women in STEM

Why Women-in-Science Panels Aren’t Very Useful

Based on my experiences with women-in-science panels, as a member of the audience as well as a panelist, these events tend to be a nearly complete waste of time. I don’t think these panels achieve very much and have left me wanting every single time, regardless of the role I played. Recently, I have been thinking about why that is so. (If you think these panels are awesome, I would definitely love to hear about what you found useful.)

Maybe these panels are like intro-level textbooks, useful for a novice, but once you’ve struggled with certain issues for a while and are ready for an advanced course, they no longer suffice. These panels are also a cheap way for organizations to pretend they are doing something for young women, without actually having to do much of substance.

The women in the audience come with two sets of questions: 1) succeeding professionally (perhaps as woman in a male-dominated field) and 2) work-life balance (which in practice translates to “how to have kids and still succeed”). Panels tend to spend most of their time on the second type of question, which I think it at the core of the low utility of these panels.

The young women who have been very successful thus far and have great pedigrees come in ready to kill it in the professional arena. Often, they don’t believe that the issues of bias will apply to them and are largely convinced we live in a post-sexist society. In contrast, no midcareer or senior woman in STEM thinks this. So there is a disconnect between what the older women say will be an issue and how to overcome it, and the fact that younger women don’t think this will apply to them because they themselves are excellent and academia is a meritocracy (Honorary Dudeness etc.), or they really believe sexism is a thing of the past (so everyone but the dinosaurs is enlightened). In reality, they simply haven’t had enough experiences yet to convince them that sexism is alive and well, thriving in many young guns, and more insidious than ever.

Then there is the issue of work–life balance (again, this is usually a euphemism for kids–work balance). Whether you are the primary caregiver (which most women are, whether they work or not), whether you breastfeed, whether you have multiples, how flexible the spouse’s job is, whether you have a nanny or use daycare, how long your commute is, not to mention whether your baby is healthy, are all issues that can cause considerable disparities in the stress levels of new moms in academia. There are young women who are approaching motherhood with trepidation and come to these workshops to brainstorm logistics, but there are women who may or may not have kids on the tenure track, or ever, but are definitely not interested in talking diapers or breast pumps right now.

There are young women who want to discuss the details of childrearing and associated challenges, but these are really better addressed in a peer forum rather than a panel. For the most part, panelists do not give these women the details they crave; mostly, panelists come off as women who have it together, much more together than what you want to see if you have just become a new mom and your world has been shaken to the core. I am not sure panelists mean to seem cold and calculated, but in my experience they almost always appear that way, often because these topics are something they dealt with in the past (we always seem much more together in hindsight than we really were in the moment  of crisis), but also because a woman’s work persona in STEM is one that always keeps it together.

As a panelist, I always feel that there are things I wish I could share, but they don’t seem to fit with where the moderators are going  or they seem inappropriate because the rest of panel has already driven the discussion in a different direction, and I never want to take up too much panel time (in contrast to some other panelists; there’s always someone who drones on). I always  feel that these panels are way too short and that we barely scratch the surface of what awaits people on the tenure track, let alone beyond. Many senior women seem eager to be done with the obligation and on to the next meeting of the day. The dynamics of wise and worldly and busy panelists talking at (as opposed to with) young and uninformed audience is not really conducive to establishing rapport, especially since the young women are not incompetent. The little time we do have is spent on things we all know already, and we never get to the things that are really at the core of the issues. And there are never many questions, which means the panel didn’t resonate with the audience and that there wasn’t enough time to do it right.

The oldies (I guess I am among them now) and the young women both know how to be tough in their professional arena, and that’s how they interact among themselves, yet these panels are supposed to address issues that are generally quite personal, and that’s the source of a serious disconnect — everyone is posturing, everyone is talking to strangers, and nobody really wants to (nor should be expected to) share really personal anecdotes; when they are shared, they are either trivial, featuring some minor drama that of course ended well, or, on a rare occasion when someone touches upon something really personal, everyone is embarrassed.

I am not sure how to best support young women on the tenure track, especially in the physical-science STEM fields, where the percentages of women are ridiculously low. You cannot force people to genuinely share their struggles and fears with virtual strangers; you definitely cannot force guarded overachievers, whose work persona has been toughened up specifically to not show weakness, to all of a sudden act all vulnerable and nurturing in front of a roomful of women who are also smart and competitive, and who are perhaps showing signs of doubt, weakness, or indecisiveness, but only because their protective armor hasn’t had the time to fully harden just yet.

You cannot expect women to relate as nurtures to other women in a professional context. This type of support has to come from a place of personal connection, and cannot be forced by the institution. Putting a whole bunch of women of different ages together, pretending they would make fast friends, is bullshit and a waste of everyone’s time.

What can institutions do? They can make sure to bring in women as technical speakers, have clear guidelines regarding maternity leave and tenure-clock stoppage, improve access to affordable childcare for students and faculty and staff. They can be unapologetic about affirmative action and relentless about educating the people already there about the massive body of research on implicit bias.

The institutions could also not hire a$$holes, but rather both men and women who will seek work-life balance (with or without kids) and will be interested in helping younger colleagues. This will never happen, of course, because research institutions in physical and biomedical fields want to hire first and foremost the people who can raise lots of grant money; hotshot prodigious fund raisers tend to prioritize work over all else.

Departments could create mentoring committees that include colleagues whom the young faculty member actually will not be afraid to ask questions. For example, of my two assigned mentors, one was never around and I never asked him a single thing; I was also afraid of him, as he struck me as someone who’d weed me out if he perceived I were a weak link. The other mentor was nominally friendly, but in practice so elusive and impossible to meet up with, that I gave up. I got most mentoring from two male collaborators, one midcareer and one very senior. We obviously never discussed breastfeeding and the like, but they were very helpful regarding strategies for grant submissions, interactions with program managers, department politics, etc.

As for women-in-science issues, among my female colleagues across the college, I found that there were very few who organized their lives similar to how I did. First, my female colleagues on average seem to pay for much more outside help than DH and I do (e.g., multiple nannies, often in addition to part-time daycare, appears to be a typical arrangement) or have spouses with very flexible occupations (some had stay-at-home spouses for a while). It’s hard to discuss these choices without judging or being judged, even with one’s close personal friends, let alone with peers who sit with you on committees and who are your competitors for internal awards.

So what do we all do in terms of support for junior faculty, especially women? I think panels, and generally any advice-giving interaction with colleagues, should be focused on troubleshooting for professional success, without connecting it with childcare. Professional success and the challenges on the way to achieving it are (largely) common to women and men, people with kids, people with elder care, people with disabilities. For instance, it is okay to talk about how much travel is necessary, how to best accommodate periods in which you cannot travel, the strategies to maximize publication output and your record in general when you are temporarily grounded — this can be because of kids, because you have a disorder that periodically flares up, or because you have elder care. I think we underestimate how many people have challenges other than childcare and who would benefit from brainstorming how to navigate their career just as much as a temporarily zombified breastfeeding mom would, yet they self-select out of these work-life panels. (One perk of being senior and partaking on university-level committees is that you meet many people across campus, see many CVs, and realize that almost everyone has had some personal stumble at one point or another.) Everyone would be better served if we refocused these panels on success in the face of professional challenges: dwindling grant support, amplified need for travel and exposure, increased pressure to publish, all with raised tenure bars and diminishing safety nets in terms of intramural funds. There’s plenty to discuss, without ever mentioning diapers.

And for emotional support? Friends and family, in meatspace and on the Internet.

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 realize that’s not going to help you get your own papers published, right?” he chuckled.

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 — 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.)
  • Vouch 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.

 

Benevolently Sexist

One of these days, I will have to have a talk with a colleague, who has an administrative role in a physical science field. His heart is in the right place and he is one of the men who really support women and their advancement in the physical sciences, as evidenced by him propelling his female colleagues and students. However, I think he might have inadvertently gotten lost in the thick forest of benevolent sexism.

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

One the one hand, I understand what his real motivation is. Being head of a department, his role is to bring in students, because high enrollments mean high importance to the college and the university. In that sense, one cannot begrudge him for wanting to cast a wider net by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her — nay, trick her! — into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist.  *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Women geeks and men geeks do not necessarily look and act as the stereotypes. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and at the same time also look perfectly presentable and be perfectly socially adjusted. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and also have long hair, boobs, and/or lipstick.

Not all women are motivated by helping those around them. In my choice of career, helping people didn’t figure out one iota. I like what I like because it’s intellectually challenging and fun. If anyone had come to pitch math or physics as a means of helping people when I was young, I would have probably run away from them as fast as I could. (Women can be misanthropes, just like men.)

Not all men are motivated by the same things, either (shocker, I know). There are plenty of men who want to help others. It boggles my mind that we as a society seem okay with stereotyping men as robot-loving geeks. I bet there are many boys who went into premed majors and whom we could have perhaps swayed into the physical sciences with the “physical sciences — because we are all about helping people!” pitch, the same one that supposedly mesmerizes the ever elusive girls into majoring in STEM.

There is a variety of reasons why people choose to do what they do. We should try to understand the reasons and expand the appeal of our field as best we can when we to try to attract more students. But please let’s do that in a way that does not enforce gender stereotypes.

Let’s not insist women don’t come unless you appeal to their inner nurturer. Some girls simply like computers and robots, period. Pitching soft as women and hard as men only further perpetuates the ideas that women are not real physical scientists. It also pushes away the men who may care about their fellow human and would be motivated by the human-centered aspect of the physical sciences. And it also makes many men resentful, because they perceive that the field is being softened and moving away from its essence because of those darn women.

The physical science fields are what they are. Let’s be honest as well as open-minded when we report about the opportunities the fields offer (good job prospects, anyone?). But let’s also be honest about the skills and interests that are required to succeed, and let us enhance the appeal without benevolently perpetuating the stereotype that women could not possibly be capable of swallowing the bitter science pill without the sugarcoat of nurture.

Notes from the Road 5

After this post, some commenters have been wondering about my origins. There are many countries in Europe that would fit the description of tiny and inconsequential (whether or not their citizens are willing to admit it). Knowing which one specifically I am from would probably not bring much excitement or illumination to most of my readership.

Now, finding out that I am secretly Martian, or royalty, or a 60-year-old truck driver named Big Mike who suffers from hypertension and enjoys ballroom dancing — now those would be fun revelations!

I can also vouch that even finding the identity of a pseudonymous academic blogger is essentially anticlimactic. I mean, who could the person possibly be? Unless they are a Houdini-like master of deception (which sounds quite exhausting and I can’t understand why anyone would want to impersonate a professor), the person turns out to be who they say they are: another faculty member at some school, working in a field likely different from yours.

I mean, it would be a revelation to find out that a colleague from down the hall, who I am willing to bet doesn’t even read blogs, is in fact FSP. Or it would be fun to find out that CPP worked as a male stripper to put himself through college, or that DM spent his youth smoking (and dealing!) pot. But other than that, they are just people doing the same job elsewhere and in a different field. I think we are generally fine not knowing one another in meat space; it doesn’t add anything to the online experience. Besides, as a few bloggy friends who know me can vouch, and to paraphrase nicoleandmaggie, I am probably cooler online than in real life.

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I spent a lot of time with my former PhD advisor, and we had a great time and a lot of beer. The topics of inspiration and the passion for work and regretting the time spent or not spent on work or on family came up. He is still as passionate about his work as ever, in his mid-70s’, and he mentioned this quote from Steve McQueen’s movie “Le Mans” (I haven’t seen it):

Lisa Belgetti: When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something very important? Michael Delaney: Well, it better be. Lisa Belgetti: But what is so important about driving faster than anyone else? Michael Delaney: Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.

Isn’t that a great quote? Science is important to the people who do it well. When you are immersed in the work, nothing else matters. It is hard for people who are not particularly good at much to understand it.

I am constantly guilt-ridden that I don’t enjoy homemaking or playing with my kids or other womanly pursuits very much; I simply enjoy working more. (Some people feel they should come to tell me that I shouldn’t have had kids in that case. If you feel the urge to say that, don’t; instead, ask yourself why you think only women with no professional ambition or drive are supposed to procreate, or worse, why you think women have to squash their professional lives in the service of family.) I crave the mental stimulation and, as much as I love my kids, family life doesn’t scratch that itch. Legos and plastic animals can get very boring very fast (especially by kid No 3); shopping for curtains or home decorating never even manages to rise beyond the level of tedious. Perhaps I am a horrible person, but somehow I don’t think the male version of me would ever obsess about this.

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I just got a resubmission of a paper to review. The first time around, I requested extensive edits, while the other referee accepted with minor revisions. In the response letter, I am amused by how the other referee was thanked for “his/her comments,” while in my case “we thank the referee for his comments… In his point No xx, the referee says…” The authors sort of recognize the existence of women referees, but us ladies must be the softie referee, certainly never the hardliner. Tee-hee.

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I am coming home soon, I can’t wait. En route, I came across this delicious overpriced latte with a gloriously firm head of foam: Latte