Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Women, power, power in numbers?

First, several random things to fill you in on.

My best friend's husband got laid off, which I knew. The reason she was having a hard time is because he's not an American citizen, and his visa is going to run out now that he's not employed. So they're starting the paperwork for a Greencard... very stressful since there is a time limit, lots of paperwork, etc.


Today I went to a lab meeting, someone else's lab but we're collaborating with them and I've been to a couple of their meetings previously. Well, the PI was out of town and the guy who was speaking was a Class A, full-on prick. Maybe I was being obnoxious, and I don't always do this, but I asked if he could just explain really fast what his assay was, since he was giving the kind of talk that jumps right in, gives no background, and assumes the people listening think about this stuff all the time (Wake-up call, asshole, NOBODY THINKS ABOUT YOUR STUFF BUT YOU!!). Anyway I said, "I'm sorry, I'm lost, can you explain the assay?"

And he said, and I'm not making this up, "You're going to stay lost, because I'm not going to explain the assay, since everyone else here has been over this."

So I left.

I mean, don't I have better things to do?

Yes, I certainly do.

It's funny, because a couple years ago I would have been more upset if someone talked to me that way, because for a long time I really had the impression that some people- usually men- get away with being arrogant assholes and everyone chalks it up to them being oh-so-smart. But now I really don't think that's true. I think the people who get ahead are not the smartest, but they're good at playing the political game of being nice- however phony they are- to everyone. Manipulative, even. Condescending, perhaps. But not arrogant. At least, that's my impression right now.

Anyway I'm less concerned about competing with someone like that, since I know he's not likely to get far with that attitude... you never know when that stranger in the back of the room might be someone useful to you someday.

Or someone who might jump at the chance to screw you!

I learned this the hard way. But at least I learned it.

Women and power?

And last night my neighbor told us that the Associate Dean in her department is trying to screw her over. Basically, she always gave credit to her top assistant, and everyone else on her team. She grew her department and has done really well, she's really well known outside the University, etc. But this Associate Dean (a man), is now saying that her top assistant really did everything, and the top assistant is gone, so he's saying he might not reappoint my neighbor this year.

She's upset. I told her she needs to be more self-promoting, they always say it's a catch-22 for women because we're not supposed to be self-promoting but if we aren't, we're seen as incompetent because no one realizes how much work we do.

She's thinking she's going to fight to keep her job, but I think she should leave. She's been talking about leaving all this past year anyway. But I can understand being conflicted, especially about changing jobs.

Power in numbers?

Female Physicist wrote and asked what I think about the increase in women in science, especially in graduate programs. (I'm sorry I don't know where that comment went, I didn't see it just now when I logged in-?)

Anyway this is a reallly interesting question and I hesitate to say I know, but I can surmise about some reasons and what I think might happen if things continue in this trend.

My impression is that most of the women I meet who go to grad school do it because they were science majors undergrad and have no clue what to do next. They didn't want to go to med school and they don't know anything about industry jobs.

Most universities push grad school because most universities have grad schools: it's just advertising a product. Grad school also gives you more time to think about what to do next. Women seem to allow themselves more room for wondering, I think, and view a career as a choice: men still view a career as an obligation. We're still using our parents as our primary role models, to some degree. My mom had a master's degree in math and only worked full-time for a couple of years before she had me. And never went back to a full-time job. So even though my parents have always pushed me, and my sister, to have careers, my mom couldn't be an example of that. And Dad never talked that much about his work.

Women do better in school, if you look at the statistics, most colleges graduate more women with better grades in just about every field. Even the majors that have fewer women, the women usually do pretty well, grade-wise.

Since most grad schools recruit based on grades, rather than experience or hands-on ability, it makes sense that they might start admitting more women. Women look better on paper at the level of applying to grad school. Smart schools know this.

The nice thing about this is, we might actually reach a critical mass, at least in grad school. My class was about 50-50, which was good. My thesis lab, and my current lab, are mostly women. It's amazing how much of a difference this makes. My first postdoc was in a lab that was very male-heavy, and although the guys weren't macho at all, the PI definitely treated us differently from the get-go.

So I got gone.

Critical mass in grad school aside, we still lose women in the postdoc stage. It's largely because women want to have kids, want to have a secure income, and who can blame them for not wanting to be treated like a second-class citizen for another 2-7 years? But men seem more committed to having a career at all costs, probably because they feel obligated to have a job to have an identity. So the men struggle through, maybe also because they're less likely to really consider what other options are open to them. Women are more likely go off and do writing, and policy, and law, and MBA programs, etc. At least, that's my very qualitative impression.

The few women who stick to it have pretty much the same landscape our female advisors had to look forward to: being a minority, not having many mentors, having to be twice as good as our male colleagues. Not a lot has changed in the upper echelons. Hello, Larry Summers.

And Larry Summers, Jr. Much as we might have hoped the old sexist jerks would die off, it's amazing how quickly their sons take their place. New sexist jerks are being born every day. Even if the degree of sexism isn't the same, there are still a lot of latent biases that come out when the going gets rough.

When the going gets rough, step on the women on your way to the top, the feeling goes. Women are guilty of doing it to each other, too. As long as we keep doing that, we're treading water.

Anyway I guess my point is, it doesn't really matter. Critical mass at one level will eventually spill over to critical mass at the next level, but that's the slow way to go. If we fixed the pipeline now, women might dominate science.

It's hard to know what would happen if that were the case. Once upon a time, say, about a hundred years ago, women got lucky when the men went off to War and we got to take over their jobs. And many women were technicians in labs and made a lot of critical discoveries.

But then the men came back and women let them have their jobs again. I can kind of understand, you missed your husband, you're just glad he's alive, there aren't enough jobs to go around anyway, etc. But part of me has a hard time forgiving the loss of so much progress. And the men were so goddamned ungrateful for all the work their wives did!

I guess I just worry it's going to become one of those professions, like teaching in public schools. More women do it, the pay is lousy, the quality is declining, and it's not viewed as a prestigious undertaking. Which is ridiculous, I think education is the most important thing and teachers have a huge effect on the futures of so many children...

On the other hand, nursing is becoming more popular with men, so who knows.

Personally, I like diversity in all things. I think the melting pot was a great idea, and it's too bad people seem unwilling to melt well together.

But yeah, I worry that if science becomes all-female, it will be devalued, underfunded, and decline in quality, simply because we live in a country that still hasn't had a female president. The conglomerate that is The Man In Charge- say of the NIH budget, for example- is still mostly made of men.

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At 10:16 PM, Blogger Megan said...

You know, I really love reading your blog. Sure, I can't totally relate, but I always feel like I learn something...or at least you get me thinking. I thought this was a very interesting post with interesting perspective on women in many fields.

My tiny experience with science was a somewhat positive one, as far as seeing the representation of women, but the more I analyze it, I realize that everything you say is true for my experience too. I once helped edit the Journal of Immunology when I lived in DC. Nearly everyone on our production end was female, including the Dr. who head up the whole journal. The PhDs who helped with the technical editing were women too. But now that I think about it, the majority of the articles published were written by men, consisting of mostly all male teams.

I think it is so incredibly important to have women in the math and science fields. After spending about 4 hours tonight working on math with my students, I'm even more grateful for these women! We truly need the perspective of women in these fields.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger psuche said...

Science is the study of facts in a particular context. It isn't about men vs. women. As soon as that enters the arena then your experiments are tainted.

Are there real things like jobs and project funding that are power driven? Sure. I can use intelligence and influence in any context and get ahead. That is actually the easiest thing to do. I found it to be mundane in any field I entered. Power is easy. The hard part is being true to reason and science when people don't want to change. Be true to your work and care less about the power issue. Something that is true will win every time. Maybe not in the timeframe you want but you can't deny facts.


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


If you post on my site again, I will most likely delete it. This site is not here to get unsolicited advice from young men who like groups like Evanescence and books like Atlas Shrugged.

Yuck. Get some taste, would you?

OF COURSE, men and women doing the same expeirments should get the same data.


And, btw, BULLY FOR YOU that you haven't had any problems using intelligence and influence to get ahead.

Maybe you're not trying to get where I'm going.

Or maybe you've had an easy time of it. Most men completely take it for granted that the system works in their favor. You seem to be one of those men.

And you're wrong, something that is true will NOT always win. Because time is an issue. We're not immortal. Stuff happens. A person has to be around, employed, and healthy enough to force stuff through the system, to GET IT PUBLISHED, before it's true. You have to stay in the game. And that requires power.

Unpublished science does not exist. If you don't know this yet, you are very young, very idealistic, or you've led an exceeding sheltered life.

Publishing requires power. EVERYTHING IN SCIENCE REQUIRES POWER. Anybody who tells you differently doesn't really know how the system works.

At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's funny, because a couple years ago I would have been more upset if someone talked to me that way, because for a long time I really had the impression that some people- usually men- get away with being arrogant assholes and everyone chalks it up to them being oh-so-smart. But now I really don't think that's true. I think the people who get ahead are not the smartest, but they're good at playing the political game of being nice- however phony they are- to everyone. Manipulative, even. Condescending, perhaps. But not arrogant. At least, that's my impression right now."

I agree 100%.


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