Thursday, August 24, 2006

Vital Information or Boring Old War Stories?

I always wonder how much to tell my own graduates students and postdocs, particularly the women, about 'the bad old days' of being harassed and patronized. I must admit that if I have to hear the same old stories from some of my senior women colleagues yet again, I will run screaming from the room, but that is only because I've heard some of their tales 5 or 6 or 10 times. I am glad I heard the stories at least once though. It gives me some perspective about what has changed and what has not, and I respect these women very much for having prevailed against the odds.

But what do I want and need to tell my own students about my history? And how much do I tell them about things that happen to me today? I keep things pretty informal in my research group, and the research activities sometimes require my spending lots of time with my students and research associates (traveling or in the lab), and we have lots of opportunities for chatting about things other than the tasks at hand. Sometimes I tell stories about my grad school days, presenting a mix of generic tales of science and personalities, and a few times I've mentioned The Dark Side of being a woman in these settings. I've never told them about the really bad episodes though, and I doubt I ever will.

Most of my group are, to varying extents, aware of what life is like today for a woman science professor, but are they getting a balanced view? Are they learning what they need to know to succeed, not just as talented researchers, but as women who will have to navigate some difficult situations? Is it enough just for me to be a quasi-passive role model?

My most typical way of discussing these topics with students or postdocs is to make a joke of some annoying episodes (the old professor who patronizes me, the jerk on a committee who called me a 'feminist' to discredit my support for a female candidate, etc. etc.), as in - aren't these guys amazing? and then I discuss how I handled the situation, for better or worse, and we talk about it and laugh. This sometimes seems a bit feeble to me as an approach to being an Inspiring Role Model, but I'm not sure I'd succeed at anything more direct.


FemaleCSGradStudent said...

There are different kinds of "war stories" all of which I am interested in hearing. There is a story I've heard from a 60+ woman in the field who talk about how the fellowship she'd won was taken away when the institution found out her husband had won a separate fellowship. The institution figured the both didn't need one. To continue the war analogy, I guess this is a story from WWII.

There are tales of sexual harrasment from Vietnam, though I promise you is still happens from time to time. Then there are stories from the Iraq war, like the ones you mentioned. Committee members asking, "Are you a feminist?" (my reply: "Are you a cock-ist?")

Then I have my own stories. I was sitting in a faculty meeting and a male professor said, "The reason there aren't very many women in computer science is because they just aren't interested in it." What hurt me wasn't the statement, but that none of the female faculty in the room said a damn thing.

So perhaps what would be better than just war stories, would be as you said. How to cope, handle, deal with cocks like these? And best of all, how to laugh.

Jenn said...

I have enjoyed the conversations I've had with some of my professors. I'm thankful that they put up with all that they have so that we would be in a position to have those sorts of conversations. It also speaks of the drastic improvements between then and now.

I have never been told to my face that I do not belong. I was actually so encouraged by one professor when I went to talk to him about becoming a physics major I thought he was maybe a bit less than sane - then I discovered how few fellow majors there were (13) and that I was the only female among them.

I am approached a lot by people on the outreach committees. They always have the same question for me "why don't more women your age go into science?" but I have a hard time answering. Obviously whatever keeps others out didn't affect me. What I tell them was that I never was lead to believe it was something I couldn't do. And I think that's likely the biggest criteria of all.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to hear your stories. Those who haven't experienced these things first hand, or at least heard about them second hand, often don't believe there's really a problem. On the flip side, some younger women who experience very negative treatment are inclined to blame themselves. Even at your level of experience, you tend to attribute some things to your personality. Imagine how an isolated young graduate student would feel if she'd never heard that even senior women encounter bad behavior.

I also think it's important to hear how you handled a situation. This way your stories help build tools for survival and success, rather than just instilling paranoia. Approaching them with humor lets people know that while they may involve serious issues, they don't have to stop you from doing and enjoying your work.

Thank you for sharing.

Amelie said...

For me, hearing those stories once (or maybe twice) is good, they show me what could be ahead, perhaps how to handle it or at least that I should somehow prepare for it. Being told such things over and over again seems more like someone would want to scare me out of science, but that might just be my personal interpretation.
Anyway, as I don't know many women in my field, I'm happy to read your stories here. Thanks for sharing them!

Pam said...

I'm pretty direct with my students about my experiences - my past experiences, as well as though occuring in 'realtime' as well. Even if they roll their eyes sometimes, I find that they are listening. It sinks in. I think they end up being more aware of behavior that is often subtle or even direct but just considered acceptable, because no one is speaking up. Personally, I'm working on getting better at speaking up in the moment in a way that is clear, direct but not angry. Simply acknowledging an unacceptable behavior OUTLOUD is really important. I always encourage my lab to discuss these things - and if I'm experiencing something frustrating myself (most of my colleagues are male like you), I share it with them. It is a part of my scientific life, something I struggle with them - and I feel that it is important to share with them my 'whole' experience - the reality of my day(s).

Ms.PhD said...

In general, I think war stories are good. It's kind of what my blog is devoted to, after all.

Hearing how to respond to these kinds of things is priceless.

Having said that, though, once upon a time I worked for a woman who was SO negative that it really got me down. It was one thing to hear the story about what had happened, but another thing altogether to hear her rant at length about how much men suck and how screwed up the whole system is. And then hear the rant again anytime anything like that happened.

In general her insights were dead-on, but she was just as anti-men as my misogynistic postdoc advisor was anti-woman. Both were offensive to me, because they were so hateful and prone to sweeping generalizations.

You don't seem that way, though.

And regarding the really dark tales? Maybe save them for a special outing that involves alcohol. I have some stories about which I'll say, "I'll tell you someday over a beer." And then if someone really wants to know, I'll let 'em have it, dark parts and all.

Sometimes it's really reassuring to know that even the successful among us have had to put up with crap at some point. I'm often irritated at how older women 'role models' tend to act like they sailed through, unaffected by their surroundings, and those of us who've run into less-than-perfect treatment 'must've been asking for it.' This leads to the misconception that if we're experiencing these kinds of problems, there's so much wrong with us that we should just quit now.

Ms.PhD said...

p.s. re: femalecsgradstudent's comeback to 'are you a feminist'- LOL. I'm not sure I'd actually say that, but I wish I could have been there to hear you say it.

Trupti said...


I m in International student, new to grad school. I havent observed much of the bias so far; probably coz i m still heavily into coursework and not really started my research. But at times I do observe bonding between my male prof and male peers and it is definitely upsetting. I always end up thinking WHY I M NOT A PART OF THIS CIRCLE? Anyways right now I m struggling to survive with my coursework, not doing well and frankly on the verge of dropout. I feel miserable as I had to fight all odds to be in Grad School and now I cannot cope up with the pressure.To top it all, I have a bunch of insensitive roomies...

You all must have been through similar experiences, can any of you suggest what I need to do in order to remain optimistic and focused?

I truly appreciate all the help you can extend.