Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘glass ceiling’

Dignity in the Face of Jerks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop Star PI

buckaroo-banzai-movie-poster-phantom-city-creativeI have been thinking recently about how being a research-intensive academic in science (I will qualify with many fields, but realize not all are like this) is like being a pop music star. Now, you may be scoffing and getting ready to stop reading this post, or you may immediately think of Buckaroo Banzai, so hear me out. I think that this analogy can go pretty far and actually has merit. Further, I hope that by making this analogy, I can help some of you come to terms with different aspects of this career path. For instance, if you are part of the postdoc army and thinking you want to be a faculty member, thinking about being a research-intensive academic in this light might help you to position yourself better to become a professor.

  1. Scientists and Musicians are both creative. I know it is obvious that pop stars and musicians are creative because they make up new lyrics and guitar rifts that are catchy and moving. But, scientists are inherently creative, too. Our entire job is to solve new problems that have never been tackled before. We invent new techniques to observe, analyze, model, and describe the phenomena of the world around us. I think that there is some idea that what we do is not creative because it is often opaque, uses math, and results in facts and new knowledge. On that note, there is another issue, too. By the time we present our results (perhaps on NPR, if we are cool), we are telling you some new facts. But, we don’t capture and retell all the creative moments it took us to get to these new facts. We don’t advertise very well that science is creative.
  2. Scientists and Musicians are influenced by the past and present of the field. In music, it is clear that there are trends in sound (remember auto-tuning?) and rehashing of old sounds to make them new again (sampling and covers). Scientists need to be pushing forward while constantly keeping the literature of the past and present in mind. Previous experiments and results help us to find the path on our future experiments. Referencing the literature is the first thing we do in journal articles. Further, some of our intellectual work is in the form of review articles where we completely rehash the literature in new ways, trying to make connections between what has come before with what is happening in a field now. Finally, every now and then, a field will “rediscover” a whole type of experiments or model that was basically ignored or dead to completely revive these ideas to have significant impacts on a field.
  3. Scientists and Musicians both have to re-invent themselves every couple of years. Part of being creative is pushing yourself to be creative about new things. Musicians come out with new albums every few years. Many times the sound is new and they even re-invent themselves. If they are good at it, a pop star can have a 30 – 40 year career or longer (think about Madonna or the Rolling Stones). A typical tenured and continuously active (see below) scientist will have at least 30 years of productivity in their career. Over 30 years, there is no way to continue to do the exact same thing. A scientist must re-invent themselves every few years to continue to come out with new ideas, results, and papers. So, it is not enough to have an idea of what the next experiment is, you must think about what the next big idea that will result in 5-10 or 20 papers. Then you must give it up and move on to the next, next big thing. To be truly excellent, you should be inventing fields that hit and riding the wave of popularity – not following it. Of course, there is merit to studying one thing really well, but even in that, you should be applying new techniques and learning about new avenues, or else there will be nothing new to study.
  4. Scientists and Musicians have a public face and profile to maintain. In my “state of the lab” address (post, post, post), I call myself the CEO of the lab. Much like a pop star, you have a public face that you present that needs to be maintained. In addition to being the “front-(wo)man” of the lab, I am also the manager. I maintain my lab website. I make sure that our great achievements are properly advertised. I make sure we are seen at all the right venues (parties for pop stars and conferences for scientists).
  5. Scientists and Musicians both have to go on tour. In order to both maintain their public profile and to promote their new work (album or results/papers), musicians and scientists both have to travel. Musicians can also make money on their travels because touring is the best way for musicians to make money these days. For scientists, some fields do pay honorariums for giving talks, but usually you just get your travel paid for (reimbursed). Around tenure time, many people go on a “tenure tour.” I am not an advocate of the tenure tour. In my mind, by that time, it is too late. You should be touring all the time to promote yourself, your work, and your personnel and students consistently.
  6. Scientists and Musicians often marry others in their field. Musicians often marry other musicians, artists, actors, or similar creative types. Scientists often marry other scientists. This can make touring and work-life balance difficult (see next item). At least musicians can make music wherever they want. To do science, you must be at a university or research institute. There are not an unlimited number of open slots at these locations. There are very few (I have met one only) self-employed scientists. There are many, many self-employed musicians, and you can live wherever you find inspiration, if you are self-employed. So, this ended up being a similarity that resulted in a huge difference.
  7. Scientists and Musicians have to juggle work and family. With all this touring and creating, it can be difficult for pop stars and scientists to have kids, juggle their jobs, and get to PTO meetings. Also, creative jobs are often all-consuming. Creative types, when engrossed in the creative process, often have a hard time putting their jobs to bed at night. This also makes work-life balance difficult.
  8. Scientists and Musicians are both mostly men and there is a glass ceiling. Many of the top pop stars are women, and certainly being a woman in music is more socially normal than being a woman in many scientific and engineering fields.  That being said, there are few women in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame (salon). Beyonce is not remarked to be a marketing and musical genius (although I think she is) (Atlantic). How many women in rap can you name? (girl talk, smithsonian) I won’t rehash all the literature about the fact that there are very few women in STEM, but I’m just saying – women musicians and women scientists all live in the same male-dominated society and are fighting a lot harder for the recognition they deserve.
  9. Scientists and Musicians collaborate. Musicians naturally collaborate to make their music. Most obvious are musicians in bands, but even solo artists work with musicians, producers, and sound mixers. In science, very few papers are single-author. As a PI, I always have my students and technician on the paper. This is the equivalent to the band and support. In addition, the duet is making a comeback in pop music and people have always sung together with people in different bands. Similarly, scientific collaborations are common, frequent, and often changing. This is because working with new people can be intellectually invigorating and enable you to recharge your creative spirit.
  10. Scientists and Musicians set their own schedules daily, monthly, yearly, career-wide. Just like some pop artists are one-hit-wonders, there are a number of scientists out there who basically only did one thing. A pop artist with a one-hit-wonder might be able to live off the royalties for their whole lives (maybe not so much anymore with pirating music), just as a one-hit scientist can get tenure and hang around forever living off their singular accomplishment. In both science and music, one-hit-wonders are not well-respected… I’m just saying.
  11. Scientists and Musicians can both be “night people.” There are very few fields in the world where waking up late and working to the wee hours of the evening is a plus, but both musicians and scientists can definitely do this. For musicians where you might be taking the stage at 10pm, it is a must. For scientists, it isn’t a requirement, but seems to be very popular. In fact, as a morning person, I feel like a huge slacker compared to HusbandOfScience, who can work on real science all night. All I can do is write blog articles with millions of typos.

So, have I convinced you? Did I miss anything? Add it via a comment or send me a post of your own! If you want to be a tenure-track professor, are you thinking of the job in these terms? To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

The Resistive Load vs. the Drift

ResistorsAs I said earlier, I recently went to a BigIvyLeague University to give a talk, and I met with a group of young scientists – men and women – for lunch. The meeting turned into a mentoring meeting, as any meeting I have with young scientists tends too. As I said, there were two women postdocs, and we were discussing women’s issues. Another part of the conversation was about the impediments to advancement for women. Different people experienced the resistance at different stages, and this is normal since no two people’s trajectories will ever be exactly the same. Of the two women postdocs, one felt that she was being disregarded and put down even in graduate school. The other had a happy experience in graduate school, but was beginning to feel the resistance now as a postdoc. Of my WomanOfScience friends, many did not feel it until they got to a tenure-track job or even until after tenure. Myself, I had an 8th grade math teacher tell me that I could not advance more than a year in math. Perhaps my early exposure to the resistance is why I am so hyper-aware and intent on changing things.

Studies have shown that the glass ceiling for women in academia is at the full-professor level, as I describe and quoted primary research in this blog post. So, despite the onset age of the resistive load, the trend of the resistance, or other personal factors of each woman’s career, the highest resistance comes just at the precipice of really becoming a fully acting, voting, participating member of your department and college making similar wages as your colleagues. More on this issue in future posts, I think.

The main reason why I wanted to discuss the resistive load was because the meeting directly after the lunch, I met with a young, newly hired WhiteMale Assistant Professor. I had met this guy before at a small conference, and I knew he had been a postdoc at the same BigIvyLeague University where I was visiting, and where he was now tenure track. Some BigIvyLeague Universities do this, when the person is truly a superstar, so I assumed that this was the case, although I didn’t know his full record. This guy is young, and he was very open and honest when I asked him about his trajectory. He said that he had not had many other offers or even interviews, and that he was not, in fact, a superstar. The only places he had interviews were places where people already knew him. He said that this was because he had a low publication rate. Of course, BigIvyLeague University knew him, and his postdoc advisor was key to getting him this position. I consider this a gross case of “The Drift” where someone just continues to advance without any forethought or even any real effort. It is kinda like being in the lazy river at a water park. You get pushed forward.

I often see these people who appear to “Drift” in Second Generation Academics, whose parent(s) were also academics. Second Generation Academics are always typically extremely good at what they do, and in the meritocracy of academia  they advance seemingly effortlessly. In actuality, I think they just understand the game intuitively because they were raised in it, but they are good and working hard. Unlike a Second Gen Academic, this guy is an extreme version of a true Drift. He is literally coasting with no cogent plan. He isn’t applying to grants, or really trying to get students. He is trying to get a few more postdoc publications out because his publication record was reportedly slow.

The juxtaposition of this Drifter with the hard-working excellently bright, quick, and enormously put-down women of the lunch meeting was almost sickening to me. I was somewhat in shock as he told me his path and his non-existent plan. I would like to think that the system would weed this guy out, but given how far he has come, I cannot be sure. Being at a place like BigIvyLeagueU helps in so many areas, like getting good students and postdocs, getting grants, and having papers accepted based on BILU’s reputation. And the worst part was that I really couldn’t blame this guy. He is a nice guy. He is an open and honest scientist. So what if his publication record is slow? What boggles the mind is the system, the structure that promotes this guy and denies even better women and minorities the chance to  work in academia at SecondTierStateU without a hope of even getting to a place like BILU. Or, if you do get an offer at a BILU, they don’t have spousal accommodation, so you have to sacrifice other parts of your life for the benefits of BILU. Indeed, several women I met at BILU did just this.

This post has been long and rambling, so I apologize. These thoughts have been kicking around in my head, and I am not quite sure how to approach them to reconcile the fact that excellent women have so much resistive load against them. What do you think? When did you first feel the resistance to your forward progress? Do you know any female “Drifters”? Even the most excellent and well-promoted women I know really deserve it and still suffer from impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and are truly excellent yet still under-recognized. Post or comment here. Remember to hit +Follow for updates whenever I post. I hope to post more frequently now that classes have ended for the semester!

Tag Cloud