When you are a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, weird things happen to you. People say weird shit or give you weird looks or write weird letters of recommendation for you. And this is just the good guys, the male colleagues who are at the core respectful and supportive of you.
A few years ago, there was some paperwork to be submitted by a deadline as part of a large collaboration. I was stressing out about it, and a very senior collaborator (older than my father) was mocking me for wanting to make the deadline “like a good little girl.”
And you know what? He was right. As a woman in science, who’s always done well in school, I have always been a good little girl who played by the rules. I see the same thing with the students in my undergraduate courses. Young women are very rare, but the average performance quality of the women is much higher than the average of the male students. And the good female students follow the class rules, while many of the good male students do not. The good female students come to lectures, come to discussion, and start their homework on time; when I emphasize something in class as important to remember, they remember it and are able to do it on the exam. With good male students, there are those who are “good little boys,” but there are a number of those who really have atrocious study habits, who skip classes, then cram and bother me mercilessly right before the exam to try to make up for what they missed; there is nothing of the kind among the strong female performers.
Even in my research group, the young women are uniformly the cream of the crop. They write the best-quality, well-commented code; when I ask them to complete the code documentation before they leave, they actually do it. On average, their technical writing is better, they are more methodical and less sloppy in their research, and generally follow instructions better/are more coachable than my male students, and thus improve faster along every training direction (technical competence, data visualization, technical writing, presenting).
With smart male students, I sometimes have to battle over the stupidest things. Yesterday, I told a student to try something because the simulation wasn’t working. He was grumbling because he “knew” it wouldn’t work; I said he had to do it anyway, and to do it and come show me. Of course, it worked, and he seemed surprised that it was actually a good idea. *eyeroll* I never have to put up with such crap with female students. If I ask that they do something, they go and do it, and then also build upon it and develop it in different directions or augment or try something new. There is never that step that’s like pulling teeth to get them to simply do what I say. I am not saying all male students are disobedient, far from it; rather, if I have to pull my hair out because someone is obstinate, it’s always a boy, never a girl.
I am sure these experiences have to do with how boys and girls are socialized. Across cultures, girls are taught to be people-pleasers and to defer to authority (men from certain cultures are taught the latter, as well, and it shows in how they respond to coaching). The challenge is to get women to balance this deep-seated deference with speaking their own mind, developing and sharing their own ideas, and getting recognition for them.
Now, where am I going with this? Say, a good little girl grows up and gets a faculty position. Maybe that good little girl is me, or you.
The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.
People tell you that it’s important to do service, because journal editors remember you when you review for them and university colleagues remember you when you serve on their committees and program managers remember you when you serve on their panels. I am definitely guilty of vastly overestimating how much certain service roles would benefit my career. For example, I sat on 3-4 panels by the same program manager at the NSF, where I thought I would eventually get funding. I never did, and he left, so all of that is just a waste of time. Sure, maybe it helped make me a better proposal writer, but I doubt it; it’s the case of diminishing returns — I either know or don’t know how to write proposals at this stage of my career, I am not going to have my eyes miraculously open in this regard over a decade into a faculty position.
Similarly, there were university awards that I felt my service on certain committees might help me get. I did get them. But then I saw my colleagues, who completely eschew all service, getting similar awards, and I felt like I have wasted a ton of time for no good reason.
I review papers for journals, probably a paper per week, because I feel that if I am to be entitled to good reviews of my own work, I should do the same for others. It turns out, there are plenty of people who have high demands on the reviews they receive, but review very little themselves because they feel it’s not a good use of their time. (How does the dichotomy not blow their minds?) A colleague with a huge group literally laughed at me for reviewing a lot for a journal where we both publish. “You do realize that’s not going to help you get your own papers published, right?” he said.
It is entirely possible to be very successful and to be completely selfish. These people are the ones who are happy to let the likes of me — the good little girls, who feel insecure about their belonging in the enterprise of science and thus want to do their share, to please, to not feel like they take more than they deserve and they deserve so little — do well more than necessary, as it benefits them. Women do more teaching and service than average in their academic STEM departments (this is true across my college) because everyone gently perpetuates this myth that more teaching and service will benefit the women in the long run. Maybe, but it’s a weak, higher-order effect.
Scratch that. It’s mostly a lie. Any recognition or warmth or fuzziness that your willingness to please and serve and make deadlines and generally play by the rules will produce for you, the good little girl, among your colleagues, takes too much of your time (the time that’s subtracted from research, family, hobbies, watching grass grow) yet is much, much smaller than the recognition than any of your self-centered colleagues gets for bringing in another grant or publishing another Glamour Mag while doing minimal service and teaching.
If you feel teaching and service are important, that the institution wouldn’t function without them, and if you really truly enjoy these activities, then go ahead and do them. But please don’t do them because you think they will benefit your career, other than in a very small and indirect way. People who are whispering these lies in your ear want you to be the one doing the dirty work, so they’d be free to pursue the really high-payoff activities. They are not evil incarnate; they do it because they can. They simply recognize that you are a good little girl, and we all know the good little girls will do anything to be liked and useful and helpful. There is no benefit to you if you do as expected; there is a likability penalty if you don’t.
Don’t fall for the bullshit. Your success does not depend solely on them liking you. If you kick their butt with your record, they can dislike you and you will still be fine. More than fine, actually.
You may be a good little girl, but you are not a stupid one.
Are you postponing working on your own papers or proposals, or not relaxing over the weekend, because you are constantly backlogged with service obligations and teaching?
Don’t. Just don’t. As someone who does that constantly, I am telling you — just don’t.
You have tenure? Congratulations! Now:
- Go, right this minute, and put a “Not available to review” status at journals that often prompt you to review for them. Commit to rejecting all new review requests, no matter who sent them, for the next 2 months.
- Get off of any new committees that you were put on in the past month. Or the past six months. Cite a scheduling or personal conflict. Apologize profusely.
Many people think women are flakes anyway. You might as well act like one, for once.
- Stop attending faculty meetings till the end of the semester. Cite a scheduling or, better yet, a research-related conflict.
- Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all papers you have in the works with your students, and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each. Meet with students at least once about each of those papers in the coming 2 weeks.
- Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all proposals you have in the works and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each.
- Decide on a small number of trips you will take each year. I traveled twice a month every month of the last year and have barely recovered.
I think I should aim for a number of trips between 5 and 10 per year. 1-2 funding related, 4-6 talks at conferences/universities. 1-2 freebies, such as conferences where you can learn something new. That’s plenty.
- Commit to 2 months of no work email on the weekends. None whatsoever. (It can be done. So I hear.)
- Commit to 2 months of reading 1 nontechnical book per week. (Or running. Or yoga. Or blogging. Or anything that you can do just for you.)
- Vow to never again miss out on family fun (or quality time with your dog/marathon/whatever) because of stupid service.
People seem not to realize that good little girls become awesome grown women. Even the women seem to occasionally forget it.
We could and should be just as self-centered as any mischievous little boy.
This was eye-opening. Thank you so much. I don’t have any illusions about what service can do for my career. I just can’t stand the idea of people not liking me! Something I need to work on, I know. The question I struggle with is, what if you truly feel the institution wouldn’t function without (some kinds of) service and you value being a good citizen … but actually doing service makes you hate your job because of all the academic politics (and also because managing/organizing isn’t your thing)? Regardless, I’m giving myself at least a year of following your strategy so I can get past the “wanting to be liked” thing. I’ll revisit the question after that.