On being taken seriously

This is a subject that has been discussed ad nauseam both off- and online, but it's also something that I have been struggling with lately which is why I decided to add one more post to the exhausting body of literature on this: how to make sure that people at work take me seriously? How to make sure people don't assume I'm an intern and don't sound surprised when I say something intelligent?

Thinking about this, I don't even really know if this problem is mostly in my head (I'm female, I tend to look younger than my age, and I tend to be enthusiastic and joke around every now and then) or that people around me actually either on a conscious or unconscious level believe that it makes more sense for a man to be a scientist and say credible things. Probably a bit of both. And for some reason being in a new environment, where I spend a large part of my day in meetings with people instead of behind my slice rig or in the animal facility, makes me (much) more aware of these feelings.

The next question is: what to do about this? With the start of my new job I have upgraded my post-doc uniform to a bunch of professional looking outfits that are in line with what other people in the company wear. I speak up when I have something to say and network with people. Is this the company culture where when the CEO says something about a quota for women in the company everybody laughs*?

So, is this in my head? Do other people struggle with this**? And what can I do about this?


* well, not everybody: another new woman-scientist and I were looking at each other wondering what was so funny about this.

** I guess I already know the answer to this, because both my IRL women friends and colleagues do, and so do the tons of hits when I google this...

16 responses so far

  • Cloud says:

    I wish I had advice, but I've never really figured out how to address this. I'm not sure there really is an answer. I thought it might get better as I got older, but it seems I'm just transitioning straight to "out of touch older woman" in these people's eyes. So I guess the best thing to do is work on not letting it derail you. I have an old post about the tricks I use to try to stay sane in the overwhelmingly male environments in which I work: http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2014/04/surviving-as-woman-in-very-male-world.html

    Of course, not long after that post was written, I ran out of patience and quit my job! So clearly, I don't have all the answers.

    I would say, though, that acknowledging from the start that you are doing extra emotional work to process this crap is a good thing. For too long, I ignored it and pretended it was no big deal, and I think that may be part of why it caught up with me so spectacularly. (Not that I'm unhappy with how the career change is working out, but I am very, very lucky that the manner in which I quit didn't come back to bite me.)

    Good luck!

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks for your comment! I guess I have to find a way to act professional yet still feel like myself (and this makes it sound like those two things are very far away from each other but really they're not)

  • I got nothin'. Well, going a good hair dresser and asking them to make me look older helped a little until I got enough white hair to no longer look young. But it doesn't help all that much.

    My own personality doesn't allow other people to talk over me and interjects when I have something to say. I force people to listen to me and I keep short and to the point. I also tend to proof by authority and push my pedigree and creds when I'm faced for the first time with people not taking me seriously. But that comes at the cost of being less likable, so there's trade-offs. (What you're *supposed* to do is have someone else brag about how awesome you are and say thank you to compliments... but unfortunately we don't really get to tell people to do that. The best we can do is brag about our amazing female coworkers and mentees.) I'm always a little astonished when I'm in a new situation with men who haven't been trained to listen to me and it's a bit jarring.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Yeah the trade off between telling people why you are credible and being liked might be key here. Thanks for your comment!

  • Anonymous says:

    "I also tend to proof by authority and push my pedigree and creds when I'm faced for the first time with people not taking me seriously."

    I don't recommend this approach. It's not really about not being liked, though there's that to consider as well. I find that in general, people who resort to "proof by authority" do so because they have weak arguments. They are also never as good as they think they are. Pedigree is no substitute for true quality, and people -- especially outside of academia -- pick up on that pretty quickly. It may get your foot in the door, but you will never be able to build your career solely on that.

    The best advice I can offer is of the fake it till you make it variety -- if you act like you know what you're talking about and believe it yourself, you'll be able to sell others on it, too. So start by taking yourself seriously. And don't waste too much time thinking about what others might initially think about you. Who cares if they thought you were an intern? The point is that after you open your mouth, after they have an actual interaction with you, there should be no doubt left in their minds that you are indeed supremely qualified.

    • babyattachmode says:

      But I do know what I'm talking about. In fact, that is why I was hired for this position. It feels unfair that I first have to overcome the "are you the intern"-hurdle before earning the right to be taken seriously.

    • Ah, but it works, that's why I do it. And of course, I'm absolutely right about what I'm saying without the credentials, pedigree, etc, but forcing them to think of me as a grad from a top PhD program or someone who has published several papers on that topic shifts the statistical discrimination category in their mind from cute young woman why is she here to wunderkind we're lucky to have her.

      One of my undergrad professors was a small black woman. She has many stories about how she's had to push her credentials and intimidate with her superior knowledge before people would take her seriously.

      You, anonymous, may be confused because when white men do the proof by authority thing it's usually because they're full of excrement. Which is true. But they don't have to do it just to get their foot in the door. They start out as being taken seriously.

      • Anonymous says:

        I'm not confused, n&m, or a white male. I am a scientist with 20 yrs experience in industry.

        Are you an academic? Because there is a particular stereotype associated with academics in industry that babyattachmode should avoid at all costs. It's a lot worse than the not-being-taken-seriously-at-first one.

        • babyattachmode says:

          I an quite curious as to what that sterotype is.

          • Anonymous says:

            The stereotype is that academics (i.e., people with a PhD) are overeducated snobs who don't know how to do anything useful. They look down on those that lack certain pieces of paper. They don't know how to value the expertise that others have acquired through years of hard work in the "real world."

  • Jessica says:

    One thing that seems to keep happening to me is I'll say something in a meeting and it seems like no one has heard. Then someone else (male) says the same thing and everyone starts nodding. Drives me crazy. The things I keep trying to do to deal with this situation is 1) Talk louder and 2) Call people out with "I just said that". I will be heard, gosh darnit!

    • It's important to do this for our other female and minority colleagues too. We get less push-back when we do it for each other than when we do it for ourselves (but I do it for myself anyway). I'm constantly saying, "Yes, that's what [black male colleague] was just saying" or, "That gets back to the point [female colleague] was making."

    • becca says:

      I like to play with this- intentionally mimicking some else's body language and whatnot, and getting them to adopt my ideas... often ones I don't even really believe, just to see if I can do it. (Also: A bored becca in a meeting is a very hazardous thing)
      However, it's only fun in contexts you don't need the credit for a particular good idea.

      Anyway, as far as being taken seriously, I've talked to my aunt a bit about this (she's a VP type working for an engineering corp so she gets the woman as corporate leader pushback and the woman in science pushback). The first thing she said was to develop ways to build rapport specifically with men (she uses sports and jokes). The other thing she says played a role in her success, and I swear I am not making this up, is she grew up riding horses. She KNOWS she can literally make 450kg beasts jump through hoops. She has a lot of confidence and isn't afraid to be forceful.

      One final thing- make sure there isn't a history behind the quota statement (just discretely ask someone who has been there for a while). I once posted a Science article about gender equity in pay on a lab bulletin board, only to find out a bit later there was *quite* the controversy about pay, since the institution had just dealt with a lawsuit and a new female employee had gotten a significantly larger raise than an experienced male employee. (the experienced male employee was a sexist jerkface, so that did complicate the matter still further, but that's another story).

  • JP says:

    Aside from colleagues, how do you feel about how seriously you are taken by the students? As a young PI, older faculty tell me how popular junior profs are to the students. But I feel this is true only of my male junior PI colleagues. Any thoughts?

    • babyattachmode says:

      I can't really answer this because I don't teach on a regular basis. I only sometimes give guest lectures but then I am introduced as "working for this company" which seems to help in being taken seriously. But from what I hear around me this is a problem for young female faculty.

  • onemonkey says:

    I had this issue about ten years ago when I started at my current employer. Very frustrating. Ten years on, they all know me, I am not afraid to speak up, and in general, find that being taken seriously mostly means not waiting to be taken seriously, but simple assume that they will, and act as such.

    This also means acting 'rude' with regards to helping out on simple tasks. If you take on jobs an intern would do (e.g. get coffee) you'll be seen as such. So do not present yourself as a junior if you're not. I tended to take my cues from the senior staff (men prefarably) and mirror their behavior. Worked as a charm. Now I am back to being myself 😉

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