A Good Little Girl

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.



  1. It’s not that easy. Women are not stupid. They do things differently because they get punished more for saying no and they are more likely to be asked. See what works for women at work and Lise vesterlund’s new experiment for research background.

  2. I’m a dude, but I’m conscientious, and I can’t stop. And it just makes me more and more resentful of my cow-orkers as time goes on, because I know that I care and they don’t, and I can’t stop myself from caring. I work and work and work even while hating everyone around me. It’s easy to tell people to not care, to not serve, to not be conscientious, but those who care do it even while knowing that they are working against their own interests. This job has taught me levels of anger and hatred that I never thought possible, but it still hasn’t taught me selfishness.

  3. N&M, I know. This post is mostly a pep talk for myself. I know about the research on why women can’t behave like men as the expectations and penalties are different.
    But I have tenure, damn it, and want to see how much self-centeredness I can get away with. I bet it’s considerably more than I think, especially if I am being all passive-aggressive about it all, as opposed to display open defiance or *gasp* emotions, such as anger.

  4. This job has taught me levels of anger and hatred that I never thought possible, but it still hasn’t taught me selfishness.

    Just you wait. Everyone reaches a point of having no more fucks to give.

  5. Wow. Is voluntarily not attending a faculty meeting a thing? At both institutions where I’ve been employed, missing a faculty meeting- short of having surgery being performed upon you at the time or something equivalent- is The. One. Thing. That. Shall. Never. Be. Done. Just hired or dead wood (if it’s the only tangible thing you seemingly do), female or male, that’s the line that is never, ever crossed. People Skype in to my department’s faculty meetings if they are out of town or home sick.

  6. We have meetings every week. Every. Fuckin’. Week. We are supposed to never skip, but people do. It’s a ridiculous waste of time.

  7. Behaved as good little girl at an interview.

    Wonder why I bother. Yet again, the job went to the less experienced boy. The local guy. At some point I stop. My CV beats the little boy’s CV by a mile (not for the first time). I beat the little boy in vision, presentation, preparedness for interview. Doesn’t matter. Jobs in academia are not open jobs (at least not in my little crappy subfield). They go to the local candidate, or to the scouted candidate. The whole interview part is just a scam and good little girls are perfect for them, because they play along nicely.

  8. I just tweeted this week that I was reminded once again that my career has suffered because I follow the rules. I probably can’t change my personality fundamentally but I have reached the “no fucks to give” point as well and that helps.

  9. It sucks. So I am going to be curious to see how things unfold for you. Hoping that things get better with seniority or are better in other fields.

    I never did a postdoc (which is unheard of in my field and so I get constant disbelief that I pulled it off and remarks that this can’t be)and I am competing with post-docs for junior faculty positions while I did the job of a junior faculty member for a few years (without the tenure track part).

  10. You raise an excellent point as usual! The “good little girl” and its cousin the “can I do it” symptoms are ubiquitous among women faculty, and IMO is holding many women back.

    In my department, many senior faculty will not directly advise anyone to do less teaching and/or service, but will drop with hints, which women often miss. If I ask: “Should I be on three committees as an assistant professor?”, no one will say no; instead people will say vague things like “It is soooo nice to see junior faculty who are so engaged in the department that they are thinking of being on three committees.”

    An example: in my first year, our department chair sat down with me and the other junior faculty who joined that year to talk about teaching and service requirements. All sorts of vague things were said at the meeting, but in the end, my interpretation of the service requirement was drastically different from his! Now if I asked the chair directly, he would have hemmed and hawed and said something that is open to interpretation, but I interpreted things in a very different way than the man did.

    The lesson I learnt from all this? Interpret everything to be as favorable to self as possible.

  11. Sigh. I am the good little girl, but reforming. Although I am considered one of the major researchers in my department, my service load is at least 10x higher than the male faculty (regardless of their research productivity). Last month I agreed to take on an additional major service commitment and I felt recognized, particularly since there was a small stipend for the work. Then I found out that I was receiving exactly 3/4 of the stipend my male counterpart was (and he is non-tenure track!). So, the bottom line: I finally started saying No. No more additional service, no more twisting my schedule to attend faculty meetings, no more giving my all for the committees I am on. Liberating.

  12. I’m recently post-tenure and have instituted about half of your self-reform policy. The keys for me have been limiting university service, agreeing only to teach classes that I’m truly enthusiastic about, and missing about every other faculty meeting. It has made a drastic change for the better in how much I enjoy my job. I still review too much for grant agencies and journals and do too much service for my scientific society, but baby steps.

  13. “You may be a good little girl, but you are not a stupid one.”

    And herein lies the ying and yang of my everyday life, the two voices that chirp incessantly about how I should spend my time. Just blogged last week about my top advice for young faculty- which, now that I read your post, could have been subtitled “How to sidestep your inner good little girl”.

    Anyway, I’m with you on all of it (except the crappy male student part- both my male and female students are terrific). Thanks for adding another data point.

  14. Timely. Must go reply “no” to several requests right now, and should let fall to the side the “good little girl” things I’m doing INSTEAD OF writing the papers & proposal I’ve been trying to work on for weeks.

  15. I’ll be faculty next year so this advice is super timely! I will try definitely to keep in mind things like minimizing agreeing to service and teaching obligations – I figure that way I can be sure that I do everything I actually agree to much better. It is an PUI but I have a lab and getting research funded is how I will get summer salary…

    I will say that I have (I think??) NOT really been a good little girl throughout my life. Reading above I sound more like the male students you describe who procrastinate constantly and don’t always do exactly what the authority figure says – at least through undergrad. However, I will say that throughout my grad and postdoc training I have probably become MORE likely to obey authority as time went on, as it seemed to be the path of least resistance/fastest progress to just say “ok, whatever you say boss” (or to put it another way, let them believe I agree for now & do what they want, while I also pursue my own secret plans…).

  16. engprof, congrats on tenure! And on finding joy in your job anew.

    Katie, I like this saying: All babies are good babies, it’s just that some are easier to live with than others (i.e., some are good sleepers and eaters, etc., some aren’t). That’s how I feel about my students. All of my students are great students — they are smart and capable — but some are definitely harder to work with than others.

    jojo, “ok, whatever you say boss” (or to put it another way, let them believe I agree for now & do what they want, while I also pursue my own secret plans: That’s not bad, as long as you also do try to do what the boss says. Sometimes the students come up with a better solution than mine right off the bat, but seldom when they are very junior (and have little experience). Often, they try what I asked them to, and then find ways to improve and expand upon it. We bosses have experience, take advantage of it! 🙂 It certainly saves time to not have to reinvent everything yourself.

  17. This post really spoke to me. In your honor, I just declined a review request. Feeling rather good already.

  18. Good advice. Wish I’d read this a few days ago before agreeing to review a proposal from a part of an agency to which I’ll be submitting a proposal later this year =).

    I think I’ll pass this along to the two early tenure-track female professors that I’m the mentor for. But maybe in a year or two when they’re less shielded from service. And I am in something of a bind because being in a small disciplinary group, anything that I shield them from, I have to do even though I’m also (later) pre-tenure.

  19. I’m a dude, new prof, and I’m pretty selfish when it comes to service. E.g. refuse to review for months at a time, show up late to committee/faculty meetings, avoid non-research commitments whenever possible, etc.

    Somehow I had managed to convince myself that everyone else who is hyperfocused on research does that and those who do a lot of committee work do so because they like it (or are compensating for bringing in few grants).

    Pretty naive, I guess. Thanks for the post.

    But let me ask you: how do I convince myself to do more service when nobody seems to blame me for ducking/skirting whenever possible and I legitimately prefer to focus on research whenever possible?

  20. @Grumpy, have you ever been part of a group that you care about- for instance, a family- and done things that did not benefit you directly because you felt responsibility to that group? That is the feeling you need to tap into, I think.

    You are part of a larger community. For the community to function, there is work that needs to be done that does not provide much (if any) personal benefit to the person doing it, but without which the community would cease to function. If you care about that community and feel some responsibility for its functioning, then you have to figure out what portion of that work it is right for you to do, and hold yourself accountable to doing it.

    I am not even in academia and I know that no one relishes service roles. Most people go into academic science because they love research. Everyone legitimately wants time to focus on their research. This seems like it should be obvious. But: good on you for listening to the message in this post and realizing your error. The question now is: will you act on that realization? Because that is entirely up to you. You don’t convince yourself to do it. You hold yourself accountable for doing it.

  21. I wonder though…who is picking up the pieces of your refusal? Are you just passing the responsibilities down the line to a more junior female faculty member? A postdoc? Is the teaching that you don’t enjoy going to an adjunct?

    I keep seeing these “slow professor” pieces that recommend selfishness and this advice seems near-fatal for precarious academics.

  22. As a male who has long been aware of the privileges accorded to men in general, i empathize with all the comments above and appreciate the boundary-setting advocated in the OP. But i think part of the fault is in “good little” more than in girls or boys. Selfishness is strongly rewarded by the dominant culture and most of its subcultures, even (Especially?) Academe. I realized that i didn’t get all the E for effort and good-ole-boy advantages because (a) i was not a sports analogy, and (b) i was enthusiastic and willing to take those group-enhancing roles/activities that are termed “feminine”, i.e.: “good little”. I became a loather of the hypocrisy of praising the unpaid, unbenefitted, unrewarded spoken goals while definitely rewarding the tacit individualism and prioritizing of covert system goals. And when i (a) tried to do my volunteer efforts in my own/creative way or (b) spoke up about the need for everyone to take on slog work, i was excluded, especially by the masculinized women who had gone past the 0 fˆ*!ks point and become “shrill and ambitious”.

    So, i think it is incumbent on us all to define our limits early and set boundaries (mentor people before they get hoovered up into this racket/Ponzi scheme), and help people, males and females, to get out of the “Little” mentality that says you’re not really good enough, so you have to prove it.

  23. colleenmorgan: “I wonder though…who is picking up the pieces of your refusal?”

    Don’t know; maybe you should ask Grumpy?

    I am not my colleagues’ mother. Apparently, I am one of the “masculinized women who had gone past the 0 fˆ*!ks point and become shrill and ambitious” and make pablo1paz feel bad.

  24. Thanks for writing this. Its got my adrenaline pumping. I love everything you said. I love your list of action-items. Except, fundamentally, I disagree with them. Why not work to change the system inside-out. Men should follow the rules too. We don’t have to conform the status-quo. Its the status-quo that should be changed. This article got me thinking: https://medium.com/athena-talks/mentoring-young-women-in-the-classroom-you-don-t-need-to-act-more-masculine-we-should-be-making-5439ec6844f0#.jcjxgsvqf

  25. Excellent! It holds true in other fields as well. I’m tired of being expected to work twice as hard to get noticed, and I’m frustrated with the women who help perpetuate this gender bias. Enough is enough!

  26. Just entered a pinky-swear contract with another woman in the office to limit our hours to 45 per week. It starts April 1, 2016. I will use the time to develop new blog posts and presentations and get back to volunteering…and improv theater.

  27. This is great advice! Especially the “how to” list at the end. I have posted a few advice columns myself on how to and why to say no (http://womanofscience.com/2013/10/10/yes-you-can-but-sometimes-you-should-not/).

    Also, I advocate the “mildly sucking” technique when it comes to service. So, if you do the service, it is just a minimal, OK job, but you kinda suck, so they don’t ask you to come back.

    I am also happy to say I have avoided a lot of heinous service that was bad for me by basically making-up service assignments I wanted to do. Some made-up service: Departmental Publicity committee, women’s group, physics teaching workshop. These are things I actually care about making a difference in, so they aren’t crappy service. I have also figured out how to spin out my teaching into international summer school offers, which is actually really great for my science and networking. Maybe I write a post about that! But, I am going to repost this on my blog. It is fan-tastic!

  28. Reblogged this on Woman Of Science and commented:
    Yep, yep, and yep. This is a good one, and far be it from me to deprive my readers of some sound advice. It also makes me think about how I have avoided some major crap service assignments and teaching assignments. I should write about that sometime soon.

  29. I think you are right on track with this post. For me, I think I’m too old and set in my good girl ways to change, but we all need to try!
    if women refuse to do all the service and teaching that is requested of them, will men pick up the slack? will the enterprise come tumbling down? will we reach an equilibrium where everyone pitches in to do their share? time will tell.

  30. I totally agree about your action list!
    The other good thing about getting tenure is that you get to take time to breathe and decide what you want to become and be know as in your field, in terms of your personal “brand”/legacy etc. in addition to your research. Then you can move forward by strategically doing the service that is most relevant to you, and also you can have it end up working for you to develop your career.
    For example, I decided a long time ago that I wanted to try to work to change the unfair systems of my field that made it so much harder for women and minorities to be successful. So after getting tenure, I “said yes” to serving on all kinds of diversity committees, women student groups, to extra student mentoring and counseling responsibilities, and I gave talks and wrote grants in this area (in addition to continuing my original scientific research career directions). These “yeses” have slowly built my “brand” in this area so I’m now part of the executive leadership team at my institution that is making policy and recommending diversity training etc. It is incredibly satisfying and such an honor to actually have a real opportunity to try to “fix” some of the things that I complained to bitterly about over the past 30 years of my career.

  31. This is a well written piece about being a “good little girl” in STEM. Even I feel this pressure in the field of anesthesia. I believe that it’s vital for women to stand up for themselves, as hard as that may seem. Great call to action. Keep it up!

  32. Great list of things to do once you have tenure. One variation: I work at a university with a high teaching load. It pays lip service to research but really expects us to do and be everything to everyone. People don’t respond well to “I reserve Wed afternoons for research, sorry”. In the interests of making my life smoother (while setting aside time for my own work), I just offer ad hoc excuses and apologies when I’m not attending a meeting, event, etc. I also advise my junior colleagues to do the same. If you’re on a committee with 8 meetings a year, you can decide ahead of time that you will attend only 5 or 6 of them. As someone who’s chaired big committees, that’s what everyone else does. You can, too. And you should.

  33. People don’t respond well to “I reserve Wed afternoons for research, sorry”.

    Oh, definitely. An important rule is to never explain why you can’t do something. “I am sorry, I am unable to make it” or “This day/time doesn’t work for me” or “Sorry, I am busy Wednesday afternoons” are all totally fine. You don’t have to volunteer what exactly you are doing. You can offer an alternative time or two if you want to be accommodating, but never justify why you can’t do something.

    The best thing I have done for my schedule is disciplining myself to block out two afternoons and not have anyone ever impinge upon it. Occasionally I feel the pull to be accommodating, but it’s gotten easier to snap out of it.

  34. Pingback: Stats | xykademiqz
  35. This is brilliant, and I so needed to hear it. I’ve experienced everything on this list, from the students to the service. I don’t have tenure yet, but I am absolutely going to implement this list over the summer. I’ve been prioritizing everyone else for too long. “Pay yourself first” has become my motto.

  36. I was a full tenured professor and department chair. I’m also male. I was once told by the College President that my biggest fault was that I was too nice. I voluntarily resigned a year ago and have no regrets. (I miss the young people though). Academia is not an easy place for nice people of either gender. They say nice guys finish last and while it may not be true the academic world is full of people who view it as a weakness and will use it to your disadvantage. I hope my experience was more the exception than the rule but when was the last time you saw a college or university voted in as the #1 place to work in your town?

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