Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘conferences’

Guest Post: Raise Your Voices

GuestPostThis post comes from an awesome WomanOfScience friend of mine. I hope you enjoy!

This post is about one of my first real experiences with gender bias, as a new PI in {life} science.

During my first year of being a new PI, I was invited to participate in a small workshop in my field.  There were only about 80 of us, with most of us being PIs.  It was an intense 4 day meeting alternating between talks and long, open-ended discussions about important issues in our research area.  In many ways, it was fantastic.

However, I quickly noticed something that I found to be a bit concerning.  While the organizers commended themselves for ensuring that almost half of the participants were women, I noticed that women almost never spoke during the extensive questions-and-answers sessions after each talk, nor did they ever participate in the lengthy “open” discussion periods.  As a new PI in my field, still trying to get the lay of the land, I was hyper-aware of what my female role models were doing.  And I was a bit dismayed that even the full professors who were women were not speaking up.

At first, I wondered, “Am I right about this?  Am I just not noticing when women speak?  Is my own unconscious bias coming through by dismissing their contributions?  Or, are women really not speaking?”  So, during the second day, I began to keep count.  I made a tally every time someone spoke up, whether it was a male or female.

By the end of that second day, it was clear.  Less than 10% of the questions or comments were from women, despite the fact that over 40% of the attendees were women.  And several of the few questions from women were from me, the most junior female PI in the room.  (I have always been pushed to ask questions of speakers, by my graduate and post-doctoral mentors, so I try to speak up as much as possible.)

But I was disturbed that women were not being equally represented in the discussions.  One thing that I noticed was that, oftentimes, the men in the room seemed completely unfazed to spout some random off-the-wall idea that potentially made no sense at all, just to get conversation started.  They weren’t concerned that their idea might sound idiotic.  They weren’t concerned that their words might mean that they were incompetent.

In my (limited) experience, WOMEN DO NOT DO THIS.  Women are careful to only state ideas that they perceive to be “important”.  And since women appear to be uncertain whether their ideas actually are important, they rarely speak up at all.  Why is this?

One answer comes from a really interesting article that I read just before I went to this conference.It discussed how transgendered people who have transitioned can provide interesting insights into how men and women are perceived differently.  My favorite quote in the article comes from Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who used to be male until late in her career.  She says “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case.  I will admit, I was not nearly as aware of this bias when I was a graduate student at a top tier research university.  In my class of around 30 students, 75% of us were women.  I was not even aware of gender bias when I was a postdoc.  Of course, I had heard of and read about unconscious bias.  But I had not seemed to experience it myself or noticed any impact on my own career.  It was only once I became a PI that I began to notice gender bias in my workplace in any real way.

I have long heard that one way to combat gender bias is to make sure that more people are aware of it, when it occurs, so we can at least pay attention to our unconscious bias and figure out ways to deal with it.  Thus, at the bar at the conference that second evening, after I had discovered that only 10% of the questions were from women, I decided to bring it up among a small circle of friendly colleagues.  It seemed natural to do so.  It was a group of just a few of us, people in my sub-field who have known each other for years, a mix of 1 man and 3 women.  Someone else had brought up the fact that women and men were almost equally represented at the meeting, and “Wasn’t that so great?”  So I then replied, “Yeah, it’s great that the organizers did such a wonderful job.  But you know what’s a little funny?  Women are only asking about 10% of the questions, and they aren’t participating at all in the open discussions.”  The women in my group made no reply.  But the man said, “Are you sure?  That can’t be right.”  And I answered, “No, I am right.  I actually counted today.”  The guy was silent for a moment, looked at me right in the eyes, and said, “Well, then I think that you should spend more time thinking about science and less time counting how many questions are being asked by women.”

I was dumbstruck.  I had asked more questions in that group than any other woman in the room, and his response is that I should be asking even more?  And that it wasn’t possible for me to think about science and tally male/female counts at the same time?  And that he didn’t see that it was an issue that women weren’t speaking up?  And that he didn’t respect the fact that I might see it as an issue, as a new woman to the field?  Two years later, this guy is still a close friend and colleague, a true supporter of me and my career.  But he appears to be clearly unaware of gender bias in the scientific world, and how its insidious nature can undermine the confidence of women scientists.

My own response to my observation has been to continue to do what I can – to speak up when I can – to try to be a role model for other, younger women scientists to speak up and not be afraid.  My students are REQUIRED to ask questions at seminars and meetings.  And I teach them to not be concerned about sounding stupid.  That I prefer them to be perceived as engaged and perhaps naive, rather than silent.  Because if you are silent, you aren’t bringing anything at all to the table.

So, my call to other women scientists is to speak up.  Speak your mind.  Even when you are unsure of your ideas.  Share your questions with others.  Isn’t that what science is about?  Asking questions that we don’t know the answers to?

More recently, now that I’ve been a PI for longer, I’ve become even more comfortable asking questions and speaking up.  At the last meeting that I went to (about 300 attendees), I was again the most visible woman.  I probably asked 2-3 questions each day of the 3 day meeting.  I thought that most of my questions were pretty stupid.  But I asked them anyway, especially when no one else seemed to be interested in doing so.  At the end of the meeting, a huge leader in my field came up to me and told me that he had to meet me and share with me that he was so impressed with my “wonderful questions” and that I had been “more impressive than any junior female PI he has ever seen at a conference before in his 30+ years” of being a PI.

While I was glad that he noticed me and complimented my participation, and I am hopeful that my visibility might be a good model for the many, many young women in the audience that asked no questions at all, I do still find it a rather sad state of affairs that this guy had never seen a junior woman ask multiple questions at conferences before (or, at least, not recall seeing it).  I will note that he (and everyone else that I spoke with) was also incredibly impressed by my grad student who accompanied me, as she asked several questions, as well.  She was the only female graduate student to ask any questions during this meeting.

And while I’m hopeful that other women saw our examples, I also am concerned that most women are still too insecure and uncertain to ask questions themselves.  Or, they simply do not realize just how valuable it can be to be visible.  But one thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in academia (and life, really) requires me to confront my fears head on – to run into them.  I used to be terrified – terrified – of public speaking.  My fight or flight response was on full blast when I asked questions, when I spoke in front of people.  But I forced myself to do it anyway.  When I commended my student after she asked questions by telling her how brave she was, she replied that she was not brave, that rather, she “was terrified.”  I explained that being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave means you do something EVEN THOUGH you are afraid.

So, I now make it one of my main goals to talk about my own insecurities, my own fears, and the importance of speaking up and being visible, whenever I have the opportunity to speak with students and postdocs. I am hopeful that the more times women hear it, the more likely there will be change.  And that someday, when I go to a meeting, there will be just as many women asking questions as men.

Thanks so much for this awesome post! What do you think? Comment or write your own post! To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Industrial Story – Part 1

3514668147_061a386342_zThis story comes from a fellow WomanOfScience who is in Industry. This is a two-part story, and should be read as an anecdote to help those of you interested in going into industrial science, and what you should watch out for in that route. Some of these characters and situations are quite similar to the academic track, which is sad. I hope you enjoy the story and learn from it, as I have. Part 2 will come online shortly.

Part 1:

I graduated from one of the nation’s most exclusive tech universities with what was considered a very “hard” major and nearly straight A’s at age 19.  I got my Ph.D. at 24, again with near-perfect grades.  I thought my math and science abilities would always allow me to overcome the occasional unprofessional encounter.

Then I entered the corporate world.

I had wanted to be a professor.  I found out a week before my planned start date of my second post-doc that there were some serious problems with the position.  Fortunately, a grad school connection asked me to interview at the only company in the world with commercial success at what I had studied in grad school.  I decided to accept a job at this company.  I thought I’d be able to prioritize my work and benefits to eventually re-enter academia.  Many departments in my FieldOfEngineering value a couple years of industry experience.  Some even require it.  Things looked bright.  My new manager “Dr. Jekyll” was world-famous in my scientific niche.  The two of us would be the only ones in the department doing research.

At the time of the job offer, I knew I should try to negotiate something more.  My father, who has a background in Science and Engineering Management, warned me that it’s much easier to negotiate options or stock, followed by salary.  Conference attendance would be very hard to negotiate.  As the company was still a start-up, I was willing to accept the low pay.  Low salary with the expectation of a big reward from stock options is the norm at many startups.  It had been drilled into me that women often wind up with lower salaries and benefits because they don’t ask for as much.  Because I still hoped to return to academia someday, I naively asked for more conference attendance (3 conferences/yr , thinking that would keep in touch with academia).   Indeed, I was told that I could go to the conferences  already in the pipeline (those at which I already had papers/abstracts accepted), but after that no more than one conference per year.

Note: In reality the only way that I was able to manage even the one conference per year that I did was because I was a member of the technical committees at those conferences.  Most other industrial scientists/engineers didn’t go to conferences every year. The lesson: be skeptical of all promises that aren’t in writing.

 

So now I was yet another female engineer with low pay.  Six months later, when I checked on Glassdoor to see how my salary stacked up against my peers, I was shocked that I was being paid 30% less than my peers.  I had thought the low pay applied to everybody, not just me.

Earlier, I had read “Women Don’t Ask”, about women, salaries, and negotiation.  Based on this, I put together some slides on why I should be paid more. Now, to be clear, the book had emphasized that women sometimes get penalized for asking for raises.  In spite of this, I thought that the fact that I was being paid so much less than my peers meant that I couldn’t possibly be penalized much for asking.  Here I was, working nearly every weekend while the other engineers were not.  Meanwhile, it was just a coincidence that Dr. Jekyll’s projects kept getting canceled, right?  I was still doing good work and deserved commensurate compensation, didn’t I?

The first time I made my case for a raise, Dr. Jekyll seemed taken aback.  He said he didn’t think there was much he could do.  He said our company didn’t value the research-y work he and I were doing, and that both our jobs were at risk.  Indeed, the answer he claimed to have received from above was “no.”

At this point, I was spending about a third of my time on Dr. Jekyll’s pet project, “Frankenstein.”  It became clear to me that Frankenstein would never succeed.   In private I started to mention to Dr. Jekyll the reasons we should drop this project.  He kept saying things like “It has to succeed.”  Near the bitter end, he even yelled at me for my “negativity.”

Note: the project was eventually handed off to another team.  The new team quickly realized the project was hopeless and cancelled it.  The new team couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been killed years earlier, around the time I started vocalizing my concerns…

I asked for a raise about 6 months after my first request.  Dr. Jekyll got visibly angry and said no.  I didn’t understand how he could possibly be angry at me.  I was getting more done than most engineers in my department and being paid much less.  I assumed his anger wasn’t directed at me personally.  Big mistake.
I heard about an opportunity to join another team in need.  I thought, if my current team’s work isn’t being valued and I’m at risk of losing my job, why not join another team?  The hiring manager of the other team was optimistic about my potential contribution.  However, when I next met with Dr. Jekyll, his demeanor was that of an adult who had just caught a kid with her hand in the cookie jar.  “Didn’t you know I’d find out you’ve been looking at other teams?”, he said in fury, before I could say a word.  I didn’t understand what he was so angry about.  If we were at risk of losing our jobs, wouldn’t it be better for all of us if I left for a more stable team?  A few months later, another inquiry into another internal opening yielded a similar result.

So, what do you think? Comment or post! Follow the blog by pushing the +Follow button! Part 2 will be online soon.

Fashion of Conferences

Attending a conference for the first time? Wondering what to wear? This is a common issue for women, especially young women, because women have a lot of options. Men have very few options, and thus, their world is clearer and easier to navigate. Women have many many options. Dress, skirt, suit with skirt, pants suit, jeans, boots, heels, flats, sneakers, sweater, button-up shirt, blazer, make-up, no make-up? And don’t even get me started on hair!

So, I am going to do what other women’s blogs have done and do a conference fashion show. Of course, different conferences have different styles, so I will be specific that these shots were taken from the world’s largest PHYSICS conference. I have poorly concealed the identities of our terrific models. I will add more in future from other disciplines in future posts. Until then, enjoy!

Our first selection is the suit look.

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Several women, especially on the day of giving their invited talks, will wear pants suits. Many are black, but gray was also spotted, although I don’t have pictures of those. You can also use separates – different color blazer and pants.   The shirt under the blazer is typically a nice color, but not low-cut. Physicists don’t really show cleavage, as you will see. I think when there are so few women, you don’t want to flaunt your boobs. The shoes are quite sensible. Typically physics-types favor flats. Also, though you cannot see it due to the censor bars, the make-up is very light or non-existent.

 

Our second selection is a very nice look that I really like – a nice dress.

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The dresses are well-fitting and again – no cleavage. Opaque tights under knee-high boots can be dark, or just a flash of color if the dress and boots are too dark. A nice jacket or blazer over the top can finish the look to give a flare of color or make it look a little more professional. You can also add a nice scarf.

 

 

Finally, the most casual look is jeans and a sweater.

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Physicists can be wonderfully casual, but you still want to look decent. Again – no cleavage. You want your jeans to fit fairly well. Both these models are wearing dark jeans, although I have seen colored jeans, and medium wash. Acid wash and other more flamboyant washes were not observed. When someone says that a conference is “casual” this is what they mean. They do not mean you can wear shorts or ratty clothes.

So, I hope this fashion show was helpful. I think the biggest thing I noticed, as I mentioned several times above, is that the clothing are not at all revealing. This should be considered since some “professional” shirts can be quite low-cut or skirts can be a bit too short. Scientists are basically conservative when it comes to sexualization due to clothing, so that should be kept in mind. In a field, like physics, where women are really under-represented, over-sexualizing yourself with your clothes is a risky idea, since men and more often other women will think you are a ditzy bimbo and think you are not competent due to your clothing. Is that fair?? No! But, it is life. You often have to the look the part you are trying to play.

Thanks again to all my models!

Conference Thoughts

2475011402_bf70c92575_oAs I am sitting in a session at the world’s largest conference in MyFieldOfScience, I am thinking about conferences. I am thinking about how important they are for your career in a lot of ways. For those of you who recently joined the blog (thanks for following!), you may have missed some previous posts about networking. I had one about general networking and another on networking on campus, which are both super important for getting tenure, getting jobs and just good for your career. Conferences are key for networking, being seen, and building your mentoring and scientific connections vertically and horizontally. I have come to the realization that networking is basically “professional flirting.” You can chat about science, but most convos are about family, travel, weather, grants, clothes, students, jobs, or whatever. Academic life has other aspects that we can talk about too. I had a great conversation about teaching and how to teach 400+ effectively with a colleague from another university.

Another thing conferences are great for is energizing your science. When I was young, and I think this is the case for my students, I loved going to conferences because it gave me confidence that people were actually *interested* in my science. I was able to talk about my work, have some people listen, and get validation that what I was doing was of worth. Further, seeing the work of other people that was similar to my own made me feel like I had a community of scientists who were interested in the science. Conferences re-energized me and made me look forward to working on more science and getting my work published.

Now, my science gets energized, but in a different way. Now, I look around and say, “Oh crap, we are more behind than I thought! Everyone is doing the cool experiments I thought of but haven’t gotten off the ground yet!” This is both bad and good. First the bad. It is scary to compete with your science against other groups that are better funded, have more students, and might be ahead on the same ideas you have. Also, I am so so crappy at hiding my science. I cannot keep secrets about the cool stuff we are doing. In some fields, telling people what you are doing helps to mark your territory. In others, it can be giving them the keys to all your best ideas. I have to be careful, but I can’t help but be communicative, open, and excited about our newest stuff. It might hurt me sometimes, but in the long run, I would rather collaborate than compete.

Now the good. Much like when I was young, seeing all the great stuff my colleagues are doing that is similar to my own work can be energizing and maybe even light a fire under your ass to get going. Further, it helps you to focus. If you had an idea to do X experiment and you see it done (probably slightly differently) at a conference, you can refocus your idea to probe the still open questions. Another good thing about people working on similar stuff – it shows your work is hot, important, and in fashion. As in other realms (like fashion) styles change, but if you are hitting hot you have a better chance of getting high profile publications and getting noticed.

So, those were my thoughts about conferences. What do you think? Post or comment here!

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