Monday, July 31, 2006

College vs. University

I went to a small liberal arts college on the East Coast and I loved it. It was the perfect place for me to go to college. I met some amazing people, made friends who are still among my best friends decades later, and discovered exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I went to college very passionate about a particular field of study in the humanities, expecting to major in that field, but after only a semester, I was interested in something completely different (science) and that was that. I didn't have any women professors in my chosen field, but the male faculty in my major department were great and were encouraging about my plans for graduate study immediately following my undergraduate years. One professor, who was sort of my mentor, gently told me that I might have problems owing to my quiet and unassuming personality, but he said it more to prepare me for the future than to discourage me from anything.

So off I went to a Big Research University for graduate school. Yes, it was a shock in some ways, but my undergraduate background in my field was solid, and I had confidence in myself, even if I didn't initially impress my graduate professors. I was small, female, and looked like I was about 14 years old. There were 60+ grad students in my department; at one point, there were two women students. At the most, I think there were 5-6 women students.

The level of discrimination was, shall we say, high, and I apparently contributed to my low status by proclaiming that my career goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college. Success was defined as getting a job at a large research university. Anything less was seen as pathetic. Every year, the grad students, as part of an evaluation of merit by the entire faculty, had to write a research summary and indicate our career goals, and, even once I knew better, I continued to write that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college -- because I did.

I just couldn't see myself at a large university. I did not like what I saw in terms of the faculty culture at my graduate institution. There was one female professor - a terminal associate professor mired in depression and strangeness and very marginalized and treated with scorn by faculty and students alike. And then there was all the other stuff that I don't want to rant about now, but it was disturbing. No, that was not for me. And my postdoc institution was, if anything, even a worse place for women than my grad school. Such a place was definitely not what I wanted. Instead, I could see myself teaching and doing research projects involving undergrads at a friendly college just like the one I attended as an undergrad.

I had some interviews at small colleges, and some interviews went well (I got one offer but turned it down, as I described in a post a few days ago), and others did not go well. My 'credentials' of having gone to a small college as an undergrad helped get me in the door for interviews, but I found that I had to be careful about how interested I appeared in research, even if my focus was research involving students. At one interview, I gave my interviewers an updated copy of my CV, noting that the version they had was out of date because I had submitted some papers and a paper formerly in review was now in press. One of the interviewers took my new CV, slammed it on the table right in front of me, said "If you care about things like that then you CLEARLY do NOT have what it takes to teach at a place like this", and walked out of the room. I did not get that job.

And then I did get a job at just such a place. It was so close in type to my undergraduate school -- a well-known Small Liberal Arts College (SLAC) on the East coast -- that it was like a dream come true, even though the position wasn't tenure-track. And I hated it. If you force me to, I could come up with some nice things to say about this school and its students, but it's an effort. I really think that I might have been more content at a different SLAC with nicer colleagues and administrators and students who weren't so into their social lives that classes were an annoying distraction, but even if I ignore the specific pathological personalities I had to deal with that year, there were still 2 general issues: (1) I had to teach so much -- so many classes (3-4 each semester), so many labs (4 each semester), and so many students with independent projects -- that I didn't have time to do anything well; and (2) There was no research support at all -- most of my colleagues were happy with their own lack of research and were suspicious and hostile to anyone who was interested in being active in research, even fairly small scale research. I know it is different at other SLACs -- I have visited them and given talks at them and I have summer interns from various SLACs every year. I was very unlucky that the SLAC where I taught was such a bad fit for me. Even so, I don't regret changing my career path to research universities.

When I participate in some panels re. women in science, I find that many students and postdocs have the impression that small colleges are friendlier places to be -- perhaps less stressful and easier for balancing family and career. Maybe that's true of some places, but I don't think it's true as a generalization.

I love teaching and I love research, and a research university has the right balance for me. It's ironic that I ended up at a peer institution to my graduate school, yet many of my fellow grad students who were confident that they'd end up at just such a school, did not. How bizarre.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Kids and Tenure

What's the BEST time to have a baby if you're in or hoping for a tenure-track position? : whenever you want to have a baby. I think all times are just about equally good or bad, depending on how much you enjoy stress and dramatic life changes.

One of the hardest phone calls I have ever made was calling up the chair of the department I was moving to and telling him that I'd be arriving with an infant. I was afraid that he'd think I wasn't serious and that I was not going to be a valuable addition to the department, and I was afraid that my chances for tenure were harmed, and so on.. But he was really great. He had kids, and lots of faculty at that time had very young children and babies, and he said he understood the importance of balancing family and career. My husband (who had moved to University #1 to be with me 4 months before our daughter was born) and I immediately put our baby-to-be on a waiting list for the child care center at University #2. The waiting list was at least a year, and in fact it was exactly a year before we got in.

What did we do that first year? For the first 6-7 months, we brought out daughter to work with us. We set up both our offices so that she could nap and play safely, and we both spent a lot of time holding her while working at a computer, with lots of breaks to walk around and play and go outside. We handed her back and forth between our offices depending on teaching and other commitments, and we were both given a light teaching load the first year so that we could set up our labs and take care of our daughter.

At about 7 months, we felt that our daughter was ready to play with other kids, but we still didn't have a place at the childcare center on campus. We explored lots of options -- in-home daycare, childcare centers etc. -- and toured some daycare places that were very sobering, they were so grim. Finally we found a nearby daycare center that seemed like a good place, and our daughter immediately loved the excitement of being around lots of other kids. She was fascinated by it all, and although we started her off at a few days/week, we quickly realized that she was very happy at daycare and would be fine at 5 days/week (though we tended to drop her off late and pick her up early because although it was a pretty good daycare center, it wasn't great).

Once we got into the university childcare center, life was a lot less stressful. The child care was superb and our daughter was healthy and happy. Having excellent, convenient child care was a major reason both my husband and I were able to settle into our new jobs and do well. I know these centers are expensive for universities to subsidize (and they aren't cheap for parents either), but they are so important for faculty, staff, and students, it makes sense for universities to invest in them. I wish our university would expand its child care center. The waiting list is now well over a year, and some people never even make it off the waiting list.

My husband and I have a somewhat strange schedule regarding work vs. family, but it has worked very well for us. We have one night a week that is family night (we are all home together), but my husband and I divide up the rest of the nights: he gets 3 nights, I get 3 nights. We can do whatever we want with 'our' night. Typically, we all have dinner together and both of us spend the early evening at home, up to the point where our daughter starts her going-to-bed activities (bath, reading, etc.). One of us stays home, and the other can go to the office/lab, do errands, work at home, or whatever.

There are just too many interruptions during the day for me to get everything done. Well, I will never get everything done -- there is an infinite amount to do -- but if I didn't work at night and some weekend afternoons, I would spend all my time on teaching and administration and never have enough time for research.

I also like that my husband and I both take care of our daughter. I have friends who have not had a night to themselves in 6+ years because their husbands wouldn't know how to take care of the kids alone. I can't imagine that. I travel fairly often, and people often ask me "Who's taking care of your daughter when you're away?". I think that question might well be the one my husband hates the most, as it rather strongly implies that he and all males are not capable of or willing to take care of their children. Wrong!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Decisions and Roach Motels

When I was in my first tenure-track position at University #1 and my husband was a postdoc thousands of miles away, we both applied for every appealing tenure-track position that was advertised in our fields. There were lots of issues to consider, including (1) What do we tell my colleagues at University #1?, (2) If my husband got a great job somewhere else and I didn't, how would we decide who would make a sacrifice?, and (3) If such a decision came up, how would we decide which university is "better"?

1. I was very open with everyone in my department about my plans. My colleagues understood, and many of them wanted to hire my husband on his own merits; there just wasn't a position (until we got offers elsewhere, and one magically appeared). Meanwhile, I worked really hard at University #1 and was a good departmental citizen. It was clear to all my colleagues that I was happy there and dedicated to my students and the department, but that I had to consider other options as well. I didn't worry about not getting tenure at University #1 because of my situation re. applying for other jobs -- I was getting grants (including an NSF CAREER award), publishing papers, had high teaching evaluations, and was an active participant in departmental and university committees. I had a positive recommendation at every yearly review, and at the big 3-year review. A university cannot legitimately deny you tenure if you are doing your job well.

My male colleagues routinely get offers from other places, negotiate a higher salary or whatever, and acquire more prestige for having done so. They do it because that's how you get more money and prestige. I was seeking other offers so that I could live with my husband, and I was fortunate to have colleagues who understood and respected that. An administrator at my current university told me that women faculty are more reluctant to go through the process of applying for jobs once they are in a tenure-track or tenured position because it seems disloyal and not worth the stress. I used to say no to requests from other schools for me to apply or let myself be considered for a job once I was at University #2 and had tenure. Now I think that getting other offers is one of the only ways to get real respect.

2. I have no idea what we would have done if my husband had gotten an offer somewhere and I didn't. University #2 initially said they only had one position (for my husband), and the week or so before they created a position for me was stressful, but it could have been worse -- University #1 was fairly quick to come up with a tenure-track position for my husband, so we knew something was going to work out for us.

3. I have been very lucky that all the places I have been academically employed have been 'good enough' to lead to other opportunities. There was a recent study about whether there really are dead end academic jobs (Roach Motel Colleges,,, and, if you accept the parameters of the study, I guess there are. I think it's quite possible to be happy at a Roach Motel College, though. My husband and I disagree about this (perhaps more on that later).

Thursday, July 27, 2006

What Do You Say?

What do you say when you're at a job interview and an interviewer (faculty member or administrator) brings up your spouse or partner even though they aren't supposed to?

First I should mention that one of my university's deans has said that she believes that universities should be able to ask this question, but from a proactive, positive point of view. That is, she wants to know who will need some creative accommodation for a spouse or partner, so that the university can get started on planning for this in time to make it a part of recruitment, rather than having it be a "secret" until an offer is made, when it may be too late to pull together 2 offers. This administrator is committed to increasing the number of women faculty in science and engineering, and she sees this as one way to do it.

But back to reality, my husband and I have both been asked about each other at every interview we've had, and in some cases, the 2-body situation was specifically cited as the reason why one or the other of us did not get a job offer. Yes, I know we could have caused a fuss about that, but it always seemed futile.

The more relevant question is: what do you say when your interviewer asks you point-blank "What about your husband/wife?" and you have to respond somehow. I've tried to walk the fine line between making it clear that I wasn't going to sit there and discuss my personal life in detail and not being defensive about it. I have had some success deflecting the conversation by deliberately misinterpreting the question as being about the relationship of my husband's research specialization to my own. In other cases, I have simply said "We're both looking for faculty positions and are just trying to get the best job or jobs that we can." My husband has said something similar when asked about me. Very few interviewers have pressed for more information after that first foray into unethical questioning. Maybe they just want to see what you'll do? Maybe they just want to show that they KNOW things about you?

I don't have any foolproof response to suggest, as situations and personalities can vary so much, so the only general advice I would give is to be sincere and professional in giving a brief response and then, smoothly and politely, turn the conversation back to your research and teaching ideas and accomplishments. In theory, if a department is interested in your work, it won't hire a less interesting or less qualified person just because that person doesn't have an academic spouse. In theory.

I can understand that hiring 2 people in one department can be logistically and financially difficult if both require significant startup resources and so on, but here's the stupidest reason I've ever heard for not hiring a couple in one department: the Voting Bloc excuse. I have heard this one so many times, and it amazes me every time. Are they saying that husbands and wives will naturally have the same opinions about everything or that the wife (or husband) will exert influence on the other to vote a certain way, and that this will shift the geopolitical balance of a department dramatically? In my department, "voting blocs", to the extent that they exist, are either generational or by sub-discipline, so I think the voting bloc thing is a myth. Maybe the people who believe in the Voting Bloc myth also would have been against giving women the right to vote nearly a century ago because we would just vote the way our husband's told us to?

I am still amazed and thankful that things worked out for my husband and me to both have great academic jobs in the same place. We have numerous colleagues around the country for whom it has also worked out to be in the same university or city, so we are by no means alone. Thinking back on all these cases, I think it is uncommon for both members of the couple to be hired straight out of a postdoc; more typically, both are professors (but in different places), or one is a professor at a 'good enough to leave' school and the other is a promising postdoc or research scientist. I know of a few cases where both were hired straight out of postdocs, so it can happen.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

2 Body

Sometimes I think that universities are finally finding better ways to deal with academic couples, and then I see or hear something that shows that any progress in the last decade or two might have been transient or random. I know that there are financial realities regarding 1 vs. 2 faculty positions, but I think that an institution that figures out how to solve this "problem" will end up with a high quality, diverse, and content faculty, and therefore in the long run it makes sense to deal with this issue in a more systematic way, involving high levels of administration. But then, I think the same about universities/colleges that figure out how to offer high quality daycare for faculty, staff, and students, and there doesn't seem to be a huge rush to fix that problem either.

The situation with which I am most familiar is when both members of a couple are in the same field and would be hired by the same department. This is challenging, but for a university (rather than a small college) it may be less challenging than the situation in which the members of a couple are in different departments or other units of a university.

Anyway, my husband-to-be and I met in graduate school. By the time I defended my Ph.D. (about a year before he finished his PhD) and had an offer of a postdoc at another university, we sort of knew we might/maybe/perhaps would get married, but hadn't quite decided. We never even considered my not leaving to do the postdoc. Partway through my first postdoc year, I decided to seek another position for the following year rather than stay in the postdoc longer. I was enjoying the research, but the level of harassment by technical staff, one senior male professor (not my supervisor), and even some male graduate students, was unacceptably high and was interfering with my ability to do my work. I had several choices for my next position, including a tenure-track position at a small college. I decided not to take the tenure-track position because I knew that my partner would never want to be in such a small place with limited research facilities. We had agreed that if we didn't get the job of our dreams right away, we'd try for jobs at places where we could both reasonably exist and that were 'good enough to leave' (i.e., not dead ends, careerwise). We were both sure that this college would have been a dead end in terms of further opportunities for both of us.

I accepted instead a visiting professor position at a different small college -- a bigger name school than the other one and one that was quite similar to the one I'd been to as an undergraduate. I had long thought that I would most like to be at a small liberal arts college, since I had loved my undergraduate school and I have a strong interest in integrating science with liberal arts. People thought I was crazy to turn down a tenure-track position for a visiting position, but it worked out in the end, and the teaching experience turned out to be important in my later efforts to get another job.

I remember this as a stressful time because my husband-to-be had several choices of postdoc positions, including one that was geographically very close to the college where I'd be for the next year. He decided to take a position that was geographically distant (as in east coast-west coast distant) because it was the best place for his research. By this time, we'd decided only two things: (1) we were going to get married soon, and (2) we would pursue our careers in separate places for a while, making career decisions based on our individual research interests and goals, with the hopes that we'd eventually have options that allowed us to be together. If one of us got a great job and the other didn't, we'd deal with that if we had to.

During my year as a visiting professor, I learned many useful things; here's another list: (1) visiting professors/adjuncts are not treated well in general (huge teaching load, not a lot of respect from colleagues or administrators), (2) I was good at both teaching and research, and enjoyed both immensely, and (3) I did not want to be at a small liberal arts college. The last point came as a particular surprise to me.

Jobs were very scare in my field by this point, but one came up that was perfect for my research interests and was at a university with an excellent reputation for both research and teaching. I really wanted that job. At a conference that fall, I had a pre-interview with the department chair to see if they were interested in encouraging my full application for the position. I remember arriving for the interview just as the previous candidate, a prominent young man in my field, was leaving his interview. He not only shook hands with the department chair, but also gave the chair a sort of friendly pat on the shoulder -- I can't describe it exactly, but it looked natural and like something confident guys do together, and my heart sank because I couldn't do things like that. I had a rather awkward conversation with the chair, who was a rather awkward sort of person (but very nice), and left feeling disconsolate. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to apply for the job, so I did.

I was invited to interview. I was very happy and excited about that, but knew also that the other candidates were formidable and personable and I didn't feel too optimistic. I wondered if I was just an affirmative action interview. By this time, I was married and my husband was still a postdoc on the other side of the country. The interview was both great and terrifying. During the interview, I felt that it was going well. I had many discussions and conversations that were very interesting and friendly, but the issue of my husband kept popping up in illegal and unsettling ways. Faculty candidates are not supposed to be asked about their spouses/partners during interviews, but it always comes up. I didn't even know how they all knew about my husband -- we had only been married a few months, and I didn't know anyone personally at the place I was interviewing. But they knew. This place also had a lousy record of hiring and tenuring women, and the last two assistant professors had recently been denied tenure, so I kept telling myself that I was crazy to want to have a job at that place. But I did want to have a job at that place. I had no idea how I'd done in the interview because it had been such a mixed experience -- lots of positive interactions, lots of people telling me that it was only 1 job and there was no chance for my husband to get a position (I hadn't even asked.. it was just an interview).

The phone call from the chair offering me the job stands out in my mind as one of the all-time most thrilling moments of my life. That might sound pathetic, but it was amazing.

But of course there was only one position, and they weren't willing to do anything for my husband other than give him an office, adjunct status, and occasional teaching. He decided to stay in his postdoc longer, and we would continue commuting from coast to coast. We did that for 3 more years, all the while progressing in our careers individually. We spent summers together, other vacations, and a few other extended times (my husband taught a class one semester at my university, I had a semester research leave), and acquired lots of frequent flyer miles. We talked on the phone several times a day - sometimes 5-6 times/day - and we emailed constantly, and somehow it was a pretty good life.

We were both applying for jobs. I absolutely loved my job, but knew I had to look for other opportunities as long as my husband didn't have a tenure-track position. We both got interviews, and were always asked about our spouse. After I'd been in my tenure-track position for 3 years, a large university offered both my husband and me tenure-track positions. The two offers came about in large part because the provost of the university got involved and created a second position. The deal was that we would share 1.5 positions for at least the first year, and eventually would each have a full position. Once we had these offers, my university magically came up with a tenure-track offer for my husband. I was very torn -- I was doing well where I was, it was a nice place to live, and I was not worried about tenure. At the new place, I didn't know if I'd like it, and the tenure bar was higher, along with the pressure to get more and bigger grants. And we were going to have a baby that winter.

After a lot of agonizing indecision, we decided to move and make a fresh start at the other university, which was going to build a lab for my husband and which had excellent facilities in place for my research. It was a painful decision. I stayed another year at my 'old' university, finishing teaching commitments, and our child was born that year.

It was challenging showing up at a new place with an infant, but after a difficult year, we both knew we'd made the right decision. And after a year of sharing 1.5 positions, we were both upped to 100%, and after 2 years, I got tenure. Happy Ending.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Most Qualified

Recent discussions in my department and comments on these pages bring to mind issues related to the academic hiring process. In theory, every department wants to hire the most qualified person, but what does "most qualified" mean? In every search I've seen in 20+ years, there have been quite a few candidates in each search who are very qualified, do interesting work, and seem to have what it takes to succeed in both research and teaching. Sometimes the final selection of one of these "most qualified" candidates is based on which research specialty seems most promising, fits best with existing strengths of a department, or takes the department's research profile in a new and interesting direction. In other searches I've seen (from both sides of the process), departments pick someone they think they will be most "comfortable" with. It's that situation where problems may arise.

One of the worst interviews I ever had as a candidate for a faculty position involved a series of meetings with faculty who were clearly uncomfortable with me. I got the interview because I was a postdoc with lots of publications and some teaching experience and (I assume) good letters etc., but it was immediately made clear to me that there was no way this department was going to hire me. According to the university's affirmative action policy, the department woud have had to come up with a good reason not to interview me if they were going to interview male candidate with fewer qualifications. As my research specialty was a perfect fit for the advertised position, the department pretty much had to interview me. So they brought me in for an interview, but everyone was just going through the motions, and not very gracefully. For example, one eminent scientist seemed very uncomfortable during our one-on-one discussion in his office, and finally he said "I really don't know what we're supposed to talk about. I can tell you that my wife likes living in this city." I tried to remember if I'd met his wife or knew anything about her -- There were no women faculty, but maybe she was a research scientist? Should I know who his wife was? It soon became clear that his wife was not a scientist or in any way associated with the department or university. She and I were both female, and that was what we had in common. He even told me that there was something about the climate or water that his wife liked because of what it did to her hair, but I just couldn't bring myself to talk to him about his wife's (or my) hair. I tried to discuss research topics with him, but he simply could not have a conversation about science with a female. And so it went, and I did not get the job. Years later, I felt only a brief moment of immature satisfaction when I heard that the person they did hire did not get tenure (whereas my career was going quite well, thank you!).

I think that type of experience is becoming rare as most departments in my field now have at least one woman faculty member. So what's the deciding factor when it isn't gender? As a faculty member and participant in search committees, I've seen candidates crash and burn in an interview because they gave boring talks and had no vision for future creative research, but more commonly it's a really hard decision to choose one or two candidates from among a group of very talented people. I've had unsuccessful candidates call me and ask "What did I do wrong?", but usually no one did anything "wrong" -- it's a semi-random choice based on research specialty or intangible positive feelings about one candidate over the others.

I have not yet mentioned the issue of the so-called "two body problem", when both members of a couple have Ph.D.s and are looking for faculty positions. That's another story.. but fortunately in my case a happy one, though it meant leaving my first tenure-track position at a university that did not hire my husband for another university that hired us both. More on that another time -

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Changed Man

I should mention the second conversation that I had with the professor who, when I was in grad school, asked if I was doing a Ph.D. because I couldn't find anyone to marry me. The first was the can't-find-anyone-to-marry-you conversation, and then there is a gap of about 20 years until the second, which occurred very recently at a conference. This professor walked up to me (surprising me greatly that he knew who I was and was interested in speaking with me) and started talking about the importance of encouraging young women to be scientists and how great it is to see so many women at conferences these days and how it's very moving for him as a professor to see women progress from student to professor. My jaw must have dropped to the floor, I was so stunned. After he walked away, a colleague who had heard the conversation explained: "His daughter is getting her Ph.D. in oceanography." Hooray for his daughter (and daughters in general) and for him for 'evolving' and supporting his daughter in her career choice.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

How Nice Should We Be?

I like hearing about all the various responses to some of the more annoying questions one gets as a Female Science Professor or as a woman scientist in general. This is how we vent, bond, and have some fun with the situation even though in some cases the situation and its implications are rather serious. I must admit that I have trouble mustering a feeling of concern for young-looking male professors who are mistaken for students, but I suppose I could try harder..

Despite my propensity to be Nice when confronted with a clueless (or rude) question, there are some times when I've been pushed too far and have responded in anger and what I fervently hope was biting sarcasm. However, these instance are rare and my personal preference for responses in real life range from Quite Nice (polite responses that let the guy off the hook, but still correct the misperception) to Gently Sarcastic (but not to the point of humiliating anyone). In the short term, these might not be as satisfying as a really pointed remark, but I have seen this type of response pay off in the longer term. Also, I'm not a confrontational person, so it works for my own comfort-level in personal interactions as well. I've described before how some very decent colleagues just don't 'get it' about some issues, but gentle prods can really have a major positive impact and ultimately serve the purpose of inching us all towards the goal of just letting us all be scientists together. That said, I think everyone should respond in their own style. I have a woman colleague who is absolutely incapable of responding to a rude question with a polite response, and that's just the way it is. We have great fun trading stories about our different experiences and debating whether she should be nicer and I should be less nice.

One thing I've struggled with is whether it is OK to be silent in the face of some amazingly blatant discriminatory remarks or situations. My first reaction would be to say No! but then there's real life. Example: I was a participant in a federal panel involving the sciences, and, on the first day, a senior male scientist expressed his opinion that we women were just there to fill a quota for diversity and this was too bad because it deprived the committee of people with 'expertise'. There were some extremely accomplished women on that panel, but no one responded to this statement. I thought "We'll show you..", and we did. I don't know how deeply held his opinion was or if we changed it permanently, but after 3 intense and long days of all working together in a small conference room, we produced what we thought was an outstanding document that addressed the issues that we had been charged to consider. Everyone had something important to contribute, and we worked as an effective team. At the end, without specific reference to his earlier remarks, the senior male scientist shook everyone's hand and effused about how much he'd enjoyed all the stimulating discussion and debate. Happy ending, I guess.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gender matters

I recently read the commentary in Nature titled "Does gender matter?" (B. Barres, v. 442, 133-136, 13 July 2006), as well as an interview with the author (New York Times, Tuesday 18 July 2006). The commentary is very satisfying to read, in that it articulately addresses the issues, integrates facts and anecdotes, and makes constructive suggestions.

Many parts of the article resonated with me. In particular:

- Success in science is driven by "powerful curiosity and the drive to create" rather than competiveness. Being aggressive and competitive may give some an advantage in the current system -- so, let's change the system. Let's take a close look at people's abilities and creativity and productivity and not apply unscientific filters. We all lose if we exclude qualified scientists because of irrational biases.
Anecdote: Years ago, a search committee I was on was considering various interesting and well-qualified candidates. Every time a woman candidate was discussed, one of the old guys on the committee would say "How do we know her research represents her own ideas and not her advisor's?". When a male candidate came up for discussion, the same old guys would say "This research is really impressive. Candidate X is very creative." I pointed out that in both cases the candidates had published, as first authors, papers with their advisors and I didn't see why the issue was being raised for women and not for men. The committee members were aghast at their unconscious biases, and agreed that this was not fair. Morals of the story: (1) Men who think they support the notion of women scientists/colleagues may not put this notion into practice owing to ingrained habits of mind, and (2) This is why women need to be on committees and speak out.

- There need to be more women in leadership positions.
At my university, there has never been a woman department chair in science, engineering, or math in the entire history of the university. A dean recently told me that it will probably be another decade or so before this even has a chance of happening. I have female colleagues with outstanding organizational and leadership skills, but when it comes right down to it, the men can't see having a woman for a boss. During a recent conversation about this topic, one (male) professor here told me that he thinks successful women science professors are 'scary'. My unspoken response was BOO! My actual response was to stare at him incredulously.

- Confidence deficit
On a confidence scale, with 0 = total lack of confidence and 10 = God's gift to science and the world, I'm probably a solid 5. However, the norm for my female students and postdocs is closer to 0-2. Some of my male students and postdocs rank fairly low in confidence as well, but they seem to have the ability to gain confidence through experience, whereas the women can be just as productive and successful and not change their low opinion of themselves. This lack of confidence must develop very early in life for it to be so profound and difficult to dispel.

One statement that surprised me in the commentary was that successful female academics 'pull up the ladder behind them', presumably to enhance their own feelings of success. I certainly don't feel this way, and I don't know any women in my field who do. In my field, the senior women I've met have a sincere interest in helping younger women progress through the academic hoops. We want more company! In fact, even if one were a pull-up-the-ladder kind of person, this would be counterproductive. It's in our own interest to have more women colleagues so that we don't have to be on so many committees.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Maybe we need a phrasebook (?)


Reading the comments about other women's experiences with being mistaken for non-professors is entertaining in a quasi-sick way. I think it's best if we stay entertained by the events to some extent, though, rather than letting it get us down.

Maybe we should all get together and construct a booklet with questions and answers related to these situations, much like one would use a guide with handy phrases when traveling in a place where we don't know the language. In this case, we do know the 'language', but it might be useful to have some suggestions of handy phrases to use in certain situations. My tendency is to respond with sarcasm and an attempt at humor, but a really versatile booklet could contain a range of responses: sarcastic (heavy/light), angry, polite, insane..


Question: What grade are you in? (said to me during the first 15 years or so after I graduated from high school)
Answer: 21st (or whatever the number is, with n > 16)

Question: Will you give this to Professor X?

Answer: No... (pause for effect) .. You just gave it to her.
Answer from FemaleCSGradStudent: Sure! [Take it from them, and in an exaggerated fashion, hand it from your left hand to your right.] Done!

What are some good answers to this perennial comment? (thanks to Dr. Shellie for the suggestion):

Question: So they had to hire a woman..? (some of my favorites are below - thanks to all for the comments)

from FemaleCSGradStudent:
Q: So they had to hire a woman...
A: Yeah, they needed somebody to make up for the fact that they hired you.

from zuska:

Q: So they had to hire a woman...
A. It was inevitable. Eventually they were bound to run out of mediocre men, and now the qualified women are finally getting a chance.

* Here's a stunningly primitive question that a professor asked me when I was in grad school:

Q. So you're doing a Ph.D.? Couldn't you find anyone to marry you?

Fantasy Answer 1: Nope, they just don't make wives like they used to.
Fantasy Answer 2: I've already been married 6 times. I'm taking a break.

Friday, July 14, 2006


I've been reading the recent articles (e.g., New York Times), letters, and essays on the issue of the differences between male and female college students in their approach to their education, and how having a majority of women students in the student population affects academic culture. I can't really relate to most of the anecdotes and scenarios described, perhaps because I mostly interact with science students. The non-biological sciences are still rather male dominated, although there are definitely more female science students than there used to be.

I do interact with non-science students in two classes. Most years, I teach either a small seminar (15 students or fewer) or a very large introductory class. In the seminar, it's the male students who dominate the discussion. To get women students to participate, it takes quite a lot of gentle encouragement, eye contact, sometimes private discussion/conversation/email, and weeks of getting familiar with the class environment before most women students will speak out. There are prominent exceptions, but the majority of women in these settings are much quieter than the guys. When the women do finally speak up, they have lots of interesting things to say and the class gets much more lively.

In the large intro class, with an auditorium full of non-science students and me up front with a wireless microphone and a big screen, it's hard to get to know students, although maybe 15% will make an effort to come to my office or talk to me before/after class. I get lots of email from students, though, and at least 80% (conservative estimate) is from the female students asking me questions about the course material. Last semester, there were a couple of male students who got very excited about the science and talked to me a lot, but they were the exception. Based on my experiences teaching the big intro class, I can relate to some of what is in the articles. The women students do seem to take a more active role in the class than the male students, although at times I have considered other hypotheses:

- The women ask more questions because they are less secure about the class because it is Science (all science professors have surely heard the dreaded I'm-not-good-at-science from students, and mostly from women students).

- The women are more comfortable asking me questions. My male colleagues get significantly less email from students - male or female - than I do, perhaps because I seem friendly and approachable (and, as I've discussed before, some students don't believe I'm a real professor anyway).

- Male students don't like to ask (me) questions. I wish I believed that this meant they were working hard to figure out the answers themselves, but in a big introductory course, it is the rare student who does this.

One real difference between male and female students in their interactions with me is that, every semester, there is at least one (though seldom more than 2-3) male student(s) who will walk up to me, stand very close (to emphasize their much greater height, and aggressively question their grade and my fairness or something like that. This has never happened to any of the male colleagues with whom I've discussed this. Staying calm and giving an articulate response that demonstrates their lack of understanding of the situation of course material always works to defuse the situation, but I always wonder: What are they thinking? What does this mean about the rest of their lives re. their interactions with women? Wouldn't it be easier if they just studied more instead of turning every grade into a power struggle? What if I were really tall?

But I digress.. Just another day in the life of a conflicted and only semi-effective Role Model.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I am not a student (2)

Once I get started with the stories of all the times I've been mistaken for a student, it's hard to stop. Although these incidents are disturbing in terms of their implications for how many people view women, they also entertain me and are a great way to have fun talking to other women science professors. We all have these stories!

There are the times, too numerous to recall, when someone at a meeting has asked me who my advisor is.

There are the times that someone has not realized that those papers published by someone with the exact same last name and initials as I have is actually me. Somehow they had "pictured" X (me) in some other way.

[Side note/tangent: Back when people sent reprint request cards by mail, it was not unusual to get one with the PREPRINTED salutation "Dear Sir". I used to send a note with the reprint asking that they acquire new postcards without the Sir. Some people wrote back apologizing. Some people wrote back a rude note saying that I should just deal with it. Some people of course did not respond. And one person wrote back saying that they had hundreds of these postcards and were not about to spend money getting them reprinted]

On at least 3 occasions that I can remember, an applicant for a faculty position in my department has talked to me at a conference, noticing my department/university affiliation listed on my nametag but not realizing that I was (1) a professor, and (2) on the search committee (in 2 of the cases). These all happened 3 years ago or more, and involved applicants who were in fields far from my own (I sometimes have to be on search committees even though I have no expertise in the field, just for the sake of gender diversity). One such conversation went something like this:

A (Applicant): You're from the University of X! I'm applying for a job there. What's the department like?
Me: (some answer involving basic department info blah blah blah)
A: What are the professors like?
Me, slowly realizing that A may not know I'm a professor, but not quite sure because maybe he meant to ask "What are the OTHER professors like": What do you mean?
A, clarifying: I'm interested in a student's perspective on the faculty.
Me, now sure that A does not know I am a professor and not wanting to freak him out but at the same time wanting to make a point, as kindly as possible: Then you should ask a student.
A: Oh, I'm sorry. Are you a postdoc?

There is no good way to end that type of conversation.

And then there was the time at a conference when I was talking to one of my colleagues from another university, and a man rushed up to my colleague and said "I'm sorry I missed your student's talk!". My colleague said "None of my students are giving talks at this conference." Other man: "But I'm sure I saw in the program that there was a talk by X with your name listed as coauthor." Colleague, laughing hysterically and pointing at me, "This is X!". Other man, noticing me for the first time, "So this is your student!" Colleague, laughing even more, "Yes, it's so great to have a student who writes lots of papers!". At that point I walked away. Why is it that my male colleagues find this situation so funny?

The best solution to all of these problems is to become well known in your field and related fields. I'm working on it! This has its own issues, though, as you end up having conversations with insincere and sometimes desparate people at conferences, just because they know that you are editor of a journal and/or on an NSF panel or in some other position of academic quasi-power. But it's also a relief in some ways, compared to the alternative of being the eternal student, and I guess it's part of being a Role Model.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I am not a student!

I have written before about how some people have trouble believing I am a professor, either because I don't look "old" enough, male enough, or well dressed enough. Although this happens less and less as I get older (no gray hair yet, no glasses, but a few wrinkles near my eyes!), I was thinking about it today because I just saw that a certain person was recently elected president of one of the major professional societies in my field.

About 4 years, ago, this person came to my department to interview for a senior hire (full professor position). At a meeting attended ONLY by faculty, he presented his vision (or lack thereof) for the position, answered questions, and so on. At the end, he looked at me and said "Good luck with your thesis!". My male colleagues laughed, and I wasn't sure exactly what to say. I didn't want to humiliate him, but I didn't want to thank him either, so I just said "Actually, it's done" (not mentioning that it was done more than a decade ago). One of my male colleagues said "Yes, and we are so proud of her!", and everyone laughed some more. This was too much for my senior female colleague and she said, in a very indignant voice "PROFESSOR X (me) is an ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR with TENURE." I will be forever grateful to her for that comment! It was a small thing, but one example of why it is important to have female colleagues. The clueless old guy just mumbled something, and that was that.

Even though my male colleagues thought the whole thing was hilarious, and their main reaction was how "lucky" I am that I don't look my age, the incident did influence their opinions about the candidate, and he was not offered the position. His belief that I must be a student, even though I was in my late 30's at the time, was evidence that he was out of touch, and possibly sexist in that subtle way of not really thinking women are *equal* to men in research abilities or accomplishments.

But now he is president of the professional society, though fortunately it's typically a short term position. It is an elected position, though, so it means that quite a few people voted for him. I voted for the losing candidate, a man I don't know much about, so it was more of a 'vote against' than a 'vote for' anyone.

This professional society has been trying to pay attention to women and other underrepresented groups in the field, but I think most of their attempts have been misguided to date. I will write about that more later, but let's just say that it's very unlikely that I will be submitting an abstract to one of their special sessions focusing on "Women, Minorities, and the Disabled". I consider myself very liberal politically and socially, but things like that make me feel very 'politically incorrect'.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

What to wear?

I saw an amazing -- as in amazingly inane, off-base, bizarre -- thing on the web recently. A woman wrote to a fashion adviser, asking for advice not for herself, but for the female colleague of her husband. The female colleague of the husband did not ask for or need advice, but the woman writing to the fashion adviser was concerned because her husband's colleague wasn't dressing well enough to succeed in her career.

This caught my attention because the apparently poorly dressed woman is in a job similar to mine - science professor. The ignorant fashion advisor confirmed that yes, in fact, the female science professor could be harming her career as a researcher by not dressing appropriately. She might not be productive enough at publishing and getting grants because she is not wearing the right clothes. There were links to sites where one could buy the *appropriate* attire for a female professor, but the recommended garments were hideous.

Does one's appearance matter in academia -- specifically in the corner of academic with which I am familiar: the physical sciences? There is no one answer to this because there are different phases and aspects of one's career to consider:

1 - grad students. It doesn't matter what you wear in grad school (unless you happen to have an advisor with a dress code), but it might matter what you wear to conferences or a job interview. In my field, only people with connections to industry, government, or administration wear anything resembling a business suit. When I was a student, I was advised to wear make-up and do something with my hair and dress up more or I would never get a job, but I ignored that advice, and here I am!

2 - professors

a - teaching. Some of my colleagues (male and female) have done "experiments" to test whether what they wear has any effect on their teaching evaluations. It turns out that when these colleagues have dressed well for every class in a semester, their teaching evaluations are higher than their usual average. It isn't a huge effect -- a lousy teacher isn't going to get great evaluations because of their wardrobe -- but my colleagues believe the effect is statistically significant. I tried dressing up early in my career just because I looked so young and had trouble convincing people (students, staff, other faculty) that I was a real professor. It didn't work very well. Students would come to my office and look around and say "Wow, it's so great that they give you an office even though you're not a professor." I would say "Why don't you think I'm a professor?" and they were startled and had no answer. Other times, I'd be sitting at my desk working in my very own office and someone who didn't know me would come in and (rudely) order me to tell Professor X (me!) something or give her something. They thought I was a secretary. I learned two things from this: (1) many people don't treat secretaries very politely, and (2) even today, people see a young woman and think "secretary" before they think "professor", even if there are visual clues to the contrary. Anyway, nowadays I don't dress up in any particular way to teach, but I don't wear T-shirts either, and I don't think my students or my career are harmed by my appearance.

b - research. How you dress has absolutely no effect on research, on grant success, on publication record. Some of the most talented women in my field dress abysmally; others always look fabulous and stylish. IT DOESN'T MATTER.