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.

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