Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

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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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Work Life Balance – Other Stuff

HairdoneThe age-old woman’s issue: work-life balance. First, this is clearly not a “woman’s issue,” yet it is still labeled as such. Men make these choices, too. BUT, it feels different. I feel like, when I say I am leaving early to do a family-related activity, it is frowned upon, and I often do not reveal why I am leaving early. But, my male colleagues often use personal excuses for leaving early or not showing up to work and they seem fine with using these explanations.

Second, we have discussed many of the big work-life issues on this blog. For example: When should you have kids (see these blog posts: flexibility, grad school, pre/post tenure, postdoc)?  Should you take a job when you don’t have one for your spouse (see our posts on two-body problems: problems, surprisenegotiations)?

This weekend, I was thinking about the little work-life issues. Many of these issues are not about kids or family at all. Many times they concern myself – my personal well-being and how I don’t do things for myself because I am prioritizing work and other life choices first. I was thinking about it because I have been trying to dye my hair for about 2 weeks. The process takes about an hour, and I did not seem be be able to find that hour until today.  Here are some of the other things I prioritized over my personal activity: hanging out with my kids, making a figure for a paper, working on a grant report, writing this blog… You get the idea. And these other things are more important than dying my hair, so I was making the right choices, but I also want and need to dye my hair, too.

I always find the personal stuff hard to schedule and hard to prioritize such as hair, eye, dentist, and doctor appointments, or going to HR to fill out non-essential, but helpful, paperwork. Unless I am actually sick, I never go get regular check-ups. I should, but it seems like a waste of time. I go to the eye doctor once every 2-3 years and only because my glasses have broken and are hanging off my face.  I try to schedule a lot of this stuff in the summer, but that is also when I am busting my butt to get my papers out and get research done and traveling to conferences, so it still isn’t ideal. Are others like this? Am I a weirdo because I don’t keep my life on track?

I would think that it was just me except I have also been thinking back to my advisors, and I remember weird stuff coming out of their mouths. For instance, I had a graduate advisor who once told me that it was annoying when students (me, I was the only student) went to conferences because they not only missed 4-5 days from the lab for the conference, but they always had to leave early to do laundry and pack. My advisor also used to not go to the bathroom and do a sort of pee-pee dance. Maybe my advisor also didn’t want to waste time evacuating her bladder. I also had a postdoc advisor who told lab members that they should schedule dentist appointments on the weekends. I don’t even know any dentists who are open on the weekends.

So, maybe I was “raised” to be this way. I do try to be careful around my students so that I do not affect them the way I have been. I don’t want them to not go to the doctor or dentist. I don’t want them to not urinate because they feel they are wasting time. And I want to stop feeling that way, so I continue to fake it in the hopes that some day I will not feel weird about taking the time I need to clean my clothes and pack before a conference. (I am sure my fellow conference attendees also prefer I wash my clothes before the conference).

So, what about you? Do you have weird tendencies to be self-depriving spurned by an internal feeling that you are not working hard enough and still need to prove yourself? I do, clearly. I should say this is better after getting tenure. The removal of the feeling that you are going to lose your job if you don’t work hard enough hasn’t stopped me from working hard on science, but it has allowed me the freedom to go to the dentist. But, these feelings are clearly ridiculous. I try to stop them and “act normal.”

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The Chain of Command

WomenPilotsAcademia is weird. Each research group is a little autonomous fiefdom where the professor is the lord and master. Yet, we are tied to and answer to a departmental structure. The department holds the key to our jobs at tenure and promotion time. We need the department to help us with administration. As I have said before, I think of my lab as a small business. I think of the department is the administrative unit that helps me run. It’s like being a small craft shop with an e-store on Etsy. I need the department to find students and manage my business, but the department doesn’t have much say about what goes on in my lab. So that is why it is sometimes weird when you have to go through the department structure to do things that you need for your research.

Yet, we do have a department and there is a chair, or a head, who is the leader of that department. The chair/head is responsible for many things – depending on your department. They are likely in charge of assigning committee work and teaching assignments. They might be in charge of space allocation and can give support for cost share on grants. Many times your chair/head is supposed to be your advocate and voice to help you get difficult of large things done. But, sometimes things don’t work that way. You have to go Around The Chain of Command.

I have a friend/mentor who was appalled by this idea. He is a department chair himself, and he advised me to never, ever go around my chair. But, I still think their are times when you have to risk it and go over the chairman’s head. If you have to go above your chair because they are not advocating for you like you need, you should be aware of the risks. If you succeed, you might not even need to say you are sorry for having bucked the chain of command. Here is an example from another WomanOfScience. Enjoy!

In my second year in my tenure track job, I did a small lab renovation to put in more electrical circuits. Of course, I soon purchased a piece of equipment that needed 208V instead of 110V. Classic new lab screw up. No problem, I had just had 8 110V circuits installed, and you only need to tie two 110V circuits together to make a 208V, right. Easy peasy? No. The guy from facilities or alterations or physical plant (yes, we have three, seemingly redundant groups on campus to do renovations that, of course, don’t talk to each other) came to visit and basically told me he couldn’t make the change for me. What? It was ridiculous. So I called back, hoping to get a different person. He came back. He told me I didn’t have enough circuits. See, he was confusing “outlets” with “circuits,” and he thought I was doing the same. Despite the fact that I had the circuits installed only 3 months earlier, he continued to tell me that I did not have enough “circuits” to do what I wanted.

{I would also like to point out that: (1) The facilities dude refused to look inside the circuit boxes to see how many circuits there were. (2) I got the impression that he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about because I look like I am an 18-year-old little girl. (We all know that you should judge a book by its cover, so I was probably incompetent.) (3) I continued to insist that I did have enough circuits, and told him to look up the recent renovation information that one of the other on campus groups (physical plant? alterations? facilities?) did. That was when I realized that my university did not keep records of renovations, nor did they share any plans or records with the other groups that did renovations on campus. (That’s a good bureaucracy!)}

During his third visit, he finally took out his screw driver from his tool belt and used it to open the box on the wall (gasp! what an idea!), where he proclaimed that I had 2 circuits inside each box and he could, in fact, tie them together to make a 208V circuit. (Duh! I told you that!)  This pursuit of getting the job approved took a several months, but at least they were going to move forward, right? Wrong. After that, all advances seemed to halt.

I went to my chair to get his help in pushing the renovation forward faster. I wanted him to advocate for me with the renovation people. My department chair told me he couldn’t do anything. His advice: If I wanted 208V, I should just punch a hole in the wall of my dark room lab to the lab on the other side and pull a 208V circuit from my colleague’s lab. WHAT THE F*CK?!?

Here are several reasons why this is not a good idea:

  1. The walls are cinder block and require a hammer drill to get through them.
  2. My lab needed to stay dark for my experiments.
  3. Such activities are illegal. The building is a state building and any renovations must be done by contract union workers.
  4. Such activities are dangerous because the equipment and wall are dangerous and the walls are full of asbestos. Further, I had equipment in the lab that I didn’t want accidentally damaged by reckless activities such as this.
  5. My neighbor is using the 208V circuit in his own lab that I was supposed to take.
  6. MY NEIGHBOR WAS PULLING 208V CIRCUIT FROM MY LAB IN THE FIRST PLACE. The reason why I couldn’t use the 208V circuit from my own lab was because (a) my colleague was already using it, and (b) because the circuit box was so old the plugs looked like something from a Mary Shelley novel, and I couldn’t actually use it legally because it wasn’t up to CODE.

So, what else could I do? I went over his head. I contacted the Vice Dean for Research in my College. I told him the situation and how long I had been waiting, and asked if he could find out what was taking so long. Within a week, I had the answer. They were waiting for Environmental Health and Safety to make sure their wasn’t asbestos in the electrical box. I told the ViceDean that this was ridiculous, since the box was brand new, as of  6 months ago, and it was highly unlikely that asbestos was used in the installation, and could he facilitate moving this forward and getting the redundant and silly inspection sped up? He did, and within a week after that, I was getting the circuit fixed, which literally took 1 hour. So, for a one hour job, it took about 5 months delay in the building of my lab. If I hadn’t gone over my chair’s head, I think it would have taken even longer.

So, this story illustrates that, although you should try to work through your department chair, sometimes you have to go around to get stuff done. In this case, the chair wasn’t mad at this WoS. But, there are other cases where going above your chair can get you in big trouble. Do you have any examples of when you went over your chair’s head and got in trouble? Was it worth it? Comment or post here. To follow this blog, pouch the +Follow button and type in your email.

Women’s Stats: The Facts

Christabel_PankhurstAwesome WomanOfScience and Editor of the Journal of General Physiology, Prof. Sharona Gordon, just wrote a very interesting and thought-provoking editorial about gender equality in Physiology. Although it is pointed at that field, her words can be generally expanded to all fields of science. See the full article here (http://jgp.rupress.org/content/144/1/1.full).

My favorite part of the article is the extrapolation of time to reach parity at the faculty level. Despite that 50% or more of the graduate students in physiology (and many other life sciences) are female, the percentage of faculty are strikingly low (only about 30%). Interestingly, the rate of female faculty is increasingly linearly, and extrapolating that line means that parity will be achieved in 40 years! I hope that is true, but I can’t help thinking that the level will asymptote to 50%, so it might well take longer than the initial linear dependence implies.

One of the main points of the article is that academics often choose to train their male students more/better than female students. Indeed mentoring is essential to getting more women and minorities through the pipeline. Yet, what is holding us back is that we select students who look like us or act like us to help propel them ahead.  I think we all treat trainees differently from one another. Sometimes it is because they are very different people, and they each need specialized treatment and mentoring, but sometimes there is something else. And you must think about it and analyze it. I sometimes worry that I inadvertently act sexist or racist, although I don’t think I have been after assessing my actions. Part of my worry is because I have had several African American undergraduates in the lab, but none have gone to grad school for a Ph.D. On the other hand, I have inadvertently convinced a number of women to go to graduate school without really trying. Often, I just tell them they *could* go, and ask if they are applying. Sometimes that nudge of support is all students really need.

As for my grad students, they (all women) look at me and what I do, and want to jump ship. I think they see that it is such a struggle. A struggle for money, a struggle for respect, a struggle to get published, a struggle to manage and mentor. They have their eyes open, and they have said, “If it is this hard for her, I don’t want it.” I feel badly that I have pushed them away from academia on accident. But, I am not one to sugar coat it or lie.

Another point I particularly like is the idea that the women who are becoming faculty this year are just as much pioneers as those who entered 15 years ago or 30 years ago. Perhaps the problems faced by this year’s faculty are slightly different from those faced by a woman entering 15 or 30 years ago, but this blog and many others prove that they are actually, perhaps surprisingly or not, the same. I certainly feel like a pioneer, and my attempt to help other women – the next generation – is written all over these blog pages. Some senior women have lamented to me that I still have to fight and write blog entries and feel the pull to take a stand and fight. They were hoping that my generation would be the one to have it easy. But, if the calculations found in this publication are correct, it will take at least another half century for parity – and that’s in disciplines with 50% females in grad school. Physics and engineering are still <30% women in grad school.

So, what do you think? What are your opinions about this recent article? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

“Subtle” Harassment

DoorPinsMost harassment is not very subtle to women, but I realize that not everyone is as clued in and keyed up about it as I am. I was recently harassed, probably not on purposed or even pointed directly at me, but I inadvertently stumbled into some harassment, and I wanted to have a little talk about it. What to do, how to report, and make it clear to my male friends and advocates that this stuff is not just annoying, it affects us pretty much daily. So, I am going to post about “subtle” harassment – the pervasive kind that wears you down.

Chalk Board Harassment. In my career, I can clearly recall two instances of chalkboard harassment. In both cases, I literally walked into the harassment without warning. I reported the harassment to authorities, and nothing was done about it.

The first time, was in graduate school. I was TAing, and I had to use a photocopier to make copies for my class. The photocopier was in what I call a “party office” where many grad students have desks and work. It wasn’t really a party office in the sense that I never once saw a party or celebration occurring, but it was a “party” more like a “party line” for phone service in the olden days. You might also call it a “grad student ghetto,” which probably better captured the mood of the room. Anyway, this day, like many others, I went in to make my copies. The copier was directly in front of a 6 foot chalk board. This day, I looked up from the copier to see a 3-foot tall, very detailed drawing of a penis. I stopped my copying and went to the department office directly to the chairman, and actually got him to come to see the masterpiece. He actually took me seriously and came to see it for himself, but erased it immediately upon seeing it. He was quite harassed, as well as me. I informed him that it was this type of, well, not subtle, but pervasive harassment that scared women away from male-dominated fields.

Recently, now that I am a professor, a similar situation has occurred. On the chalkboard outside my lab and near my office, the word “penis” was written. This is certainly not as bad as the graphic drawn in gory detail when in grad school, but it is perhaps more troubling because it was drawn immediately next to some drawings my daughter (elementary-school age) had made on the same board. In fact, she wrote the word, “LOVE” and immediately next to it, was the offending word. Nice. As before, I informed the department chair and this time, I also took a picture and emailed it to the UniversityDiversityOffice who is responsible for following up such offenses.

A couple of things occurred to me about these two situations:

1. Why are dudes so obsessed with penises? Why not be obsessed with vagina? It is weird to me. Statistically speaking, some of the dudes in my department are likely to be homosexual. They don’t seem to be out. We do have an openly gay faculty-member, and there doesn’t seem to be overt homophobia in the department.  I could be wrong, but no student has come to discuss it with me.

2. I was surprised about how much more offended I was by the word in the second instance compared to the drawing in the first instance from grad school. I think it was because of the proximity in space and time to my daughter. It pissed me off that they defiled some nice drawings and lovely writings that were clearly done by a child. My child.

3. Finally, in the same note as number 2, I couldn’t help thinking that they had targeted my space in the department. In the first instance in grad school, the picture was in a closed office and was more likely not targeted at me. Yes, there were other women in that office, and they were the likely targets of the harassment, but it wasn’t targeted at me. But, this second version felt targeted because the board is right between my office and lab. That made me feel badly, too.

Everyday Stuff. Last week, there was a particularly horrific situation on the campus at UCSB, and I am sure most blogs dealing with women’s issues are mentioning something about it. The misogynistic rantings of the shooter are worrying to any woman who works in science, particularly some fields that are male dominated. Scary.

One of the topics that was described in the commentary of the “Yes, All Women” trend was women trying to explain that we often feel uncomfortable in situations, even everyday situations, because of the very real threat of men. One of my favorite comedians has a particularly clear view of this idea (See a video here).

After the women comments, there was a backlash with the tagline “Not All Men,” where dudes were trying to say, “Hey we aren’t all like that!” but as many women pointed out, WE CAN’T TELL WHO IS OR WHO ISN’T LIKE THAT. You all look the same to us.

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say 1% of men are like that. Now, you are a woman running a class of 400 students where only 20% are women. So, you are in a classroom with 320 men, and 1% are women-haters – that is 3-4 woman-haters are in the room with you.  Not that many, but enough to harass and demean you, if they sought to do so. I have talked to women who have been physically intimidated by male students in classes with these types of numbers. The students physically get into their personal space and demand differential treatment. I, personally, don’t let students get near me. I have a very large personal space bubble. But even so, there are other ways to cause trouble.

Outside of classroom situations, I have tried to notice my reactions to other, regular, situations in the past week. I have noticed that I make certain decisions about myself because of a fear of men. Let me give you two examples.

1. I was at the gym with HusbandOfScience. I wanted to stretch in the area near the mirrors. There were two men in the area – basically taking up all the room in the area in front of the mirror. There was just enough space between them for me to fit, but I didn’t do it at first. Why? I was afraid of them. Not deathly afraid, but wary enough to avoid. I decided that the likelihood that these two guys were both bad guys was low, statistically speaking. I was right. They were fine – just taking up more than their fair share of space, as men often do unconsciously (Not All Men).

2. I was taking my child into daycare. Normally, I park right at the front door, but there wasn’t room, so I had to park half way down. At the far end of the parking lot was a group of men. They laughed when I got my kid out of my car, and it made me sort of flinch. I noticed that I was wary of them. I went to drop my kid. After coming back to the car, I took a closer look, and I realized that they were latino, and that made me feel safer. Statistically speaking, dudes who hate women are white. (Sorry to my white men friends – I realize it isn’t all white men, but stats are stats.)

So, here is my say. The WomanOfScience addition to the #YesAllWomen movement. What do *you* think? Comment or post. Push the +Follow button to receive an email every time WomanOfScience posts.

They’re Just Not That Into You

2475011402_bf70c92575_oOver the past year, I have had to have a similar conversation with two different MenOfScience. These MenOfScience are relatively young. Both of these men are in tenure-track jobs at decent places. Both of these men are in male dominated fields of science. Further, both of these men are not overtly sexist, but both men had the same very strange notion which I tried to disabuse them of.

See, it turned out that when these guys were up for tenure track jobs, in the same year there was a super-star candidate. This super-star candidate got many, many interviews and several offers. In fact, this super-star person got almost all the offers in the field. And guess, what? This superstar person just happened to be a woman.

So what conclusion did these guys draw? Just guess…

Did they conclude that this woman had worked her ass off? Did they conclude that this woman was clearly the smartest, best, cleverest scientist of the field on the market that year? Did they conclude that because the bar was so much higher for the women of their field that this woman was truly the most excellent? Did they conclude that not only was this woman so amazing as to surpass all other candidates that year (men and women), but probably also ended up as the only woman on the market in that field in the entire year?

No, of course, they concluded that, this woman (each was a different woman in each of their different fields in different years) only got all those offers because she was a woman. And, of course, they felt slighted. They felt that this woman did not deserve the accolades and offers that she received. If not her, than who? Should they have been given all those offers? Would they have been so resentful if there was a man receiving many interviews and offers? Surely that must happen often in these male-dominated fields. Yet, somehow I doubt that anyone would say, “He only got those offers because he was a man.”

During these conversations, I strove to set their attitudes correct. I made it clear that the outstanding woman must have been truly outstanding because the bar is much higher for women than men. I do not think they bought that. I let them know that there is still a lot of bias against women, notice how few their are in their own departments and in their own fields, so that if this woman was getting so many offers, she must have been truly amazing. I do not think they bought that. They were still very focused on the fact that a woman had somehow beaten them. Like it was a personal offense.

And here is the kicker – these dudes have jobs! Because at the end of the day – no matter how many offers that one outstanding woman got, she is still only one person who will only be able to take one offer. So, it doesn’t really matter how many offers she got, because it did not inhibit them from getting jobs. So, why are they so resentful? It must be that they really feel that they are as good as this woman. Maybe they are, maybe they are not, either way, they still got jobs! They are still around, doing science, getting tenure.

So, what is the best way to convince them? I do not think my method of trying to offer facts and statistics about women in science worked. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, they will never be convinced because the true answer was that this woman was probably better than them. And no one likes to hear that someone else is better than they are. They do not want to hear the truth: “they’re just not that into you.” Nobody wants to hear that.

It is especially important to get these young men who will we need as our advocates and cooperative partners in change to understand women’s issues and help to support us. Do you have any idea how to help these guys to see that just because a woman was successful does not detract from them and ultimately did not do them any harm? We need them on our side, and if they continue to hold a grudge about one amazing woman that got lots of offers 4 years ago, we could lose them to the dark side of sexism.

Any ideas, comments, or suggestions? Post of comment. Push the +Follow button to get an email whenever a new post goes up.

Bullying Backfire

bullyFor the past several years, the topic of bullying has been hot in the media. Most people, especially nerds, realize that bullies have always been there. Although academia is supposedly some liberal bastion of cushy touchy-feely softies who “can’t do,” so they teach, it is actually full of bullies. Those nerds who were bullied most as young people are the most likely to bully others in the future. It is a cycle of abuse that is disturbing. It doesn’t help that many of the people in academia are not good communicators and can often be stubborn and unyielding in their emotional ideas. All of these circumstances lead to a high amount of workplace bullying. In addition to sexual harassment that is still pervasive, the more subtle workplace bullying by chairmen, peers, or even students can make women and minorities feel bad about their job and abilities.

Currently, UState is requiring a workshop on Workplace Bullying. Based on what I discussed above, this would seem like a great idea, right? Ironically, these workshops appear to have a backfire effect. What I mean by this is that known bullies are coming out of the workshop convinced that they are being bullied themselves. Mostly, they are claiming to be bullied by the very people they are bullying! Why is this happening? Because the bullies and the bullied are in fact having a disagreement. Unfortunately, the inept abilities of most scientists to communicate mean that the more aggressive person comes across as a bully. The less aggressive person seeks relief, help, or just a chance to gripe, and they are branded as talking behind someone’s back, forging alliances against the other person, or just a troublemaker. In the new definitions of bullying, these defense mechanisms are also a form of bullying.

In talking to my female peer-mentors, it seems like most women coming out of the workshop think to themselves, “Oh no, I have been inadvertently bullying someone. I need to try to adjust my way of acting.” On the other hand, many men have come out saying, “OMG, I am being bullied by everyone.” I think it would be interesting to perform a follow up survey to see if it the reaction to the workshop aligns with gender. There are always exceptions, I am sure, but my hypothesis would be that women are more likely to be introspective about the workshop. This is what I mean by a “Bullying Backfire.” The bigger a bully someone is the less likely they are going to see themselves as the bully, and the more likely they are to see how everyone else is bullying them. In my opinion, this is part of the mentality of a bully – to blame others for your problems.

So, how do we respond to bullying? Once we identify it occurring, we can only change our own actions toward others. Is it possible to change the actions of others who are bullying us? It is worse when you are a graduate student being bullied by your advisor, or an assistant professor being bullied by a senior faculty member? Do you act like the “bigger man,” and just pretend it doesn’t affect you? That can backfire, too. Especially if your bully is trying to tear you down and make you feel bad on purpose.

Popular culture tells me to stand up to bullies, and I have been accused of being brave. I am not sure if I am brave or just really stupid, but surviving can be a sort of standing up for yourself. I certainly did stand up to bullies in high school, and I fought back. I was protected by my honor-student status against being sent to detention or being suspended. I was able to fight back immediately at the time, and move past my bullies.

Now, revenge may need to be placed on the back burner and served cold. Much like my honor-student status, one can always overcome and get back at your science bullies through your science-cred. See, in science, she who has the best publication track-record laughs last. At the end of the day, if you have better, more publications, you will get more respect than your bully. I have done this with several of my science bullies. It takes having a long-view, because it is not a quick solution. So, sometimes I just keep my head down and move my science forward and try to ignore my bullies. Obviously, this only works if your bully isn’t seeking you out to suck up your time.

All this being said, it is absolutely essential that you have a support network to help you handle these situations. You need a good partner to listen and offer sympathy. You need a peer network, or group, to offer advice, consolation, and cheer-leading about how great you are. Most people will not admit this, but you probably also need a therapist. In all the times when I had to deal with a bully, I sought out a therapist to talk to on a weekly, or every-other weekly basis. These people are not in science, necessarily, but they can give you can outlet to gripe, a confidential confidant, and someone to help with people-solutions.  I am not ashamed to say I have been in therapy numerous years over my life, and I am a more well-adjusted, and better person for having done it. Younger generations of people do not see it as a stigma, but as a means to help to deal with difficult people. Older generations often see it as a signal that you are “crazy,” but the only crazy thing is to not use every option in your reach to deal with these problems.

So, what do yo think? Are you being bullied? Is it persistent? Or sporadic? Comment or post. You can follow the blog by pushing the +Follow button.

Sticking Up For Yourself

FEMEN_Calls_for_Sex-BoycottAs I have discussed in prior posts, academic science is full of criticism. Most of the time, the criticism is important and helps you to make your science better. Sometimes, not so much. I still contend that women take much more criticism than their equally-qualified (or less-qualified) male contemporaries, but I haven’t seen any specific studies on it. Have you?

Either way, part of what you have to do in academic science is to stick up for yourself. Whether criticism is constructive or mean, we all need to learn to stick up for ourselves against it. Here are a few places where you have to stick up for yourself and some advice on how to do it. Disclaimer: I am not perfect at this and would love comments or posts with more information from others.

Response to Reviewers of Manuscripts: Reviews on papers are a good place to start with this topic. You will get criticisms in reviews – even National Academy members have criticisms and must respond to them. Here is what I do to respond to reviewers. I find this method both cathartic and productive.

Step 1, I print the reviews. I have a harder time reading things on the screen – especially critiques. As I read the reviews, I write whatever the first response to come to my head is. Sometimes it is easy, like, “Cite this paper,” or, “Emphasize this more.” Sometimes they are more elaborate like, “We can do these experiments: one, two, three, and they will probably take 2 months.” Sometimes my responses are just plain rude, such as, “Did this reviewer even read the manuscript?” or even that old chestnut, “F*ck You!” Yes, I write these all on the paper – dirty words and all. They are my first responses – whatever pops into my head – and they are very useful.

Step 2, I meet with the research team, and we all go over the responses and what we need to do to fix up the manuscript. This is usually major issues, like new experiments. I have others give me their first responses, too, if they want to. We air out everything and figure out how to address all the critiques.

Step 3, I identify the locations in the paper that require correcting and updating and set to do it as soon as possible. This is revising the manuscript. This is the obvious step.

Step 4, I write a response to reviewers. The actual response is very different from the responses in Step 1. For each criticism, I write a point for point response. Sometimes it is easy, like, “We cited this paper to address this concern,” or “We re-wrote this section to emphasize this point and clarify our reasoning.” The hardest responses are ones where you need to rebut the reviewer. None of us is perfect, and sometimes we need to let the reviewer know that their point was actually not correct. No big deal, right? It happens. But, reviewers are in a power position over the authors, and you don’t want to rub them the wrong way. When I have to rebut the reviewer, I make my case very strong with a lot of evidence and references. I have even been known to consult other experts of the field to have conversations about these issues. This is important if the reasoning behind something is unpublished “common knowledge” of the field. Every field has this common knowledge, but most of the time it isn’t published nowhere you can point to easily. If the reviewer is not in the exact same field as you, they might not be aware, so you have to inform them. I don’t just ask them to take my word for it, but I reference real conversations with other experts of the field who I asked if I could name in the response. No other expert has ever said no. I have talked to others, and I think this approach is unusual. No editor or reviewer has ever said it was wrong, so I will keep doing it, if I need to.

Critiques on Grant Proposals: These are more difficult to stick up for yourself because you don’t get to respond to reviewers. But, if you are resubmitting the proposal, you need to go through the reviews and respond to them implicitly within the new proposal. I basically go through the same method of printing the reviews and responding. I also have had co-PIs do the same exercise in a multi-PI proposal, and many found it fun and helpful and emotionally de-stressing. Then, I identify the areas of the proposal that require the changes and re-write based on the reviews.

On my first panel where I served as a reviewer, one of the proposals I was reviewing actually quoted their prior reviews and directly responded in their proposal.  At the agency I was reviewing for, the panel changes every time, so the new reviewers (me) would have no idea that they were responding to critiques except by this method. It was very effective. I haven’t employed this myself, but I do respond to the critiques of prior reviewers.

Even if I am not resubmitting because they do not take resubmissions or the research fit is not right for that program, I still read and try to understand the critiques. Very rarely, I get a really rough review. My first year as an AssistantProfessor, I wrote a grant to a foundation for a young investigator award. One of the reviewers said, “It remains to be seen if [WomanOfScience] can even successfully start a research program.” Ouch! It was really harsh, but it was reality. It was my first year, and it did “remain to be seen,” but it wasn’t for the reviewer to judge in the proposal review. That is what the tenure evaluation is meant to judge. In order to stick up for myself, I called other near peers and had a conversation about it. Swapping stories of jerky reviewers on proposals always makes me feel better before I start the task of trying to make productive lemonade out of their nasty lemons. It also helps me to decide if I should try again at a certain funding agency with the certain idea, or if it is time to move on.

Letter Writers for Promotion: We hope that all our promotions will be wildly successful, and we will all sail over the bar to get tenure, become full, and all other evaluations. But, this really just isn’t the case all the time. These critiques can kill a career, so sticking up for yourself is imperative. Once you go up for tenure, that might be all she wrote, although I know several people who have come back from failing tenure and went back on the market after unsuccessful tenure bids, so it can be done. Most jobs have a “mini-tenure” review process, and this is the time to identify issues and address them. Much like the case against the reviewers of papers, you need to understand the issues, determine how best to address them, and build a case in your favor to make sure you do better at the next promotion evaluation. I suggest doing basically the same process as above.

Step 1 helps you to identify what went wrong and come up with gut instincts as to how to correct them. Step 2 should be done with a team – hopefully you have mentors who can help you. They do not have to be in your department or even at your college. In fact it might be better if they are away from you. It will help you to get an outside prospective from someone who will not also suffer if you do not get tenure and promotion. Your university invested heavily in you, and they want you to succeed. But that also puts pressure on them, and they can lose effectiveness as mentors under this pressure. Going to outside mentors takes bravery. You have to expose your soft under belly to your mentors to allow them to help you. You will have to be vulnerable. So, these are people you will have to trust to have your best interest at heart. Then you will have to go through step 3 – and make the changes and implement the solutions your team have come up with. There isn’t really an mandatory equivalent to step 4 – writing the response – but it may be important to do just that if you don’t get tenure. Having a clear, thoughtful response to critiques is important if you want to challenge the decision or to try for new positions at different institutions.

Other Places: Sometimes we experience critiques in other places such as in email exchanges, in person at faculty or committee meetings, when getting critiques on a proposal or a manuscript from colleagues in person, or even in blog posts 😉 My advice, which I certainly could use a reminder of frequently, is to try not to react immediately. I advise that your initial reactions to bad news, critiques, or even personal attacks should be private. This is often hard to do, but good off-the-cuff reactions take practice to get them right. Public reactions should be carefully planned, if possible. I feel like this is where I fail most. I am obviously much better if I am rested and not hormonal, similar to the uncomfortable conversations post. But, considering that these things can strike without warning, it is hard to always be in the perfect condition to absorb negative comments.

Sometimes the best course is to ignore things. Ignoring something might go against the title of this post which suggests that you should defend yourself, but sometimes it is the best thing. For instance, I recently got an email from a colleague who scolded me because I used a public space for a laboratory end-of-semester party. The public space is adjacent to office space where his students sit. When we went to have the party (all 13 of us), there were only two students (of an office that seats 8) in the office space. Both of these students were  wearing headphones, and it was the second to last day of exam period at 4pm. I didn’t think I was bothering them, and no one said anything at the time when I could have changed anything. Yet, in an email later, I was scolded and told that I needed to ask permission of the students in the office to have my event. I should also mention that I have had these events there previously without scolding, and no one ever said anything before. My first reaction was to write back and defend my actions, but I decided against it. I just ignored the email. I figured if it was really a big deal, he could talk to me in person. I also suspected he threw out the email without much thought. I saw him multiple times the next day without a mention of it from him and with his usual nice self. I think ignoring the situation was the right thing to do there. Sometimes ignoring something is a statement in and of itself. You are saying, “This is not worth my time.”

So, what about you? Do you have any helpful hints on how to respond to criticism. To stick up for yourself in a good way? Any comments or posts would be greatly appreciated! You can receive notice when a new post appears by pushing the +Follow button.

Dear Sir

Power of WordsToday’s post is again about application season. It comes from another WomanOfScience, and discusses an issue of sexism that applications should consider when submitting materials for graduate studies, postdocs, or faculty jobs. Enjoy the post! Remember that you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button.

It’s academic job application season and search committees are busy poring over applications to find the best candidates. As a repeat member of my department search committees, I am always surprised at how many cover letters are addressed as, “Dear Sir,” or “Dear Sirs.” Is it so inconceivable that there are women on the search committee or should their input just be deliberately ignored? Does the idea of a woman evaluating your application fill you with revulsion or fear? This bad habit of addressing letters only to my male colleagues is especially ridiculous given the goal, or in some places, the mandate, of gender balance or proportional representation on search committees.

Do people write “Dear Sir” because it is tradition? There are many traditions we have abandoned because they are sexist or exclusionary, or just because there are better ways to do things. How many people addressing their cover letters with “Dear Sir” are still characterizing organic compounds with a continuous wave NMR? You perform up-to-date experiments and theory, why not update your attitude about letter writing?

You might say, well, how else to address a letter to a group of people who are unknown to you? Here are some options: Find out who the chair of the search committee is and address your letter to that person. Or address your letter as, “Dear Search Committee” or “Dear Colleagues.”

I regularly receive letters of application to work in my lab, which are addressed only to me, with the salutation “Dear Sir.” I am a woman. Those get deleted or recycled immediately. Why would I hire someone who is not observant enough to figure out I am female? That doesn’t exactly indicate future success in science. Furthermore, why would I hire someone so unprofessional as to address a letter clearly meant for one person, who is known, with a generic salutation like “Dear Sir”?

We have to stop thinking of the default scientist as male. To examine your own implicit biases, you can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test at: http://implicit.harvard.edu. We all have biases. To overcome them, we need to be aware of them.

I have colleagues who don’t read the cover letters, preferring only to count up publications and evaluate the research statement and reference letters. I read the cover letter first. Cover letters generally give the committee members a good sense of what the candidate is like as a person, what they value by what they choose to highlight and how they describe it. Unfortunately in the case of candidates addressing their cover letters as “Dear Sir,” the sense I get of them is easily summed up as: “sexist.”

So, what do you think?  Post or comment!

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