Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Sisterhood

Let me open with a disclaimer: I feel really silly calling young female students women, I don't care if it's not a politically correct term. They are beautiful, vibrant, young, and I will call them girls. When I was 18-22, as  my undergrads are now, I definitely felt I was a girl, not a woman; the term 'woman' was, I felt, suitable for wrinkly old ladies of the age that I am now... Ah, youth foregone. I certainly don't feel like a girl any more.

I am in a physical science field that is notorious for the low representation of women at all levels. In the required undergraduate class that I often teach, sophomore/junior level, out of 40-50 students usually no more than 1-2 are female, and often there are none. This semester, I have nearly 70 students of whom 10 are girls. It's amazing! The No 1 student in the class is female, kicking some serious butt, and 5 women are among top 20 students.

I have been really excited about all these girls in my class and I feel like I should somehow reach out to them and perhaps offer to somehow advise them professionally. But I am not sure what to do and how. I talked briefly with the  No 1 student and told her that, if she ever needed to talk about graduate school or other professional issues, I am happy to do it. She smiled kind of nervously, thanked me, and left. I thought to myself "So now I am creepy, great."

Do I send out an email to all the girls saying "You may have questions that pertain to your future careers, and I am happy to help," but shouldn't I then justify why I am singing them out? Because I am singling them out based on their gender, and the experience I have had says their gender will be a considerations in their professional future. They probably have no idea yet of all the ways their gender may be an issue, so I don't want to scare them. I basically want to let them know that I am a woman in this discipline, that there are few of us, and that if they have questions about the profession or the balance of the professional and personal, I am happy to help.

Also, I have noticed that I subconsciously differentiate among students based on their performance in my class. For instance, I would be very happy to mentor the No 1 student and the other high performers above and beyond my usual faculty duties, but I must admit I don't feel particularly enthusiastic about doing the same for mediocre or low performers (this is irrespective of gender). If I were to send some sort of an  extending-helping-hand/female solidarity email, should I send it to all female students, or just the top female students? Or do I perhaps have a duty to always offer the exact same type of advising and support to all students, male and female, high and low performers alike?

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being creepy at all. Even if the students don't take you up on your offer now, they'll remember the gesture.

I could see arguments being made for both mentoring all women (and only women): your time is limited and you are providing these students with a type of opportunity they wouldn't get otherwise, and also to only the top students (your time is limited and they might be most likely to benefit from the additional support).

I wouldn't even worry too much about trying to do the "perfect" thing - you are doing SOMETHING and it is well-intentioned and likely to be very helpful.

inBetween said...

Hmmm. This is kind of a tough one. I remember quite invincible when I was 20, like the problems women before me had werent likely to be mine too. So, they might not get it, and just think you are old fashioned and too sensitive. Maybe just being a woman standing at the front of the room is all the encouragement they need for right now -- thinking that all is fair and equal. That said, I have had on occassion, a handful of students who came back a couple of years later & said that soemthing I said (along the lines of what you did with student #1) really made a big impression. Althoughh, like you, I thought I might have just creeped them out at the time.

tough one, but as the commenter before me said, anything you do is a good thing.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

I have the same initial problem you have with low performers, though to be fair, there are probably other professors out there who want to work with/advise the high performers as well, so you may not be doing any marginal good there.

I was teaching a primarily sophomore class recently, and I think I was the first female lecturer (not TA) the students had seen in their undergraduate careers. This class was 20% female. In that situation, I found that just lacking an X chromosome, and making it clear that I really wanted an valued feedback from the class, was enough to get the women who wanted someone to talk to someone come talk to me.

I figure, I try to be as approachable as possible. If they don't want to talk, my approaching them is uncalled for. There is one exception to this rule... if I see a student who looks like he/she is under an unhealthy amount of stress/is depressed, I do try to reach out.

Bannu said...

Another thoughtful post. I feel when one is young the only thing that matters is to be treated in a gender-neutral way. Positive feedback on abilities and performance without any reference to gender, explicit or implicit, goes a long way. I agree with 'inBetween' in that your being a female science professor in itself is a source of inspiration and encouragement.

Whoosh... said...

I tend to agree with Bannu. Being treated in a gender neutral way and getting helpful feedback gives them the best impression about their abilities. And additionally having an approachable role model as a lecturer is worth a lot.
Offering special "help" to a certain group of students could even be understood the wrong way. I once offered advice to the female undergrads of a new course scheme in our field. They felt very much offended by this, because they thought that I think they can't manage their studies on their own. They had a very strong sense for their "special" position as the few girls among the usual crowd of guys and didn't like it, that I obviously thought that they are not "strong" enough to "fight" this on their own.
Maybe later on they would have seen my offer from a different point of view, but sometimes it's just bad timing!

Crystal Voodoo said...

I'm of mixed feelings on this issue. My particular subfield is skewed male (physics and chemistry heavy biology) but honestly I usually forget about that entirely unless someone mentions it. This is not to say that women have never been or aren't now being treated differently but I'd say that it is consistent with the rates of the general population rather than being an Old Boys Club. I personally haven't had issues within my subfield.

One the other hand I've had non-subfield female faculty (my grad program was an IDP) take it upon themselves to make me a better WOMAN scientist rather than just a better scientist. What she saw as helping only made me uncomfortable, self-conscious and hurt my presentation skills. I ended up presenting my quals with a five iron instead of a laser pointer so that I couldn't make any hand gestures while talking.

I guess I'll have to side with the being available when they want to talk rather than seeking them out. High performers have a tendency to find their way to your office if they have an applicable issue if you're approachable.

StatsProf said...

I think you have to say something to them. While I was in graduate school, I once met an undergrad woman who was a double major in psych and math; she was an RA in a psych lab. She seemed really smart and interested and so I asked her why she was pursuing psych over math. It turned out that there were more obvious opportunities for being an RA in psych and that people had reached out to her to invite her to apply for those positions. In math it wasn't so obvious how she could get involved and do research (I know this isn't true in your case). Anyway, over a couple of years I had coffee with her about once a semester and talked with her about choosing a career and about my own path and helped her figure out some opportunities to pursue math. I'm happy to say that she is now a grad student in applied math.

Anyway, the point of this is that even very very smart undergrad women may not have the skills to make the best career choices, particularly in careers that aren't as common. I also think that instead of offering mentorship, the best way to start these conversations is to simply tell the young woman that you think she has talent and are impressed by her and that you'd like to talk with her about her future career options. And from there, ask a lot of questions. My bet is that some careers -- perhaps even the career you have -- isn't so obvious to her.

DRo said...

I definitely would *not* say anything to any specific group. If you feel compelled to say something, I would just make a general announcement, perhaps on the last day of class or in a farewell email, that if anyone has any questions about a career in your field, or wants advice, that you are always happy to talk.

The best way to be a role model is to just be a good scientist and teacher, while at the same time being approachable. If the girls want to talk, they will come find you.

Alex said...

Her non-response might simply be surprise because most professors haven't put grad school on her radar, or haven't taken an interest. Sometimes it takes a while to get a response.

And don't push too hard on grad school. If she wants it, great, but if she wants to go and get a job in industry, make money, get an MS or MBA paid for by her employer, and make even more money, I'd have a hard time talking any student out of that. (Sometimes I think I should try my hand at that....) One student, when I asked her plans for after graduation, started apologizing for not going to grad school. I cut her off and said "Why are you apologizing for going out and getting a job and making real money? Sounds good to me!" And then we talked about her plans and I said that I'm always happy to write a good letter of recommendation.

Requin said...

After you have finished grading for the semester, you could send an email to the top X% of the students to tell them that they did very well in the class, and that if they ever want career advice that you would be happy to talk to them. You can choose X to be large enough that it includes the women you would like to contact, but otherwise it is a gender neutral selection mechanism. And, since you are sending it to a group (without allowing the recipients to see others' identities of course), nobody will think that you are pressuring them - students can take you up on the offer if they are interested.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry. They will get there. Most of my undergraduate professors were men. I enjoyed them as much as the female professors (including my adviser). I didn't think much in terms of gender because everyone treated me all the same.

It wasn't really until I went to graduate school for my MA that I became more conscious of gender. It was certainly a transitional period and I began talking to my female professors more- just as student-professor, not women. I just needed to get comfortable talking to them and begin to see them as potential role models.

When it came to choosing PhD program, erm, adviser, gender was a bigger factor. Though I liked the male professor very, very much, the female professor offered SO much more professionally. She is now my number one role model (and closet to my age than any of my other female professors so there's that wonderful dynamic). We have not quite yet discussed the challenges of being a woman but we will get there one day as we get more and more comfortable with each other.

Simply put, the attention to gender is unspoken at the beginning but the discussion will come when the time is right and both of you are very comfortable.

VJ-Writes said...

Most undergrads have NO idea what goes on the other side. They don't know what their professor does. One of my friend (who was doing well in a class) became interested in grad school when her professor for that class asked her if she would like an opportunity to do research in a lab. My friend went to the lab, was paired up with a graduate student and saw the professor a few times to discuss the project and so on.

Just being in a lab/grad school environment opened her eyes to new possibilities and careers.

Anonymous said...

Definitely don't send an email to only the top female students. Guaranteed that they will talk to each other and figure out how you picked who to email, the ones you didn't email will find it a huge blow and the ones you did will be mad at you in solidarity with their un-emailed sisters.

If you want to do something, maybe organize an evening session with pizza and talk about careers in your field (maybe get some guest-speaker friends in industry if you have any). This could give your (female) students an opportunity to envision themselves working in your field. Also, nominate the top female students (not just the top one) for every award you can find. Nothing encourages people like being award-winningly good at it.

I am also guessing that if you offer career advice to everyone, say at the end of the class, the girls will preferentially take you up on it.

Alex said...

I am also guessing that if you offer career advice to everyone, say at the end of the class, the girls will preferentially take you up on it.

Indeed, I'm male, and it seems like female students are disproportionately likely to take even me up on offers of career advice or invitations to networking events. Male physics majors lack survival skills. Almost every female undergraduate in my department is in a research group and/or active in extracurriculars (resume-building) and/or doing internships in their field. There are certainly male physics majors doing these things, but I'd say that the proportion is about half, whereas for females it's very close to 100%.

Anonymous said...

I am a woman who is very shy in new situations and easily intimidated, but I am comfortable with people that I know. I would be very unlikely to approach a professor for any reason, especially to ask them for support, as I would feel like I was being a burden. My undergrad genetics teacher (a BIG name in his field) attached a note to my exam requesting a meeting with me when I got the top score in the very large class. He did that with X number of top students, but even if it had been him singling me out for being a woman, I would have been thrilled that he cared.

He wanted to persuade me to start working in a lab (I already was) and offer me encouragement. It was so considerate of him and it meant a lot to me that he would take the time to do that. It was a big confidence booster for me. Had I not already been in a lab (taken aside by my biology 100 prof!), he could have been the reason that I started working in one. For introverted people, a general "talk to me if you have any questions or want advice" is often too scary, but a more personal invitation is much more encouraging.

I have been in my field for a while and can network quite well at conferences now. I have NEVER been bold enough to introduce myself to someone in that setting. My current ease is all from my advisor consciously making introductions and really nice senior people complimenting me on my work at posters and being inclusive. If I were your student I would be so grateful for you singling me out! It can really make a huge difference, especially for a shy person.

student said...

I am a female pursing graduate school in the sciences and I'd like to offer a couple of comments about this post.

I think you should offer advice and help to any student you think is worth investing the time in, whichever students you feel impressed by, boy or girl, top student or somewhere in the pack.

The professor that put me on track for graduate school noticed me when I went to all of her office hours. I had a horrible time adjusting to college courses. This lead me to take a semester off and transfer to a large research university nearby my home where I really turned myself around academically. For the the first class I took at this college I went to every office hour discussions. I wasn't the student trying to pick for extra points; I was just trying to understand the material. At the end of the course, I asked the professor if she did research or knew how I could get involved at this college. She told me that she was impressed by my passion to learn and recommended me to a colleague. A semester later I began research in this lab and I've been working in a lab ever since. I'm sharing this background, because I just wanted you to hear a voice from one of those mediocre or lower performing students who got their head in the game a little later. Not all the top students will enjoy research and not all of the bottom students will flounder at it. To me research is all about the passion in learning science and trying different experiments to prove that hypothesis. The dedication, drive, and curiosity can't be taught and sometimes grades just can't reflect.

Oh, and I just had an idea though you may have already thought of this. If you are eager to offer career advice to women, there may be a Women in Science club of some sort where you could offer to speak about careers in science academia.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be great if you reached out to these female students. You could avoid any awkwardness by mentioning just what you wrote here: that you're in a field notorious for the low representation of women, that typically only a couple students in the class are female, but this year there are 10 and you're thrilled! Even if these young things have never noticed gender ratios in science or their classes (impossible to imagine), or if they deliberately wish to ignore gender disparities (easier to imagine), it would take a hard heart not to acknowledge that this could be meaningful to you, a successful leader an (academic) generation ahead of them.

Others have written that singling students out by their gender can be damaging, and that a gender-neutral approach is the best. But this is not a gender-neutral field... there's a severe gender-biased skew in this field! Avoiding discussing that doesn't make sense. Why not bring it up in a positive context? Why not make a cheerful overture of support and enthusiasm? And then go on to engage their intellect and scholarship in ways that has nothing to do with gender... because there, it doesn't.

isisthescientist.com said...

I think it is really reasonable for you to say tell the top women students that you are impressed with how well they have done and to offer your mentorship if they have any questions about careers.

Anonymous said...

Let me add my voice to those advocating a gender-neutral approach. It's the least risky way to accomplish what you want to do. And I don't think you're really against mentoring men who are doing well in your course. Have you ever felt the tiniest bit ambivalent about accepting an award just for women? That's what you'll be potentially inflicting on those women if it ever gets out that you offered to help them and not their male classmates who did equally well. Most young women in college today just want a fair shot, not special treatment. Soon enough they'll have to face a harsher reality, but there's no reason to push them into it before their time.

Anonymous said...

What about emailing the class in general about interesting undergraduate research opportunities. Casually mention that participation in these opportunities can make all the difference in getting into a good graduate program. Then maybe some point over the next few weeks, mention to the excellent students that they should be thinking about applying for these things - because they have a lot of potential - they could be really good at this. Then, the advice is general and available for everyone, but if you feel that the excellent female students need to be reminded how very talented they are, then you can do it in a casual, non creepy way! ;)

And from my experience lots of girls lack this self esteem. I know I did. I knew I was holding my own, or doing well enough at my subject. I didn't know that my teachers/professors considered me to be exceptional until they said so.

Anonymous said...

As a (female) undergraduate, I did well in a graduate-level course and at the end of the semester the professor offered (unsolicited) to write me a recommendation. This meant a lot to me at the time and I think it is a nice way to reach out to top-performing students in a helpful, non-creepy way. Particularly as freshmen or sophomores, when many of the science classes may be quite large, it can be difficult for undergrads to find enough letter writers for applying to REU programs or internships. Even if the student doesn't end up working in your group, a good rec. letter can really help them get their start in research. (Of course, this assumes that you'd be willing to write a letter for the student!)

However, I agree with the commenter above that academic success is not necessarily a good predictor of research abilities. I imagine that this is field-dependent.

GMP said...

... I agree with the commenter above that academic success is not necessarily a good predictor of research abilities.

Agreed. But if the student doesn't do particularly well in class and never talks to me outside of class, then all I have to go by is class performance.

potnia theron said...

Is there a WISE (women in sci & engineering) program at your Uni? You/ they could easily set up a lunchtime meeting, open to any women/girls in the dept to talk about available resources. Show them your interest, rather than just saying so.

Alex said...

However, I agree with the commenter above that academic success is not necessarily a good predictor of research abilities. I imagine that this is field-dependent.

Actually, I imagine that it is field-independent. I talk to people in a lot of fields and they all say similar things.

There's probably some lower threshold of classroom performance, below which the person is unlikely to be useful in research. (I won't say "Guaranteed not", just "unlikely.") But above that threshold, grades are not good predictors. Problem is, I don't know what the threshold is. It depends in part on the grading standards. I've seen people who got a B in a certain practice-oriented and project-oriented class, but they got it from a rather infamously bad teacher, and these people couldn't do anything that involved the topics "taught" in that class.

And, FYI, I had excellent grades and I took a long time before I really hit my stride in research.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents:

When the semester ends, I often email the top few students in a class, regardless of gender, to tell them how well they did. I also email students who did cool projects or impressive things to tell them that. I think this may mean more to many of the women than the men: it's an equal-opportunity gesture that's cheap and may have unequal impact.

I get a lot of info about summer research opportunities, scholarships, and summer "camps" in my field, and I forward that information on somewhat unevenly to undergraduates. Some opportunities I announce in class, and others I target specifically via email. These don't just go to the "best" students. Some students aren't the best because it hasn't occurred to them yet that they could be. Every now and then I email a mediocre student with a spark about some summer research program, and *&^*&!! stuff happens! and it seems to unlock some door in them or break some dam, and they start doing cool things. They often seem very touched that a prof noticed and encouraged them. Works great with guys and gals although best with students from backgrounds that seem to give them the idea that a prof would not notice them... (as opposed to those from backgrounds that trained them to think all profs notice & love them).

Anonymous said...

Young female researcher here, in industry but applying to grad. school:

I personally wouldn't find it creepy if a female professor came up to me and said; "Hey, you're doing really well, if you want to talk about professional life I'm here." I'd find it encouraging. But I suppose a less direct approach would be: "Have you ever thought about getting involved in research? Based on your class performance, I think you'd do well at it." Then it's just a suggestion instead of a "hey, let's talk!" thing.

Just a suggestion, but overall I think it's great that you're mentoring girls!