Hermitage is hosting a second incarnation of her mini-carnival on Academic Women Sans Babies. This time around she assembled an even larger and more impressive panel to answer readers' questions, so please head over to Hermitage's place and submit questions for panelists! Take advantage of this virtual discussion circle with women ranging from postdocs to senior faculty -- any and all questions related to careers in science and engineering are welcome, except those addressing babies/motherhood. Hermitage will chose four, and each panelist will answer these four in a post about a month after Q&A closes.
Here's the link to the Q&A hub of last time, here's the list of all previous readers' questions, and below is a repost of my response to the four questions chosen for the last panel (also here's the original post, there were some good comments there).
1. How do you command the attention, and respect, of men in academic settings (e.g. classroom, conferences, faculty meetings)?
I am going to assume here that the question means "I am technically very competent but do not feel I command adequate respect. How do I remedy that?" You have to take cues from the guys. Even as young students, when guys think they know the answer to a question they just blurt it out (I sometimes wish they wouldn't). This extends into their professional years. You have to get over the fear of being wrong and simply speak up. The fear does eventually go away. A good exercise is to give yourself the following task: you have to come up with one nontrivial question for each talk you hear at a conference. And then go ahead and ask it. Pretty soon you will be one of the most feared and revered members of any audience!
I am in one of the fields with the most dramatic underrepresentation of women, so the rules of the game are entirely masculine. One of the important differences between men and women (on average, of course) is that women often feel they need external validation, someone to pat them on the back and say "good job" when they are feeling down. I used to be quite unhappy because these were not forthcoming as often as my ego needed them, so I thought I was no good. That was not true -- while everyone likes praise, I have found that external affirmation is much less important for an average guy's sense of self-worth than a woman's so men simply don't volutneer praise easily. So recalibrate: I have learned not to expect pats on the back and to simply rely on what I think is best. And pats on the back do come, but infrequently and indirectly and quite unexpectedly. Sort of like hugs between manly men.
Moreover, use all the nonverbal tricks in the book to communicate that you have gravitas. Wear heels if you need to feel taller, wear clothes that make you feel strong and confident (anything in black makes me feel awesome), stand up tall and speak loudly, make eye contact. If you happen to be tall and/or have a strong voice, be grateful and use these qualities!
2. How should women dealing with a two-body problem handle assumptions that their career is secondary to their partner’s?
If stupid questions like these are asked in an inconsequential context (e.g. a random person chatting you up at a party) try to be matter-of-fact and set them straight ("Actually, my significant other is flexible in career choice and will follow me to my chosen position"). The person will usually be embarrassed enough even if you don't go on to tear them a new one for assuming that your gender automatically makes you inferior in ambition or employability.
But, if it's the issue of hunting for jobs, make sure everyone who is important (e.g. all your letter writers and close senior colleagues) know exactly how serious your career plans are. There must be no ambiguity there.
3. What would you like to see from tenure-track and not-yet-tenure-track menfolk? How can they pitch in?
When we complain of sexist treatment, shut up and listen with an open mind. Don't be on the defensive -- most of us actually don't hate men, quite the contrary. We are just exhausted.
Try to view us as you would your male colleagues and competitors. Try to be honest to yourself about how often, unwillingly, you may think "She got this because she is a woman" out of pure jealousy. If you catch yourself thinking that a woman is not deserving, ask yourself if you would think the same of a guy with the same record. I am a woman and I have caught myself valuing a paper less when I found out that the main author was a woman -- it was quite a sobering experience. So try to be honest about your biases and work to counteract them.
Speak up for your female lab mates and colleagues. Try to learn what career building is like for us, but really keep an open mind, and you will see a path akin to death by a thousand paper cuts. Listen and be empathetic. And then help us fight by putting in good words for us wherever you can. Workplaces that are friendly to women are friendly to all people who strive to have a balance between professional and personal lives.
4. How do you deal with insinuations that you were only chosen for a position/award/etc because of affirmative action?
As in 2: stupid and/or malicious questions are best deflected with matter-of-fact calmness. "My record is very strong, so I have no doubt I would be selected even if I was a guy." I think everyone deserves the benefit of a good deflection and a chance to blush and change topic; if they don't take it, i.e. if the person keeps at it, by all means bite their head off. Call them out for being a jealous insecure schmuck.
Then there are situations in which your gender may have really played a positive role. My recommendation is to say "Thanks!" and really be grateful for the break. The fact is, these breaks are so few and far between that you should not be ashamed or guilty that one happened to fall in your lap. Among a group of equally meritorious, people will take any advantage to get ahead -- pedigree, network, charm. If for once your gender gets you ahead, great!