Women and science careers

by morgan · 7 comments

 

Over at The Scientist, there’s a fruitful discussion about women in science.

I have very mixed feelings about wading into this, because it is fraught with issues.

But I’m not the timid sort, so I’m going to – in order to help you.

I get a bit tired of the rehashing of “its harder for women,” because, frankly, that conversation is not going to help you in your career.

Yes, it is harder for us women in science. My own life experiences have indicated that there are more barriers in front of us than in front of men. And I hope we can keep making progress on tearing those barriers down. But if there is progress, it is going to be slow – very slow.

Hence, this falls in the category of “out of your control.”

Spending mental energy on things out of your control is never productive.

For example, let’s say you’re only 6′ tall but you want to be an NBA basketball player. Which of the following approaches is the best one to take?

1. Lobby the NBA to incorporate some kind of handicapping for “short” folks into the rules, so that you are on “fair ground” with the 7′ and up crowd.

2. Work your hiney off to be an invaluable player, taking advantage of flying “under the radar” of taller players? Use your unique strengths – being compact and fast – to your advantage.

I don’t think #1 is going to get you very far.

But I happen to know of real-life cases of #2, such as championship basketball player John Stockton (who used to play for the Utah Jazz).

This discussion about “women being disadvantaged” allows us to point the blame at the outside world. Yes, the outside world is unfair. Just think of all those people living in poverty around the globe. That’s not fair. But is pointing that out and discussing it going to change it? Not much.

Pointing the blame at the outside world prevents us from being the very best that we can be – by doing the one thing that we can: changing ourselves.

For the open minded woman who wants to achieve greater success levels, she could learn a thing or two from men. Such as:

1. To be bold and take risks. Most Nobel prizes come from “bold” new avenues being opened up in science. A lot of us are timid about this. I think it comes from growing up in an environment where peer approval is the #1 priority (e.g. Junior high school). People who are looking for peer approval are unlikely to really take the bold risks. And so they’re unlikely to reap the rewards (because, reward is generally proportional to risk, to within some arbitrary coefficient).

2. Learn to promote yourself. A lot of us are really bad about this. We can’t promote ourselves, without feeling like we are violating some social taboo. But you won’t get anywhere in science (or life) without effectively promoting yourself. I’m not talking about standing up and saying “look at me, I’m great, I need to be appreciated.” That doesn’t work (I’ve tried, and that was a miserable failure). I’m talking about more subtle aspects of persuasion. Take, for example, my willingness to write on this blog, and take a stand on some issues here. That gets me recognized for some thought leadership. Ask yourself: is doing that an effective promotion of Morgan? If you answered “yes,” then find ways to do things like that. It is not by accident that I’m here writing a blog. I am here to help you, but helping you also helps me get recognized. So, become a thought leader in your field. For example, organize a conference… write review articles … start a blog … or whatever.

3. Be confident. Sociological studies have shown that something is different about men and women time and again: men are over confident about their abilities, and women are under-confident about their abilities. And that has major ramifications. If you are under-confident, you are far less likely to jump into something, getting yourself “in above your head.” Yet, most truly accomplished people that I know got to be accomplished by jumping in “above their heads,” then rising to meet the occasion. Once you’re in sink-or-swim mode, you’ll find untapped resources inside of yourself. Men do that all the time, simply because of their over confidence. We women do this much less often – and our careers suffer as a result. WIthout diving in, few of us will get the chance to force ourselves to “take it to the next level”. We quit before we start. I used to think that overconfidence was a bad thing, but now I realize it has its upsides. So, work on your confidence.

4. Play to your strengths. For example, writing seems to flow more easily for some women than for some men (please, no comments complaining about the stereotype, I use this only as an example). Once you identify a strength like that: use it! If you are a fast writer – use it to write more than your peers! It is as simple as that.

If we want to make a societal change in this situation, trying to effect structural change in academia will be slow and only moderately effective. It may happen, eventually, but structural change is the slowest kind there is. Individual change is very fast – once you decide to change (but, making the decision to change can be slow).

If we want to effect real societal change, a more effective approach would be going into high schools and colleges to give young women training in the above vital skills, before their habits get set in stone. We should be teaching young women the life skills of: self confidence, boldness, reasonable risk taking, and self promotion.

This would go far beyond just making better and more women scientists.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa

Hey Morgan, I like it!

I have worked in construction for 10 years, and became a certified carpenter last year. I loved working in this industry. I had a lot of rough days (and even a season) where I though everyone was second guessing everything I did and disagreeing with all my ideas, just because I was a woman. It took me a long time to realize that they did that to everyone, and it was me that took it all as personal attacks. I have learned to stand up for myself and my ideas, and am much happier. If you think the world is against you, it will be.

Thanks for this blog!

Reply

morgan

Lisa, thanks for sharing your story! This resonates with me a lot. I’ve gone through periods very much like what you describe – thinking that “they” were against me just because of who I am. Those were miserable periods. When I reached the realization that “they” do that to everyone (because, like most of us, they’re walking around in a self-centered haze most of the time), I became a lot happier!

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Elizabeth

Morgan,

Great comments about self promotion. The “lesson” many of us don’t learn is to put ourselves first. I notice that my female co-workers spend much more time mentoring than my male co-workers, on average. It seems that my female co-workers support the development of their trainees, giving them independent projects that will catch the eye of other universities, and they will get hired away, while my male co-workers have seven year (and counting!) postdocs. Then there’s the family committments. When the child is sick, the school always calls me first, even though her dad’s name is listed as the primary contact. HIS boss doesn’t understand why he has to go pick up the sick child….”Don’t you have a wife for that?” he asks.

On the positive side, over the past few years I’ve noticed that women in my department have been very supportive of each other, and we have developed some great research teams. Our highly successful postdocs have recommended us to highly qualified graduate students, so we are now getting the pick of the litter, so to speak.

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K

Hi Morgan,

Very actionable statements. I think it would also be very good to expose grad students to non-tenure track career paths. They are heavily influenced by The Dream (i.e. become a tenured professor doing high-profile research) and sometimes it seems that process merely winnows for people whose skills align with that goal but wastes the talents of some 85% of the people who would be happier and more productive in industry, a teaching school, or other career paths (patent law, regulatory, public affairs — all of whom suffer from a lack of PhDs!)

But to some extent, unless the profs themselves take up this cause, a lot of PhDs are going to continue banging their heads against 3rd or 4th postdocs…

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m

It is harder for women, especially because in my experience, the women that got there before you “pull the ladder up” behind them. I have had the toughest times actually with women mentors and women peers. It’s like if they help you, and you succeed, then their merit in having their position is decreased. Strange stuff.

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morgan

Hey – I sort of agree. I’ve had similar experiences with female mentors in the past. But not with all of them!

And, I have a really unique perspective on this based on some things I’ve gone through. I’ll be sharing more with my newsletter subscribers about that soon.

Thanks for writing. Regardless of whether it’s more difficult or not, the only solution is to keep kicking some arse.

Reply

Kerstin

Hi Morgan, really great sharing you do!

The past semester have I been teaching 9 to 16 years old, art classes (taking a break from learning to write academic texts) and my impression confirm what you tell above. I was a bit taken aback by this fact. It was also clear that in the age of 12 this surfaced most openly. This might be a topic for a scientist.

Kerstin

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