Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Women’

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Uncomfortable Conversations

VibrationsOver the course of this semester, which is quickly careening to the end, I have had to have a series of difficult conversations with people. This is one of the toughest parts of running a research group, and it is a part of managerial skills that you do not get taught. So, how do you deal with these situations? I think these situations are somehow inflated for women managers. Is it because we are seen as mother-figures? Is it because we are supposed to be nicer than men? Are they, factually, the same for men and women, and women just inflate them in their minds?

Like many of us, I try to deal with these types of situations professionally and with kindness. One of the first times I had to have a truly uncomfortable situation was when I had to fire one of my first graduate students. This student was pretty much phoning it in. After leaving my lab, he joined another, bigger lab that could absorb this type of attitude. My small, nascent laboratory could not afford to have a lackadaisical researcher in the lab. After his first warning and subsequent failure to work properly, I had to let him go. The student was upset and actually cried. Yes, he was a man. Although I felt bad about having to fire someone, I am glad I did. It was the right decision for my laboratory. I was also to the point and clear with the student.

I want to be firm and not a bitch. I want to be caring, but not a push-over. It is a fine line. Also, I want my student to respect and listen to what I am telling them. Yet, because I am a woman and young-looking, I worry that sometimes they do not.

I find that these conversations go better when I am well-rested and clear-headed, but what if I am stressed out or, worse yet, hormonal? Once, when I was pregnant, I actually cried in front of a student while trying to have a difficult conversation. Embarrassing. But worse, I feel like it undercuts my authority. I don’t think it did in this case, but I was worried about it. I don’t think men have to worry about these things. It is particular to women.

So, do you have any tips for steeling yourself for difficult and uncomfortable situations? Please share them here!

Harassment: What to do?


Frontispiece (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although as women in science, we often deal with subtle bias, non-specific and irrational pre-judgement of our qualifications, and an overall lack of encouragement. Less often, yet still persistent occurrences of actual overt harassment still occur and are known. A recent post at another awesome Women in Science Blog, TenureSheWrote, brought up a very interesting question about what to do when you know there is a harass-er of women around, in your field.  Please go to see that post and comment there.

Here, I want to tell a story about what I have done about harassment, when I saw it. As always, I ask you about what you have done and to share your personal stories about how you have dealt with this when you see it. If you would have changed your reaction in hindsight. What were the consequences of your actions?

Here is my story:

When I first started as an UntenuredAssistantProfessor (within the first couple of months), there was a WhiteMaleEmeritusProfessor who was really nasty to everyone – men and women. He would bad mouth my new colleagues behind their backs to me and try to embarrass them in public. I attended a lunch with a MaleSeminarSpeaker a few weeks later, and the WMEmeritusProfessor tried to make my science look stupid in front of the visitor. I fought back with humor and made him look ignorant of the current jargon and the current knowledge of my field. He was not happy with me.

A few weeks later, when a YoungFemaleScientist came to give our departmental colloquium, I went to lunch and so did he. I sat across the table from him, and he sat next to the speaker, and he was hitting on this poor woman the entire time. At some point, I couldn’t take it, and I told him to stop – in front of everyone. I made a scene. I pointed out that he was being offensive and inappropriate. I used humor, but I didn’t let him off the hook. He tried to attack me saying that I was being politically correct (as if that was a bad thing). One of my senior colleagues was there at the lunch, and I had to talk about it with him later. I didn’t get the impression that he was on my side, but more that he was uncomfortable and wanted it to go away.

A month of so later, I was at a dinner with several AmazingWomenOfScience in my field. I was ecstatic to be invited because these were wonderful, powerful women in my field. When they realized my new university, one told a story about how, when she went to give a talk at my university, she was verbally attacked about her science by WMEmeritusProfessor. He interrupted her several times – far more than the norm for the field. He tried to get invited to dinner. Worse of all, afterwards, WMEmeritusProfessor started sending her love letters in the mail. I went from ecstatic to embarrassed. I was ashamed that people my university saw this happening and did nothing.

I went to a SeniorMaleColleague and asked what power WMEmeritusProfessor would have over my tenure case. The answer was absolutely none. So, I went to the chair and demanded that he be removed from all seminar lists. I had found out that other departments had stopped sending seminar announcements to my department for fear that WMEmeritusProfessor would show up. I also told the Chair about WMEmeritusProfessor’s behavior, and how it was embarrassing and affecting people in my field. I think WMEmertusProfessor must have been talked to, because he was not seen as frequently in seminars for many years after that.

I didn’t have to deal with him anymore, and things felt better. I certainly felt more comfortable in my department.

Several years later, I had my Nth (important milestone) birthday party and got catering for the event. The woman doing the cooking told me she had been an undergraduate in my department many years before I got there. When she had been there, WMEmeritusProfessor was a FullProfessor, and he taught her laboratory course. She said that he had harassed her directly. He asked for dates and said that she would do better if she did this of that thing with him. She said it happened to a number of female students. I was shocked! How could no one in the department have known about this? I realize there was only 1-2 women professors at any one time until a couple more of us came on board, but these women never went to them to tell about what was happening. I had no idea what to do, and I have never reported it – staying the supportive listener, but I am still shocked to this day.

Typing this post has been cathartic, and has helped me realize that I did stand up when I could, and have been on alert for this monster as he infrequently rears his head in the department. The woman who reported it to me, now many years later is confident and would not care if I brought it up, but what purpose does it serve? Should I say something now?

So, has this happened to you? In front of you? Did you say anything? Make a stand? Or try to ignore it? What should we do? Comment or post here. Remember to

Response to Why Still So Few Women in Science

physicalscienceimageThis was not my planned post, which is some fantastic advise from an awesome minority woman graduate student. I will post that tomorrow. Instead I am going to do something I don’t usually do on this blog. I am going to rant a little. Usually I try to stay super positive, but today’s news on Women In Science needs a little response.

THE NEWS: If you are a woman in science, you were probably inundated with emails, Facebook posts, and tweets about today’s NYTs Magazine article “Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?”. I echo the sentiments I heard from other women that I am happy to see this is being tackled by the NYTs Magazine instead of only being discussed in women’s groups or women’s blogs. Don’t get me wrong, the blogs and groups are so important. As a blogger of one, I hope that the 12 people following are getting something from my posts, if not all of them (BTW, you can Follow this blog by clicking the +FOLLOW button). Another good one I found recently is TenureSheWrote which covers a lot of what we do here, and has better publicity. I have to figure out how to get this blog out to more people 🙂

Anyway, I had some comments about today’s article, and I would be interested to see what you say, too.

First, this whole thing just goes over the same old stuff in science. Was there anything new? Those of us who live this everyday don’t need to read this story, yet I was sent it many many times. Please stop sending it to me. Please find the most sexist jerk in your department and send it to them. Send it to your male chair, your dean, your colleague who thinks women have it easy because they get to organize more conferences when they are pre-tenure than post-tenure men. That was sarcastic.

Second, the story starts off with anecdotal story about a woman who left physics after being super awesome. (Women Rock!) She decides to go back to her undergraduate institution to see how things have gotten better. She assumes no women will show up for a women’s group, but the room is packed. They all sit around and share stories of sexism and negative attitudes towards women in science. The author and the chair of physics, also a woman, are stunned that things have not improved! What? Seriously? Did they really think everything was honky-dorey just because they have a female chair and a women’s conference each year? I was shocked that they would be shocked. Just a quick poll, comment to this post: Post if you have or have not experienced blatant discrimination about their desire to do science? (I have multiple times.)

Third, they reference the Big Bang Theory and discuss the women on the show. Yes, they are caricatures. Yes, they are funny. Yes, one woman is very stereotypically nerdy. Another one is cute, blonde, and wears dresses. Another character they seem to have forgotten is Leslie Winkle played by Sarah Gilbert. She was strong, smart, and could stand up to Sheldon or any of the other men of the show. I really loved her character. She kicked butt and totally rocked! Yet, they didn’t mention that she existed. They do say that women would rather be Penny, theactress, than the science women, but I don’t know if that is true. The blonde Bernadette is pulling in 6 figures out of her Ph.D. as an industrial scientist. I would want to be her or Leslie Winkle, myself. What do you think about BBT? Does it disuade women from going into science? Does it affect men at all? A little? Comment to this post.

On page 4 of 10 there was a discussion of the effects of Stereotype Threat without ever discussing the term “Stereotype Threat.” That is a disservice to people trying to find information about it. Also no mention of Imposture Syndrome. Interestingly, one of my best science women friends just mentioned today that even after getting tenure in HighPowerDepartment, she still suffers from this. She posted about it just today on Facebook.

There were some things I liked. I really liked this sentiment, buried on page 9 of 10:

The key to reform is persuading educators, researchers and administrators that broadening the pool of female scientists and making the culture more livable for them doesn’t lower standards. If society needs a certain number of scientists, Urry said, and you can look for those scientists only among the males of the population, you are going to have to go much farther toward the bottom of the barrel than if you also can search among the females in the population, especially the females who are at the top of their barrel.

Finally, the very end of the very last page 10/10 is the best. She talks to 4 current graduate students, and they have great advise for women young and old. You rock, women. (Plus, another good example that mentoring goes both ways.)

Four young women — one black, two white, one Asian by way of Australia — explained to me how they had made it so far when so many other women had given up.

“Oh, that’s easy,” one of them said. “We’re the women who don’t give a crap.”
Don’t give a crap about — ?

“What people expect us to do.”

“Or not do.”

“Or about men not taking you seriously because you dress like a girl. I figure if you’re not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that’s your problem.”

“Face it,” one of the women said, “grad school is a hazing for anyone, male or female. But if there are enough women in your class, you can help each other get through.”

“As my mother always taught me,” she said, “success is the best revenge.”

These were just a few of the thoughts I had as I read the very long article. I hope it wasn’t so long that people couldn’t get through it. That’s another issue. It has sparked some nice, interesting conversations, and I hope this blog is no different. Hope to read this and post comments. What do you have to say??

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