Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Women in STEM’

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.

New Broader Impacts Statement

catenary_bikeThis week, I just got my fourth of four submitted proposals rejected. I am not unhappy because I am already revamping the first two, which were reviewed quite well, and I think they will be written even better and get even better reviews (and perhaps some money?) in the next round. I also got a really nice WomanOfScience friend to help me jazz them up. They were good science, but quite dull-sounding. She just batted 1000 on her last 7 proposals, so she knows her sh!t. For the most part, I agreed with the criticisms of the reviewers. They were valid, and there are ways to make my proposals better. As I have always said, “Criticism: Take It.” I will take it and gladly ask for more.

But, I have a bone to pick. Let me quote one of my reviews (I know people don’t usually do this, but it is important you see what was written to understand).

Strengths:
The PIs have an outstanding record of mentoring students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Weaknesses:
The broader impact work is already ongoing, and new efforts are not described.

Notice this weakness. It is a weakness that I am already strong in broader impacts. THAT is a WEAKNESS! How? What should I do? Invent yet another class to take up more of my time so I publish fewer papers every year? Or should I mentor more than 6-10 undergraduates in independent research projects per year? Should fewer of these students be from under-represented groups? Because those students take longer to mentor because they are worried their parents will be evicted or deported while they are away at school, and that takes up too much of my time? Or perhaps I should do yet a 5th outreach activity to encourage women and girls of color to join STEM – maybe invent my own because the ones I am doing with established groups, such as Girls Inc, are blasé. I mean, everyone does it, right? WRONG! No! I will not take this criticism. This is NOT a weakness. I am not weak in broader impacts because I am doing so fucking much already, and to say this is a weakness is asinine and ridiculous.

But, I take criticism… Maybe there is another problem that I can solve? Maybe they don’t realize how much I do. I mean they have my name and record (and they can easily find me online), but I can only list FIVE synergistic activities in my 2-page long biosketch. My full CV is a whopping 25 pages long. The parts describing my teaching and service take up 10 pages of real estate and include 6 separate funded grants just for teaching and mentoring activities – that are in a separate section from my research funding. But, I can’t include all that in my biosketch. I can only include 5 synergistic activities. FIVE! That doesn’t even cover the funded teaching/mentoring work I do – let alone the unfunded work.

I could list all this in my proposal, but there isn’t really space. And if I did, I would be using up space I should be using for the more serious endeavor of science. I could put a link to my website in the proposal, but that is actually not allowed (despite having seen it in so many other proposals). I am afraid to not follow the rules and have my grant rejected for such a stupid reason. So, I don’t put in a URL to my lab website that lists all this work.

So how do I let them know, succinctly, yet firmly, that: No, I will not be doing any NEW Broader Impacts to satisfy their twisted idea that every new NSF grant must have yet another mentoring, outreach, or teaching activity to accompany it?

I am thinking of writing a statement such as this (let me know what you think)…

Broader Impacts:

In this section, I describe my commitment to teaching and mentoring women and under-represented minority students to train them to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, educators, and creators. The criticism that these efforts are “ongoing” and that “no new efforts are being established” is true, and I will likely get that critique as I usually do. But, I would like to point out that I participate in 15 other broader impact activities that cannot be fit into the 5 allowed in the biosketch nor in this document. I do not see the need nor the reason to create another mentoring or educational activity for myself in order to obtain this grant to perform research when I am already, as a woman in a male-dominated field, so over committed to teaching and outreach. Indeed, in a recent survey of my male colleagues in my department, I participate in 10x as many outreach activities as they do. So, there is no need for me to create anything new to make sure I am disseminating my science, educating the youth, or have a high quantity of mentoring and teaching activities. I am already doing what you want me to do.

Further, the criticism that I am not creating anything new or unique is not correct. I train 6-10 students per year. That is approximately 2-10x as many undergraduates as my colleagues (actually, some take zero undergraduates, but one should not divide by zero), creating research opportunities that are unique for each student. My students present at national conferences and many have published their work. To each of these students, their work, commitment, and time in the lab is unique and new for them. Together, we are creating new science and new experiences. Many of them have never solved a problem without a known answer prior to this work. So, I reject the critique that my broader impacts are not “new.”

Additionally, the fact that my laboratory is a diverse environment in terms of gender, religion, race, and ethnicity is also novel. Each new student adds to that novelty, that flavor, and that uniqueness. So, I believe that it is incorrect to say that my broader impacts are not “new.” Perhaps the idea of undergraduates performing research in a culturally diverse setting is not new to you, but it is certainly new to them (and it is unique within my institution).

Finally, if the reviewers need me to do something new for every NSF proposal, I will inevitably have to do one less thing that I am already committed to and maintaining through shear force of will. The activities I do are not complete in 3-year increments. I do not complete them with the completion of the grant. My goal is to sustain these activities. Thus, I cannot start something new every three years with the start of each new funded proposal unless I stop doing something else. If I did drop something, that would mean one less committee would have a smart, strong, female required for diversity. One more program will be lacking a woman to represent my entire field and gender to local middle school students. One more student will not be given the opportunity to try her hand at research despite her mother, her society, and yes, even herself, telling her that she should not. The things that I describe, that I am already committed to, are not mere whims to me. They are not things I do to pad my CV or to make you happy to fund me. They are part of the service I do to the community and to society to educate the young people of this country. I am sorry if what I do is not enough for you; if my students are not enough for you, but this is about all I can do.

So, what do you think? Perhaps I won’t write this after all, but maybe just put a link in my proposal to this post. (wink) Let me know what you think. Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Open Letter to Conference Organizers

Conference_de_londresDear Conference Organizers,

I love your conferences! They are in such wonderful locations. Many times I get to escape the cold or wet of my home institution to work on science with others in a warm, exotic or just plain different location. It is wonderful and really helps me to be creative and explore new areas of science that I might not be exposed to otherwise. It is great for my career to see and be seen, to talk to other scientists about not only science, but also management, mentoring, and other career issues.

I have a request, though.

  1. Can you maybe have at least one keynote speaker who is a woman? It really means a lot to me, personally, if one of the keynotes is not a macho, argumentative man, but rather a loud, bossy, argumentative woman. They are role models – still. I am surprised when this doesn’t happen.
  2. Can there be more than one woman in each room? I literally had to give someone the finger to get the point across that I wanted to speak in a session at a recent meeting. It was all in good fun, as I am notoriously PUNK ROCK but the point was clear: let me talk, too! I am still astonished that this continues to happen, and it is not your fault that another participant did this, but it is better when the room isn’t such a “sausage-fest.”
  3. Can we have bath tubs? I know not all women feel this way, so I will not speak for all, but I, personally, really want to have a bathtub. Here are my reasons:
    • I like taking baths. It is relaxing. I sit in there for a while, soaking, reading, unwinding. This is often especially important at meetings when relaxing and unwinding can give you time for your creativity to soar.
    • I like shaving my legs. No use being in an exotic, warm location and not being able to shave your legs. This is mostly a woman-only issue. Sure, I could shave in the shower, but I always miss spots, and I cannot see because I cannot wear my glasses in the shower. I guess I could not shave, but that is not really socially acceptable considering the hairiness level I allow my legs to approach when I am at home and always wearing pants. I suppose I could shave before coming, but I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a bath tub, and I used all my personal shaving time taking care of my children, getting my class ready for while I was away, and packing. I would love the opportunity to shave at the conference.

Overall, these functions are wonderful and fruitful for my career, and despite the drawbacks I listed, I would never stop going, participating, and working at your conferences. They are essential for my career development and maintenance.

Thank you for your attention,

WomanOfScience

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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!

___________________________________

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.

__________________________________________

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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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.

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