the audience to engage and to keep you from sleeping during my talk. That gets a few laughs.

The next time I have an activity for the audience, NAM does it again – he whispers. It is clear that he isn’t digging my talk style. But, I dig in. This is my talk, and I am not going to let him passively bully me… I didn’t have to wait long for him to stop being so passive about his bullying. About 20 minutes into the talk, I ask something of the audience like, “What do you think this means?” And NAM says very loudly, “Why don’t you just tell us instead of making us answer?” I get embarrassed. My face heats up (apparently red to match the temperature). My heart is pounding. I want to burst into tears.

I make a comment about how this style is the best way to learn. NAM responds by saying, “Yeah, yeah. I know the literature, and that’s fine for a class where you want the students to remember what you say 5 weeks later for an exam, but this is a seminar.”  WTF? Like, I don’t want people to remember my talk 5 weeks later? I want them to remember my work a year later. And, of course he knows the literature. The effing National Academy literally wrote the book on best practices in the classroom.

I respond with something like, “Well, this is how I made my talk, so I guess we’ll just have to continue on.” The very next slide has another quiz. I say, half apologetically, “Well, there’s another one. I guess we need to do it.” The students still give answers and respond. The next quiz I look at NAM and say, “Oh no, I know you don’t like this, but here we go again!” I make it into a joke that he doesn’t like what I am doing and I keep doing it. Making light of the situation does make me feel better, but I feel like total shit. This creep just fucked up my awesome talk.

Prior to this talk, only one person had ever criticized my “active learning” talk style. I gave a talk at a Gordon Conference and used candy as props to talk about a subject everyone in the room already knew and understood. Afterwards, one woman came up to me and say, “I thought that using active learning was really bad for a seminar or conference talk. Don’t get me wrong, I teach at a liberal arts school, and I use active learning in the classroom, but I just think it doesn’t have a place in conferences.” I was surprised that someone who is clearly an up-to-date educator would say that, and my face must have betrayed it, because she continued to say, “But you know what? Your talk is the only one of the morning session that I remember. So, I think I was wrong. I think active learning is useful at conferences, and I am glad you did it.” So, although she gave me crap for active learning at a conference, I actually changed her mind!

Of course, my day wasn’t over. In fact, I had a whole slate of meetings for the entire afternoon. The meeting just after my talk was with my host. He apologized for his NAM colleague. He told me some terrible stories about how he is like that to everyone, in the hopes that I wouldn’t feel like it was personal. But, it was personal. Just because he is a personal jack-ass to everyone, doesn’t mean it isn’t personal.

My next meeting was with the NAM. The first thing he does, is exactly what I expect. He fake apologizes for his behavior. He knows he was unacceptably an asshole. His apology is something like, “I’m sorry I spoke up and was rude, but that style is not good.” I said, back, “You are the only person I have ever met who thinks that.” He said, “Well, I’m not wrong.” I can’t help it anymore. I try to hold back, but the tears come. They fill my eyes. He avoids eye contact. I find an old tissue in my bag and try to dab away the tears of anger and unsaid words when he isn’t looking. But, part of me wants him to see. Part of me wants him to know that his words are hurtful. That I am a human. I sit there and I am crying at you. I do not run. I am not weak for crying. I am strong. Are you strong enough to see me cry? No, you are not.

He spent 3/4 of an hour mansplaining my research back to me. I didn’t get to talk at all. He gave me reprints in a little folder. Homework for me to read and educate myself on his brilliance in my field. He’s not actually in my field, but he has dabbled. My tears dry up within about 15 minutes, so 30 minutes are spent with me listening and trying to tell him what the latest in what he is saying is. Or explain why what he is saying isn’t right with what we know now.

The rest of the visit is good. Only 3 students show up to my student time (all men). I have lots of advice, but only three have time to hear. I worry that it is because I was publicly shamed about my talk. I wish his critique had been about science, so I could fight back. It was about style. How do you fight back against that? It’s like standing up in someone’s talk and saying you don’t like their voice or haircut.  The students who showed up apologized for NAM. They said he is a dick and he does that to everyone. They said that they liked my talking style. We talk about two-body problems and how to get jobs after grad school. Typical stuff young people are concerned about.

Other faculty apologize for NAM. I get a couple emails upon my return apologizing for NAM. I certainly don’t blame any of these other people. But, none of them calls NAM out. I put up the most fight against him of anyone. It definitely altered my visit. I message some WoS friends. I post about it on FaceBook. People are flabbergast that someone would say something like that. I don’t out NAM at first, but people can figure out where you are talking, and they can figure out who’s the asshole at that place.

So, here is a question. How do you handle this situation? And how do you handle the standing up for yourself. I did go to social media, but I kept it low and of course, my FB page is closed to friends only. I do not believe that any one asshole’s comments of this nature should get them grilled in the arena of public opinion (outright sexist or racist comments are very different). I do want to let people know who is an asshole, so they can prepare to defend themselves. I do want to learn from this event – what would you do? How can you fight back? Was it sexist? I don’t know. I’m sure he was more likely to be an asshole to me, but I would have thought he would attack my competence as a scientist – not as a presenter. Plus, who attacks someone’s strength? Maybe that means I showed no other weakness? That’s a nice way to read this.

I hope to hear back from you. Comments, suggestions, ideas are all welcome. Post or comment here. If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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