Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How Do We "Demand Equality"?

Today’s guest blogger is Elizabeth Rivers. Elizabeth is a postdoc on the NuSTAR team at Caltech, studying X-ray spectral properties of Active Galactic Nuclei. Here, she responds to two questions that have come up repeatedly in the wake of the New York Times article, Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

1) How are we supposed to “demand equality” when we are only graduate students (or undergraduates, or postdocs); we have no power; what can we possibly do?
2) Why should we keep at it when we know from all these data that we are going to have to work twice as hard for half as much recognition, less money, and fewer job opportunities?
In response to the first question I have compiled a list of advice I have heard from other female physicists and observed in my own life.  It is by no means comprehensive, but I hope to give you some strategies you can try.  Don’t forget that “demanding equality” doesn’t have to be aggressive, but sometimes you do need to make yourself heard and, more importantly, understood.
Problem: Women are perceived as less competent than men.  
Solution: Give great talks. So many scientists underestimate the importance of practicing public speaking.  You need to practice, do it in front of people, and then get feedback.  Repeatedly.  If you still do not feel confident in your ability to present your work, try a public speaking workshop or an improv acting class.  You will quickly learn that what all these things really give you is confidence.  When I was gearing up to defend my thesis my advisor told me, “You are the expert on this topic.  No one else in the room knows as much about it as you do.”  Which is a good thing to remember, especially when you are being bombarded with questions.  Don’t apologize, don’t let yourself be bullied, and if someone is being truly obnoxious just move on.  And don’t forget, most people form their overall impression of you in the first few seconds, so start confident, dress well, and if possible, make sure the person introducing you has material to talk you up with. 

Problem: Women need encouragement, which they often don’t get.
Solution: Make good friends who will encourage you when things are rough and remind you that you do, in fact, know what you are doing.   Be proactive about finding a group of encouraging peers, even in other departments.  It may help to set up a weekly coffee specifically with female peers who are struggling with the same issues you are.  The best part of peer-mentoring is that it is a give and take, some days you will need cheering, others you will be the cheerleader.  I find both are very positive experiences.  Of course, if at all possible, you should also find an advisor who will encourage you and give you great feedback.   You can also find mentors who are not your advisor/supervisor.  Professors and postdocs who are outspoken on women’s issues make especially great mentors.   Lastly, when you do get negative feedback, and you will, remember the positive feedback you’ve gotten in the past, and believe that you can fix whatever problems may arise.
Problem: The tenure clock runs in sync with a woman’s biological clock.
Solution:  First of all, to paraphrase Meg Urry: “You think it’s easy to have kids while trying to make it as a doctor or a lawyer?”  So you will need to do exactly what those doctors and lawyers do: plan ahead, use daycare, find a partner who wants to go 50/50 on the childcare, and ask for a clear family leave policy.  Many physics/astro graduate schools have never had pregnant women in their program and may freak out, but I know it is a common occurrence in other departments and they seem to handle it just fine.  If your program gives you that deer-in-the-headlights stare when you ask, you may want to help them along by showing them a leave policy from another institution or department.  One more piece of advice: don't lean out (if you don’t know what this means, look it up.  I’m serious. Look it up right now, I’ll wait.)  Don’t stop applying for telescope time, don’t stop publishing and don’t go part time.
Problem:  It is not socially acceptable for women to be ambitious.
Solution:  Now we’re getting into “so what?” territory.  You should not be ashamed of wanting to be great in your field.  I find it helps to be friendly and to get to know people.  It will make it that much harder for them to apply a label to you in their heads.  If you aren’t comfortable being gregariously ambitious, there is still one thing that you can do that will vastly improve your chances of success: apply to more positions.  Men don’t worry about how competitive a position is when they are applying to things and neither should you.  Getting a fellowship is like getting into Harvard or winning the lottery, it’s more about luck (and who you know) than anyone wants to admit.  And when you spend a whole autumn applying for positions and don’t get any offers, this just means you need to apply to even more positions next year.
Problem: There are not enough female scientist role models
Solution: The truth is that there are plenty of female scientist role models, especially in astronomy. They often don’t get the recognition that they deserve though, so take a minute to look some up (here’s a place to start http://cwp.library.ucla.edu).  It’s also important to get women seminar/colloquium speakers.  So you’re only a graduate student?  Find out who is on your organizing committee and send them a couple of suggestions.  This is also one of the main reasons it’s important to have Women in Science groups on college campuses.  It allows networking across several levels, from undergrad right up through tenured faculty.  Having a female professor that you can bounce ideas off of and ask advice of is a huge benefit.
Problem: Experiences of bias and overt discrimination
Solution:  I have to say, I don’t have a lot of experience with this one.  Every time I go to a seminar on Women in Science Issues I hear horror stories of terribly patronizing advisors and female postdocs being treated like 1920s secretaries.  All I can do is repeat what I’ve heard others say about this: find allies, find a way out, talk it out, learn to deflect, redirect and advocate.  I’ve also heard about a technique called “persistent nonviolent communication” which just sounds awesome, right?  The idea is that you need to find a way to truly communicate to the offending party what they’ve done, why it’s wrong and what to do in the future, without being accusatory and having them react in a defensive manner.  Then you need to do it again and again and again until it sinks in.
Finally, I would like to address the second question I heard repeatedly last week: “Why shouldn’t we just give up and go somewhere that we’ll be valued?”  The first thing to remember is that nobody ever said chasing your dreams would be easy.  Only the best and the luckiest will get the really good tenured positions we all want, and this applies to men too.  It also applies to any male-dominated field (i.e., fields that garner lots of recognition and big pay-checks), including medicine, law, and business.  But presumably, if you’re committed to an academic career, you’ve already decided you want to work hard.  And if you are already committed to being the best scientist you can be, none of the things we’ve been discussing really changes anything.  You will continue to strive and to succeed. And if you decide, no, this isn’t my dream, I don’t want to work for it, then that is perfectly fine.  Go find your dream and chase it with all your heart.

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