Friday, June 11, 2010

Mean Women

Quite often, I get e-mail that goes something like this:

"A female professor/supervisor was really mean and unfair to me. What's up with that? I thought women were supposed to be really nice and supportive because there are so few of them/us. How are women ever going to get ahead in science/engineering/math if some women are really mean?"

Some of these complaints are from young women who are disappointed that they had a negative experience with someone they hoped would be a mentor.

Some of these complaints are from men who note that if women want to be respected, we had all better start behaving better (because of course every single woman is a representative of all other women).

Is there really any mystery here? Some women are jerks. Men do not have a monopoly on jerk behavior. The existence of male jerks has not stopped men from succeeding.

I wish there were fewer jerks in the world and I am not defending female jerks or condoning their behavior or lacking empathy for their victims, but at the same time I think it is unwise (and not quite fair) to expect all women to be nice.

I also think that the belief that successful women "pull up the ladder" so that younger women cannot attain similar levels of success is a myth based on assorted anecdotes of not-nice behavior by some women.

I think that I am overall a somewhat nice person, but that doesn't mean I am consistently nice, or that I am nice to everyone. Does my lack of total niceness mean that I am an obstacle to the progress of women in science? Does anyone believe that the only way women will attain increased representation in the sciences (for example) is if every single female scientist is super nice to everyone all the time?

A related question: Does anyone really believe that the world's problems will be solved when there are more female leaders? I think there should be more female leaders of the countries of the world, but only because women make up ~50% of the world population and because some women are fully capable of being in charge of a country. I am not under any illusions that world peace will automatically ensue once more women are presidents and prime ministers.

When more women are given the opportunity to be in positions of power, whether over countries or academic science department or even over individuals in scientific research groups, a wrong will have been righted -- i.e., the systematic denial of opportunity to people for reasons unrelated to their abilities or qualifications -- and maybe some things will get better. Maybe there will be fewer unfair barriers to career opportunities and advancement for women in STEM fields, and maybe academic culture will overall be improved for everyone when there is more diversity of experience and opinion represented in these fields.

Maybe. Just don't expect all women to be "nice", either nice according to a universally accepted unisex definition of the term or nice according to a more restricted perception for how women should behave.

35 comments:

another young FSP said...

Smile! A pretty face like yours should have a pretty expression!

Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of.

This particular set of stereotypes irritates the heck out of me, because there is no winning. If you are a nice, supportive, maternal female prof who gives for the team, you don't show leadership ability and obviously don't have the drive or toughness to succeed. If you stand up for yourself, you're arrogant and demanding and not a team player.

Readers, check your expectations.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone believe that the only way women will attain increased representation in the sciences (for example) is if every single female scientist is super nice to everyone all the time?

Being nice is overrated. I think people simply complain whenever they expect a female to be a doormat but that doesn't materialize. Anything un-doormat-like falls under "mean". Being nice is too often in the way of being efficient.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

There's another factor here, which is that inexperienced trainees frequently conflate "being supportive" with "effective mentoring". If your trainees are never mad at you, you almost certainly aren’t mentoring them effectively.

Rachella said...

I've found that often, the definition of "nice" is firmly linked to students getting their own way, and somewhat removed from worthiness. For example, if a student fails a class (or just doesn't get a A), the FSP who gave the grade is automatically labeled mean.

MathTT said...

"because of course every single woman is a representative of all other women"

This is really key, and it's not just about being nice either... this is prevalent for women in science, I think. It's the female version of pressure to be a "credit to your race."

I feel tremendous pressure to do well in my research. Not just because I want to do well in my research, but because I'm the second woman in my department. I really do feel like if I don't live up to expectations, it will reflect somehow on women in math. It will affect how people see the female grad students in my dept and how they see future female candidates.

It's not a particularly healthy state of mind, and does more to distract me from my research than to motivate me to do more of it.

Ann said...

Great post. I agree. While there many traits/behaviors/mannerisms/habits that seem to be more masculine or more feminine, as far as I can tell kindness, empathy and decency (and math/science ability!) are gender neutral.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is a fair response to complaints about the behavior of some successful women. Yes, I'm sure that some people do have this unfair expectation that all women should be "nice" all the time, should be eternally supportive and giving, etc. But that's not what's going on in a lot of these complaints, and it's certainly not what's going on in the complaint about "pulling up the ladder." Sexism operates on all of us -- we all absorb behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate a sexist system. Women are capable of displaying sexist behavior, and they should be called out on it just as men are. There are some successful women who display the same bias in judging other women's work as some men do, and who are unwilling to examine that bias. The reason it's especially surprising and aggravating in them is that they really ought to know better. I can kind of understand a man being blind to all but the most obvious sexism, but every woman in a male-dominated discipline has experienced being judged extra-harshly, being interrupted when she's trying to speak, not being taken seriously, etc. If she then turns around and does the same thing to other women, it's very difficult to understand. When I complain about it, I'm not complaining about her lack of "niceness". I'm calling her out on the same exact behavior that I call men out on. And, yes, of course I know that some people are just jerks. It's not that I have a naive expectation in the predictive sense that everyone will be fair-minded and non-sexist, non-racist, etc. Rather, I have an expectation in the normative sense that everyone will be fair -- everyone *ought* to fight sexism and racism, and I expect better of people who don't.

Trabor said...

I've always wonder what exactly these commenters mean by "really nice and supportive," especially when referring to a female professor. I suspect they mean that she is always smiling, undemanding, self-sacrificing (willing to drop whatever she's doing to read a manuscript or write a letter), always ready to compliment her students and bolster their egos.... Did I mention undemanding? I think that's the big one. In short, not very compatible with the idea of being a respected authority figure.

Anonymous said...

A related observation - I'm a female graduate student at the stage of looking for post-doctoral positions, and I have been "warned" by several of my fellow graduate students (all of them women) not to go to work with a female PI because - "they are mean" and "they are micromanagers" and "they make very difficult bosses to work for". Apparently this is the (frightening) prevailing opinion amongst female graduate students in my field! We have several nice and very supportive female PIs in our department, so I have no idea where these opinions are coming from.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing (hoping?) that those people who are writing you these emails aren't expecting women to be extraordinarily nice, but just to be as "nice" as most men are (which isn't much obviously). My mother is a physical scientist and while she has had many arguments with men, the few serious arguments she's had with women appear to have been even more extremely unprofessional. Even though women are of course a minority in the physical sciences.

Being a man I'm not in a position to have a decent overview of this issue but I don't know if you should dismiss it so easily. While the expectation that women should be particularly nice is widespread and ridiculous, that doesn't mean that these women could not have encountered viciousness that is beyond what's "normal" in science.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

There's another option here -- that "mean" is relative when it comes to women. In the normal course of events an advisor or mentor sometimes has to do some tough talking with their students. Perhaps some of this complaint about female meanness comes from advisorial toughness contrasted with gendered expectations (women are nurturing, kind, etc.)?

Anonymous said...

"As I began to climb the ladder, I had to cope with the different vocabularies used to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional)." -Madeleine Albright

Anonymous said...

Successful people of either gender are not indiscriminantly nice. You cannot be a pushover AND get ahead. I actually would expect successful females in academia to be less nice than even a man in academia man because their journey was not an easy one.

And then there are always students and everyone wanting their way and expecting to get it from professors with ovaries. So female professors must be tougher than an academic man but are expected to be as nice as an average female, so by comparison they must come across as total meanies.

I don't care if people think I am mean. Better feared than disrespected.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget either that "nice" and "jerk" are both in the eye of the beholder.

As a man who interacts with many women scientists, I think that the notion of ladder-pulling women is not totally without basis. There are some women who treat other women worse than they treat men. It may be that they have internalized the same negative gender biases normally attributed to men (I believe there are studies showing quite clearly that this happens) or it may be that when dealing with men they go out of their way to avoid seeming "bitchy", but when dealing with other women the gloves come off. So it's not to say that these women's behavior is any worse or even fundamentally different from men's behavior, but it does occur, and I can understand why some younger women might resent it disproportionately.

Ali said...

I agree, being a jerk is not an exclusive attribute of certain genre. Unfortunately, my bad experiences during my PhD came from a woman. I am a woman and I have never received different support or discrimination from my advisors or members of the group (male in their majority). The rude behavior came during her reviewing of the thesis. Being a good professor not implies to be offensive or to humiliate anyone. But this woman professor does it. She uses to humiliate students and treat them in an agressive manner. In her reviews, she focuses in document style and format, not in substance. Her requirements always force students to make time-consuming changes (e.g. redrawing images, changing font-types) without improving anything.

She claims that all the reviewers but her are lazy and "kind". In my experience, the other reviewers gave me clever suggestions that improved my work a lot.

It is not matter of genre, but this kind of behavior generates a bad image: "women professors are neurotic". In a department where there are 2 women professors, if 50% of them are neurotic it is a bad statistic :(

As a woman, this experience is very disappointing. My hypothesis is that this professor had a lot of bad experiences that made her think that she has to be agressive to gain respect. It is a mistake, a clever and good professor doesn't need to be rude or jerk.

Anonymous said...

Yay! I have been asked to speak for 'the eternal feminine' and my opinion has been compared to a 'gentle breeze' in my all male department. When I was hired, it was because the department needed some 'feminine energy.' (gag). The students were shocked to find that I gave out B's and required papers to be turned in on time. How mean! How unsupportive!

Anonymous said...

Just want to say, awesome post as usual. :)

Anonymous said...

I think this post is somewhat flippant in its addressing of a serious question. In my experience when interviewing for a position in which there are only a few women interviewers, it is always the women interviewers who verbally attack me in a way that I find disrespectful. It is almost as though they can treat other women in this horrible vicious way, and men don't notice it, because women don't treat men that way, so women think they can get away with it.

The way to deal with this is to simply listen only to the substance of what people say, what questions they ask, and ignore the tone. It is a very useful skill to have and it is necessary to keep your cool.

On another note, I have found so many (of the few) women in my field to be vicious and overly-competitive with other women, that I just remind myself that it's a compliment. After all, it is just showing I'm worthy of competition.

Anonymous said...

@ Ali:

Her requirements always force students to make time-consuming changes (e.g. redrawing images, changing font-types) without improving anything.

She claims that all the reviewers but her are lazy and "kind". In my experience, the other reviewers gave me clever suggestions that improved my work a lot.


I think you have now demonstrated gender bias. You dismiss this woman's criticism as trivial, while the others gave you suggestions that improved work a lot.

I would say that how figures and graphs look is majorly important, so her requirements are very importnat for the improvement of the work.

While the female prof may be unpleasant, it is clear that you too are biased to think less of her opinion because she is female.

Minos said...

This post was all over the map, but I loved it. So many great ideas scattered throughout. Nothing to add.

linatt said...

Of all of the things that bother me about being a female in physics, I think this has got to be the most annoying.

I know that I can be stern at times, but the result is that I am labeled as a 'bitch' (which means that *I* am the one with the problem). I'm no worse than the next guy, ie the male, but in his case, people automatically assume they've done something to offend him. Please!

I echo the sentiments of Comrade PhysioProf and Anon@11:44. You can't make everyone happy, no matter how hard you try.

And further, I don't treat anyone worse that my advisor treated me. In fact, I probably learned a lot of my sternness from him, a male!

Anonymous said...

Yet if you are a woman and are "nice" you are not taken seriously or are deemed to be weak or indecisive or not authoritative...

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I echo some of the feelings experienced with a less than supportive female supervisor. I had one, and thank god she only supervised me for 10 weeks and I am most certainly not going back to work with her. I'm not complaining of her abilities...and research which she keeps all to herself unless you have the courage to go through EVERYTHING in her lab and you most certainly will upset the resident technician! Though I do complain about how she manages a lab. My complaint is if and when the technician who's supposed to be training a student is making it extremely difficult for the student to do their assigned work but the student is told off for being lazy...after chasing up methods to the work for circa. three weeks and not being able to use other published protocols...I highly doubt that it makes a good impression of female advisors. Funnily enough, she still isn't as evil as the man on top of my previous bosses to avoid list. Though their evil styles were different.

Anonymous said...

Please don't disregard the very real experiences of those of us who have had wretched, sexist female mentors. My master's advisor was a young (early 30s) woman who absolutely should have known better than to treat her female students like complete dirt and her own personal research slaves, while she flirted (yes, flirted!) with her male students and let them slack off. I *do* expect her to remember her own struggle up the ladder and to do better to bring up the next generation of female scientists. It's not about being "nice"--I don't expect to be coddled--it's about treating others with respect. Unfortunately, some women aren't able to rise above the abuse they themselves experienced as students, and they pass it along to younger women.

I know this is a touchy subject, but it does us no good to pretend that these problems don't exist and that those of us who bring them up are just whiners or slackers. My former advisor truly believes she is a great mentor to women--in her mind, the problem is that she happened to get a bunch of bad women as students! Sorry, but if all your female students despise you, it's probably you.

Anonymous said...

Did the people who are sharing their own personal traumas with bad female mentors read the post? Here's the relevant text:

Some women are jerks. Men do not have a monopoly on jerk behavior. The existence of male jerks has not stopped men from succeeding.

I wish there were fewer jerks in the world and I am not defending female jerks or condoning their behavior or lacking empathy for their victims, but at the same time I think it is unwise (and not quite fair) to expect all women to be nice.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we read the post. What we are talking about is women who are jerks only to other women and flirt (yes, flirt) with other men. If someone is a jerk, then be a jerk to everyone. That's not who we are talking about.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I read the post too. It was the only FSP post I've read where I disagreed with the tone and some of the substance. I agree with another poster that the tone was somewhat flippant. And the substance was problematic. FSP starts with an email where someone is complaining about female mentors not being nice and supportive. Rather than looking more deeply at what might be behind such a complaint, she interprets it merely as a demand that women ought to be held to an unfairly high standard of niceness. She also portrays complaints about "pulling up the ladder" as being merely about wanting women to be nice. This, I think, is a straw man of the criticism leveled at some female mentors. The truth is, that criticism can be based on many things, including perceiving genuine sexism in female mentors. A person who does not have the vocabulary to describe this sexism might just refer to it vaguely as "meanness", but that doesn't mean the person has this silly view that women should all be "nice". Furthermore, claims about pulling up the ladder are generally based on something much more serious than a desire that women be nicer. It struck me as dismissive to say that these complaints are usually mythical and based on not-nice behavior.

I'll add my own anecdote, for what it's worth. 9 men in my department, 2 women. The other woman in my department absolutely delights in subtly insulting my appearance in front of our male colleagues -- I literally have never had a group conversation with her where she didn't point out my weight (I'm a little chubby) or my graying hair or some other flaw. Much worse, though, in the 5 years I've known her, she has never asked me once about my research and she has no idea what I work on. Instead, she fawns over our male colleagues, interrupts me whenever I speak, and basically tries to make me feel invisible. I've never had a male colleague act in such an obviously hostile way. If I complain about this woman's behavior, I don't want my complaint to be lumped in with the unfair expectations some people have that women should be wonderfully generous and supportive. Nor do I want to be accused of being naive because I should know by now that women are capable of being jerks. I'm not an idiot. Of course I know that some people are just jerks. But that doesn't mean my complaint is not important. All I want is to be taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

FSP is such an insensitive jerk! That is really unacceptable, especially for a woman. The post says that she doesn't condone jerk behavior by women and she empathizes with victims of such experiences, but that clearly is not showing sympathy in a serious enough way. A man would have expressed it better and would have included hard numbers showing definitively whether or not successful women "pull up the ladder" or not. There is too much qualitative opinion based on personal experience in this blog.

FrauTech said...

To all the women who've complained about bad bosses...

I don't think FSP was trying to minimize your experiences. She's just saying that women are jerks just as easily as men. And maybe they are jerks in ways male bosses aren't (they insult how you dress and flirt with your male colleagues). But how many bosses can you compare to? If you only had one really rotten boss and it was a woman...guess how many people have had the reverse with just one man. But it doesn't turn into "all males are bad bosses" or "once a man gets to a certain level he becomes a jerk or overly competitive or nitpicky or neurotic." I've had six male bosses now and two female bosses in my career. I'd put the females somewhere in the middle. They were good at what they did, efficient, not that great of mentors but didn't hold me back either. Out of the guys one was a total in your face asshole, one was a manipulative dickhead, one was nice but ineffectual, one was a self serving sexist douchebag, and one was my favorite boss ever; heart of gold and great mentor. So I think the problem begins when your experience in bosses is limited to two or three. Why are bosses aholes? Because often that's what gets you that job. In my experience having a "good" boss is the exception to the rule. But we have bad male bosses all the time, when you have a bad female boss and you attribute her being a bad boss as a result of her being female that is a problem. There is sexism all around and young women are just as guilty of it.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have friends, both male and female, who believe that female superiors (chairs, deans, etc) hold grudges far longer than males do. I have observed only one instance of this myself, and I was not directly affected, but the belief seems to be pervasive.

Anonymous said...

@Anon at 9:03 PM

FSP is such an insensitive jerk! That is really unacceptable, especially for a woman.

This is completely unwarranted. FSP writes one of the most balanced blogs in the scientific blogosphere. Why exactly is she a jerk? Because she doesn't say "all women should be nice to each other?" She didn't exactly abuse anyone as far as I can tell.

And why is anything unacceptable "especially for a woman"? This is exactly what the post is about -- why would *all* women have to be nice or sympathetic or whatever else?

A man would have expressed it better and would have included hard numbers showing definitively whether or not successful women "pull up the ladder" or not. There is too much qualitative opinion based on personal experience in this blog.

This is FSP's personal blog, she is perfectly entitled to write "qualitative opinion based on personal experience". You don't have to read it.


@Anon 7:34
in the 5 years I've known her, she has never asked me once about my research and she has no idea what I work on. Instead, she fawns over our male colleagues, interrupts me whenever I speak, and basically tries to make me feel invisible. I've never had a male colleague act in such an obviously hostile way.

This is the same woman/woman dynamics that we see in middle and high-school. She is dismissing you and marking her territory.

I don't know why people expect women to be nice and supportive?
Did we (women scientists) forget middle school and high school cliques? Whoever thinks that women are inherently nice must be from a different planet than mine. My experience growing up was that women are terrible, unsupportive creatures, who stabbed me in back and insulted me more than men (and were way more hurtful when they did so). Women can be sneaky, self-serving, mean and backstabbing; and some of them are also good in science, so there.

Women are not inherently nice. Have you not heard of terms "competitive mothering" or "mommy wars"? Look them up, it is quite enlightening.

Personally, I expect everyone (men and women) to be assholes, and then I am pleasantly surprised when an occasional speciment isn't.

Female Science Professor said...

I think the "FSP is an insensitive jerk" comment was a joke. At least, that's how I choose to interpret it. The commenter was making fun of those who that wrote that I wasn't sufficiently feeling the pain of people who had been tormented by women advisers etc.

Historiann said...

That "insensitive jerk" comment was totally a joke. I'm sorry that some people are so deep into their totally scientifically valid anecdotal study that "1 female jerk = all women are jerks and what's up with that because it totally undermines feminism and all."

Wev. Flush these hanging chads, FSP.

Anonymous said...

In response to FSP's post and many of the comments, I have a question:

Do male profs get Student Evaluation comments like, "The prof should smile more?"

Just wondering... because I get this from time to time and I find it galling.

Ninety plus percent of my students are male graduate students. I look particularly young and balancing 'niceness' and professional distance is an unforgiving tightrope walk.

MM_McGee said...

In my experience, insecurity plus power is a dysfunctional combination. Blame the insecurity on patriarchy if you want, but please deal with it.

Also, in my experience, women in the workplace have an inscrutable tendency to micromanage irrelevant details, which leads to even more irrelevant conflicts.

Then, there's the problem of compartmentalization. Only a woman could have popularized the idea that the personal is the political.

I guess I'd be sexist if I mentioned PMS and its related pathologies and symptoms (migraine and mood swing, just to mention a couple of serotonin related problems that many women experience).

No (to answer an earlier poster), I don't get reviews asking me to smile more, because I'm relaxed, easy-going, and humorous in the classroom. I don't take student flakiness as a slight (against my whole identity group!), I give people a lot of chances because I'm nurturing, I don't refuse to accept papers when a student walks in late (only my female profs have done this), etc.

Oh, and my journey has not been an easy one, either . . . that's exactly WHY I'm nice.

I don't know anyone who wants "toughness" from their leaders and teachers. Maybe you just need to get over the idea that men expect this from you. Cause, you know what, with the exception of those of us who join the military or do professional sports, we can't stand it in our leaders, male or female, and neither can most women.