Monday, February 18, 2008

Winning your battles vs. Losing yourself

On to the next self-help book, which is a woman's guide for negotiating.

There is an important topic. But I really don't like the book.

Keep in mind, this is not a book of Feminist-Friendly Negotiating Skills. Quite the opposite. I realized this when I read the beginning, which was a while ago, and at the time I was pretty busy. So I stopped.

I stopped because pretty early in the book, they said that rather than confronting men at work, women would do better to remind them gently and repeatedly until they come around.

In other words, they said we should nag. Nag, nag, nag.

I've tried nagging. Sometimes it works. But it really wears me out. If that's what I'm supposed to do to succeed at work, I'll never make it.

But since I've read almost everything in my house, I thought I would pick up this book again and just see what else they said. Much as I don't like the content, I find it interesting how they spell it out. For example, they never actually use the word "nag", but that is exactly what they're telling us to do.

So I just got to a part in the book where they give an example of a woman getting what she wants.

This woman wanted to go to a professional school. Her father wanted her to get married and have children.

Instead of confronting him on the issue of whether she wanted to ever have children vs. wanting to have a career, she persuaded him that going to school would help her make a living until she found a husband.

She got what she wanted, and her father never knew that he was being a sexist bastard.

Oops. That's not exactly how the book tells it. They just say, look this woman got to go to school even though her father said no.

I was discussing this with a friend who said, well that's just picking your battles.

I have problems using tactics like this. I might win the battle, but then I find I haven't done anything to stop the war. In other words, if you let people go on making assumptions about what you want, you're going to end up fighting the same battles over and over.

Maybe you can't really ever change anyone's beliefs. If this woman's father really believes the place of women is to have children, maybe it's impossible for her to change his mind.

But if you don't even try? And you let him go on thinking he's right-?

This book consistently tells women to use tactics of manipulation.

Another approach they espouse is to get men to think your idea was their idea, and therefore approve it when they would otherwise say no.

And here again, I think this is a very dangerous strategy to use in the workplace.

You might win the immediate battle, but you'll never move up. You're guaranteeing that this guy will take credit for your ideas, and in my experience, chances are very good that he'll never make sure you get the credit you deserve.

For example, I have a friend who works in a lab with a really sexist PI. He is the worst kind, because he thinks he's not sexist. Most people who know him outside the lab would say he was not sexist. He doesn't make ridiculous comments about how women should just stay home and have babies. He's a modern sexist: he just doesn't want to work with women unless he feels that he has complete control.

My friend figured out that, if she wants anything, she has to ask a guy in her lab to propose it to the PI. And then the answer is always yes. It doesn't matter what it is. The pattern is consistent: if she proposes it herself, the answer is always no.

I totally understand that she has to do this to get her work done, or get out of that lab.

She went to the office that handles sexual discrimination on her campus, and they said it was too subtle, there was nothing they could do unless she wanted to file a formal complaint, but they discouraged that since it would be very hard to prove.

The only solution I can see is for the men in the lab to tell the PI that his behavior is inappropriate. They are the only witnesses. She has tried approaching other PIs in the department, but they are totally unreceptive (against university discrimination policy, of course, but what can you do).

Although the men in her lab are helping her win the daily battles, and they like to say they're feminists, they're really not.

They're perpetuating the sexism when they're in the perfect position to effect a change. Instead of helping her be treated equally, they're indirectly getting credit for her ideas.

Meanwhile, my friend is stuck using these un-feminist tactics to win these little battles on a daily basis, which is making her hate herself.

Now, the authors of the negotiation book argue that these approaches work well for women because we can't use the same methods that work for men.

Confronting this PI with this pattern of decision-making would not work. It would be impossible to document it effectively and demonstrate it in a way he would have to accept.

Although we have joked about how she should set up a webcam.

Worst of all, this PI is up for a promotion. We are wishing there were a way to send an un-recommendation letter. Unfortunately this is not a department that includes grad students and postdocs as representatives on their hiring committees.

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At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He's a modern sexist: he just doesn't want to work with women unless he feels that he has complete control. "

Now THAT is a money quote.

EXACTLY. EXACTLY!!! That is the first time I have seen this nail hit exactly on the head. Have I ever dealt with just that. I am going to frame this, I swear.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

Sounds like that book was written 30 years ago. yuck! Still, it has to be better than _Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus_ which is in my stack. I promised a coworker I would read it, but I had to put it down after chapter 3. It made me want to throw up.

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Mad Hatter said...

I totally agree the book's recommendation for a woman to nag, or to get men to think her idea is really theirs, is ridiculous. But I don't think all "negotiation strategies" other than outright confrontation are necessarily evil. It's only evil that the book specifically recommends that women use these strategies because they can't negotiate the way men do.

For example, I actually think the hypothetical woman who got to go to school without confronting her father on his sexist views did the right thing. Not because I think she should let him continue to think he's right, but because by finding a way to go to school, she will be able to establish emotional and financial independence, which lessens her father's control over her life. This will put her in a better position to eventually be able to tell him to go f*** himself without incurring as much damage from the potential fallout. Fighting the battles and fighting the war aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

As for the sexist PI, unfortunately the only real way to get universities to pay attention to the so-called "non-egregious" cases is for both men and women to refuse to work for these PIs. Let's face it, asshole PIs will continue their behavior so long as they continue to have a cadre of enablers working for them. But it's always easier to say that someone else should have the guts to stand up and walk away than to actually do it oneself. Not everyone wants to volunteer to be the cannon fodder to set change in motion, and that choice has to be respected.

At 5:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was interested to hear about the inaction of your friend's young male colleagues. I have been increasingly frustrated by the indifference that my male friends and colleagues have towards women-in-science challenges. In discussions with them, they clearly recognize that the injustices are real, and not perceived. Because they are the majority, they have the most power to make changes to the system established by the older male academics, yet they do nothing. Here is a call to them: as you move up the academic ladder, use your power to make positive changes for us. You could make a real difference.

I really think there needs to be more discussion on the important role that young males can play in achieving workplace equality. It's not enough that there is a feminist movement. The men have to care too.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am reading "What got you here won't get you there". I have a feeling it may help you see that the interpersonal issues begin to trump everything else as you proceed in your career.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

last anon,

um, that's not news to me.

but that doesn't mean i have to like it.

what i'd want to know is whether anyone has some new insights into how to deal with people i don't respect, and who don't respect me.

i'm really struggling with this problem where i'm supposed to want to earn the respect of people, but i can't figure out why. i don't respect them, so why should i care what they think? or have them as colleagues for the next several decades?

i read 7 habits of highly effective people, and found it really soothing, even if it's not terribly practical.

i was already doing most of the things he suggests in that book.

unfortunately, not everyone is, especially not where i work.

if everyone were really trying to respect each other, the suggestions in that book would be just the right tools to handle everything in life. i like that imaginary world where everyone is really trying hard to listen and do the right thing.

too bad it's not that simple.

At 2:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"As for the sexist PI, unfortunately the only real way to get universities to pay attention to the so-called "non-egregious" cases is for both men and women to refuse to work for these PIs."

Sorry, then you are said to be 'difficult'.

"I really think there needs to be more discussion on the important role that young males can play in achieving workplace equality. It's not enough that there is a feminist movement. The men have to care too."

Sorry, it has nothing to do with age. Some of the worst 'Freudian slips' of the sexist nature came from people of my own age. Besides, they have to climb the greasy poll too.

"The only solution I can see is for the men in the lab to tell the PI that his behavior is inappropriate."

If there is a hell, then the men that do nothing about this should be in the deepest level. Don't they realize that their wives and daughters will be subjected to this until they use their balls? Oh sorry, In my experience many of them have failed marriages or seem to still be virgins. But I know some that have daughters they love.

The more I see, the more I realize what a triumph women's suffrage is. How do you go about changing the system when you can just be called mad or stupid?

And that's the problem now - that word SYSTEM. If you're an Indian under colonial rule you can demonstrate to the world that the system is unjust.
If you are a woman who cannot vote you can stand with other women and block entry to parliament until they listen to your arguments.
But if you are the only woman in a lab...
And there is no SYSTEM - no rules or laws that are discriminatory - nothing to fight.

All I can see is that nothing can change until the men that see this happening before their eyes make the change.

But there were plenty of men that supported their wives in the fight for suffrage.

The Indians had to do it themselves, or they wouldn't have been taken seriously.
Same with women's suffrage.

So what is one women to do?

Well, leave. Let there be no women in academia.

Then in decades time when they ask where all the women are, they will have to look harder at what is really going on.

But no - this doesn't work. I heard a WOMAN on the radio that nearly made me physically sick. She was defending the idea that women are generally average in intelligence, men at the extremes. Another candidate for the 9th circle.
Maybe she is the reincarnation of a black slave-master? Oh, but she's a women, so her conclusions must be average :-)

If this was said about Afro-Caribbean Boys to justify their generally lower achievement at high-school it would be seen as offensive. If research came out to back it up genetically, it would still be offensive.

Remember the blue-eye, brown-eye experiment?
It's called 'prejudice' for a reason. If you bar all blue-eyes from good education, there will be no high-flying blue-eyes.
Blue-eyes have less rights.

Are you really saying that there can never exist an intelligent blue-eye.

Well, if you believe natural selection is a myth then I suppose this would be easier for you to swallow.

This is a comment it is supposed to be inflammatory. But I offer the following direct to MsPhD: Sure you have no system to fight - sure you are small in numbers and cannot besiege the seat of power. But this documentation of your struggle is important. If a book could be compiled of diary entries from many like you something might change.



(Disclaimer: I am married to a woman, and I have female relatives)


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