Friday, January 15, 2010

Help with a recurring people problem

One of the worst things about being a postdoc is what I call having pseudo-authority.

You have a PhD, yes. But you are a temporary employee, not staff. And everybody knows it.

This means there are often power struggles with staff-type people who are

a) not that into their job, just into the paycheck
b) paid better than you and working fewer hours
c) fully expecting you to fail and leave while they stay on and on and on forever

So, they treat you like dirt.

At least, this has been my experience. Not always- some staff have been very polite and helpful. Others, not so much.

In particular today I am talking about a certain kind of guy (because that is usually where I have problems).

This kind of guy does not have a PhD. He might be a student, a tech, or some other kind of staff. He has always been there longer than I have.

I should say here that I do not always have problems with people who fit this description. I can think of a few who were my best friends when we worked together, who always treated me as a peer and we helped each other out, and I really miss working with them.

Which is probably why I'm baffled when I meet one who treats me like dirt.

I might outrank this guy by two or 9 years, it doesn't matter. He looks at my boobs when I'm talking to him; he is late when we make an appointment; he does not do what I ask him to do, even when it fits word-for-word into his job description; he apologizes about his irresponsible behavior only if it is dire and too late to fix whatever he did or did not do that created enormous problems for me.

I should say here that not all of these qualities mean the guy is going to be a jerk to me forever. I have worked with ones who were disrespectful at first or irresponsible occasionally but mostly okay and I really did believe them when they apologized.

And then there are the ones who always stare at my boobs instead of my face when I am talking to them; who are always late and disregard my instructions as if I never gave any. As if my time is worthless and I might as well have been talking to thin air.

I'm blogging about this as a general concept because it has happened to me over and over again, in various jobs and situations, and I suspect it will continue to happen and I will continue to be upset about it every single time until I figure out what to do about it.

The problem is that I never have any real authority over these guys. In theory they are working for me or with me; they may even report to me. But usually when I finally work up the nerve to complain to my/our boss, invariably it is a guy and he looks at me like I am from Mars.

But That Guy is a great guy, he says incredulously when I try to explain that I feel I am being harassed, and disrespected, and can't get my job done.

At this point, I pause and make a choice. I have tried both the

a) explaining my case just fact-by-fact, as in "here is what happened" with no judgments, just my point of view of what happened when and whose job it was and how an objective person might expect things to work instead of the way they are not working right now

and the

b) explaining my case from the "try to put yourself in my place"* point of view, which would work with a normal person** who might be capable of, I don't know, empathy (even for something he has never experienced himself).

Neither has ever worked. This has happened with multiple bosses, every few years or so, there is always one of these guys who simply cannot treat me like any other colleague, but has to make a big deal about my gender.

So I have tried various approaches to to pointing out how uncomfortable I am and how difficult it is to get my work done.

Always, the man in charge will, instead of apologizing or offering to speak to That Guy, he will give me a speech about how maybe I am difficult to work with, how I need to lighten up or be more patient or ask more nicely, etc.

I should point out that these are the less-sexist bosses. These are the guys who think they are enlightened. And they still do this.

So invariably, I give up, and I simply cannot get my work done. Eventually, I hate going to work, until I can find a way to drop that project or do it myself while avoiding That Guy.

It definitely slows me down.

In fact, if I have to be really honest about what has hurt my career the most, the one people problem I still can't solve is this one.

I have figured out, more or less, how to avoid and/or extract myself from the crappy outright-harassing boss situations. I have figured out how to power down insubordinate students. But it's these in-between pseudo-peers who still manage to completely trip me up. And I still don't know what to do about it.

Of course part of me lives in terror of someday actually supervising, on my own, this kind of woman-hating jerk. I would certainly hope that, if I'm ever in the position to hire anyone, I would have the knowledge of how to NOT hire someone who would disrespect me this much. Men or women.

But in the meantime, I am stuck having people assigned to me whom I did not choose. And I really don't know how to deal with these situations, because they are just subtle enough that everyone just tries to sweep them under the rug.

Eventually, That Guy will get kicked out or leave. It always happens if I just wait long enough.

But I can't wait forever, and in the meantime, I am always miserable and left wondering if it's better to make a formal complaint, and risk the backlash (which inevitably comes, along with whatever hit my recommendation letters must take), or to just sit tight, or to quit.

Because I don't have forever to wait for everyone else to wise up. And I'm just really sick of it. Lately I am so sick of it that I'd say this is one of my two biggest complaints about being a woman in science (the other one will be the next blog post).

*or my bra
**read: non-scientist type of human being

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At 8:57 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Hear, hear! I'm guessing that most of these guys, if students, would never choose a woman as a supervisor, because they can only succeed in a Buddy System, typically lacking the talent to do more individual work. Being generously endowed, I am used to boob-staring from both pseudo-peers and bosses. And of course the boss thinks I'm the one with a problem. As a mature (unemployed) postdoc, having worked in different fields within physics, I outrank the typical 'pseudo-peer' by, er, about 15 years. And these morons think they know more than I do.
Fortunately, in my theoretical field there is no need to interact with techs, and my interactions with admin staff are usually fine.
The only solution is to do EVERYTHING yourself, which is really the advantage of being in theory ... balanced by the disadvantage of it being virtually impossible to publish.

At 1:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have had to work with male peers who outright refused to look me in the eye or address me directly or even acknowledge my presence. Instead they would address my (male) colleagues or students or acquaintances right beside me.

There was one time when one of those guys kept asking another male colleague who was standing next to me, about my work. my male colleague had no clue since that wasn't his work. I would answer the questions. The guy would then follow up with more questions but again directed to my male colleague who kept on saying "look I don't know, OK?" it was as if I wasn't even in the room, like I was invisible!

I find this extremely weird. Are they trying to avoid me because I make them uncomfortable, or are they playing manipulative bullying games with the intent to make ME uncomfortable??

At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He looks at my boobs when I'm talking to him; he is late when we make an appointment; he does not do what I ask him to do, even when it fits word-for-word into his job description; he apologizes about his irresponsible behavior only if it is dire and too late to fix whatever he did or did not do that created enormous problems for me."

Ha, you have just described my advisor. How sad. Sorry you're having troubles - hang in there, you are certainly not alone!

At 9:44 AM, Blogger yolio said...

I think these situations are fundamentally unsolvable. The best you can do is identify the problem area very early, keep a thorough paper trail and start sharing your frustration about this person sooner rather than later. If you can manage that, then maybe you can bring the problem to a head in a reasonable amount of time.

Getting a clueless mentor on your side in this area is a show-not-tell mission. You arrange for them to hear all of the details of your experience, but you carefully avoid drawing conclusions or pointing out that you totally see where this is going. You've got to play a little dumb, or at least faux-innocent. Then, when something truly upsetting happens, your clueless mentor has been prepped to conclude on their own that the problem is serious.

This is not a satisfactory solution. It may not work at all, in fact. But I don't know what else can be done. It sucks.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Yikes. This seems to be all too common. I've only had issues with tit-talkers, but they were always so socially inept that I didn't think it had anything to do with me.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

check out this totally relevant post. Although, it does not suggest any solutions, either.

At 3:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's Zuska's takedown. jc

At 12:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not secret that there is double standard for men and women in the workplace and especially when it comes to leadership roles. When men behave a certain way in the workplace they are viewed as being "strong" and "motivated" and "take-charge" and other positive attributes. Whereas when women do the same things they are described as "bitchy" and "too aggressive" and other negative attributes. This has been talked and written about extensively so the existence of such double standards is not under question.

But what I want to ask is just WHO are the ones doing the perceiving and making these judgments that create and perpetuate the double standard? Is it only the male peers and subordinates and higher-ups? What about the other women who are not the ones being scrutinized at that point in time? It seems to me that if there are equal number of women as men in a team/group/company/organization (which is not always the case but for the sake of argument), and yet there is a pervasive double standard throughout our culture, then this must mean that women are also taking part in perpetuating this double standard.

You can't have a pervasive a cultural attitude or stereotype if half of the population isn't buying into it. So either this means that women are in the minority and outnumbered thus their views go unnoticed, or else if they are not outnumbered then they must be taking part in it too. Which is it? In science I can see that women are minority and therefore in scientific organizations the double standard for male- and female bosses can be attributed to the women being outnumbered and thus the double standard is being held and perpetuated by men.

But such doubled standard for male vs. female bosses exists outside of academic science too. It exists across many different professions and sectors. Not all of those sectorrs have such a huge gender gap, surely some of those sectors must have equal or near-equal number of women to men. Yet this double standard is so pervasive in our culture. So does this mean that women (in general) are also buying into it and helping to propagate such double standards too? Are women sabotaging other women by agreeing with the male sexist beliefs?

I guess what I'm trying to say is this (my english is not that good so let me try again): long ago it was not common for women to be in the workplace let alone have careers and be in leadership roles so the double standard probably originated and was propagated by men. But today in our modern society, it is common for women to be in the workplace and having careers. And yet there is STILL the double standard especially for women in leadership positions. So who is originating and propagating these double standards now, is it still the men only even though they are no longer the majority voice? Or are women also supporting this double standard and thereby jeapardizingn themselves??

I'm a women and I just started a job where I'm now a leader of a large team. In my field women are a very small minority so I know that the double standards I encounter are due to the male status quo. I'm the first female team leader in my organization, at this level. But I know that other fields have nearly equal ratio of women to men and yet apparently such double standard still exists. What is the source then??

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you have some real authority (e.g. the right to request thing from this person), may I suggest requesting things in writing? I have had this very situation happen several times. I ended up putting all my requests in email with CC to the boss so he could see that my requests were reasonable and professionally stated. In one case, the person saw that the boss was watching and shaped up to the point that the issue was resolved, even face to face. In another case, the tech continued to act like a lecherous a** but the behavior was all clearly documented and it ultimately left him looking for another job when the PI had the evidence in his face.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger FrauTech said...

I've found complaining about a peer to the boss NEVER works out to your advantage. Never say anything outright negative about another person. Complainers are always dismissed, doesn't matter what the circumstances are. Could be the guy is lying about his hours worked and stealing stuff from the lab to sell on ebay; doesn't matter. The only thing that can really work is to manipulate the situation so this person's bad behavior is actually seen by the boss. But good luck with that. Might as well learn to do everything your self, limit all possible contact with this person, and yes even when asked outright about their behavior deny being aware of anything they're doing wrong.

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you know that the males who do not look at your breasts simply prefer to examine your ass when you have turned round?

At 6:22 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

jc, thanks for the link to Zuska's response. I'll have to check that out. I don't always agree with her, but sometimes I find her really comforting.

Anon 12:11,

Women DO perpetuate it. It's kind of fascinating. Women are defensive about their own choices, in denial about what is happening until it happens to them or one of their close friends, and generally unwilling and unable to stick our necks out unless we've already reached the point of having nothing to lose.

I say this because as far as I'm concerned, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Anon 9:48,

I've tried requesting things in writing. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. And in situations where it is not appropriate to cc the boss (i.e. just throwing fuel on the fire), or the boss never reads email, this just makes me look whiny and "difficult".


Yeah, but what if you can't limit contact? What if you can't do everything yourself because you don't have access to the equipment, etc.?

I'm speaking hypothetically here, but I had another example in mind when I wrote this. Let's say I get away from all the disrespectful, uncooperative a-holes where I work as a postdoc now. What happens if I get my own lab or go work at a company and encounter one of these types as the head of an essential core facility that I have to use all the time?

Why do I feel like this is a totally intractable problem that is bound to happen again and again, sooner or later, as long as I stay in science?

Anon 1:27,

It's funny, I actually wouldn't notice or care so long as they didn't say anything about it. Unfortunately one of my bosses DID make such wide-ranging comments that it was clear he was fixated on both my chest AND my ass.

Still, there's something kind of cheeky about showing one's ass to someone who doesn't respect you, don't you think? ;-)

They can all kiss off into the air, behind my back I can see them stare, they'll hurt me bad, but I won't mind, they hurt me bad, they do it all the time -Violent Femmes

At 7:03 PM, Blogger OverEngineered said...

No advice from me- that sounds like it is incredibly frustrating and nearly impossible to handle well.

At 12:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the staring-at-boobs thing:

how does this transgression compare to when a women prefers to look at and communicate with the better looking man, when given the choice. As a man, I am much more sensitive to when this occurs and find that it happens fairly frequently at the workplace.

To be fair, it also seems to happen from man-to-man too, even if there is no obvious homosexuality involved.

Probably this gets covered all the time and I'm not trying to make excuses for sexist jerks or patriarchal systematics--just wondering aloud whether the staring-at-boobs thing is actually more a human problem than a male disrespect thing.

At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand what you mean in so many ways. I have not had much of people talking to my boobs. But the phenomenon of men addressing the guy next to me (who doesn't even have a technical background, about a detail regarding my research) repeatedly despite me answering each question simply drives me crazy. At that point, I almost feel like he could look at my boobs as long as he looked at me. I do not have a solution - it seems like when they realize they need to deal with you to get their own thing done, they sort of shape up sometimes. I wish you the best of luck. And in my opinion, when you have your own lab, you would know who you would be dealing with and avoid such people.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 12:36, I may be guessing wrong here, but I suspect the fixation on looks is a distinctly American thing, and it is worse in some parts of the country than others. I noticed it immediately when I compared living in different regions of the US.

My advice is to get a makeover. Seriously.

Everyone is expected to look as good as possible- or at least as if you are trying. Even scientists!

If you look like you're not trying, you will be judged lazy, unprofessional, and ultimately, unqualified. It sucks, but we all have to make some sacrifices.

Women are expected to do it very young, but we all went through this kind of hazing- the first time this happened to me was in about 6th grade.

Every few years I do an assessment of my clothes, hair, etc. and ask whether I look the part. Once upon a time, someone told me to dress for the job I want, not the job I have. It's a little big of an exaggeration, but it's not far off the mark.

At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One time during a job interview, the interviewer was staring at my boobs too. For a long time I was really mad about it. Since then I've realized his treatment of me had nothing to do with me -- what it really told me is what kind of person he is. Don't let him change who you are.

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goodness! To stop guys like this, you've got to think like he thinks. He's being incredibly disrespectful and probably enjoys seeing you frustrated and helpless (your superiors won't help you).I think you need to get mean. I say EMBARRASS the guy. That will be a stab in his huge ego---the fact that he knows the boss essentially blames you and that you're being girly and nice gives him the confidence that there will be no consequences for his actions. So, EMBARRASS him (in front of others) when he talks to your boobs by shouting something like 'Hey! I know my boobs are awesome but I will go directly to Human Resources if you EVER sexually harrass me again, you PERVERT! Shame is an excellent punishment, and will definitely get his attention that you are a person deserving respect.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 12:50,

See, I almost prefer these things would happen when I still have a choice about whether to work there or not. Then at least you know what you're not missing out on.

Anon 5:11,

That does work for the boob-staring problem, but it does NOT work for anything else and WILL BACKFIRE if the guy is insecure and threatened (which this type always is, or they wouldn't be so freaked out at the thought of working with yours truly).

So I don't advocate that approach for other kinds of disrespect or disobedience, unless you really outrank the person, or you're reasonably sure your boss will back you up if you can trick the guy into misbehaving in front of other people.

Usually this type of guy is very insidious and saves his really egregious shit for when nobody else is around.

Or, he'll pull the back-stabbing crap like ranting to your boss about how "difficult" you are. And usually this will be triggered by something totally harmless and nonsensical, like that time when all you did was ask, in a normal tone of voice, whether it's possible to do an experiment yet since it was That Guy's job to do X, Y and Z for his official lab duties (say for example, setting up new equipment that you need, which he REFUSES to let you touch, even though you have offered to DO HIS JOB FOR HIM and he would rather sell things on e-bay anyway!!!!!!).


At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

blackmail, that's your weapon against jerks like this. thankfully now with facebook the opportunities to get blackmail material are very good (I hate it when other people post pictures that I'm in, and tag me in them!!).

At 10:24 PM, Blogger sarah said...

I find this post somewhat offensive.
First, I am a technician at an academic research lab. Second, I am a woman. As such, I am treated poorly both by other more senior staff, generally male, and by postdocs of both genders.
I know the type of staff you are talking about, and they don't act that way to just temporary lab members, they act that way to everyone. It is a huge problem, and yes, most of the time the PI defends it.
But I've also had plenty of problems with postdocs assuming:
a)I'm an idiot because I don't have an advanced degree (yet)
b)I don't care if the project succeeds
c)he/she can do the experiment faster or better than me even though I have more experience with our equipment
d)he/she does not need me to train on the equipment and does not need to tell me when they break it.
Also, at least in my lab, only postdocs, students, and the PI are involved in any hiring decision. We recently had a postdoc candidate come through who would not talk to me or look at me because I was staff (he did fine talking to female PhDs). Although I brought this to the PI's attention, as we a a staff heavy lab, this postdoc was offered a position, as his science was very good.
It is very frustrating. I'm sorry the staff you have worked with has not been kinder, and that you have to put up with that. But the grass is not any greener on the (young, female) staff side.

At 11:10 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I find it very strange that you seem to be saying you took offense at this, even though it was in no way directed at or about you, or anyone like you.

What I wrote was In particular today I am talking about a certain kind of guy (because that is usually where I have problems).

I have generally been lucky to work with very talented staff. I certainly do not care if you don't have a degree. If you have the experience and you know what you're doing, that is what I care about. Especially if you act professionally.

What I don't like are the people who demonstrate, repeatedly, that they would rather play video games at work than do their jobs. Or who are exceedingly condescending, usually toward everyone, not just me.

I'm sorry that it sounds like you have had to work with these kinds of jerks.

I certainly was not trying to imply that it is better for young female staff than for postdocs?? I don't even know where you got that from what I wrote.

I know that it's not better. At all. That is one of the reasons why I decided to go to grad school. I thought (erroneously, it turns out) that having a degree would bring with it a certain amount of validation or respect. It does in some circles, but it is not a cure-all. Not by a long shot.

FWIW, if I have my own lab, I would involve everyone in the hiring decisions, but ESPECIALLY the staff. Because if you're someone I want to keep in my group, I wouldn't want to risk making the environment uncomfortable for you, and just because I get along with most people doesn't mean everyone else will get along. And lab members have to work side-by-side all day long, while I would presumably get to hide in my office at least some of the time!

But I don't intend to hire postdocs, at least not right away, and probably not very many.

I think it's crappy that your PI leaves you out of the hiring decisions, especially if you have been around for a while. But your PI sounds like maybe not such a great boss anyway?


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