Monday, September 13, 2010

Advice well-meant

A comment on the last post gave me the idea that maybe I should say something explicitly here, since I'm not sure I've said it before.

When does it make sense for young female scientists to take advice from young or old men?

I ask this question because the answer is unequivocally: NOT ALWAYS.

But I think this question deserves more dissection.

Coming from a field that is almost exclusively men, I had two choices when I needed mentoring:

1. Ask men in my field
2. Ask anyone outside my field

Now, obviously, if it's a field-specific thing, you have to look harder to find outsiders who have parallel problems in their own field.

For example, smaller fields have different problems than bigger fields. Younger disciplines have different problems from older disciplines.

I've written about this recently, using computer/tech as an example of a younger discipline that may come to experience some of the same issues that much older disciplines, like Biology, have long held deeply entrenched as part of the traditional hazing.

So you might meet someone who seems older and wiser yet similar to you in important ways, like personality type or country of origin or gender. You might try to ask them for advice, thinking they might be a good mentor.

And you might still feel like you're trying to have a conversation with a wire stretched between couple of tin cans. Where yours is located on the moon.

For example, I tried to ask an older woman from a different field for advice on how to handle sexual harassment from my advisor. I didn't feel comfortable talking to any of my male mentors or colleagues about this issue. I told MrPhD and he didn't know what to say, so he just said something like, "Oh my god. That sucks." So I thought maybe I needed a female mentor in this case.

MsPhD: I don't know what to do. I've tried dressing conservatively but he still doesn't take me seriously.

LadyProf: Oh, just play along.

MsPhD: You're kidding, right?

LadyProf: Aren't you? He's not really that bad, is he?

MsPhD: Um, yeah, he really is. That's why I was asking.

LadyProf (stunned): Um, have you been to the Office of Sexual Harrassment?

MsPhD: Yeah, they were no help. They said I could file a complaint but they can't protect me from any backlash.

LadyProf: That's true. They can't do anything about that.


Did that conversation make me feel better? No.

Did she give me any concrete advice or support? No.

Did I feel like I could approach her again about similar problems or if things escalated? No.

Did I have this identical conversation over and over again with many older women professors before I finally gave up? Yes.

Did some of them share their own horrifying anecdotes, as if commiseration was going to make me somehow feel better? Yes.

Did it make me feel better? No. It made me feel worse.


It's often hard to get to know people well enough, and build enough trust, to find out whether there are similar problems across fields. It can take a long time, and some scientists find it too painful to even think about these issues. Those kinds of people, even if they're friends, aren't going to be much help when you're deep in the mire.

But asking men in your own field, when you're a woman, can yield little or bad advice.

I recall one conversation I had with a male colleague when I started in a new lab.

MsPhD: Hey, did you get a bench assigned to you when you first started? Or did you have to ask?

Dude: Um, I didn't have to ask.

MsPhD: Well, I don't have a bench and I still don't have one, even though I asked. Any suggestions for what I should do about that?

Dude (baffled): I don't know. I didn't have to ask.


Now, was this an oversight on my advisor's part? Maybe.

Just bad luck on my part? Maybe.

Was my colleague particularly unsupportive? Not really. He had his own shit to worry about.

Were there any women I could ask if anything similar had happened to them? No.


Here's another little story that I think also illustrates how confusing things can be. I consulted several male assistant professor friends for advice.

MsPhD: Well, my grant got rejected.

NiceGuy: Welcome to the club. Want me to read the reviews and tell you what I think?

MsPhD: That would be really helpful, thanks!

NiceGuy: Oh wow, these reviews are really good. I'm sure you'll get it next time. You're really close. You just need a better letter of support from your advisor.

MsPhD: But he's refusing to write me one.

NiceGuy: Oh. Well I guess you should move and get a new advisor then.

MsPhD: Okay. I'll think about it.

I had this same conversation with several different assistant professor guys. I mentioned this to a woman who sits on search committees regularly, because she asked what happened with my grant.

MsPhD: So I've been told that I should revise and resubmit, but I have to get someone to sign on as Co-PI.

MentorLady: Oh, you can't do that.

MsPhD: Why not? At least two of my male mentors told me to do that. Actually maybe three or four.

MentorLady: Yeah, that will help you but only in the short term. But you'll never be able to get another grant after that so it won't help you in the long run. I mean, you can ask. But you'll never get another grant.

MsPhD: Really? Why not?

MentorLady: Because you're a woman. No one will see you as independent. I see this happen all the time. You'll never be able to get a faculty position and you won't be able to take the money with you anyway. Besides, if you switch labs, they'll want you to work on their projects. They won't sign onto yours.

MsPhD: I'm sure you're right. What else am I supposed to do?

MentorLady: Apply for jobs and hope for the best.

MsPhD: What if that doesn't work? My fellowship is running out. And I'm not eligible for anything else.

MentorLady: You'll think of something. You're smart.

MsPhD: Um, thanks.


These are rather trite examples and may not best illustrate the point I was trying to make here. There are many others, like asking my male colleagues at a meeting whether they ever felt left out of the loop when the senior boys' club discusses things over beer.

Guys: Yeah, you missed a great time last night. It was so cool, Drs. So and So and So were all there...

MsPhD: But I wasn't invited. I didn't even know you were going.

Guys: Oh, well you'll have to go with us next time. You're always welcome to join us. You know that!

MsPhD: Actually, I didn't know that. And now the meeting is over.

Guys: Well there's always next year.

MsPhD (silently): Not really. I won't be here next year. I don't have any more funding.

My point is, while there are all kinds of problems and all kinds of people you could ask, it's not just as simple as finding other women or asking people in your field.

If you're the only data point, you can't draw a line. You can't know if you're being treated differently because of your gender, or what you might be missing out on, or whether any of that is deliberate.

You can't know what tactics to use to approach solving these new problems, because it's uncharted territory. Especially if you're one of the only women in your field.

Sure, you can rely on anecdata from other model systems where similar things have been reported, but there's no placebo-controlled phase III spreadsheet you can reference for potential side-effects that occurred in a small percent of patients.

And meanwhile, you're staying up nights worrying about this, when really supposed to be putting your time and mental energy into analyzing data for your.... science.

When navigating your career becomes a full-time project in and of itself, and your data all seem to be garbage in/garbage out, it's no wonder women working in male-dominated fields are more likely to drop out. This happened to me over and over and over again, where I got advice from my junior prof male role models, only to have my female mentors point out why it would never work for me to follow in their footsteps because of hidden bear traps I didn't even know about.

There is something to be said for critical mass and safety in numbers.

At least with numbers, you know where you stand.

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At 3:08 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Good post, but I don't think you are getting the message through to the dudes here. What they fail to realise, and you have not explicitly pointed out, is that you learn from these experiences ... all 40 or so years of them. So when they feel pushed to offer their insulated kindergarten psychology, they immediately demonstrate that they have ZERO awareness of your place in this world.

MsPhD (silently): Not really. I won't be here next year. I don't have any more funding.

Yeah, you can tell them one day that you'll be hungry next year and the next day they will have forgotten it. If it gets in the way of the Old Boys drinking sessions, then they can't waste energy thinking about it, because they 'need to get ahead' themselves. Getting ahead is what counts. Treating women as actual human beings is not.

At 5:41 PM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

Hm. I've never been sexually harassed by my own boss. But firstly I'd say don't call it harassment or you won't get a lot of sympathy. I think a lot of older women think they had it -really bad- "back in the day" so when you complain about not being treated fairly, they're thinking how good you have it people don't smack your ass when you walk in etc.

And yeah I feel your pain with the low sample size. There are next to no women in my department as well, certainly not in a technical capacity, so it's near impossible to make conclusions from a sample size of two or three.

If you had been sexually harassed by your boss in the private sector I'd say get the hell outta there. It never ends well. You can report it, but that never goes anywhere. I tended to use strong "please don't say that type of thing about me" and eventually resorted to quasi-humiliation of said person to get them to stop (men are big on group behavior, so if you shame them in front of The Boyz it will stop). But in the corporate world I think punishment for that sort of thing is a little more clear, and men are afraid of crossing the line and getting punished by HR, whereas I'm not sure the system is as efficient at universities.

Don't have a bench? Notice all the dudes well? Well get proactive. Pick yourself out a bench and inform your PI since he's ignored your request for a bench several times you picked one out for yourself. Yes they'll leave you behind and not invite you. Best thing to do is get in their faces and make sure they have to include you and have to invite you. None of this of course is to monday morning quarterback you. Sometimes you just can't win, and sounds like you were in a situation like that. Often in the case of a smallish group or smallish organization there's nothing you can do but leave and start fresh elsewhere. Given the economy, and the limited opportunities in academia and research, I can see easily how that wouldn't have been an option for you.

At 2:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I empathize deeply with you, as am going through similar issues right now and have been, well, for a really long time. I wish there was some way to change this pervasive attitude that seems to be everywhere I turn. I am a postdoc and trying to figure out if I should stay of if I should go (leave science). I used to be excited about science but now I just dread interacting with my colleagues. I use to love to share my knowledge, help others out with what I have learned, but here everyone takes, takes, takes and hoards all their information, even after you have bent over backwards to help them out. I feel like I can't trust anyone, male or female (actually some of my worse experiences have been with female mentors/colleagues which is sad, but in my case, true).
I have been following your blog for over a year and wanted to tell you it has made a difference in my life to know that I am not alone. So many times I found myself relating to your comments.
If I do throw in the proverbial towel I will let you know as I am close to doing so, although a part of me keeps thinking I can beat this and make it work, maybe I am just fooling myself. I hate the idea of giving up since that is what it feels like to me - I have spent over 12 years chasing this dream. I start to doubt I can do anything else. Sorry for the rant...

On an aside, I once had a prof tell me when I asked him what I could do to help him with his grant deadline: "you could get on this table and spread your legs". I stood there stunned. Mind you, two of my colleagues were in the room at the time standing right next to me (one male and one female). Afterwards, I asked my female colleague, "can u believe what he said to me", she replied "I didn't hear anything". Both colleagues just acted like it never happened, although I know they heard what he said since he practically yelled it.

At 4:29 AM, Blogger Bee said...

As a matter of fact, almost all people are bad with giving advice. The worst are those who offer it. My experience is that the best you can hope for is not advice, but help, and then you have to know what you want from them first. (Eg talk to the prof who's been harassing you.) Bottomline is, you're on your own. But I doubt this has much to do with being a woman in a male dominated field.

At 7:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was excellent.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in a similar harassment situation with a former advisor. In reading your conversation with the Senior Woman Scientist you consulted, I can't help but wonder...what *could* she have said? I never talked to a more senior female prof about my situation, and one of the many reasons was I didn't think it would help. "I'll talk to the Chairman for you" - I didn't want that. "Wow, that's awful, I think you should get out the situation" - well, yes, true, but not really helpful. I guess she could offer to try and help you find another position?? Now that I am Professor myself, I wonder - if some grad student or postdoc comes to me with something like this...what *should* I say? What can I do, exactly? What would your "dream response" have been??

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I guess in my idealistic view, if it were her, I would have said something more like this:

"I'm going to convene a committee of concerned tenured senior faculty. We all know this has been going on for years, and we've warned this guy before to behave himself. Since he's been given fair warning in the past, now we have to take action. I'm so glad you came forward because otherwise he would have continued to do this. We will take it to the [governing body of university faculty] if necessary. We will take your statement to go along with others from past reports, you won't have to go through this alone and we will make sure you have strong letters of recommendation no matter what happens with this asshole and his career, your career will not suffer for having stood up to him."

In other words, fuck the office of sexual harassment. If their policies blame the victim, and offer no protection, the faculty should take it upon themselves to maintain a certain level of professionalism.

NOBODY does this shit year after year without EVERYBODY knowing about it. But everyone is too fucking spineless to do anything about it. And they always let the victim take the fall. FUCK THAT. We need some leaders who understand that having tenure gives them power if they're willing to work together and stand up to these jerks.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Tim said...

so what happened, did your boss say you have a nice blouse on or something?

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I've recently come out of a harassment situation and once you've filed an official complaint with HR you are officially protected under FEDERAL whistle blower laws. Therefore, any retaliation, even perceived such as extra tasks, being left out of things you are usually a part of etc. constitute a second harassment suit. If your harassment office told you there is nothing they could do for you they are breaking federal laws, and probably some state laws even if the university has crap rules on the books. And, I doubt NSF and NIH would be to fond of this behavior coming from their awardees.


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