Saturday, April 04, 2009

My setbacks are not the same as your setbacks.

I was reading this month's Scientiae blog carnival about challenges, and noticing that most of the posts are about personal challenges.

When asked about challenges, most women scientists apparently list these kinds of things:

breast cancer
dying parents
crazy colleagues

i.e. personal challenges.

Most of us do NOT list scientific hurdles, i.e. trying to get our experiments to work.

Maybe I misunderstand the point of Scientiae, but I think this really is what bothers women in science. It's not the science part that is hard to handle, it's all our other worries and responsibilities that get in the way of our science.

It's especially interesting to me because most of my women scientist friends (current and former scientists, that is) fall into only two categories.

a) Never had problems with the science itself, only the politics/-isms in science

b) Left science, but never realized until much later that feeling discouraged and not good enough at science was mostly because of the politics/-isms

From what I can tell, the main factor in determining which of these two categories women fall into is what kinds of experiences they had prior to starting graduate school.

Those of us who fell into category (a) had already experienced some -isms and/or already had a very strong habit of standing up for ourselves as equals.

Those who fell into category (b) came from families where women had more traditional roles, and/or attended science-heavy schools where women were in the vast minority.

(The unconscious message they got from this opportunity was that women don't do science.)

In contrast, when I ask my guy scientist friends (current and former scientists) about their challenges, they say:

exploitative boss
can't decide what to work on
experiments are not working
about to run out of funding
got scooped on a competitive project

and very rarely, they might say:

have to find a better-paying job to support the wife & kids
visa running out

But in general, they are very open about struggling with the science.

Now, there are a few possible ways to interpret these answers.

1. Guys actually are not that good at science. (Take that, Larry Summers!)

2. Guys have fewer other responsibilities and generally don't multi-task their worrying, so they effectively ignore the challenges in their personal lives.

3. Guys do worry about these other things, but they don't talk about it the way women do.

But I submit the possibility that, while everyone has setbacks, they are perceived differently.

For example.

When a man does a challenging project, it's called "groundbreaking."

Not so long ago, I was talking about some of the challenges in my project, and a young male professor told me he thought my project sounded "too hard".

I was totally baffled by this, because I was not complaining or saying that we couldn't figure out ways around these challenging issues.

In fact, I was talking about the solutions I came up with, as examples of how satisfying problem-solving can be, and how cool the answers were: i.e., things I am really proud of accomplishing at work.

... Until I realized he himself had chosen something technically easy for his own research.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately since I just had a similar conversation with another "peer" who is starting a faculty position this year. Arguably, his project is not novel at all. And yet, he has a job.

And so I debate if/how to sell myself on the job market. On the one hand, theoretically it's good to do something novel. It's better for science and better for society. On the other hand, it's not good for your job prospects if your project is seen as too risky, or if you as a candidate are perceived as unproven.

My perception is that there are a very few women who somehow slip through the "system", working on things that are extremely novel and extremely unproven. When asked, they invariably say they have never experienced any kind of sexism.

But I don't know if that's true, and if so, I don't understand how they do it.

For the rest of us, our abilities are too often met with a particularly sexist kind of skeptic-ism.

So the rest of us strategize. We say:

1. I will do many more experiments to prove my science is not too risky, and then they will see me as a real candidate.

2. I will change how I am perceived.

You can guess, then, why women often end up choosing the #1 strategy. We play to our strengths.

And so we end up finding the #2 problem the most challenging. Science is easy. It's everything else that makes it so hard.

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At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never had a problem with the science. I sailed through my comps and defense. My dissertation was published long before I had to formally bind it into a book. I just know how to get from data point A to paper point B. It's funny when someone calls my advisor to ask about one of MY papers (single author = me). He always tells the 100% male callers to call me, that I don't bite. They never do. godforbid they would learn something from a woman, TEH HORROR, or admit that they have to ask help from a woman.
It's always always been men fearing a strong woman that's been the big problem for me. They spend all this energy trying to rip me down and find cracks in my armor, while their gaping holes are plain as day to me. I've learned the hard way to punch back. I prefer for my bruises to have matching bloody fists.

Every male grad student I know bitches about the piss-poorly designed projects, their shitty data, why they can't beat their graphs into submission. I've always wondered about this myself and here's my $0.02. They can't beat their data into submission, so they beat their competitors (the ladyfolk) into submission. If you can't get ahead by your great science (or your skill SUXXS), then cut the competition's legs off. The boys spend more energy in the political realm because it's easier and they are rewarded for their membership in the boys club. They publish every "groundbreaking" piece of shit possible to puff up their CVs.

Side note: I was reviewing CVs for an administrative position. 2 of the male candidates had pages of REJECTED grant proposals. I nearly fell over when I saw it not once, but twice. Padding their CVs with rejections is a new one. It's bad enough that they list their wife and kids as academic accomplishments.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Becca said...

I noticed that trend in Scientiae as well. I tend to think about my major challenges as more of the kinds you list for guys.

For me, the science is hard. Really hard. But I also realize at least part of that perception is based on unrealistic expectations of what should work. When I first started working with a certain other grad student, I felt a bit intimidated by how amazingly much more than me he knew (he'd worked as a tech for 10 years, and just come out of a superstar lab). Particularly when he'd be trying to help me troubleshoot something and say "it should work! This always works" (which my PI at the time also liked to say. A LOT). Then I started watching him closely. Over time, I realized they didn't always work for him- he has a very selective memory (he can blame poor memory on being 'old' since he's been working in the field for so long, but I honestly think it's adaptive). Once I learned most of his tricks, they didn't work for him that much more often than they worked for me.

I realize from many other painful challenges with politics/sexism/bullshit that the science can be comparatively easy. But calling it easy, or saying you never have problems with the science itself, doesn't ring true either, at least not for me.

At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Guys actually are not that good at science. (Take that, Larry Summers!)

Heh. Funny joke.

2. Guys have fewer other responsibilities and generally don't multi-task their worrying, so they effectively ignore the challenges in their personal lives.

3.Guys do worry about these other things, but they don't talk about it the way women do.

2 and 3 are accurate. Men and women talk about very, very different items at work and admit to very different shortcomings. Even in a scientific environment-- in biotech right now, work is a highly social and identity-politics dense atmosphere.

C'mon YFS. You know men and women simply don't verbalize the same worries ;) although their concerns are often shared.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

I thought that was funny.
But Anonymous has a point - I think it is fair to say that men and women are very differently socialised, so may *have* much the same challenges, but just verbalise different ones.
I was on a course recently designed to help women increas their assertiveness - I hadn't realised how much I a. apologise and b. admit my weaknesses.
I tend to *not* say when I think I am good at something, but make my weaknesses/ vulnerabilities obvious.
Many men (not all, of course) do the opposite.

And Becca, yes, as you say, 'that ALWAYS works comes from selective memory - that's called confirmation bias ;-)

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think how hard or easy the science is just depends what type of science you do. there are ton of scientists who do plug-n-chug incremental science that actually doesn't require much indepnendent thought at all, just in-depth familiarity with what already exists and a high level of skill at implementing known techniques and models. Just tweak one thing in your experiment and apply the same methods and techniques and models over and over again. every result is publishable (well, almost every). Compare that to the type of science that is seeking to do something more creative and unprecedented and so cross disciplinary that it's hard to find someone who has already done exactly the same thing you're tryingn to do.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous C said...

Good observation. My take on it would be that so many women have dropped out of the pipeline that the only women left are those with sufficiently strong research skills to help them hang in there.

So it doesn't surprise me at all that women's problems don't seem to be the science.

At 10:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


In applying for faculty positions the selection of research problems is used by us to separate the top candidates in to interview vs not-interview. What we like to so are several projects, some "easy", short term (plug and chug if you like), medium term and long term (the hard, potentially ground breaking problems). The chug and plug approach allows you to establish an independent program (separate from your previous advisors), allows you to publish etc. The harder problems will take longer to get up and running and to generate results leading to publications and funding. Having a broad range of research problems shows that you have thought about the potential pitfalls, and know how to start your independent career. What you choose to do when you have landed your job is up to you - I gave up on my proposed ideas after a couple of years.


At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how you feel about Sandra Harding's comment that Newton's Principia is a "rape manual"?


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