Thursday, October 2, 2014

Step up or lean in or whatever. Finding your footing as a woman in academia.

A recent NYT article on women being criticized in workplace reminded me of the time I received a lecture on how not to be a bitch. We were coming back from a large group meeting where a female PI behaved very aggressively towards the speaker. By non-gender-biased standards she was very aggressive, but I was shocked at this senior male PI suddenly giving me "fatherly" advice that as a woman you don't want to be perceived as a harpy. Note: that particular woman was doing very well where she was and she moved to another place where she's doing even better.

I have to admit I had never given much thought about being a woman in science until recently and that I never felt hindered or discriminated for my gender in my career. Maybe because I never really worried about it and I have always spoken to men as equals. In my science high-school, in college and grad school I was always surrounded by brilliant and ambitious girls and women, and the highest achievers around me were consistently female. So it was kind of a given growing up that girls were smarter than boys.

Yet, as the years passed, some women continued their ascent in academia or in industry or even running their own company and some did not, and I started wondering why. A high-power industry or consulting job is as bad or worse than an academic position, so don't tell me that those women "dropped out", because they did not (see my thoughts on the science pipeline here). When I'm sitting at home watching TV and a girlfriend IMs me at 1am from the office, I feel like a slacker. The issue is not what you decide to do with your life, which is entirely up to you, but whether your environment is poised to support you in any decision that you'd like to make. I have grad school friends who never liked the lab and decided very quickly that running a lab was not for them, but I also have friends who were discouraged or "pushed out" and I think in the end, one of the determining factors in your success is the right mentoring and role models.

It took me a while to figure out what "He's not a good mentor for women" meant, until I saw how the wrong personality combination can destroy a promising career by generating complete lack of support, especially if you end up in a very large lab. In a fast paced and somewhat aggressive lab environment, in general you need to be self-sufficient and take charge of your own career right away and if you are at all tentative or open-ended in how you portray your research, you get in trouble. I had a friend whose project would change every 6 months because she would start incredibly awesome and innovative experiments and as it took time to set everything up, the boss would just say to drop it because it wasn't going anywhere. After four years, not much to show for it and a baby on the way, it made sense to look for a different job. Another friend, who is an exceptional scientist, was so beaten down by a bully PI who told her her work was crap, that she didn't care about research any more and started looking for random non-academia jobs, until she found a second temporary postdoc. A transitional position turned into five more years, a couple of great papers and a faculty position. The work that was once "crap" is consistently recommended by the PI in the previous lab as the best example of how to address that particular problem.

So how do you take a phenomenal scientific mind and turn it away from the thing they loved? You beat it senseless and make it feel worthless. And the criticism described in the NYT is one of the aspects of it. Do you have to make your skin thicker and learn how to take it? Maybe a little bit, but you can also just do your legwork and avoid it as much as you can by finding the right people to talk to. Of course I don't have all the answers, but I thought I'd jot down some ideas from the prospective of a trainee recently turned mentor.

1) Look for the right mentors. As a mentee you have to be active in building your mentoring team. It is absolutely possible that the guy who is considered your primary mentor, is not mentorly at all. But maybe you just really need him for the money and the prestige. As long as he's not creating problems, and he is signing any recommendation letter you put in front of him and paying for everything you need, that is a perfectly viable situation.  There is a lot of mentoring around you, ripe for the plucking.
- speak to senior postdocs in the lab or in other labs;
- schedule meetings with friendly faculty at your institution to pick their brains;
- join mentoring sessions at your society meeting;
- assemble a job search mentoring committee: the one for my K99 application was composed only of women, from an HHMI investigator to a brand new faculty, and it absolutely kicked ass in helping me through the process;
- ask people you meet at conferences "What is your advice for someone starting a postdoc? starting a lab?" If we didn't love hearing ourselves talk, we wouldn't be doing this job. If this spurs a really great chat, shoot them an email to thank them and ask them if you can keep in touch. They may be more than happy to comply.
A lot of us are academic scientists because we like mentoring people. You may already have an excellent mentor, but you cannot expect a single mentor to be good at everything, so you need a lot of them.

2) Don't be afraid of leadership and becoming a role model. I recently attended an informal get-together of women scientists, many of whom are in a horrible situation with a very misogynistic department chair. Everyone was profoundly unhappy, yet nobody wanted to take the lead and propose a solution. I had to restrain myself from doing my best Cher in Moonstruck impression "Snap out of it!" How do you get out of something if nobody is willing to do anything about it? I was just reading a great post from Dr. Isis on how the Association for Women in Science had to sue the NIH to get more women on study sections. They saw a wrong and they addressed it, and they made the NIH a better place substantially increasing access to women. At a forum on women scientists I attended this summer they said that the environment changes when women have at least 30% of leadership positions, but how do we get there? Women have to step up or lean in, as we say nowadays. As a senior postdoc, I took a fantastic Leadership course, offered by my institution and I think these should be available everywhere for women (and men) in academia. So,
- start a group at your university where you can discuss issues and how to address them (this could be open to men and women as long as it's inclusive);
- actively engage in mentoring of younger women: you can mentor undergrads as a grad student and so on and so forth;
- speak up nicely and politely to have your problems solved when they arise and engage the leadership;
- remind seminar committees to keep a 50-50 gender balance in your seminar series...and in your job searches;
- look for leadership courses offered by your scientific society or start one within your university (someone from the business school might be intrigued and help);
- there probably are quite a few misogynistic bastards around, but most men are likely just oblivious, so send them a handy guide like this one from Tenure She Wrote;
- raise well adjusted boys who will know how to cook a full meal and clean their room, and know how to do the laundry when their wife has a grant to write...or a company to run.

I don't know. Some days I'm more hopeful than others, but unless we step up as a group as mentors and role models, men are not necessarily going to do it for us.

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