Practical magic: science vs. street smarts in academia.
I can't sleep. So you, dear readers, get a very long 3 AM blog post from MsPhD!
This week, I have been musing on a new hypothesis I'm developing. It's probably not a new feminist theory in any sense, but to me it was a revelation. And since my therapist is still on vacation, you get to hear about it here first!
According to the Just-World fallacy, if you work hard you will be rewarded, and if you are being punished you must have done something to deserve it. Right?
Many of us who do well in academics hold tight to this thinking, because we always did well in school. We want to believe our good grades, etc. have been, and will always be, rewarded by success. So we look for the equivalent in research: good results, good writing, good talks. Doing the right experiments.
Conversely, if you're not getting the papers or the job or the grants, it must mean you suck. Right?
However, some of you know this is not how academic science actually works.
And here's where things get interesting. The people who do best, on average, have not just science smarts, but also street smarts, and in just the right ratios (I'd guess maybe 3:2 or 1:1 or even 1:3).
Intuitively, we all know this is true. We all went to school with That Guy (it's almost always a guy) who aced every exam. But That Guy sucked at the bench, and/or could never figure out the right experiments to do, despite spending every waking minute reading about science, talking about science, and expounding on what everyone else was doing wrong.
Yeah. That Guy.
That Guy was missing some of the street smarts. Maybe he had zero, or maybe he just didn't meet the threshold. Maybe he's a perma-doc to this day, because he never really caught on.
In earlier generations, he might have had a faculty position because there were more of them in those days, but not now. Now, you gotta have art.
And the converse of That Guy is true. Let's call him That Prof. That Prof had a meteoric rise, short postdoc, so everyone assumes he's a genius.
The truth is, he's probably not. He probably just had the formula (some smarts + street smarts) = success!
Supposedly, your level of street smarts has more to do with your upbringing than almost any other single factor. People who know how to come in and play the system usually learned those skills early on, from their parents. Or maybe if they did certain activities after school.
This is a critical skill, but you don't learn these things in class.
However, here's where things get really interesting for women in particular.
From what I can tell, street knowledge is really hard for women to get. Again, maybe not a novel idea, but bear with me, I'm trying to figure out how to fix it.
1. Men tend to share street knowledge mostly (notice I didn't say only!) with other men.
The women I know who have done very well, did so because they either had a lot of street smarts to begin with, so they hooked up with older (usually male) mentors, and got the information and help they needed that way.
Some of the less street-smart ended up, usually through sheer luck, with husbands who fed them the information they needed (and/or helped them get their jobs via couple hiring).
Those are the two categories, people. Think about that cold, hard fact for a moment.
And ask yourself, if you got a job on your own, was really all on your own? Didn't somebody help you?
2. Women are often blind to the existence of street knowledge. If we know it's there, we can't figure out how to get it.
This is the Handbook of Unwritten Rules phenomenon.
Some of us know things are progressing in an irrational way.
Or, we assume there's a rationalization based on logic we just can't follow (Just-World Fallacy, anyone?).
But we're stuck at that stage. We can't figure out how to get the decoder ring. Some people, failing to get it, conclude that it's all paranoia and must not exist.
3. Many of the men (and women!) we work with don't think of it this way, so their treatment of us is based on the Just-World Fallacy.
By the time we're at the critical junctures, we women might have made some substantial efforts to get street knowledge, with varying degrees of success.
However, we're already behind where we should have been in our careers, due to the cumulative lack of having had street knowledge handed to us, as it often is for men.
This is assumed, via the Just-World Fallacy, to be due to insufficient desire, ability, or hard work (Thank you, Larry Summers).
We are falling behind, therefore we must have been lazy, stupid, or just plain bitchy. Right?
We get treated this way for long enough, and we start to believe it ourselves.
Maybe I just suck, we find ourselves thinking.
Then the road splits and you have basically two choices.
a. Notice you are becoming bitter and/or insecure, publicly or otherwise. Start a blog, go to a therapist. Try to figure out why.
b. Major career change, assuming it will be better elsewhere. Either it will be more suited to your particular abilities, and/or it will help stop thinking you suck.
Sometimes it is better elsewhere, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes we see what we want to see (projecting that it is better in industry or with a female PI, for example, can help postpone the steep descent into bitterness).
This all started solidifying for me, as this week I found myself explaining to a Condescending Collaborator (we'll call him CondeColl for short), ye olde tired refrain: No, I'm not an idiot.
The default in science is to assume everyone else in an idiot until proven smart. Right? Some of us try to keep an open mind, but to be human is to blink.
In this case, I had to defend myself to CondeColl, whom I had coincidentally just provided with a new protocol (which he agreed will save him a tremendous amount of time and effort).
Therefore, I had just proven I'm not an idiot. Right?
I gotta tell you, I am getting tired of this schtick. How much energy do I have to spend correcting people's wrong assumptions about me? Because of how I look? Because of stereotyping? How much does that set me back, emotionally and otherwise?
And yet, to do nothing is not productive, either. For me or for anyone who comes after me in this business.
CondeColl is a young man who was slightly skeptical when I tried to get him to walk a meter in my shoes. I was trying to explain to him how, from my point of view, it was hard for me to figure out when I was being shut out of an all-male gang in my lab, but I ultimately realized what had happened had nothing to do with science.
(Lest you think I went asking for trouble, this was in answer to his question about whatever happened to X system that one of the gang members touted as the next sliced bread).
Long story short, I'm not sure if CondeColl gets it, but hey at least I tried. This walk-a-meter approach has worked with other clueless guys in the past. Sometimes it takes a little while to sink in.
And this applies as well, of course, to ALL of us in science.
To wit, everyone assumes that all the setbacks a postdoc (male or female) experiences in publishing, etc. must be due to their scientific shortcomings, right?
Or because they're just arrogant, so no one can stand them, much less wants to help them (like That Guy)?
I was asking another co-worker recently what happened to a senior postdoc who left after 8-9 years. The answer was precisely the Just-World explanation: "He had personality deficiencies".
So let's be honest here. Shit happens to everyone. Some more than others.
The ones who have street smarts know how to get themselves out of tight spots, and the ones who don't.... get swept off the street.
When we make a judgment about someone not making it in science and therefore not being good enough, it could be that all they really lack is street smarts.
My concern is that I'm watching these senior women who managed to make it, and they are still lacking for street smarts. If they don't have it themselves, how are they going to pass that on to their female mentees?
Meanwhile, even well-meaning male PIs seem to assume women get our street knowledge from other women.
They might reflexively share with their male mentees, because that's how it was for them and that's how it has always been.
But most don't understand that it can and should be taught to women too.
Even if women are starting out with basically no clue whatsoever. Our cluelessness, in other words, is lack of knowledge. NOT lack of ability.
The truth is, of the female PIs I've met so far, I'm not convinced any of them will, or even know how, to help me.
They might want to, but they don't know where to start. Or I don't know the right words to get them to tell me. There again, my lack of street smarts is holding me back.
I've also tried to ask senior men for help, but they give me the Just-World Fallacy thrown back in my face. They say:
If you're good enough, you'll get a job. But are you sure you want to be a professor, little lady? Aren't you awfully young to be applying for jobs?
At least the women (generally) don't give me that particular brand of crap.
So walk a meter in my shoes. What kind of emotional toll does it take to deal with that, and know that each time you go asking for help or advice, you're always risking having to deal with that? Don't you eventually stop wanting to ask?
Meanwhile, five minutes later, both male and female PIs turn around and say to Other Guy (who, as near as I can tell, is not asking for help and no more deserving than I am): Here's how you do it. And then they hand him the Big Book of Street Knowledge for Dummies.
I've seen this happen. They tell me to fend for myself, and then they turn around and grab Other Guy by the hand and drag him down the street. It's incredibly frustrating.
A friend of mine, in her more bitter moments, puts it thusly: In the current economy, everyone is concerned about the men getting jobs to support their families. When 85% of the men already have jobs, we'll get jobs. But not before then.
Who knows if that's actually true (probably in another decade feminist economic theory will have the data to prove it true or false).
Meanwhile, most people seem to both expect and award street knowledge to guys, but not to women.
And it's self-reinforcing. The more you have, the more you get. But if you start out with none, it's really hard to get anywhere at all.
Maybe this is true in science and otherwise. I can really only speak to academic science. But I think this is a big part of what is holding us back.
Blogging has been a huge help. I've gotten all kinds of feedback, some more constructive than others, but all of it educational. If you can lurk around here, you can learn some things.
I have tried some other approaches to getting street-smart. I've read books on negotiating, etc. and some of those tools have been helpful although I suspect that when I really need to use those tools, I come across as someone who read about it in a book (!).
But my revelation of the week was that I need to be kinder to myself about this, because let's be honest: I'm basically still starting from scratch.
I have a decent amount of street smarts, maybe, but I haven't been given the Handbook of Street Knowledge in science, and not everyone understands that.
So it's no big surprise that some people will default to assuming I'm an idiot until proven smart. And some people who read this blog and know nothing about my science might assume I'm an idiot scientifically, too. I promise, my science is even better than my blogging!
I just hope that some of you can consider the possibility that, although bad things happen to everyone, it's not all deserved.We don't live in a Just World, no matter how scientific and objective we try to be.