Monday, December 07, 2009

More on presentations (also some ranting about writing)

By way of FSP's latest post, I wanted to say something more here since she had 44 comments already and many were quite long.

Lately there's been a lot of talk about "why do young women drop out" of the academic pipeline.

Lately I have been hearing from a lot of young women about why.

(As an aside: I've covered all but one of these topics (I think extensively?) on this blog from my own point of view. This post is mostly about the other one I really haven't covered.)

The why includes many components, but I think the main ones are:

1. not feeling welcome
2. wanting kids
3. wanting job security
4. outright harassment
5. wanting more money

Let's pick #1-2 for the sake of addressing FSP's post.

There is still a lot of pressure, especially in the US, for women to have children and be supported primarily by their husband.

I've had many long discussions with friends from Europe about the nonsense of last names, taxes, and mortgages in this country. On the one hand, we supposedly have equal property rights as men. Nobody would say, nowadays, that a woman could not legally own her own house. However, some of the red tape might lead you to think otherwise, especially if you are married.

I think one of the things we underestimate in science is how many young women feel these pressures. Constantly. From their own families, and from their in-laws.

They already feel left out of science as it is, socially speaking. Many fields are still majority male at the upper levels, even though we have this constant stream of young women coming in... and then leaving again. They see their friends leaving. It's a sinking ship. And they are not stupid.

There's still a lot of talk among young women about things like:

1. should I tell my boss I'm pregnant?
2. when's the best time to be pregnant in grad school/postdoc/junior professor (before my ovaries dry out)?
3. should I expect to be treated badly because I'm going on maternity leave (yes)?

They get the answers and they start making other plans for their lives.

So in response to FSP's question, no, I don't think it is too much information (aka TMI) for a (presumably senior, tenured?) professor to include in her research seminar some (?) mention about how she integrated having a family with having a career.

I think one of the major problems, as bluntly illustrated by the comments on FSP's post, is that women are often just as sexist and discriminatory as men are.

And many of the senior women in science now came from a generation of all-or-nothing. They did not have children, and whatever their feelings about it now, they tend to resent younger women just for having the choice. And they're not very sympathetic when their own students or postdocs need time off before or after having a child, or when they need more flexible schedules. I've seen it; I've heard about it; and you know it's true. Having a female PI is not necessarily any better.

I'll admit, learning to recognize the resentment and where it comes from can be really difficult. In my case, I have a younger friend who is very very girly. When I first met her I was mostly surprised that she wanted to hang out with me. Then sometimes I was slightly bothered by her girly-ness. But I was able to take a step back and say, you know what? She's being herself. In that very Legally Blonde kinda way that I actually really respect and enjoy. And I'll admit I'm a little bit jealous that she has figured out a way to do it without being the slightest bit self-conscious.

I would love to see more of this in science.

I think there has been a dangerous trend lately, perhaps brought on by various linguist-type philosophers (Roland Barthes comes to mind), to pretend as if science is written objectively by using pronoun-free passive phrasing. (Bear with me here, it's a short tangent and I promise it's relevant.)

Science was never like this. Looking back, historically science grew out of letters people wrote to each other (yes, there were women doing this too) about things they did basically as hobbies. Gardening, collecting bugs or rocks, looking at stars. They were conversations. They wrote, "I saw this. I thought that. I think it means blah. Next I think I'll do bleh."

Science now might as well be done mostly by robots, since so much of it is repetitious anyway. So then it might make sense to use phrasing like "The DNA was sequenced and this analysis revealed" rather than, "When we examined the DNA sequence, it became apparent that."

End of tangent. My point is that a little person-ality is not bad for science. It's actually how science was always done until very recently (say the last 20 years or so). So I'm very concerned when I see this kind of backlash against scientists being people. The two should not be mutually exclusive.

Sure, by the time you're a tenured professor you might have had all the life beaten out of you. You might have squeezed yourself into the mold so hard you cut off all the parts that didn't fit. But is that really what you want for the next generation?

Personally, I would MUCH rather have an informal presentation from a friend about her work, where she intersperses in stories about what else was going on at the time. Because that's where ideas come from, really. And science is sorely lacking for ideas these days- precisely because we're driving away so much young talent in the form of young women who haven't lost or traded in all their personality.

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At 11:02 PM, Blogger femme de science(s) said...

Unfortunately, I don't think things are any different in Europe. Maybe in more progressist countries, such as in Scandinavia, but from my experience, women don't have much choice here either.

At 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mentioned 5 reasons why women drop out of science

1. not feeling welcome: Hard to quantify. Given the kind of comments on this blog, it doesn't seem like the sexism goes only one way. In any case, assuming there is a not so insignificant amount sexism againt women around, maybe it could be offset by the fact that all legal institutions, affirmative actions, mechanisms, procedures for tackling sexism are basically "one direction only"?

2. wanting kids: unless some really cool science is done that can get men pregnant (at affordable rates), this will remain, sexism or no sexism.

3. wanting job security: Does this apply only to women?

4. outright harassment: This is basically repetition of point 1. Stating it again does not make it a new point.

5. wanting more money: Does this apply only to women?

At 6:08 AM, Anonymous DayByDay said...

Fantastic post! Loved reading it - I couldn't agree more! Thanks for writing it :)

At 6:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I agree with you about the robots. In fact, I hope a lot of it is done by robots because my last job could have been done by them and I would have been happier.

I can see both your point and FSP's point. I think if it's a more informal presentation, then sure, share all the juicy deets you want to. If it's more formal, I'd like to hear the research and maybe a few jokes about something that went wrong in the research (not in the life).

I have seen more of these "TMI" details lately, too, and the ones that work aren't so much, "woo hoo I TRIUMPHED" but just happen to share that the presenter has kids or got an idea while making a meal for 20. (One professor used to show cute pictures his kids drew that were related to his research- they were awesome). The ones that don't work come off as complain-y & I've heard these from some guys, too.

If I'm at a colloquium, research. If it's a lunch talk, or a presentation from an outsider meeting with just my group, there's more room for details.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger biochem belle said...

Wow. This post has evoked so many thoughts in my mind.

First, I have the feeling-both on how other women act around me and how I feel toward them-that female scientists are just as guilty of having certain prejudices/problems with other women in science. We are strong-willed women. We have decided that this is the way to "success". And we think women that do it differently are out of line or setting a bad precedent. (Forgive the hyperbole.)

Second, I am conflicted re: personal(ity) question. Many scientists do sanitize their talks. They strip away every vestige of personality. It is possible to infuse your personality into a talk without including irrelevant personal details, and my favorite talks of all time fall into that category. There are many people-male and female alike-who are uncomfortable hearing details of the personal lives of total strangers in the less than personal setting of a seminar; if I want to connect with a speaker, I prefer to do so by choice, outside of the talk.

At 6:38 AM, Blogger biochem belle said...

Regarding person-ality in publication, here is a fantastic example:

I really would like to go back to writing in this fashion.

At 8:40 AM, Blogger steph said...

Thank you! I'm the one who said I would love science to be more human. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I want to start a story-journal, with only papers that are fun to read AND have good science. But I don't want to stick with this crap long enough to have the clout that anyone will let me do what I want to do. Plus no one will send me their papers until they are established (can't admit that you're not perfect when you don't have tenure yet, right?). Real science stories are way more interesting...I know a lot of people find interesting results through mistakes, but no one would write that in their papers.

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't dropped out of science (yet) and I don't intend to. But items #1, 3-5 are huge for me. If I ever leave science it will be for those reasons.

1. not feeling welcome
2. wanting kids
3. wanting job security
4. outright harassment
5. wanting more money

My temporary solution for overcoming #1 is to move to another lab. But this is only because I am a somewhat beginning postdoc and it is acceptable to shift around a little bit.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger FrauTech said...

I'm not that familiar with academic talks, but my understanding was this was supposed to be a scientific presentation. And while motivation or work-life balance might in fact be more interesting than the science sometimes, that's not the point of the talk. If someone is giving a general talk, or speaking to a group ABOUT work-life balance, I think the family photos are fine. But if I'm there to hear about your research, I don't need your family album thrown in unless it's directly applicable. And I don't mean "Then i had my third kid..." directly applicable, it's got to be "I was pouring my son a bowl of cheerios when suddenly it dawned on me a way we could improve our technique."

I guess I'd compare it to my world; Corporate America(TM). Presentations occur all the time. Sometimes they are general overviews, sometimes specific technical explanations, plenty of things. I've never seen a male or female colleague include ANYTHING about their personal lives in these presentations. It would be grossly inappropriate. One might use their own family as an example when illustrating a policy if for instance they are an HR representative. But for the most part you keep those two worlds separated. If I had gone to hundreds of these things and the first time I saw someone include photos of their kid was from a female presenter I would be mortified. Likely a high percentage of the dudes watching would think, "well that's what happens when you let a woman present." That's why women in technical fields have to be vigilant. Because everything we do is attributed to ALL women. Is it sometimes disappointing when everything is being impersonal? Sure. But I'd rather men start making the leap to include this stuff in their presentations first.

At 1:55 PM, Anonymous math grad student said...

I just ran across your blog a few days ago by random googling and I wanted to say I like it very much! I'm a math grad student with a somewhat different background from you (eastern european, male, privileged, no minority status of any kind, etc) but a lot of the things you write about really resonate. I especially like your perspective on what science is about and how that relates -- and sometimes doesn't relate well at all -- to the process of being a successful scientist in academia.

I've been lucky enough to have my scientific career run pretty smoothly (so far) but I have seen and heard of many bad things happen around me, in many cases related to sexism, and I think you're doing the right thing by being so outspoken and eloquent in your blog.

Anyway, I just wanted to say I'm a fan, and I hope you keep up the good science work which it sounds like you're doing as well as the good blogging!

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed! I also admire those who do not succumb to the pressure of leaving their 'femaleness' outside of the work place, which is ignoring/supressing a big part of oneself, and in fact, perpetuating a discriminatory system. I am the 'serious/matter-of-fact/never flirty' female, because my instincts told me this would allow me to fit in...and it has mostly work. However, I have seen girly-girls succeed too, very encouraging.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

femme de science(s), From what I've heard, Scandinavia is still not a great place to move up the ladder if you're female. Maybe the culture inside the labs is better though, I don't know? And they have much more humane family leave policies.

Anon 3:47,

I can see that you're defensive about gender issues. Maybe you're in a lab where you're one of the only men? Take heart, this will not be the case when you are a PI.

re: wanting kids, again, as I and other have written extensively, onsite daycare and two-parent family leave policies would help a lot with this problem.

My point in #3 and 5 is not that men don't care about these things, absolutely they do. But women drop out in disproportionate numbers, and these are some of the reasons they cite.

#4 is QUITE DIFFERENT from #1, and if you read some of the comments on this blog you might be able to see why. The good news is that outright harassment is usually actionable in a legal sense; feeling unwelcome is not. But really, neither of those things is good news.

biochem belle,

Of course you can always introduce yourself, if you are brave. But many young female scientists are shy, and I can say from multiple personal experiences that FSPs are not always friendly or encouraging (any more than MSPs are). It's really different if the speaker is sending a message, not just to the YFSs in the audience, but to everyone, that having kids or balancing work with family does not make you a failure.

also, that looks like an interesting article! I will have to read it later.

steph, that's a great idea for a journal! You should totally do that. I wonder if you could start by making a webpage with links to articles like that- some of the academic journals run these kinds of stories from time to time.

Anon 11:48,

Good luck. I hope your next lab is better than the first.


You raise some good points. And you're absolutely right that if academia is going to have a different culture than corporate america, it would help if more men made an effort. I do see this pretty often now, men who make a point of highlighting that their wife is also a successful scientist, etc. Some might argue that it's unnecessary or irrelevant, but I find it encouraging to see.

math grad student,

welcome! thanks!

Anon 4:12,

Yeah, I can't say it has solved all my problems, but I dropped most of my girly tendencies earlier in my postdoc. But that doesn't mean I think anyone should have to or that it always works.

At 5:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My point in #3 and 5 is not that men don't care about these things, absolutely they do. But women drop out in disproportionate numbers, and these are some of the reasons they cite."

Wait a second. Why would women drop out at disproportionate rates due to lack of money and job security?

In fact, if patriarchy is the norm (as you suggest), don't you think women have LESS pressure to earn well and have good jobs? Shouldn't this make it easier for them to adjust to the lesser pay and lower job security? In the patriarchal system, women don't have to be breadwinners and hence they can afford to pursue science almost along the lines as a hobby.


At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a woman and I left science. I left after 3.5 years of postdoc. Why? Because of #3 and #5, and how that would impact #2 if I wanted to do that on my own. I saw a ton of long-term soft money scientists, and it seemed that someone always came through and took care of them when they were going to lose funding, somehow it always worked out, but they were always on the edge. Of course they were all men. So either a I get a really rare permanent job in an out-of-the-way place, or I slog along like them, perpetually in fear of my grants running out. And do you think I would trust a group of all-male scientists to keep me afloat when I'm 50? 60? 40? Not on your life. They would let me sink.

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Hope said...

Sure, I guess the only reason that FSP and most of the commentariat there disagree with you is that they’re sexist. Everyone knows that FSP is a dried-up old hag who’s jealous of younger women with kids, and so are most of her commenters. (Just ignore the fact that her “Kidlessness” thread revealed that a lot of her readers/commenters are quite young and plan to have kids later.) Clearly, sexism is the reason that a lot of people disagree with you on this issue. It couldn’t possibly be that this is a topic about which reasonable people will disagree.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of the exhibitionism that permeates our culture of late. What is this obsession with having to be everything that you are everywhere you go? That I don’t share a lot of the details of my personal life with my colleagues is for my benefit, not theirs. I’m an adult, and that means that I don’t need anyone to approve my choices.

But I know what would make you happy. I’m going to advocate for a law that mandates that every lab has to provide a big hot tub to be used by lab employees when giving birth. That way a pregnant lab member can just jump in when the time comes and give birth right there with all of her lab mates encouraging her. It takes a village, right? If the woman in question needs to go to the hospital, then one of her lab mates must accompany her with a video camera to record the blessed event. The movie could then be shown at the next lab meeting to serve as inspiration and encouragement for the rest of the female lab members. (Is this fair to the ones who don’t want or can’t have kids? Um … well, they’re probably in the minority, anyway, so let’s not worry about that.) Parts of the movie—or hell, maybe the whole thing—could be embedded into research talks to be given at national and international conferences. Sound good? If not, perhaps you’re more sexist than you think you are, because clearly there’s no such thing as TMI – it’s just sexism in disguise.

Oh, and one more thing: please consider reading some Barthes before making the ridiculous claim that passive voice in science writing is somehow attributable to him.

At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is so wrong with saying that there is a time and place for everything, and that a technical talk at work is NOT the time nor place to inject personal information and pictures?? why is that so bad? No one is saying to NEVER share any personal info with ANYONE, just not during the technical talks.

In industry you rarely see pictures of people's babies at work meeting presentations. Maybe there's something about academia that selects for people who are so self-centered and think they are so great that the whole world needs to know about them as a person, not just their work.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger femme de science(s) said...

Aw no, I don't think it's great there (Scandinavia) either, but I'm guessing it's better.

Northern Europe countries do have the best family policies and it is socially accepted for both women AND men to work part time to take care of their family. We do talk a lot about how hard it is for us women in sciences, but if a man wants to work 4 days a week to take care of his kids, it's going to be difficult in most companies. That's also something worth fighting for, I know fathers who would like to, but it would be seen as a lack of commitment to the company...


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