Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘ImpostorSyndrome’ Category

Applying for a Postdoc – Take 2

Work for foodI am teaching at a short course and I spent dinner mentoring some senior graduate students in the course about how best to apply for postdocs. I wrote about this a while ago, but I like this advice better, so read this one!!

The students I was talking to are at just the right time to really plan for the next step – about a year out from getting their PhD. While I was talking, I realized this would make a pretty good blog post full of advice. Of course, this is just one WomanOfScience’s idea of what works. It is certainly from my position as a hirer of postdocs. These are the things I do and do not want to see when you approach me for a position. If anyone else has things they want to add or other strategies that work, please post of comment.

  1. How do you find a postdoc? Unlike applying for grad school, there is no one place to particularly apply. There is no clear application process. Being a postdoc is like being a gun for hire. You just have to go where the job is. But, how does one find that job? You have to approach people individually. When reading papers or at conferences, find stuff you like and see who the PI is. Be systematic about it. Make a list and see what is in common about those then maybe look for more working on those problems or with those techniques that interest you. Think to yourself: “How does this position fit into my life goals? Will this position help me to achieve my goals?” You should be able to answer that question should the PI ask when interviewed. You should also be able to answer the question, “What do you want to do for your career? (Or as I say, “What do you want to do when you grow up?) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” If you cannot answer these questions, then perhaps a postdoc is not right for you. If you can, double check that you need a postdoc to achieve your goals.
  2. Now that you have a list of people to approach, you need to reach out to those people. The best way to do this is via an email. What should be in your email?
    • First, make sure you address the person personally. Do not write “Dear Sir.” This is for two reasons: 1. The person you are writing to might be a woman, and she will be mad if you say “dear sir” (don’t believe me, see this post). 2. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” is impersonal. It sounds like you are writing a form letter and have no idea who you are writing to. If you are applying to a postdoc, you should not spam (send a million emails to a million people)  nor should you sound like you are spamming. I will not read your email if it sounds impersonal.  You should always write, “Dear Dr. SoAndSo,” or “Dear Prof. WomanOfScience.” This is formal because you are using my title, but it is also personal, because you used my name.
    • Next, write something that identifies you, “My name is Wendy Scientist, and I am a 5th year graduate student at BigStateU working in the lab of Dr. BigName.” Now add a sentence or two about how you know of the PI you are writing to, “I saw your work at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference last March and was very excited about it.” Or, even better, “We talked at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference about my work on ReallyCoolScience.” The second is better because you actually talked to the person. Will the PI you are applying to remember you? Who knows, but if he/she should, he/she will try to remember and continue reading to hear what you have to say. Of course, only say you talked to the person if you actually talked to them. Don’t lie. Scientists are not supposed to be liars.
    • Now write something about your work and their work and how you are excited about the opportunity to do a postdoc with them. This should be brief – not more than 1-2 sentences. They get the point that you are asking about postdoc opportunities.
    • Thank them for their time and sign off. Don’t write a long email because professors get 100s – 1000s of emails every day. You don’t want to waste their time. If they are not interested, they will let you know. If they are, make sure you include some information for them to read more about you.
    • Give them your information. What should you give them?
      • Your full CV. See this post for a lot of information about CVs. In a postdoc application, you need your contact information, your education, research, and work experience, any awards or honors you have won, and your publications in that order. After that, you can add anything else you want. A full CV can be long – it is full. Do not put a picture of yourself on your CV.
      • A one-page summary of your work. The PI you are applying to is not going to read your papers. Besides, they are listed on your CV, so he/she can look them up. Better to give a one-page summary of your thesis work and any technical skills you have. Yes, you can include a picture.
      • A list of references. These are people who can write you a recommendation. You should have at least three references. You can list them at the end of your CV or in a separate document. My university requires three letters for hiring. I will not only ask for the letters, I will also call at least a couple of them to ask about your abilities, skill set, and mentality in the lab.
  3. What to do if you do not hear back? If you don’t hear back in a week and you didn’t get an away message that they were out of the country for a month, send a short email to ping them. This should be very brief and remind them that you applied. Sometimes people won’t write back ever. That’s OK. They are busy or jerks, to whatever. You don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t have time for you, and we are all guilty of this at some point.
  4. What to do it they reject you? Accept it and move on. Sometimes people do not have money. Sometimes they need different skills? Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. The relationship is about both of you, and it has to work for you both. If the PI senses something isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work, and you should not push it. Try, try, try again. Just remember that this job is full of ups and downs (see this post) and that criticism is part of the game (see this post), but you have to push forward and keep applying.

So, what do you think? I think this advice is more concrete than the last set about applying for postdocs. I hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to add comments or other suggestions – especially those professors who have been doing this a long time. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

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.

Am I Eligible?

1600px-Solvay_conference_1927It is award season for some of the societies of which I am an active member. I had someone email me to ask if I was eligible for the only women-only prize at one of the societies. It turns out that I am not. I am too old. But, I got to looking around at the other prizes. It seems that, although I am an avid and active member of the society, I am not eligible for any other award. For some awards, it isn’t the right subfield. But, even ones where I could be in the right field, I am not eligible. I need to be much, much older or much, much younger. Yet, even as I pursue the names of previous winners, I realize that there is another way in which I am not eligible. As I look at the names, all the winners are men. Almost 100%. For one, very prestigious prize, which has been given to 100 people in the past 45 years, only 3 winners were women. OK, that prize was very prestigious and had Nobel Laureates among the winners, but only 3 women? That is so, so sad. Further, even the names of the prizes are exclusionary. They are all named after great men of the fields. The only one named after a woman is the woman-only prize, which, as I say, is only for women of a certain age (young).

So, I guess I am saying that I feel ineligible for two reasons:

  1. I am not the right age. I am not young enough to be a “promising” young woman. I am too young to be a gray-haired venerable scientist.
  2. I am not the right gender. I feel that, even if I do become a gray-haired, venerable scientist, I will never be the correct gender to win these awards. I often determine my appropriateness for awards based on who has already won them and how similar we are. I see no similarity between the winners of these awards and myself. Maybe everyone feels this way?

I am thinking a few things can be done:

  1. We can nominate more women of the appropriate ages for each of these awards. I’m not talking about the woman-only award. Screw that award. I am talking about the big ones. There are senior women who have accomplished as much as the dudes winning these awards. In each field, we need to be nominating these venerable, gray-haired (perhaps dyed to be not so gray) women.
  2. There should be more awards for people of a certain age – middle age. We are forgetting the middle aged. Post-tenure, National Academy or Society Fellow age, there should be something out there.

What do you think? Should their be more mid-career awards? More women-only awards? How do we get women nominated and winning awards? The mid-career awards would help men, too. I don’t want my awesome, but not quite old colleagues to miss out on praise, too. Comment or post here. To get an email whenever I post this stuff, push the +Follow button.

Girls with Toys

LabRatIn case you haven’t seen it, there is a hashtag going around Twitter and Facebook called #GirlsWithToys showing awesome WomenOfScience and their experiments. I posted a few myself on each platform. I can see that the broader public probably doesn’t see women as “toy-oriented.” But, what I want to discuss is how, within the social construct of science, there are different stereotypes of what are masculine and feminine. Further, what is seen as appropriate for men and women to do/work on/study within science appears to depend on the field of science you are in.

Women in “Soft” Subfields. I have noticed that some subfields of certain fields of science have more women than others. In many cases, those subfields are seen as “soft,” but to set the record straight – they are anything but. For instance, in Physics, Astronomy and Biophysics seem to have more women. In Astronomy, this is historical. There are many examples of excellent women who have made big, huge discoveries. AAS has a blog and Berkeley Astronomy has a nice site. More can be seen here and here.

Biophysics has had its share of women who are not well-celebrated (think Rosalind Franklin). What about Margaret Oakley-Dayhoff? Biological physicists within physics departments are more likely to be women. Why? In my opinion: I think it is because biophysics was seen as relatively new, and the field wasn’t already a “sausage fest.” Most women I know compete with themselves, but shy away from direct competition with aggressive men. A field that has few people in it also have fewer men and even fewer aggressive men that want to push everyone else out.  The issue with there being more women in such subfields is that they are often seen as “less serious” or “less difficult.” This is soft sexism at work.

Women Theorists vs. Experimentalists. Physics and Chemistry both have a division between theory (like Sheldon in “Big Bang Theory”) and experiment (like Leonard in “Big Bang Theory”). Again, I think there is a bias that such theoretical fields are “harder” than experimental fields. That is certainly how Sheldon acts. As Leonard always points out, this is NOT TRUE. I feel there is an implicit bias against women entering those fields because they are somehow viewed as more masculine and are thought to require more mathematics than the experimental sides. Interestingly, I find that when women are theorists they are somehow more capable of being feminine. It is easier for them to wear skirts because they don’t have to climb around their equipment fixing things. Ironically, once women choose the experimental side of a field, they somehow become more masculine. I have had a number of conversations with WomenOfScience friends about how best to dress as an experimentalist – not too femme in case anyone doubts your science/experimentalist cred. So, even though only incompetent, non-mathematically inclined girls do experiment, you better look like a dude while you do it. That is how masculine physics is. Of course, I stress that these are my personal feelings. Others may feel differently, and I encourage you to comment.

By the way, while I dare to mention Big Bang Theory, I want to point out that Leslie Winkle was the BEST character. Why did they take her away? Bring her back! She was clearly way smarter than Sheldon, as pointed out in several episodes. She was also an experimentalist. Maybe she went away because she got a job as an Assistant Professor at a top university while Sheldon and Leonard seem to still be some kinds of weird postdoc or soft money scientist. She should have tenure by now. I vote that they bring her back to give a seminar at CalTech to rub her lifetime appointment at BigEliteUniversity in Sheldon’s face.

Another weird thing about all this: How is it even noticeable or detectable at all? How could I sense or feel that I shouldn’t be a theorist? It isn’t like there are so many women in any given field. Even in the subfields with “more” women, it is only about 20% or so.  Once you get to about 20% women in the room, things feel even – despite the fact that they are not. Maybe the feeling that there are more women in the room (20% instead of 5%) clues you into where science-society tells you to be?

Finally, I want to point out that this is all a construction of our society. How do I know? Ask a woman in science in Iran. They will tell you Physics is a “woman’s field” because it is creative and more akin to art. Women in many developing countries have more opportunity to do science and are supported to do so. Each has its own little sexist take on it. For instance, saying that “Physics is OK for women, because it is like art,” implies that other fields, such as Engineering, are not open to women (which is the case). Also, some cultures that allow women to do science also don’t give them the opportunities to do it at a high level. They are OK to teach, but not to pursue research.

So, what do you think? Which areas of your field of science are more “manly”? Which are more “femme”? Is it weird that science has gender at all? I think so. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

You Don’t Look Like a Professor

I have had a number of posts about proper attire for certain parts of this job – for instance conferences and what not to wear. But, no matter how I dress there is one thing I cannot change – I look young. Lately, for some reason, I have been getting this a lot. Further, WomenOfScience friends of mine have also relayed several similar stories recently – there is a rash of these comments in my life.

To help you understand what is happening, I have illustrated some of my favorite recent stories…WomanIfScience1

Silly: Sometimes it is just annoying when I get mistaken for a student. Mostly, these are when I am mistaken for a student by an actual student, and it is a bit awkward. Several times, I have been walking down the concourse in the student center. The student activities and groups line the concourse like a gauntlet, and you have to walk past to go get lunch at the canteen. More than once, I have been asked if I need a summer job. My responses vary from, “No, thanks. I’m good,” to “Do you want a summer job? I’m a professor hiring summer researchers, and you seem like a go-getter.”

Recently, I was handed a flier from a doofy kid who said, “Cool party downtown on Saturday.” I responded, “Actually, I’m a professor, so that would be pretty weird.”

One time I was actually asked out on a date. It was embarrassing to tell the student that I am actually a professor. He was also embarrassed.

Awkward: Sometimes I am mistaken for someone who is too young to be a professor or a mother or a professional at all. Once I was returning from giving a talk somewhere, and I was sitting next to an older woman. She said she was excited about going to visit her grandchildren. I said that my mother is also excited when she comes to visit my child. The woman then had a horrified look on her face. I told her my true age, and she looked relieved and said, “You don’t look old enough to have children.” She told me that I look ten years younger than I actually am.

Recently, I had an embarrassing exchange. I had just returned from teaching. After entering my office, I kicked off my shoes, took off my blazer and my sweater. Teaching is hot, tiring work, and I thought I would have a few minute to check email. My student knocks on the door and says, “Professor, I would like you to meet my parents.” I was in no state to meet parents. In addition to looking young, I was without shoes and wearing a tank top that was under my sweater. I hurriedly put on my sweater and begun talking to my student’s mom and dad, shaking hands, etc. My student described his work to his mom and dad, doing an excellent job. I continued to talk about relatable ramifications of our research that non-scientists can understand. As I am talking, the dad’s facial expression changes from polite, placating smile to dawning realization that I am clearly competent and accomplished. I have seen this transformation before when people realize that I know what I am talking about. The next words out of his mouth were, “Wow, you look so young.” I expect this reaction. I just get it so often. I have decided to stop being upset by it.

Stupid: One time I needed something modified in my lab, and the dude from facilities or whatever wouldn’t approve it until I asked my boss. I informed him that I was the boss, and I approve, so please go do it.

What about you? Any stories about annoying, stupid, or silly mistakes being made because you are young-looking? This can happen easily to men, too, but I think women have a double whammy. Women are not expected to be professors, but if a woman is a professor, she needs to look old, at least. Post or comment your stories here. To get an email whenever I post, click the +Follow button.

Miscarriages Happen

ICSI_WebAlthough a lot of the advice and stories on this blog are not necessarily for women only, there are some issues that are specific to women. For instance, I should have taken more bathroom breaks during my recent seminar trip. I was saved by wearing very dark jeans… The women know what I am talking about.

During my seminar visit, I had an explosion of women’s issues emails from 3 different women. Many of these were really specific women’s issues, and this post is one of them. Please enjoy!

I’ve had three miscarriages. There, I said it. I asked to write this guest post to highlight the cultural taboo against discussing miscarriages and infertility, and argue that this is a BAD THING. It’s a double standard that hurts women, especially those in academia with the special time pressure associated with being on the tenure track.

I am an assistant professor at Average Private University; this is my fourth year on the tenure track. Overall I really like my job and my department is great and friendly. My husband is also an assistant professor at APU, so we managed the two-body problem, which is a whole separate post. I have one wonderful daughter who is a year and a half old. Between her and the three miscarriages I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for about 3 of the 3.5 years I’ve been on tenure track.

Only two of my department colleagues know this. I have generally been fairly sick during the first trimester of pregnancy: vomiting, dizziness, extreme fatigue. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling most work colleagues about these issues, because you’re not supposed to tell anyone you’re pregnant until the second trimester. Why? Because what if you miscarry?

All three miscarriages also happened late enough in the first trimester that my doctor recommended surgery. In some sense I was lucky; I can’t imagine having a miscarriage or stillbirth in the second or third trimester. But in any case, I had to go in for outpatient surgery three times over the past three years. Of course, all three had to be scheduled during important faculty meetings. Did I feel comfortable explaining to my colleagues why I was absent from these important faculty meetings? No. Now I wonder how many of them think that I’m flaking out on faculty meetings and shirking my responsibilities as a faculty member.

This is bull. If my non-pregnant colleagues had the same symptoms I did, they would definitely go see a doctor, perhaps even take a few days of medical leave, and most of them would be perfectly willing to explain to other colleagues that they were behind because they weren’t feeling well. They would certainly tell a colleague they missed a faculty meeting because they had surgery.

This is not just academic. I know of a colleague who struggled with infertility (which can also be a taboo subject) and missed a lot of department functions/meetings while dealing with testing and treatment for that issue. Her department did not strongly endorse her for tenure, and the tenure process turned into a mess. While of course there’s a lot more to the story, I think the fact that she was dealing with infertility instead of a different medical issue made it more difficult for her to get the time off of work and the empathy and understanding of her peers.

And its not just work colleagues. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve turned down countless social invitations and opportunities to have fun because I was too “morning sick” to go or I didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t drinking alcohol or I was too emotionally/physically exhausted from the miscarriages themselves. In many cases, people have just stopped inviting me because I never say yes, and I don’t blame them. I’ve also heard more than a few stories of women who went to great lengths to hide the fact that they weren’t drinking due to pregnancy; one friend would fill up an empty beer can with water and carry it around for an entire party. Can I just say that THIS IS INSANE? I – we — should be able to explain to social acquaintances and potential new friends that we are sick and/or pregnant and provide some context for our absences or behaviors.

Why are miscarriages and infertility such a verboten subject? Many reasons, of course. It probably ties into our society’s general ambiguity about the human status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. I think it mostly ties into the fact that for almost all of human history, women who couldn’t (or chose not to) have babies were third-class (or worse) citizens. Women were supposed to have babies, and if they couldn’t, it was due to an inherent flaw in their womanhood. While most of us would acknowledge that this is complete crap, that narrative persists in our collective inability to discuss miscarriage and infertility.

It’s certainly not uncommon; unfortunately about 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage. To me as a scientist, it’s amazing that something as complicated as human development works out at all. (Of course, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) According to the US Department of Human Health and Human Services, about 10% of women struggle with infertility.

The statistics on miscarriage and infertility especially suck for academics. As discussed elsewhere, we often have to make difficult choices about when to try to have children, if we want them. Many folks (including me) decide to postpone until we get a tenure-track job (typically late 20’s, early 30’s) or get tenure (typically mid-to-late 30’s and beyond). This puts us at greater risk for miscarriages and infertility issues, and it also puts an increased pressure to keep trying NOW despite the emotional and physical toll of dealing with these medical problems.

So, what can I (we) do? I think that if I do have another pregnancy, and I have medical symptoms, I am going to openly tell colleagues early in the first trimester. It may make them a bit uncomfortable, and it will be difficult if I have to tell them that I miscarried again, but I think it beats the alternative, which is worrying that I might have a problem with tenure because of it. It also means that I can finally explain to people why I’m turning down social invitations, and say that I’d sure like to be invited again in about three months.

In general, I think women (and their partners) should be more willing to talk about our miscarriages/infertility and the way it affects our lives. By talking about it, we can make sure that women who experience these issues get the support they need instead of falling behind. Miscarriage or infertility is not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly shouldn’t hurt a person’s career.

So what do you think? What would you do? Tell early so people understand your medical conditions? Or not let them know because it is really none of their business. It is a tough call, but one we all have to make. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Bravery is…

Being a WomanOfScience often involves being brave. Last week, we had a seminar from a big fancy, OWM, Nobel Laureate. The OMayerWM-NL was to be giving an inspirational talk about basic science and all the wonderful things that can come from the basic science. During the talk, his slides looked like a cut and pasted wikipedia page of other Nobel winners. Oddly, he didn’t mention a single woman. Not even Marie Curie. He was obsessed with only his subfield. The OWM from this field were geniuses. He barely talked about other fields of science, and when he did, other fields were all about luck – not genius.

He did actually mention (briefly in passing) two women. One was the girlfriend of another NL who he hooked up with at a conference while the other NL was organizing the conference. The other was a joke about serendipity, “sometimes when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, you find the farmer’s wife.” So, basically, the only two women mentioned in the entire talk were sluts.

Many of the women of the department walked out the talk. It was in an auditorium that sat 350, so we felt pretty self-conscience about telling him off at the talk. Walking out was a silent protest. After the talk and the next day, the women discussed and decided to feel out the department. Did the men sense the same thing we women felt? HusbandOfScience did. He was texting me during the talk about all the BS that was streaming at us. Did others?

At lunch with our normal crew the next day, the dudes were totally backing up old OWM-NL. They pulled out the old chestnut, “It’s just a joke,” and “You are being too sensitive.” That was annoying, but the decision to take action was made by my colleague when her grad students and undergrads said that they felt the sexist comments and jokes were very hurtful. One of the undergrads was actually asked by the OWM-NL to pour him coffee. (No, sir, it is not 1950.)

For me, I talked to some senior WomenOfScience, and they all said it was par for the course – they barely noticed because it was tame by the standards of their generation. Not-uh. Not on my watch.

We decided to write a letter to the chair and send it to the faculty. This takes bravery. We had no idea what the aggregate reaction of our colleagues would be. Would they call us crazy? Would they all say they were “just jokes”?

I paste the letter in here (redacted/edited), to serve as an example for you to use:

Dear DepartmentChair,

After the lecture on Day, and conversations with students and colleagues, we (names), consider it is a responsibility to communicate to you and the whole faculty that we were very disturbed by OWM-NL’s lecture.
We will not dwell on the content or quality of the talk, but there are two aspects that we must comment on:

1. The sexist jokes were beyond inappropriate.

We counted at least three, and those were three too many, especially since the jokes were the only references to women in a lecture entitled “Basic Science is Awesome” (not real title). Women were only referred to as literal sexual objects throughout the talk – prizes of fights or findings – while seemingly actively written out of the history of the sciences (see point 2).

We were appalled to learn the speaker asked a female undergraduate to pour coffee for him.
The next day one of us witnessed male undergraduates repeating one of the jokes; clearly, it made an impression.
What example is this setting for our students?

When we mentioned this to some of our colleagues, we had responses along the lines of “those were just jokes”. If you wonder what poisons the climate for women in STEM, this is an answer. It is important you are all aware the female constituency of the department, faculty and students, did not find those to be “just jokes”. None of us was amused, and the chuckling by the audience was not comforting.

2. This was an egregious example of old-boy-network talk, potentially damaging to the retention of underrepresented groups in our department.

One of our graduate students defined it “oppressively exclusive: he went out of his way to avoid mentioning any woman and we got the message that science is done only by privileged white men who went to the same high school”.
No Marie Curie, no Maria Goeppert Mayer, no Rosalind Franklin.
We agree with the student. OWM-NL mentioned the most impactful discoveries were made by white European men; he also said that now people of all ethnicity and genders can do science too, “well, sort of”.
We found this parenthetic remark dismissive and offensive.

We are worried that this lecture has sent a bad message to our graduate students, our undergraduate students, and our colleagues in other departments.

While we recognize it is hard to predict these aspects about a speaker in advance, we should all make an effort to be aware of such pitfalls.

We are grateful to KnownDonors for endowing this lecture series, it is an important medium to increase the visibility of TheDepartment and Science on our campus and in our town, and acknowledge the significant effort that went in organizing this event.
But we also do hope and expect the Department will make all efforts to identify an outstanding woman and minority to invite for future lectures in this series. We will be happy to assist with suggestions.

Best wishes,
WomenOfScience, HusbandOfScience

What was the outcome? The outcome of this was actually really good. The chair who said he had no idea and was truly just in awe of OWM-NL, said that he believed that the lecturer was offensive after reading our letter. We asked him to offer a statement to the entire physics community, and he did this week. Other male colleagues who were not there said that they would have also walked out, but better yet they claimed that they would have spoken out at the lecture. This was a happy surprise.

I think the problem with these situations is that they can catch you off guard and you may not even realize what is happening or how bad it is at the time.  One of the problems with not addressing it, as outlined in our letter, is that the students will either (1) be angry and feel like the department doesn’t support them, especially if they felt the talk was sexist, (2) feel uncomfortable about the talk, but not really know why it bothered them, (3) think that type of talk and behavior are OK. The last one is the worst outcome because it propagates to the next generation the idea that only white, European-decent males can do science, and that women and minorities are outcasts. We didn’t mention that he also said a few racist things in the talk, but our colleague, who is a person of color, noticed. At a time when women are getting a backlash of negative sentiment after many years of progress: Yes, this still happens. Yes, we need to point it out. And yes, the fight is still going strong.

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How NOT to Give a Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s so wrong with sequins?

Sequins_macroOver the past 6 months, 3 different colleagues have made comments that I have found odd. They have all made disparaging comments about wearing clothing with sequins. One colleague told some research experience for undergraduates (REU) students not to wear sequins to lab because, “the lab is not a night club.” Another colleagues mentioned his daughter was wearing a sequin-covered tank top and remarked that she looked like a “street walker.” While the first is perhaps a little silly, the second comment freaked me out.  My colleague was talking about his own elementary-school aged daughter. Shocked, I asked him why he would say something like that. He commented that the shirt yelled, “look at me!” and that is what prostitute clothing does. Actually, I never thought about what prostitutes wear and why, but I can see that what they wear should be attention-grabbing. I get that. But, I thought prostitutes were more about T and A. I associate them with spandex 5 sizes too small – not sequins. I associate sequins with fancy party dresses.

But, on the subject of your clothing saying, “look at me!” Is it really such a bad thing? As I have said before, maybe your boobs shouldn’t say, “look at me!” but so what if you wear a sharp suit, or purple loafers, or a sequin tank top under a nice jacket? Is it bad to grab for attention? I have had a number of prior posts about self-promotion (here, here, herehere), and sometimes in order to stand out from the crowd, you have to look a little different. Wearing sequins seems like a relatively innocuous way to do this. And why not? I already don’t look like everyone else. I am not balding with a paunch and a beard.

I am someone who often wears sequins – not to night clubs – but to work, to conferences, and even at my tenure-talk in my department. I even have multiple pairs of Converse All Stars covered in sequins.  I see sequins all over clothing, and I thought they were cute. So, I ask you: are sequins really so bad? What do you think? Post or comment your thoughts here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Not So Subtle Harassment

drunkonginnojuiceBeing a woman in science is way harder than being a dude. Even enlightened dudes, of whom I know many, many and I love them all, and they have work-life balance issues and are good dads while doing science, etc… Even they don’t have to worry about actual harassment. I am pretty sure, they aren’t concerned about having their behinds pinched by old gross guys. I don’t think they have their colleagues ogling their chests while trying to have a science conversation. Were you being hit on at every turn at your first scientific conference? No, OK, so we agree that it is still harder for women in this respect. Actually, these things are not just issues for women in science, but they are issues for women in ALL OF SOCIETY. The difference is that women in male-dominated fields often don’t have cover from any other women being present to help them out or just have someone to vent to about it.

Just so we are all on the same page: What is harassment? I have several posts about subtle harassment, annoying harassment, perpetual harassment. Also, many other Women Bloggers (HopeTenureSheWrote) have discusses harassment and how men can be an advocate for women.

A fellow WomanOfScience recently relayed this situation to me. Hope you read and enjoy!

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The scene: Conference dinner at a workshop-style conference, people milling about with alcohol and food and more alcohol.

Dramatis personae: Prof. ImpressiveSeniorGuy (Prof. ISG) and mix of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students

The action: Once he’s good and drunk, Prof. ISG systematically chats up most/every woman at the dinner, complimenting them and making flirtatious, direct comments about their attractiveness. So much so, and in such a public way, that the other men notice what is going on. I didn’t catch whether or not any direct propositioning happened, but from gossip I know that he has done so in the past, to students/postdocs. The only “positive” aspect was that Prof. ISG was too drunk and the environment too public for him to do more than clumsily flirt.

How it affected me that night: Embarrassment that members of my lab may have witnessed Prof. ISG hitting on me, and me giving him a cold shoulder. Yuck.

The next day: Some participants, male and female, junior and senior, compared notes. Some women had made excellent comebacks to Prof. ISG (yeah!), some just moved themselves out of the way. While he was privately mocked as a tragicomic figure, not all of the women he had hit on had the benefit of that post-game analysis. But, for me at least, it got most of the weight off my chest. Except ….

The big question: But what else? Obviously, I am never going to invite Prof. ISG to any future workshop/conference I organize. Do I tell the conference organizers that they invited a big old sleaze-ball? Express my opinion they shouldn’t invite him to future workshops they might organize, or even just say that I wouldn’t? Do this over email (yikes! no way!), or talk in person at the next conference we’re both at (still quite awkward!)? Decide privately that I wouldn’t accept an invitation if he’s a speaker at a workshop I’m going to? Ditto, but also tell those future organizers the reason why? Write pseudonymously to a women in science blog? So far, only the first and last ideas are in place.

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Any solutions for this WoS’s big questions? Yeah, we all see these guys are out there, but how do we stop them? You feel like you can’t do anything that won’t jeopardize your own career. How can you call him out? Can you call him out? Any opinions, thoughts, ideas can be posted as a comment here. Hope to hear from you!

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