Monday, July 11, 2011

Hermitage's Women sans Babies Carnival Is Back with a Vengeance

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!


Anonymous said...

I think my undoing might be the persistent need for pats on the back. In a tough funding and job environment, I feel like the default is "You don't belong here." I'm vaguely jealous and incredulous at the people who seem immune! More advice/writing on this topic would be great.

A said...

mmm, #2 not much help if your potential letter-writers also believe that you see your career as less important despite numerous statements to contrary...
and your partner is the current golden-boy in the department...

Hermitage said...

Much appreciation for the link bait!

Cloud said...

@Anonymous, I hope you don't mind some advice from someone not in academia on this, but this is really an area where I've found the old "fake it until you can make it" advice to be spot on. Early on, I just faked self-confidence at work. Now I truly have it. Self-confidence comes with experience, and sometimes you have to fake the confidence so that you can get the experience.

Remember- you're smart. You're resourceful. You'll figure things out. You belong there.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Jinx! (Our post today is the same!)

Anonymous said...

@Cloud. Thank you. That helps.

Cloud said...

@Anonymous, you're welcome. I have one more idea for you: it really helps to look at objective evidence. In my life, that is performance reviews, raises, and the like. In academia, I guess it is publications, student evaluations, etc.

In industry, one good piece of advice is to keep a "brag folder", where you put things that remind you of your accomplishments. The idea is that you pull that out when you have to do your yearly self-evaluation- because no one really remembers what they were doing 11 months ago, and if you've forgotten, chances are your boss has, too. I also find that folder to be an excellent pick me up on the inevitable sucky days.

GMP said...

@Anon: I second Cloud on the brag folder! I started keeping a "tenure folder" in which I put all pertinent material during the tenure track, and I just kept on keeping it past tenure -- I throw in all the invitations to give talks, especially glowing student evals, flattering paper reviews, notices of grants accepted. Good for writing annual reports [we submit them every year and merit raises (in theory at least, when there are no salary freezes) are based on them] plus good for morale!

@A: Not sure what to say when you are in direct competition with your significant other (same field). Is he really objectively better than you (being a golden boy as you say), or are you comparable, or are you better than him? If you are both strong, someone will have to be the trailing spouse when you look for jobs, and it may not be the same person at every place. I'd say you should both try to suck up the pride and allow yourselves to be trailing as long as that eventually lands you two good positions... Now as for faculty discriminating against you because you are female and thinking you are not ambitious -- I urge you to find letter writers from somewhere who will be your strong champions. They may be external collaborators or people who simply cite and admire your work, but someone who will want to propel you and you alone. And let me be a bit of a devil's advocate -- try to evaluate honestly who's better between you and sig other; more importantly, try to evaluate whether your relationship will suffer because of professional jealousy from either side. If you are really ambitious and sig other is direct competition, I know a number of people (I am one of them) who would not be able to stay in such a relationship long term... Eventually someone will get ahead -- based on merit, luck, better network, lots of things -- first a little and then more and more. Resentment can be really toxic if the person not getting ahead feels that they are being treated unfairly or forced to sacrifice what they didn't originally envision or downright sabotaged by the other. Sometimes being too close professionally is indeed too close for comfort...

Anonymous said...

@GMP and @Cloud: Original Anon here. But my sample size for the brag folder is so small--maybe I should take the hint? For example, I never get complimented on my work from day to day or week to week. When I was a PhD student, I received one sentence (or a checked box) from my committee every year. Regular performance reviews would be awesome. I'm now a postdoc but also technically an employee of the institution where I work. When I was receiving emails (as part of mass emailings to employees) about annual performance reviews, I asked my PI if I should prepare for one. He said no, and that was that. I'm realizing that he deeply dislikes confrontation and formal mentoring. I've been working for over a year on a single project, and am just writing up the manuscript now--so my "brag folder" from the past 1.5 years is just (a) training grant accepted, (b) one project in the process of being written up, (c) three smallish conference presentations, and (d) second authorship in a good journal. That's a lot of hard, pretty solitary work without much external reward. My enjoyment of the work aside, it sometimes feels a little strange to keep going in the absence of anyone else "caring." Is it like this for anyone else?