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.
Labels: advice, mentoring, women in science