Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Response to comments & Mad Men

Kea, you're right. I tried it both ways. I did tell them my funding was running out. They either didn't care, didn't believe me, or just plain rejoiced.

FrauTech, you're also right. Older women think that because we're ungrateful, they're not obliged to be sympathetic or helpful at all.


As an aside- did any of you see Mad Men this week? (warning: I'm trying not to spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet, but I don't know if I achieved sufficient ambiguity)

I just love how Peggy deals with a situation and then Joan gives her an earful about how that didn't really fix anything and maybe made things worse for both of them. For all of them.

I love how the show illustrates the multiple layers of catch-22: that women have had to resort to these convoluted sneaky machinations to get back at men who screwed them over, because taking the high road (and taking advice from their male bosses) only seems to dig a deeper hole.

But that reduces them, essentially, to backstabbing manipulation. Also, it requires a lot of access, pre-existing organizational knowledge, and ingenuity.

And Joan isn't mentoring Peggy. Don Draper is mentoring Peggy.


Anyway, yes of course when there are multiple available benches, someone as proactive and assertive as me would certainly just pick one out and start using it.

But haven't you ever joined a lab only to find they hadn't made room for you to work? Or told you to "sit tight"?

I thought that science was so overcrowded that by now that had happened to everyone at some point in their career!

Anon 2:35, Just reading your comment makes me feel like blogging is worth continuing even when sometimes from day to day I think it's just too hard to keep it up.

I'm always stunned when people say shit like that to me, at work or otherwise. Wish I had a way to instantly generate witty or cutting comeback remarks to turn the tables on those jerks!

Bee, I'm not sure I understood your comment. You mean women have this problem all over? Or getting crappy advice has nothing to do with being in a male-dominated field? Because that was sort of my point. I think women in women-dominated fields have a totally different experience (and I know a few areas of science where all the bigwigs are women).

Anon 7:37, thanks! Glad you liked it.

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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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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Harsh reality

I'm having one of those weeks. And it's only Wednesday.

A well-meaning former colleague sent me an ad for a faculty position in another city, at a school where I don't know anyone.


I said thank you. What's the point in explaining that I'm not going to waste my time and energy applying? I took it as a compliment that she seems to think I deserve a faculty position.

Okay, if that were the worst thing that happened all week, that would be fine. But it's death by a thousand pinpricks, so of course it wasn't the only thing.

Also, a evil former colleague has a paper coming out soon in Nature.

I knew this was coming, but it still pissed me off. Because it's the definition of incremental. Still, somehow the evil boys club got it accepted for publication in a top journal. I'm pretty sure some kind of voodoo sacrifices were involved.

There's also this hullabaloo going on about women in tech, which is just kind of pissing me off because somehow computer science gets to make a big deal about it, as if they invented the concept, while scientific workforce imbalances continue to languish in obscurity??

Thanks to people like this guy bitching about how women get more attention in tech, from the media and for funding.

Read a little about this, and you'll be smacked in the face with offensive accusations that women just "aren't interested" and the idea that it's too late to do anything about it with adult women coming from other careers. Instead, some women are proposing we have to go to the source and make sure little girls aren't playing with Barbies?

Which isn't exactly going to help those of us who did in fact choose other tech-related careers, only to find there are no jobs for us womenfolk once we're done giving ourselves concussions on the thick glass ceiling between postdoc and faculty position.

Anyway, that Techcrunch article ignited some backlash, which opened the discussion again, although nobody seems to have any new solutions. Echoes of Larry Summers, sort of.

Personally, I think this whole discussion is just a sign that tech is starting to suffer from the same thing academia has had for a long time: a bad case of too many wannabes and too little funding.

My compsci friends have been telling me for years that my field is unusually bad, that compsci doesn't see any of these kinds of backstabbing maneuvers, or discrimination, etc. And I wondered for a while if it was because compsci is newer, or because they don't need much money to do what they do.

I thought maybe it will take another couple hundred years for the tech sector to evolve to a higher level of backstabbiness?

But now I think they might be well on their way.

I don't know which is worse. The guys saying it's not their fault, or the women saying it's not a problem and nobody should rush to fix it.

Meanwhile, this post and several comments over at FSP further confirm that so-called "subtle" discrimination continues to hold back women at the faculty level by overwhelming them with heavy teaching loads, while limiting their access to influential committees.

FSP is nothing short of disappointing in her response that in FSP's case, everything turned out to be fine, as if that makes it okay that these kinds of occurrences are still rampant now . Or something.

I think this just illustrates that nobody who is content with their situation is going to be really active in changing the system. FSP seems to be the picture of peaceably complacent.

I've seen this same attitude all the time in lab. It's a kind of protectionist, "not in my backyard" denial. Like it's fine to have a radioactive spill... as long as it's not near my bench. It's fine that your experiments with the shared reagents are failing, as long as mine are still working (or I have my own stock! hahahaha!).

I think what we're going to need are a few good martyrs. Because there's no kindness in complacency.

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The news of the day

Today's New York Times had several interesting articles:

First up, I was very amused to see that the French are freaking out over Sarkozy's proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

If two years really is a big deal, why does anyone act like doing two more years of postdoc should just fly by? Here's a whole country of people who agree that life is short, and two years longer than you planned is a very long time.

Meanwhile, I wonder if I could have gotten into a better college if my parents had known that I would have been better off studying somewhere other than my bedroom. Maybe that would have changed the entire course of my life? At the time when I was getting ready to apply, my parents seemed to think I should live and die by every single grade - especially if it wasn't an A.

Still, there are apparently federal programs for retraining those in the tech sector whose jobs have been outsourced overseas (this is mentioned briefly at the end of the article). What programs, I wonder? And why is it important to fund retraining for people who didn't keep their skills current and competitive? And why would we have programs for people whose jobs got outsourced when we don't have hiring programs that favor citizens over non-citizens?

Speaking of, I recently learned that there are services to help overeducated immigrants find jobs in the US. Of course, I'm not eligible for these, because I'm a citizen. I'm not aware of similar programs to help underemployed, overeducated non-immigrants find jobs in the US.

And because it's almost 9/11, I couldn't help reading this article about a girl who was killed that day and her family's efforts to make the world a better place in her stead. But I couldn't help thinking what a waste it was, that she apparently disliked the job that took her to the WTC every day, and had phoned her mother on 9/10 to say she planned to quit. The story implies there must have been some family pressure for her to work there in the first place, and she only worked there a few months before realizing she hated it. Sure, only a few months, but you never know when tragedy might hit.

In other news, I found this series of essays written by a mother who is treating her autistic son with marijuana very interesting. I think it's a perfect illustration of how most Americans come to find out about "alternative" treatments and how the medical establishment is often less helpful than anecdata from other patients.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Don't fuck with me today, people

I'm having one of those days where there is a good chance I may punch a complete stranger if they get in my way.

Yeah, that kind of day.

Not sure what to do about it. Going to the gym involves lots of strangers and a potentially higher chance that something will set me off.

Staying home means stewing and trying to breathe deeply but not really feeling any better.