This morning I came to a realization that shocked me and that made me quite painfully aware of my own biases. Already a couple of times I had come across this headline on twitter: She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell. Every time I saw it I couldn't help but think: Oh man, another person who was oppressed/harrassed/assaulted in whatever way by some man who has the power to do so and still goes unpunished for way too long. But it didn't touch me enough to read the piece. Or to retweet it or say what I think about it. It just made me a little numb that this just keep happening over and over and over it seems.
And then someone tweeted the name of the victim in this case. And I recognized the name and realized that I had seen her present her work and I was so impressed with her. She was energetic and funny and a really good presenter who did very interesting work. All of a sudden I cared so much more about this case. And that is the part that shocked me.
Because someone shouldn't have to be energetic and funny and a good presenter for me to care. I should always care when someone is oppressed or assaulted or harrased, whether they are boring or funny to me and whether I like them or not. It made me think of whenever men say things like:"We should care about women because they are our daughters and wives and sisters" and I think to myself: no, we should care because they are people. Yet I do the exact same thing in my head: I care more about people that I know and/or like.
How can I change this attitude and make sure I don't stop caring about cases like this one? By reading the statistics about how often women are sexually harrassed in science that make me angry every time I look at them. By linking to all the pieces online that show how hard it is to file these complaints against established men when you are the victim, but also how there are kind people that stand by the victims. Although at the end of the day the question remains whether you can ever really win in a case like this.
There's having to take time off for parental leave. There's not always being able to stay for networking after work. There's having to stay home when your kid is sick. And the list goes on and on why becoming a parent means sometimes not being able to be at work or working. However, it is still the case that for mothers this compromises their career more than for fathers, resulting in less pay and an overall perception of being less competent: an issue called the motherhood penalty, which was also highlighted when Gina Baucom asked for examples of crappy things that are being said to women academics the other day.
The other day I got a bit more insight into why this could be on a level I hadn't considered yet. Someone I know had her second kid about a 1,5 year ago and the first time year had been quite a struggle: she was tired, also moved to a different house and at the same time was making a huge effort to perform at the same level she did previously. This nearly resulted in a burn out, except that she had a very kind and caring manager who sent her home at just the right time and told her to take it easier. At this point she was crying, tired and just not the strong person she was otherwise.
After this first year, she started to feel like her normal self again: more sleep, normal hormone levels, etc. However, at the same time she noticed that her manager still treated her like the more fragile person who needed help and protection. Her manager would not give her the more challenging projects even though she was very capable of taking those on again. And ultimately her male colleague who had been there shorter got a promotion and she didn't. Seemingly because her manager could not get rid of the notion they had of her being weak. She felt that not only did she have to fight to get back into all her projects, she had to fight double hard to erase her manager's notion of her being a weak person.
I'm not sure there is an answer here in how to navigate this path, but I'd be curious to hear what you would advice here, dear readers!
"Thank you for not taking a vacation but coming in to do extra work".
"Wow such impressive work that you submitted a fellowship application 3 weeks after giving birth" (even though I did not get this grant in the end).
"Thanks for checking your email continuously on the day in the week that you're not working (and hence are not being paid)".
"What dedication that even though you have quit your post-doc job and have 3 weeks of vacation days left, you're still coming in to finish these experiments that you're doing".
Just a selection of things that nobody has ever said to me, ever. And this is (finally) making me realize that whenever you go this extra mile for work, you should do it for you and not to get external validation or praise. Because people tend to not see this effort that you put in in these invisible moments, while at the same time this effort may seem very large to yourself.
This morning I tweeted this when I saw that there was a Nobel prize press briefing with a table full of men in front of paintings of men (or wait, maybe that one person painted in a light green jacket is a woman?).
Briefly after that, the ERC tweeted this very ironic tweet:
Yes, role models are key, but where are they??
This week I received feedback that I need to act more confident in my role as expert. I recognize myself in this feedback, because often when I'm in a discussion about something neuroscience with someone who is not a neuroscientist, I come with all these nuances and considerations and find it hard to make very concrete statements. However, that is something that is needed when decisions need to be made about how to measure something or how to interpret literature.
This lead me to think about the difference of what you consider an expert on a topic in academia vs in industry (at least in my line of work).
My interpretation of the difference between being an expert in academia vs in industry. Not drawn to scale. Also, the yellow is a drawing from Little Brother that I thought would not be visible but clearly is.
In academia, after having completed a PhD thesis and some time as a post-doc, you can consider yourself an expert in those topics (even if it feels like there are others who are even more expert). I definitely feel confident making statements about subjects in those incredibly tiny circles. However, now that I am in industry I am supposed to be an expert in much larger areas in a group of people who know even less about this topic (along the lines of: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"). I have always been more of a generalist, so I like reading and thinking about these bigger areas (with dotted lines in the drawing because the areas change every now and then).
But I guess what comes next in this transition from the left circle to the right is to stand up in a meeting and either say:"I know that this is such and such and that's why I recommend this" or "I need to analyze this further and will come back to it". I need to figure out how much knowledge and analysis is needed to fulfill this role, because it is impossible to take the time to reach the expertise level from the left circle in my current job. And in academia, I feel I've been trained to withhold from any firm conclusions until you've looked at a topic from different viewpoints.
And I guess for a part it comes back to the question of how you become visible and get your opinion heard if you don't look like the prototype expert...?
Yesterday I attended a seminar and I noticed that at least 75% of the audience were women. The speaker was a man, and so was the person who introduced the speaker*. After the talk, there was time for a couple questions and the three people who asked something were men.
Overall score: a room full of women and all the people who opened their mouth to speak were men.
I know what it is like to be in an audience, and wonder if the question you might have is one worth asking. The time to make this decision is short and before you know it someone else asks their questions or the time is up for anyone to ask a question. But my advisor encouraged us in a somewhat strange way to ask questions: after the speaker was finished, she would point at one of her grad students and say:"now you have to ask something.". The first time this happened to me I was obviously caught off guard and was barely able to utter something resembling a question. Yikes. But the next time, I knew this could happen to me and ever since, I've trained myself to just have some questions ready in my head to ask. This may seem ridiculous, because if you don't have something to ask, why try and come up with something. But to me, it's been good training in coming up with good (and sometimes not so good) questions. So that when a talk ends, I don't have to hesitate, but I can put my hand up and ask something. Sometimes because I actually want to know the answer, and sometimes to be visible to the speaker or others in the audience.
Do you see the same? That women are less likely to ask questions? And if so, what do you do encourage them to ask something?
*I had never before seen someone so good at highlighting his own achievements while introducing someone else by the way. A remarkable skill in itself.
Very often when I talk to people about how to advance my career, their advice is: "Be visible!". This is also the advice that people around me are getting.
There are many ways to be visible: you can highlight your own achievements whenever you have the opportunity, you can work hard and hope that others will notice (and highlight your achievements for you), you can get involved with projects that you know will gain visibility, or become an expert in a topic so people know they need to find you if they need certain information. But when I read Chall's most recent post about how it is important for women to be likable, it made me wonder if for men there are more acceptable ways to be visible then there are for women. For men it seems easier to be bragging about achievements without being considered an overachiever, and it seems easier to be critical about a project without being labeled bitchy.
So how to deal with this? I guess for me it helps to think that in a company with so many female role models, there are at least many examples of how to be visible as a woman.
Instead of: "Hey, are you an intern/graduate student/post-doc here?"
You can ask: "So, what is your position here?"
Or, instead of: "Is this your first job after graduating college?"
You can ask: "How long have you worked here and what have you done before that?"
So that I don't have to say - again - that I am not an intern, this is not my first job and yes, I do look kind of young but that does not take away from my credibility, if you first clear you mind of all the assumptions that live there.
Image from here: http://gentlemen-always-know.tumblr.com/post/104584707343
The other day I was invited to attend a meeting with a couple of important (internal and external) people at my company. And even though overall the company that I work for has a very balanced gender ratio, at this meeting I saw mostly white men.
Interestingly, today I read what the boss of the division wrote about this meeting. They said something like: 'we had a very diverse group of people at this meeting'. I assume they were talking about different scientific and commercial backgrounds that were covered by this group of people. Or perhaps a group of mainly men and one woman is considered 'diverse'?
Also, it makes me wonder how we talk about quota of women at the highest level of companies, but never about all those levels in between*. And if at those levels we are not talking about gender diversity, how do we ever fill the pool of women who will be able to fill top positions?
*Or am I wrong? I would love to hear about places where gender equality is addressed at different levels, so not just overall and at top positions.
When I went to college the majority of professors were male. I remember that the few times we had a female professor, classmates were quick to categorize them as "bitchy", "motherly", or "good-looking". This is not unlike what happens in many movies, when the female characters often remain uni-dimensional.
Now, I work in a company with a much better gender ratio. The other day I found myself in a big meeting with 3 of the bosses and all three of them were women, as well as many of the team leaders and scientists*. And I realized while I was listening to the meeting that we were all there to contribute with our own expertise and knowledge and personality. And I realized how great it is to be in the presence of so many women as role models. There were just too many women to fit them in the one-dimensional categories. When there are many women, they are just like people, I thought to myself.
* Before you think that this is a complete utopia: when you're asked to present something in front of the board, you will still look at >85% men.