Thursday, September 2, 2010

Survival Tips for Young Women in STEM

* Repost of this article from Inside Higher Ed, with slight modifications. *

From an Inside Higher Ed reader: I am an English professor at a Research I university. One of my courses is a Writing Workshop for Thesis and Dissertation Writers Across the Curriculum. Most of my student come from the STEM fields, and a majority are women. From teaching this course over the years, I have learned of the difficulties faced by many women grad students in STEM disciplines, especially in the lab sciences. Practices of favoritism, exclusion of women from team experiences (field research trips, for example), poor/difficult communication, lack of acknowledgment of women’s contributions, and on and on create a hostile environment for many female grad students. I try to give them strategies for dealing, and I talk in the university about the problem every chance I get, but of course I don’t get much credence because I am not a scientist.

If you could blog about survival strategies for women graduate students in the STEM fields, especially in lab cultures, it would be very helpful. In the early days of the writing workshop course, I would suggest the women find a female faculty member to mentor them. To a person, they say, “Our female professors are so overworked. They only have time for their own work and their own students. We can hardly talk to them.


Being a young woman in a field dominated by men is, at the very least, challenging. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are such fields. There are few female role models. There are few female peers, so women feel isolated. Similar to other underrepresented minorities, women face enhanced professional expectations (a woman must do twice as much to get half the recognition) in order to successfully combat the perception of intellectual inferiority. There are many stereotypes about a woman’s priorities or career plans (“Of course you want babies and a family,” even though you say you don’t, or “Since you have children, you are certainly not working as hard as you should,” or “You will certainly follow your husband for his job”). There is a large body of literature about the challenges of women in science and engineering: a quick Google search will reveal a number of articles, blogs, and forums that the reader is encouraged to explore. I will not argue whether or not women face obstacles in STEM careers. They do.

Instead, I am going to try and give some practical tips on how to navigate what I feel is a typical STEM graduate experience for a woman, largely based on my own experiences. As a graduate student in a physical sciences discipline notorious for its low representation of women, I was often the only woman in my graduate classes. Even when I wasn’t alone, women never exceeded 10-15% of the class, and this percentage remains true for most graduate programs in my discipline. What I write here is by all means not exhaustive; it resembles what I would say to a female student who would come to my office for advice. I consider my experiences to be fairly typical but by all means not universal. Luckily, I believe that a typical experience no longer entails sexual harassment (although there are still terribly unfortunate exceptions), but rather a palette of phenomena that stem from the peers’ or PhD advisor’s often unconscious biases. Over time, small obstacles to a young woman’s professional development can accumulate into a marked disadvantage in the job market, not to mention a permanent scar to a woman’s perception of her own worth as a scientist and a person.

Support from female faculty. Young women in STEM are often referred to the few women faculty in their departments for guidance. However, they may find that women faculty have little time to spare and may appear unwilling to engage in a mentoring relationship. It is important not to take rejection personally. For instance, many female professors on the tenure track have small children and a developing research program -- both requiring tremendous energy and time. Also, just because a woman is a professor, that does not mean that she is no longer facing biases in her own career – she too is often isolated from other women, faces enhanced expectations and preconceived notions from peers, and has to work extremely hard to gain adequate recognition. Therefore, if a junior female faculty is not responsive to your inquiries, don’t take it personally, as she is herself likely facing tremendous personal and career challenges.

I find that tenured female faculty are more responsive to inquires by female students for informal or formal mentorship on how academia works. Tenured female professors are more established in their careers and likely have older children, so they are often more willing and able to invest time into helping other women up the academic ladder. But, even so, some tenured women don’t see it as a big priority or may be too busy, so if you are having a hard time finding a female mentor in your department, try not to take it personally and explore other opportunities to find female mentors (below).

Connect with other women in STEM. It may seem impossible to make friends with other female graduate students when there are virtually none around. However, most professional organizations in STEM disciplines have a designated section to help broaden the participation of women and their career advancement.

Two large interdisciplinary organizations, the Association for Women in Science and the Society of Women Engineers, offer excellent opportunities for mentorship and networking. You may also be interested in the National Academy of Engineering's Engineering Girl, which reaches out to women as well as girls.

Some disciplinary links to get you started include:

Association for Women Geoscientists
Earth Science Women's Network
Women in Agronomy, Crops, Soils, and Environmental Sciences
ACS Women Chemists Committee
Women in Biology
Women in Biomedical Careers
Association for Women in Mathematics
ACM's Women in Computing
Women in Physics
AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy
Women in Aerospace
IEEE Women in Engineering

(Additional links are welcome, especially to non-US organizations.)

Consider joining a local chapter of one or more of these organizations and volunteering. Chances are you will meet many young women such as yourself and also some senior, more established ones, who are truly interested in mentoring younger women.

Fight "impostor syndrome". Often, young women in academia feel they don’t belong in their graduate programs. This is a manifestation of the well-known "impostor syndrome," exacerbated in women in STEM because there are so few other women around and so few senior women. The woman can wonder if she really belongs in the lab; these insecurities are often only deepened by the vibes the woman receives from those around her – their biases against, or simple discomfort due to the presence of a woman. The best way to fight the impostor syndrome is to tell youself that everyone – everyone! – feels it, even BigWig famous professors. You are not the only one feeling like a fraud, as you will find out once you establish trust and start talking more openly with the people around you.

So don’t worry if you belong. If you are successful in your coursework, if you enjoy your research (for the most part – science has plenty of frustrating moments!) and
feel that you are good at it, you most certainly belong in science.

Let stupid remarks slide. Often, people say insensitive things not because they mean to belittle, but because they are themselves , indeed, insensitive, ignorant, or socially awkward. It helps if you can learn to let the small stuff, especially blunders, slide off your back. I don’t mean keeping quiet when things are clearly meant to hurt or offend – by all means speak up. But stupid remarks are sometimes just that: stupid. Learning to distinguish between these two types of remarks can save you plenty of annoyance. For instance, if you have a lab mate who is friendly and supportive of you but occasionally says something that stereotypes you or other women, this person is likely talking from his own biases of which he may not even be aware. Call him on his remarks and explain why they bother you or would bother another woman, but don’t give up on your lab mate entirely. Men, especially very young ones, are often unaware of their biases or how some things they say affect women; at the same time, most really don’t want to be or to appear sexist and will likely take your comments to heart. Chances are that your male lab peers will become some of your most fervent supporters throughout your career.

Actions speak louder than words. It is generally a good idea to view a person’s actions together with what comes out of their mouth. For instance, a senior male member of my PhD committee was very supportive of me in all aspects of my professional career. He also happened to have a bit of a potty mouth and enjoyed somewhat inappropriate jokes of all sorts. It took me a while to realize he simply likes to shock people (women and men) and that in reality he was a supportive and caring mentor.

In contrast, there are many people who have mastered the art of political correctness and are very careful about avoiding verbal blunders. However, they still act according to their sexist or otherwise biased convictions (such as look down on female students, oppose the hiring of female faculty or accommodation of family leave policies). These people are who you should be on the lookout for. Just because a prospective PhD advisor is a smooth talker, that does not mean that he or she will be supportive or caring of you (or any other student). Before committing to anyone’s lab, make sure you talk to other students about how they feel, how the professor treats women and people who are underrepresented minorities, and where the professor’s former students are currently employed.

Find support wherever you can. A number of successful women scientists and engineers had supportive male mentors and colleagues. The numbers of men and women in many STEM fields are such that you are exceedingly likely to be advised by a man through much, if not all, of your career. There are many wonderful male professors who are very supportive of women. There are also many wonderful young men, currently your peer graduate students, who will become future professors and will benefit from having smart female peers in graduate school, and from being nudged – gently or a little less so – to grasp what a female scientist’s experience is really like.

Try not to depend on women alone for companionship or support. If we are to make the STEM labs more equitable, both men and women have to realize it isn’t so yet, and both have to work towards removal of bias (to women as well as other underrepresented minorities).

Seek help. In the horribly unfortunate case that you are a young woman facing sexual harassment, please seek external help immediately. If you are feeling very uncomfortable at your place of work or study because of interactions with your peers or your advisor, if anyone is making unwelcome remarks or overtures which you cannot stop, or if someone is making your professional advancement contingent on romantic or sexual involvement, know that these are gross violations of your rights and you ought to talk to someone outside of the lab about the best course of action (such as removing yourself from the situation and penalizing the perpetrator). Many universities have an employment assistance office where you can see a counselor; alternatively you can contact your department administration or the college or university human resources, who will point you to the channels for filing complaints and getting counseling. Getting help and feeling safe again are much more important than any immediate career concerns you may have.

Be a mentor yourself. As you advance through your graduate program (hopefully never knowing harassment) you will become more confident in your command of "how things work in graduate school" and in your technical specialty. But don’t forget the feelings of isolation and doubt, and reach out to new students – of both genders and any ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation – to help them feel welcome and appreciated in the lab. Also, as you progress through your career, many of the issues may resurface, as you have to prove yourself all over again to new colleagues. Staying connected to your professional association, nurturing a network of supportive peers and professional elders, and helping develop a new cohort of enthusiastic scientists are the best ways to ensure long term satisfaction with your career.

20 comments:

engineering girl said...

Some female faculty are understandably very busy with obligations, and therefore do not have time to effectively mentor. However, I'm curious - in your experience, how much of women "pulling up the ladder" have you seen? It's one thing to not have time to mentor, but another to purposely make the lives of younger women harder. A couple of my friends and I have experienced this. FSP has a good post about this, although its kinda old:

http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2008/03/pulling-up-ladder.html

That being said, I've also had some amazing female mentors. In the past, I gave into social pressures and sadly compliments on my figure or looks meant more to me than compliments on my intelligence. But that was before I met some amazing women during my graduate studies. The encouragement I received from one very successful woman faculty carried me through the most trying parts of graduate school. Sometimes, just knowing that someone believes in you means a lot.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for an insightful post - I'm currently finishing my PhD and thankfully I've had amazingly supportive supervisors and mentors throughout both my undergraduate and graduate studies - all of which have been men!

I've been the only woman in my project collaboration for 3 years and most of the time, I don't even notice that I'm the only woman in the room. Sure, I could do with a girly chat about shoes occasionally - but apart from that, supportive working environments for women in STEM really do exist.

I'm moving on to a post-doc in a month, again with a group made up entirely of men. I've known them all during my PhD and get on really well with them - they are really happy to have a woman join the group to even out the gender balance a bit!

My tip to any female grad students in STEM: just be yourself. Your intelligence will show through regardless, and sometimes you have no idea how much your colleagues (male and female) respect you.

Anonymous said...

I like your point about "Actions speak louder than words." Some of the worst offenders are those who have mastered the art of political correctness.

Also like that you mentioned find support wherever you can including male mentors with potty mouths. Probably one of the times I felt most like an outsider was when I attended a meeting hosted by one of the groups in the list above. Not only did one woman say she didn't want me to accompany the group for dinner, but the next day another woman said I might be getting ahead in my entirely male dominated specialty because of my appearance and if there were more women in the field they'd be more objective and me less successful.

GMP said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Engineering girl, about pulling up the ladder: I don't think I have been actively sabotaged by a woman in my career, but there were definitely situations where a senior woman would come across as terrotorial or simply dismissive. But so did a number of men. Unfortunately, a lot of people of both genders feel they need to be nice only to get ahead, and therefore only have to be nice to those higher up in the hierarchy; I think there is a special place in hell for those who ignore grad students, postodcs, or junior faculty because the younglings are not worth their time. I am so glad you found a supportive mentor -- they are priceless!

Anon at 6:51 PM, I am happy you are geting such a nice postdoc position. I am also quite comfortable working with men. For me, perhaps the best thing about working with men is that communication is direct and with very little subtext; I find that aspect quite relaxing. I love your recommendation to just be yourself and the respect would follow.

Anon @ 10:52 AM: I think interactions between women are often intense; therefore, they have the potential to be amazingly supportive but can also be extremely unpleasant. Women can, unfortunately, be very judgemental of each other, as Alyssa's post and related comments nicely explore. Also, you may find interesting this link in a comment left by lawrenceofacademia to an earlier post, how attractive people are viewed as a threat by members of the same sex. I have a female colleague who's smokin' hot and this has not helped her career. She's universally perceived as less qualifed than she is. I am so sorry about your experience with the professional association; the only advice I have is to ditch that unsupportive crowd and turn elsewhere. Life's too short to waste on judgemental and insecure people of any gender. For what it's worth, a couple of professional associations did not work for me, largely for feelings of isolation (hard to break in).
Finding a supportive group (or a mentor) is not unlike looking for a romantic relationship --- not all relationships have to work, as long as you end up finding the one that's really a keeper.

Anonymous said...

My favorite bit of advice was the part about dealing with Impostor Syndrome. I suffered from this at each jump in career stage, from ug to grad, from grad to postdoc, and from postdoc to TT prof. Recently, I've finally been able to stop worrying about this and just be myself and be confident that I deserve to be successful and to have this job. BTW, I am loving your new, slightly more informal blog format.

GMP said...

Thanks, Anon at 1:31 AM. I am glad you are enjoying the blog.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Great post, and I'm glad you are a contributor on inside highered. I've really enjoyed some of the columns over there, and I especially like their "Around the Web" feature at the very bottom of their page.

I totally agree with your last point. I've had some exceptional mentors over the years, at each stage of my education. I only wish more senior faculty (and even junior faculty) would take the time to mentor us newbies....at least at my institution.

Also, I have no idea why some of my posts keep showing up as "links to this post." Maybe because of my blog roll? Blogger quirk?

FrauTech said...

Hm...as for the "bringing up the ladder" I think some of that's true and some of it isn't. I think to begin with, many women have been taught only one token woman is allowed in their job or at their rank. So many are hesitant to help more women at their risk of their own job. Secondly, just because you're a junior woman doesn't mean it's a more senior woman's -responsibility- to help you out. Just as you wouldn't expect just any senior guy to give you a helping hand, don't expect that of any woman.

Also to those of you, like anonymous, that are in a place where you get along with your male colleagues and have felt no discrimination, I'm very happy for you. But I hope you understand it's not like that for everyone. That in many places being viewed for your skills or competence alone just doesn't happen. I think FemaleComputerScientist covered an article in the Harvard Business Review that talked about why women still don't get promoted as often. It's not enough to have mentor, you need a -sponsor-. Someone who will not only give you advice, but has enough clout that they can single you out for responsibilities or give you access to promotions or speak off on your behalf.

GMP said...

UR, I am glad you enjoyed the post. About the links -- I am sure it's a Blogger quirk.

FrauTech, I think you bring up very important points (FSP addresses them in the post that engineering girl linked to): should young women expect more help in their career advancement from women than from men? Does anyone (of either gender) really HAVE TO help anyone junior advance? In academia, when the relationship is educator/student, I would say yes, part of the job is helping younger people succeed in their careers. But in most of the rest of the world, I would say no, it's typically not the responsibility of a senior person to help a junior one advance. However, some senior people choose to mentor and/or sponsor certain younger people anyway, I suppose for reasons ranging from a sense of personal fulfillment to advancing own agenda; I suppose it comes down to the type of job and the personalities involved. And I tend to agree, from my own experiences, that women are less likely to be on the receiving end of benevolent sponsorship. Here's the link to FCS's excellent post that dicusses the overmentoring/undersponsoring of women.

engineering girl said...

Now that I think about, women treating other women badly is not something limited to science, but a general social phenomenon. I mean just imagine high school, girls get jealous of other girls if they're smarter, prettier, more popular, etc...and would probably try to sabotage other girls more than guys would, because of the inherent competition. I'm sure in an industry like modeling/fashion women try to sabotage other women all the time - but it's not called "pulling up the ladder" because modeling is an industry dominated by women. In my limited experience, I have found that the women most willing to mentor are the most confident - they feel secure enough in themselves that they are not afraid to help other women succeed.

prodigal academic said...

Very helpful tips, GMP. Especially the one about letting comments slide at times (with a gentle correction) and paying attention to actions, not words.

On "pulling up the ladder"--in my experience, most underrepresented minorities are accused of this because they are so rare. When the only woman is a jerk, she is "pulling up the ladder" while, when one of her male colleagues is a jerk, he is just a jerk. To me, the most unfair pressure on being a woman in a male-dominated field is to always represent my gender at all times. I can never be Prodigal, sometimes failable. It is always "see women are jerks because Prodigal did xyz."

That's why I love this comic--it sums it all up well.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

That comic is so spot on, prodigal ac!

Anonymous said...

Earth Science Women's Network (http://www.sage.wisc.edu/eswn)is another useful link.

Anonymous said...

As a 5th year grad student, I'm starting to realize that the "younger students" are looking at me as a mentor - to be honest, it sort of freaked me out. A bit of Imposter Syndrome on my part I suppose, as what do I know?!? :) Honestly though, I do know quite a bit and have done well in grad school, so I guess I do have something to offer other students, as you suggest.

But, I have to agree, there aren't many women on the research side (we're split into research and professional program faculty) here who are in a position to mentor and most are super busy, so sometimes it falls to the rest of us I guess.

It's nice to know it's not just here, or just me, but that I'm doing something that makes a difference. It's pretty cool and something I never thought I'd be doing as a grad student!

Thanks GMP, great post!
~Pharm Sci Grad Student

GMP said...

Prodigal, that comic is a true classic!
Anon at 2:45, thanks for the link, I will add it to the list.
Anon at 7:51, it's wonderful you are a mentor -- it can be very rewarding.

Anonymous said...

My field has mostly men. I feel like the biggest adaptation I've had to make over the years is to learn to communicate in their style. It's still difficult sometimes. Your comment about not taking things personally is a small part of the challenge. The communication difference I'm talking about doesn't have to do with, for example, whether there's a lot of gossip (which I hate) or inane chit-chat (which, no surprise, I also hate). I actually despise all the bonding I have to hear about sports. What I miss is a normal level of eye contact and mutually supportive comments that address both the science being done and the larger professional and personal career issues at stake. Perhaps my desire for the latter relates a little to the impostor syndrome--I like being able to talk frankly about concerns and successes as they arise, not in a confessional way but not suppressing things either. I feel like the men around me take their success for granted and/or suppress their insecurities. It feels oddly impersonal and mildly dysfunctional to me.

Anonymous said...

I found the info on mentorship versus sponsorship really useful. I'm just finishing my PhD now and having been trying to find a good description for the mentoring problems I've had. This describes it perfectly, my supervisor gave me lots of advice but rarely put me forward for anything. Indeed he always seemed surprised if I got things like invitations to speak, although these are normal at my level. Fortunately I did get a good postdoc so I hope I'll be able to get more effective sponsorship from my postdoc supervisor.

GMP said...

Anon at 11:29 AM, I totally get what you are saying. I am entirely surrounded by men and have given up on trying to bond. The thing is that with men (I think this is independent of culture) admitting self-doubts or fears or just admitting that they don't know something is very un-manly, so they just don't do it. I think they are actually more likely to admit self-doubts to a woman, once they establish trust, than to another guy. But it takes a lot to establish trust, and most of the time it just doesn't happen. So I don't hold my breath. If I need to commiserate, it's family or female friends. Or a blog. :)
The bad thing is that, if you as a woman complain or show doubt or frustration, they will consider it a weakness, as that's what those mean in the men's world. So I really no longer expect honest heart-to-heart bonding with a vast majority of my male collaborators. Here and there I have a close friend/colleague, and we do talk more openly about work and life. But these relationships are few and far between and take a long tome to forge... I don't think men spend as much time as women directed "inward" anyway; they really think less of their own troubles and feelings; they are more directed "outward" [hence the incessant talks of sports and politics and I suppose anger/aggression as a means of venting frustration (women get depressed instead)]. But these are just my random observations of my many male colleagues...

My group (students & postdoc) are actually all guys now (save for one woman, shared between me and another faculty). I actually have to tell the guys explicitly that there is no prize for being stuck for weeks and trying to get things done at all cost on their own, that they must ask for help after they have given it their best shot, and that the imperative is to move forward in a timely manner.

Anon at 10:02 PM, I have had that issue with my PhD supervisor. While he was very supportive when I was a student, when I got on TT I wish he would have thrown an invited talk my way here and there; nothing. On the other hand, he was actively sponsoring another former student, a guy, who I believe was far worse than me (all metrics imaginable). So I actually faced my former advisor and asked (paraphrasing of course) WTF, how come you are throwing all these talks the BrownNosingGuy's way but have not recommended me for a single one? My advisor was actually quite surprised and within a few days I got an invitation to speak at a conference (which I ended up having to decline). I definitely no longer need any favors of this kind from my former advisor, I am established on my own, my work speaks for itself and I have no problems getting invitations any more... But, at every stage of one's career a person needs senior sponsors. Some people say "Well maybe he didn't think you needed help." Maybe. But maybe it's just the issue of poor sponsorship of women. Or just poor/lackluster sponsorship of me in particular. I wish you the best in your new postdoc!

Anonymous said...

Anon at 11:29 again. I'm glad you relate. I think what irks me the most is the feeling that some people (and they're almost always male, though I won't claim most men do this) consistently oversell their work. Within my subfield, this isn't a big deal, since we all can assess its quality ourselves. What's troublesome is that I work on science that has potentially big and immediate implications for public policy, and there's often a scramble by academic researchers to get data amassed by governmental organizations. There's a lot of elbowing and overselling here, and those not doing the analyses can't discern that Mr. Hotshot's methods aren't really the cure-all implied in his talks. And his talks downplay the contributions of others' research, not to mention the limitations in his own research. The problem is that others then tend not to have access to the data, so it's harder and harder to compete with him (though we see ways to improve his methods and other hypotheses to test). It's an awful monopoly whose impact is that science overall slows down, because other people's ideas can't get tested or heard. I still cannot bring myself to do what he does. But more generally, I feel like I'm always aware of problems {X1,...,Xn} with my current analysis (as well as genuine results {Y1,...,Yn}), and I always feel obligated to mention them with my results. Not being upfront with the limitations of one's research seems totally unscientific and potentially immoral to me. I realize this might make me sound a little incompetent sometimes. It's a fine line.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:29 again. Small follow-up: I'm not talking about one Mr. Hotshot but several. It's an unfortunate pattern. I worry that it extends to grant reviews too--I'm not sure (never having sat on a grant review committee) how many reviewers are quite close to his work or realize how much it derives from exclusive access rather than unique abilities. Of course, after a while, these repeated opportunities probably do amount to a valuable, unique perspective and enhanced skill. It's just a shame to see that a little bit of baseless confidence and overselling can be so rewarding to one's career.