Thursday, June 16, 2011

One Up, One Down

Communicating in a Male Dominated Field -
Several weeks ago I asked a tenured male colleague to review a paper I was writing, the subject of which he knew well. I proposed some basic physics that applied to a specific subset of exoplanets with ~100% certainty, physics not previously considered by anyone. The response I got was a diatribe. Although no argument was on the basic physics introduced, some of the interpretation of the results was the sink to the harangue. The shock of such a response to the entire paper inevitably caused me to stop work. Why would a colleague be so mean to me regarding a result that most definitely affects his (and his post doc's) work?

Upon further review, I realize I have been in this situation before with similar reactionary results: Men, being typical recipients of my communications, return communication unkindly and I react by stopping work. After all, why should I to share what I know when men are so insulting. I have no problem taking what I know to the grave.

I have recently learned that males communicate via One Up, One Down. In this mind game, one tries to make another feel inferior thereby gaining one-up in status. Women, in general, do not communicate this way. Since I am in a male dominated field, I am told I have to ignore the insults. I would think a better outcome is to have men provide constructive criticism. After all, men should have to learn to communicate even if the field is male dominated as women sometimes are the recipients of their communications.


L.C. said...

After being outside of academia, I can say that this is not ubiquitous, even among fields dominated by men. Men can and do learn to speak collaboratively. One reason may be that there is a real, implemented hierarchy everywhere except academia (who really thinks talking to the department chair would help in the case described?). There is a chain of responsibility, and someone is reviewing everyone's managerial skills. There is 360 feedback, so you get to report on your boss. If they make everyone feel like crap, they're going to be in trouble. It's not perfect, but in my experience you just don't get these kinds of intimidating interactions, you also don't get the "jokes" about women's inferiority. I was very glad to be done with that.

Eilat said...

I had a colleague tell me that my very original ideas were "obvious" and when I proposed we do something novel on a project we were both working on (he was my superior and I was basically working for him) he would say "we always intended to do that" in a very matter-of-fact, dismissive sort of way. Somehow, it didn't get me too upset. I would always think to myself "NO WAY is that obvious." But it was when I saw him do the same thing to a male colleague that I realized that it was just how he talked. I basically set up a filter for that sort of response. I imagine that is how men deal with each other in these circumstance (?)

Rosemary Mardling said...

I find the exoplanet community to be one of the most collegiate in astronomy. Although I am extremely sensitive to sexist behaviour, I have rarely if ever experienced it with this group of colleagues (most of whom, as you say, are men). On the other hand I have ``colleagues'' at my own university who have many times left me feeling like leaving academia with their subtly exclusionary behaviour. Nonetheless I have learned over the years that most people are good-hearted and that my habit of tarring all men with the same brush is counterproductive. You certainly should not ignore the insults, but please don't stop working! Have faith in yourself and seek constructive feedback from more supportive colleagues. It's in our interest to choose to believe that most of our colleagues, both male and female, are worth working with. Our physical and mental health depends on it!

M.T. said...

It's true that some men communicate this way. Others, fortunately, have unlearned the habit. When I get any kind of criticism, the first thing I do is consider the source: does this person have the credentials to criticize my work? If so, then I have to push past all the mean comments to see what the criticism really is. Then, if the criticism is not particularly constructive, I go back to the person and ask for constructive suggestions. "Okay, what do you think I should do instead? What would you do?" And if I can't get any constructive suggestions from that person, then I know not to go to him/her for feedback in the future. Sometimes colleagues don't realize how their comments sound and just need a nudge in the right direction. In the end, it will help improve their communication skills and add a trusted colleague to your list of scientific collaborators--a win-win! And if they don't learn, their network will get a little smaller. Stopping work on the paper doesn't hurt anyone but you, ultimately, by reducing the number of papers you publish.

FrauTech said...

So I work in a male dominated field (engineering, especially mechanical). I think ALL people have a tendency to look at life as a zero-sum game. Hence why people are negative towards affirmative action programs or other forms of social outreach. To them it must mean that somebody else is losing.

And the same can be said when you are in a competitive work environment one guy can see your success or good idea as being knocked down. But I know it's not always a male/female split as I have a tendency to think this way when I see a colleague get a certain responsibility or get credit for something as if it would have any direct affect on me. Maybe though women are socialized to always be accomodating and cooperative. So even when think this stuff in our heads we act and say differently. I know plenty of guys who do not see it as you describe, but enough that DO that maybe it's a trait men are allowed to get away with more that a woman similarly would not.

Fozzie Bear said...

I'm not sure how constructive it is to perpetuate stereotypes. Reading through this post I'm as much struck by how emotionally the writer responded as I am by what a jerk the male colleague was. One might want to carefully distinguish criticism of an idea from criticism of a person. How we do science assumes that arguing about the physics is fair game. It should be done congenially, but that doesn't necessarily meant gently.

762bb510-9c7e-11e0-a54c-000bcdca4d7a said...

Here is a comment from an anonymous reader:

[I could not post answer as I have none of the accounts required to
identify myself]

I wonder if this nasty experience might be related to the field you work in. So far I never had that experience, even though most of my
colleagues are men. I have been working in stellar astrophysics for more than 20 years and yet have to come across a reaction like the one you describe. I hope that my experience is more typical than yours.

Michele M. Montgomery said...

Thanks for everyone's thoughts. I'm glad to see posts on both sides of the issue.

Here are two comments from readers who wish to remain anonymous:

1. [I could not post answer as I have none of the accounts required to identify myself] I wonder if this nasty experience might be related to the field you work in. So far I never had that experience, even though most of my colleagues are men. I have been working in stellar astrophysics for more than 20 years and yet have to come across a reaction like the one you describe. I hope that my experience is more typical than yours.

2. (This is a question inspired by Dr. Montgomery's blog post and the
replies to it.)

I'm so lucky to have several collaborators and advisors, male and female, whom I can count on to give me constructive feedback and treat even my half-formed ideas in a thoughtful, encouraging, and non-patronizing manner. But there are other people whose treatment of me and/or other women is more ambiguous. How do deal with someone who:
- Is polite to you in a group setting but very patronizing one-on-one, or visa versa
- Was patronizing or ignored you when you first met, but now that you have an interesting new result is very flattering and encouraging
- Or is flattering and encouraging only when he wants your help with something
- Always treats *you* respectfully, but you've heard or even witnessed him being rude and dismissive toward someone else
- Or you've heard or witnessed him engaging in "mildly" sexist behavior like discouraging women students from becoming astronomers if they want to have children

How do you work with people like this? Do they deserve to be snubbed? How do you respond to praises from people who have only seen this astronomer's good side?

When someone who was originally patronizing starts to seem genuinely interested in my work, I begin to think I misjudged him originally. And I feel a bit bad about enjoying an interesting conservation with someone I know is rude to others.

I don't expect anyone to be perfect and I'm very willing to forgive people for their mistakes. And as a very junior person, I expect to have to prove myself to some extent. But a lot of these people don't seem to have any inkling of how inconsistent their behavior is.