Friday, April 29, 2011

Gentle Woman

At some point in the unspecified past, some colleagues and I were profiled in a University publication. This has happened at various times my academic career; I suspect that most us professors show up at some point in some University propaganda magazine, brochure, newsletter etc.

It is always strange for me to read about myself, but some of these articles are better than others (in my opinion) in capturing what (I think) is important about my research and my work as a professor in general. That's not surprising, but what surprised me recently was the dramatic difference between how I was portrayed and how a colleague in Another Science Department was portrayed.

We are both about the same age, both in physical science departments, and have other similarities in our career paths (hence the juxtaposition of these profiles).

And yet, the profile of me talked about my gentle personality (my soft smile, my quiet way of talking about my research passions), an important childhood experience, and how I came to be a professor of Science. The profile of the other professor mentioned millions in grant $ and buckets of publications. The person who interviewed us (separately) never even asked me about grants or publications.

The other professor, who is male, comes across as dynamic, assertive, and awesome in his funding and publishing. I come across as quiet and pleased to be doing some cool science.

This is not just a complaint about the discrepancy in how an MSP and an FSP were portrayed in these profiles, although it is partly that. This is also a musing about how I could have conducted the interview in a different way.

I was quite passive in the interview -- I answered the questions posed, and was only proactive a few times when I felt the interviewer was spending too much time on topics that weren't very interesting or relevant. But I didn't volunteer anything about my grants and publications or any other "metric" of my academic productivity and success. The interviewer had my CV, and clearly knew a lot about my background and career. My grants and publications are listed on my CV, so she had this information. And yet, these things weren't considered interesting or relevant to write about me, but they were for the MSP.

During my interview, which lasted over an hour, the interviewer talked a lot about herself -- her childhood, her life, her travels, her family, her career. I would say that at least 62.5% of the time was consumed by the interviewer telling me about herself. Perhaps this was her strategy to make our interview more of a conversation instead of a list of boring facts about me, but it got to be a little strange when a brief answer from me kept turning into a longer answer from her about her own experiences, some of which were only remotely related to her original question.

I told some colleagues about this later, and all wondered whether the interviewer did the same thing with the MSP and whether, unlike what I did, he took charge of his interview and basically told her what to write. Perhaps because I didn't do this, the interviewer accurately portrayed me as gentle and passive, but I think it was an incomplete, and therefore somewhat unfair, depiction. I think it should be possible to describe me as a soft-spoken person who nevertheless brings in millions in grant $ and who has swarms of publications.

Gentle women can be very busy and productive scientists, although you might not know it to read about some of us.

36 comments:

I'm me said...

Do you have any evidence to show that this was a male/female thing and not a assertive/passive thing as you say yourself?


This is not just a complaint about the discrepancy in how an MSP and an FSP were portrayed in these profiles,
...
unlike what I did, he took charge of his interview and basically told her what to write. P


Why do you choose to frame things in such a sway that the primary difference is Male vs Female? Why not frame it as bushy eyebrows vs this eyebrows?

There is systematic biases against women in some instances. However in this case your initial framing of the issue seems wrong. Part (and I mean only part) of the problem is that people seem to attribute any discrepancy between themselves and someone else of different gender in those terms. We need to stop doing this if we are to discourage future real discrimination.

Anonymous said...

I do hope that you are going to say something about this experience and discrepancy to someone besides us. The most direct thing would be to ask for a meeting with the interviewer over coffee to reflect on your experience and your reaction to the two pieces that were produced. Perhaps a conversation with the Administrator in charge of communications about your concerns with regards to this piece is in order (either alone or in addition to the interviewer). This seems like an educational opportunity.

Anonymous said...

You should be thankful she didn't mention your stripper hair. Or any other aspect of your appearance apart from your soft smile (as opposed to what? a steely grimace?).

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the very first comment on this post is denying your experience. How unusual when it comes to gender issues....
at any rate, this is also an interesting example of how women in any professional capacity get to be one side of the line or the other. We are gentle or we are bitches. Men, however, get to just be scientists.

Anonymous said...

The first comment is also interesting in that it states that the post is 'framed' as male vs. female, when in fact it clearly is not; FSP wonders why there was such a difference in the descriptions of her and her colleague, and considers the possibility that gender was a factor. It is offensive (but unfortunately not unusual) to conclude that even wondering about such things leads to continuing discrimination.

I have seen this in the comments before: If you don't talk about it, it will go away. Speaking of evidence, where is the evidence that that would work?

Anonymous said...

I think our gentle hostess here has framed things very nicely (sorry, couldn't resist). The interviewer showed some behaviors that might have been gender-biased, and the interviewee did as well!

Women from many cultures are socialized to be soft-spoken or more passive. We can unconsciously fall into behaviors that are socially acceptable but not useful in the situation in which we find ourselves. I bet it did not occur to FSP that she should be taking charge of the conversation, talking about her grants and publications, and making sure these professional achievements were at the forefront. I bet it did not occur to the interviewer that she might be emphasizing different subjects with her different interviewees, with a surprisingly stereotypical split. I bet it didn't occur to the MSP not to do what he did. We all have habits influenced by culture and weird stuff comes up as a consequence.

("I'm me"s very first question shows a misunderstanding of the post; that is exactly the crux of the issue.)

Anonymous said...

Sample size of 1 is always best for drawing important conclusions. You get 0 or 100%! Makes life easy...

Anonymous said...

My experience on being interviewed (typically by undergrad interns in the PR office, or even by more experienced people) is that one has to pretty much give the interviewer exact soundbites of what one wants to be printed, in clear, short, possibly catchy sentences. Otherwise, they wander off. Or they prioritize silly thing (for example that I come from an other country... and they start talking about tourist destinations!) And always ask to see the text!

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:55, what is your point? That we should never draw any conclusions from our own experiences? That we are just one data point and so nothing that happens to us means anything unless others in the same category experience similar things? But wait!! Could that category be women? Perhaps if other women experienced this same thing, we could draw a conclusion? Too bad, we've already learned that the experiences of women relative to men is the same as comparing people with different eyebrow styles. I suppose the US Supreme Court will rule the same thing in the women v. Walmart case, the logic is so stunning. Depressing thought.

I'm me said...

I find it interesting that the very first comment on this post is denying your experience. How unusual when it comes to gender issues....
I note that I did not deny her experiences - I merely denied that in this particular case there is any reason to believe that had FSP asserted herself in the same manner as MSP that she would not have gotten similar treatment. Namely I denied that there is proof that gender was the cause in this specific scenario.

It may be true that regardless of FSP's actions she would have been profiled in such a manner and it may be true that gender was the cause here - however I fail to see the evidence in this case. Perhaps I am missing something - care to enlighten me?

"I'm me"s very first question shows a misunderstanding of the post; that is exactly the crux of the issue.

My understanding of the post is that (1) because FSP failed to assert herself she got profiled as a "gentle person" instead on the basis of her research and (2) [some leap] because she was female.

I am questioning aspect #2. It might be true but there is no evidence to suggest that here.

(Also, I just noticed that a spelling & grammar corrected version of my comment was not posted. I blame Google.)

Anonymous said...

What Anonymous at 11:18:00 said. It's amazing how many egregious errors can be kept out of print by insisting on seeing (and "gently" correcting) the text prior to publication. Most of these folks, in my experience, have no scientific expertise (and moreover are not particularly good writers), so you would be benefiting all parties concerned.

I think that it would be important to know whether the interviewer actually asked, or at least set out to ask, different questions of you and the male interviewee, or whether he was stereotypically aggressive in promoting his own accomplishments while you were stereotypically passive in allowing the interviewer to proceed in what seems to me to be an unprofessional way. Not that it's an either/or situation - your respective reactions to her initial questions could have taken the interviews in totally different directions.

Anonymous said...

Argh! To both the article and those commenting who want to assume every possible reason except on of the most likely - gender has a role. N=1?!! Yes this is one experience but ask around and trust me your sample size will increase. Demanding that every complaint about biased behavior is accompanied by a detailed study with adequate controls and sample sizes seems like a good way to keep women running around trying to 'prove' themselves while men remain less burdened.

In reading the report from MIT I was very struck by something one of the female faculty said and have adopted it as a motto: "I am not patient and understanding, I am busy and ambitious". Why does that still seem revolutionary and slightly transgressive when coming from a woman but would be a basic assumption for a male MIT faculty member?

Micro Dr. O said...

I would think, for the sake of the article, the interviewer would have at least tried to connect the two of you in regards to grants/publications/etc. Maybe show how two different personalities achieved success? In fact, was there an overall theme? Other than the two of you are at about the same place in your careers?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if other women experienced this same thing, we could draw a conclusion?
Only if you had a scientific trial or had a meaningful dataset that accounts for the noise. This is why such tools as science, controlled trials, and statistics exist.

Remember the plural of anecdote is anecdotes - not data.

Anonymous said...

Good thing such studies actually exist, so people who undermine one woman's personal experience for lack of 'evidence' can refer to statistically significant data to convince themselves of what is happening all around them.

Anonymous said...

Why does that still seem revolutionary and slightly transgressive when coming from a woman but would be a basic assumption for a male MIT faculty member?

It may sound revolutionary to you, but not to me. It would probably be a safe assumption for any faculty member at MIT.

I'm me said...

...except on of the most likely - gender has a role. N=1?!!
The most likely reason is because FSP failed to assert herself. Why she failed to assert herself is because she did not realize that one needed to do so. Why that was not realized could be due to a number of reasons, inexperience with profiling, inexperience with interviews, tiredness, gender, age, or one of thousands of other reasons.

Anonymous said...

As FSP said herself, yet wondering why, if the interviewer had the info about her grants and publications, that info did not make it into the article if it was considered so interesting for the other professor? I think that's a good question.

Ms.PhD said...

My guess is that FSP is a role model for the interviewer, whereas the MSP was a boring dud who had nothing going for him but his CV.

Personally, I would much rather read about FSP the person. I don't need her CV to be reprinted in interview format, I can find it on the interwebs via professional databases and a simple google search.

My experience is that there are actually more women like FSP (gentle, soft spoken overachievers) allowed to be faculty in science.

We loudmouthed bitches are forced out before becoming faculty, despite our grant funding or swarms of publications. because we are too ambitious about getting more and we are willing to say so at every opportunity.

Or we are crazy enough to openly acknowledge career problems stemming from pesky annoyances like sexism, when in fact sexism is a myth. Right? Because all any of us can provide is a series of anecdotes about what happened in our own careers. Which no one will accept as data or evidence that given a chance, we would wipe the floor with our MSP peers.

Yeah. I said it. If those guys had went through a tiny fraction of the shit I got, they would have quit years sooner.

Anonymous said...

@MsPhD

From a previous exchange on your (now dead) blog, I remember distinctly that you are a "math denier". Now there are nutcases who deny evolution and nutcases who deny the holocaust, but I think you are the only one who denies multiplication.

Now if you dont have basic math skills and claim to be a scientist, in addition to being a "loudmouthed bitch", I think it is quite clear why you got kicked out before becoming faculty.

Why dont you remind us all about your calculation of how an extra 3% chance of men getting any given paper accepted will lead to them getting several times as many papers accepted in a given period? Your foolish calculation, beset with (high school) sophomoric misconceptions, should help commenters realise why your failures have nothing to do with gender and perhaps more to do with your shockingly low academic capabilities?

zed said...

Or maybe she didn't actually interview the guy, and had to make up a story based only around his CV and his reputation as an "assertive" type. I agree with another comment that it's more interesting when these stories make the scientist, male or female, into a real person, the odd thing in this case is the uneven application of that principle and how the result is clear bias in how male and female scientists are represented.

Anonymous said...

You'd need a transcript of both interviews to know why they turned out differently. It's possible that the interviewer tried to conduct both interviews the same way and that MSP realized the conversation wasn't going anywhere and just gave her relevant information. It could be that he has a more assertive personality, or it could be that he has more experience with interviews and knew how to handle it.

Either way, it is technically your problem if you're being misrepresented, but it's not your fault if the interviewer misrepresented you.

Namnezia said...

I think this reflects more the interviewer's biases than how you portrayed yourself. The fact that she spent half the time talking about herself probably suggests she felt more comfortable talking with you than with the MSP. And therefore she had much more interesting things to say about you than him. Usually when I read profiles of other faculty I find the ones that focus less on research and more on the person more interesting and flattering. I can always read up about a person's research by looking at their faculty page and CV.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

How strange! It almost sounds like your interviewer was looking for some kind of approval from you about her own experiences. Is she related to your science college? Any idea if she had a similar conversation with the MSP?

Anonymous said...

I agree with what MsPhD wrote, but I don't understand this phrase "because we are too ambitious about getting more" (grants). Do you think that soft-spoken women get fewer grants or are less ambitious? I don't think that is true.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty much a royal beotch. I managed to get faculty position & I kick arse in my career. But I still sometimes have to face the misguided idea that I am gentle. Weird.

Anonymous said...

maybe you have a better personality/character than your male colleague and that this is unusual for a professor, which is why the interviewer emphasized it!

maybe it's common for professors to be jerks, which is certainly my own experience, and that's why it's so noteworthy to the interviewer that you aren't, although that doesn't explain why the article couldn't also have mentioned your professional accomplishments in addition to your nice personality.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Wow, many of the comments on this thoughtful article make me feel dirty. Ick.

What I like most about this post is that not only does it suggest there's a potential problem with society that we should be aware of when reading or writing about different groups (gender, race etc.) in the media (and thus should not discount the underrepresented group because they are portrayed as a stereotype), but it also makes suggestions on how as individuals we can avoid becoming stereotypes. We may be victims, but we can fight victimhood.

I for one am taking the lesson to heart and remembering that I need to talk myself up more and remain professional. I actually did have an alumni write-up in my graduate school magazine (because I am awesome) and the woman kept wanting to focus on my newborn. As proud of my child as I was, I kept pushing the interview back to my work, and even vetoed more than a sentence about my home life. Was that the right thing to do, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

The postings and some of the comments struck a chord and so I thought I would write my own experience as a female science professor. I view myself as gentle, but this is a matter of choice. I don't like hugely assertive people and so I don't want to behave like them. I respect my space and also believe in giving people their space. However, this trait I find is misunderstood as being submissive, which I am not! So, more often than not I find myself in situations where I must assert myself to get my rights.

Ms.PhD said...

Anonymous said...
I agree with what MsPhD wrote, but I don't understand this phrase "because we are too ambitious about getting more" (grants). Do you think that soft-spoken women get fewer grants or are less ambitious? I don't think that is true.


No, I mean that women who are openly ambitious are punished for it, at least in some fields.

For example, in my field, you can be soft-spoken but ambitious, that's cute. You will win awards if you fit that profile.

You can be loudmouthed but modest, that's ok, as long as your loudmouth-ness is offset by some powerful mentors who make sure everyone knows you are actually really good (so you don't have to tell them yourself). You can be loudmouthed about most things, but never about your own abilities.

What you can't be is loudmouthed AND ambitious about what you want to work on, that's just plain unlikeable and risky. Especially if you don't have a powerful mentor giving you lots of support behind the scenes. (At least in my field!)

We can't have little wimmenz overstepping our culturally-accepted bounds.

If I say I want to accomplish as much as the Big Guys in my field someday, that is tantamount to outrageous arrogance. Not allowed, and usually attracts crowds carrying pitchforks and torches.

What I resent is the evidence that it's fine for guys to display this kind of ambition, but I'm supposed to eliminate it from my personality because I'm female.

Anonymous said...

If I say I want to accomplish as much as the Big Guys in my field someday, that is tantamount to outrageous arrogance.

"Quiet" women can say this as well, so it's not the saying itself. You are probably right about it mattering how women say this (but it doesn't matter how men say this; it just makes them seem more awesome if they are loudmouths).

MellaMella said...

I wonder if this interviewer saw you as more of an equal (or a friend; hence her unprofessional rambling about herself), and may've been more businesslike with the other interviewee because they had less in common. Gender aside, it sounds like she conducted two different interviews.

So now I'll know to ask, when in a similar situation, "so, how much do you want to write about the Science, and how much touchy-feely?"

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of a very famous FSP in my department who is very soft-spoken. I like that when she speaks, in her quiet and gentle voice, everybody shuts up and listens.

Peggy said...

For those asserting that FSP's story is just one woman's experience and criticizing her for attributing the discrepancy in reporting to gender, there is research documenting the differential treatment of male and female scientists in many settings, including for example letters of reference, in which letter writers are more likely to discuss men's scientific accomplishments and more likely to discuss women's personality traits. (Trix, F. and Psenka, C. (2003). Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society, 14 (2), 191-220.)

Anonymous said...

I think this is a very valuable post. It helps me, as a female scientist who is trying to get a permanent job, consider more deeply how I portray myself (I am soft spoken and too willing to let others take the limelight for my work), and how I need to be more proactive to ensure that my achievements are recognised.

Michelle said...

When Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the Nobel, the headline in San Diego read "Housewife wins Nobel"

Read the articles about the Nobel prizes in the last decade. Women are often pictured doing something domestic (folding laundry, watching grandchildren). Men answer the phone and are either surprised it's Sweden or (amazingly) not surprised it's Sweden.