Friday, May 03, 2013

Some Of Them Are Very Bright

As happens from time to time, a science-man having a conversation with me about science, or whatever, will feel the need to establish his I-can-work-with-women creds, even though this is apropos of nothing other than that he is having a conversation with a female scientist (me) at the time, and so he will mention his sincere opinion that a woman or women he worked with is/are actually quite smart. Some of them are even very bright (I heard that one today in an otherwise apparently normal conversation).

Also in a recent conversation of this sort, a science-man told me that he once had to work with a woman who had -- according to what many people told him -- a reputation for being very difficult. He felt that this was a common trait in successful women, and although many successful women realize this and therefore keep a low profile and choose to work behind the scenes (can we call that leaning back?), especially after they get into their late 30s, for some reason this woman chose to stay visible and to work openly with the big male guns even though she was clearly in her 40s (I am not making this up). He did not use the b-word, but he did use the word "shrew" a few times, but -- guess what?!! -- he got along with her just fine. Every once in a while she would start to go shrew on him (I just made up that phrase, it is not a direct quote), but he stayed calm and patient and she would calm down too and they ended up working well together. Yay. 

I do not think less of these men for their misguided attempts to impress me with their progressive opinions of the Female Intellect and/or bizarre hypotheses about the Female Personality in Early Middle Age, but neither am I impressed, just so you know.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

"He felt that this was a common trait in successful women".

My observations absolutely confirm that. Successful and ambitious women that I have seen are often very difficult and selfish. I have been recently working with a female PI on a project that both of our PhD students worked on and required heavy investments from both sides. A few papers resulted from that collaboration and so far I have not been able to convince her that I should be the senior author at the very least on one of those papers. The technique used in those experiments was mine, all experiments were done in my lab, and I am the only who could help the PhD students interpret the data. But she somehow managed to fool me into the agreement that they will write the papers. Now she says that I cannot be the last author on any of the papers. Done with her! Hear the same complaints from other male PIs who have trusted female PIs.

Anonymous said...

I guess that proves it then.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering why nobody spends time commenting on how totally fucked up SOBs are successful and ambitious men to work with, not to mention them being usually VERY DIFFICULT AND SELFISH, ah right, but that might be considered normal, isn't it?

Alex said...

Successful men are often difficult, sometimes proudly so. I am only moderately successful but I am difficult. Why shouldn't women get to be a little difficult as well?

Frankly, I don't entirely trust people who aren't a little difficult. Either they are hiding something, or they don't know how to make distinctions and recognize lines and hold to a standard that they believe in, or they have no fire. Not that they have to be impossible, but a little difficulty is a good thing.

a person said...

Seriously Anon 12:39?? Seriously, ALL female PIs???
I love working with female PIs, and as it happens, male PIs as well. Some of them are weird, some of these weirdo's are male, and some are female, but if I let that cloud my judgement I am as an academic in the wrong business. What I do let determine when I choose collaborators (except of excellence, complementarity,...) is whether they show an unacceptable level of selfishness or untrustworthiness, and that can be again a woman or man. I appreciate being regarded as an individual and I do other people the same courtesy. Also, I think judging people individually probably gives you a better assessment of whether the collaboration will work out than using generalizations.

a person said...

A follow-up on my previous comment to Anon 12:39

There is an unwritten rule in academia: s/he who writes gets the credit.
This means that when someone offers to write, they essentially offer to get the credit. If in a grant proposal several PI's are collaborating to propose it together, and one has to be the main PI, it will probably end up being the person who offered to write the first draft.
You can be proactive about this, if you feel credit should be yours, but other people might claim it, have for example already a first draft ready! Of course you should not overuse this, as the PI you worked with did, because if you take an unjustified amount of credit, you are damaging future collaborations with this person. As said PI clearly did with you. Sometimes you encounter very nice people and you can simply openly discuss author position and come to an agreement everyone feels is fair. But many people in academia are selfish to some extent (it is promoted, to survive we need to show that we are the key person that made it happen), so be prepared to show an equal amount of selfishness if need be. Academia is not for the faint hearted. That being said avoid people that are selfish to a degree you cannot work with them. My device is that I match the selfishness of my collaborators, and try to be fair as the latter promotes future collaborations, and a good feeling about myself.

Anonymous said...

I believe it has been said before that there may exist a bias, which meant in the past that only such women *could* succeed, but this doesn't say much about what capable women are like.

With things improving with time, we can make sure this won't be the case in the future, by trying to select for competence and not aggressiveness.

Whoosh... said...

Is there any chance that this type of male colleague vanishes soon and is replaced by a more relaxed version, who doesn't have to show off his I-can-work-with-women abilities?
Otherwise I'll have to join the scientific shrew club when I turn 40 - can't wait!

Psycgirl said...

Uhhhhh.....is it possible to be successful and ambitious in academia without sometimes being difficult, regardless of gender? I sometimes wonder.

Ethan White said...

Anon 12:39 reminds me of "How it works"
http://xkcd.com/385/.

Tinkering Theorist said...

That's funny, I had a related conversation yesterday! We were sitting in a group discussing potential future proposals, and he mentioned it would be even better (in terms of getting funded) if we could include a modeler like him but who is not a "white male". Because I fit in that category and there was a strange pause after he said that, I put a strange look on my face and raised my hand. During the ensuing strange conversation, he explained that he has a female graduate student who is excellent.

I didn't find this conversation offensive. There were no non-PI women in the room (if there were, they may not have felt able to join in the conversation and thus these comments could have made this meeting very awkward for them). Given that, in some ways I am happy that people share and discuss their feelings about these things instead of not thinking about them at all or having such feelings and not revealing them. I just don't really understand why these things needed to be brought up in that context at all.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I was just about to post that xkcd comic in response to anon 1:43, but I see Ethan White beat me to it.

Anonymous said...

I am Jewish, my wife is half German and she has many relatives in Germany. A few times it has happened to me that in conversations with her German relatives they bring up Jewish issues (holocaust etc.) - always apropos of nothing, I never bring it up, I have no desire to talk about any such issues with them. One case was particularly marked, a very old uncle (since deceased) who told me how he was so passionately pro-Jewish, Zionist, loved the state of Israel, etc. I just nodded uncomfortably and waited for the conversation to be over... some people just have something to prove and are looking for someone who they think may be able to validate them.

Anonymous said...

This is some hilarious $*it. Perhaps I should send a preemptive email to my collaborators before my 40th birthday, warning them of my impending shrew-ness...

GMP said...

Most successful people are difficult. I have never worked with a successful person who is not, in the sense that they like things a certain way, are protective of their time, and are very demanding of others but also of themselves.

No one bats an eyelash at all the difficult men PIs. In women, difficult is often synonymous with "shockingly, not a doormat." Women are supposed to be nice and accommodating first, then everything else. When they are looking out for themselves, the same as their male colleagues do, they violate the social expectation of being communal and are penalized for it. It's a real thing and there is research on it. This so-called double bind "should be competent and show it, but not show it too much, because then you are perceived as aggressive and not nice and that's not allowed either." For women, it's a really constantly a competition between looking competent but bitchy (so bad) and incompetent but nice (also bad). It is very hard to hit the competence and niceness just right, so as not be dismissed for either.

MineralPhys said...

Thanks for your posts & observations.

First--I love when people use that word: "Actually". Always says a mouthful, doesn't it?

I hope most of us understand that most of us (humans both male and female) are far more complicated and multifaceted than simple dichotomies of "difficult-easy" "Ambitious-not" etc. etc. In my experience collaboration is always complicated and often difficult. But working with people who bring interesting things to the table--ideas, skills, talents--is worthwhile.

Still, motivated by many of the comments to your post I am strongly tempted to put a big sign on my door with a sliding marker showing my current position on the "Shrewish---Spunky" spectrum.

Geologist said...

"He felt that this was a common trait in successful women".

I disagree. I know several amazingly successful women profs who are unselfish, kind, generous. A lot of their success is based on treating people the way you would want them to treat you, and avoiding those who misbehave whenever possible. There are numerous people to collaborate with and when you find someone who behaves badly, learn from that and avoid them in the future.

Having said that, I do feel that there is a stereotype that successful women cannot be successful without being a b*tch. Yet in my experience men are allowed those same behaviors and are rewarded as that is seen as being strong, successful, etc. I also see the next generation continuing with these stereotypes. I have little hope that anything will change.

AnotherFemaleScienceProfessor said...

re: anonymous @12:39am, perhaps earlier in her career she was repeatedly omitted completely from author lists of papers where she worked on the project but didn't write up the results. And not even listed in acknowledgments of papers whose authors told her after publication about how her suggestions had started the whole line of research. And had her contribution to her first-author paper discredited in a promotion review because the grad student who was 2nd author shared the same last name as Prof. Jones, so therefore Prof. Jones must have actually done the work (Jones is such an unusual name, it must be the professor despite the different initial?). And ... well, you get the idea. After enough times it makes one defensive and paranoid and worse.

Perhaps you could ask another female colleague (call her Y) about any bad experiences she's had, and then tell your difficult female colleague X, "I couldn't believe what Y told me about the time she worked on a paper and such-and-such happened" and see if X doesn't then share a shocking story of her own previous awful experiences. She may then even realize she may be overcompensating for others' previous bad behavior, at your expense.

(Also, I don't understand why she'd be so concerned with being last author since my conclusion from my experience is that it would be silly for a woman to insist on a particular author name placement in a case like you describe, because her contribution will likely be discounted REGARDLESS of where her name appears in the author list, if the other authors are male...)

FemaleScienceProfessor, aaagh! I have happily seldom heard such blatant statements. But definitely some subtler versions. Did he truly say "shrew" (and it was only "go shrew" that was not a direct quote)??? Also love your usage of "leaning out"! I will be on the lookout for situations that allow me to steal your wording.

Lisa Buckley said...

Well, bully for Science-Man for pointing out that, as a logical male, he was able to calm down the illogical shrew of a Science-Woman!

I am not impressed with this patronizing drivel. I've never heard in conversation about a Science-Man that they are "quite bright". It's just taken for granted that they are because they are in science. There seems to be that undertone of "Not only do we have women on faculty to make us look good, but they actually do stuff, too!" with comments from those that feel compelled to state that they have encountered bright women. Well meaning on behalf of the commenter? Possibly. Helping to dispel assumptions that a woman does not make as good of an academic as a man? Absolutely not.

Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to the time in my career when I am done with my training and am finally the boss. Because then I will be allowed to be selfish and difficult. I feel it will be my right, having had my share of shrew-mentors. Both male and female ones.

Anonymous said...

I think less of men who make rude comments which show an enormous lack of judgement by treating half the population as a monolithic group that can be categorized in such a simplistic and derogatory way. I think much less of them as their comments suggest they themselves are NOT very bright.

dolce vita said...

There is one absolutely FANTASTIC researcher at my institution, who has basically moved the field so far forward, I can't even imagine what she'll come up with next.

I want to be just like her. She's assertive, confident, no-nonsense, ambitious and incredibly demanding. That being said, I know the kind of PhD mentor she is, and I don't think I want that. People think that I'm saying that because she's an assertive female, but I would and have said it about equally gifted male faculty.

The thing is, everyone else calls her names. I call her wonderful, the kind of researcher whom I'd like to emulate for the rest of my life. If she were a man, I don't think anyone would be saying things.

Anonymous said...

Having been on the job market for a year and meeting my fair share of interview panelists, I can only postulate the hypothesis that there is a tremendous selection for alfa-maleness (be it in a man or a woman) at the tenure track level.
It takes a certain amount of ego (of total obliviousness to any social cues/signals) to make (or fake) it through the inquisition by an (often predominantly male) aggressive interview panel. And yes, I said aggressive. At some point, the atmosphere has very little to do with testing one's assertiveness.

James Annan said...

Sounds like some of you work in nasty fields.

I'm relieved to be able to say that a large majority of those I know who are highly successful are also genuinely nice.

standrewslynx said...

Being female (having Hormones and Biology and stuff), I suspect I too would become difficult to work with. Especially when faced with such patronising male attitudes in my workplace.

I suppose that after "shrew" (40s) will come "dragon" (50s) then perhaps "harridan" (+60s)?

Science-Man's attitude is akin to the "I'm not a racist/sexist but...[immediately goes into a series of racist/sexist comments]" If you feel the urgent need to pre-emptively defend your position...your position is probably the wrong one.

olympiasepiriot said...

ARRRRRRRRRGGgggggghhhhhh.


Sorry. That's all I want to say. But, I suppose I 'ought' to say more. Like wtf? Like this is so old it has whiskers and why the hell can't these idiots grow up? Like why is this STILL happening? It was happening back when I was in grade school, back in the Dark Ages before AIDS and the end of the Cold War.

EVERY successful person I know can be difficult. Actually, EVERY person I know even if not successful can be difficult. Working collaboratively isn't easy.

These scales of value for women...

Mother, Maiden, Crone?

Madonna, Whore?

Fuck, Marry, Kill?

All the same damn soup we swim in every day.

Anonymous said...

Does this colleague of yours by any chance have a stay at home wife, or a wife whose job is clearly a lesser priority than his? In my experience (I am faculty in electrical and computer engineering) the male professors who have stay at home wives are the most chauvinistic even though it is often masked as enlightenment such as your colleague's delightful discovery that some of these women are actually quite smart!. I wonder if he has a stay at home wife like my colleagues of similar ilk because I can see how such men's choice of lifestyle reflects their belief (and confirmed by their spouse) about the "rightness " of gender roles and attributes and how by extention women are not suited to non-domestic endeavors (which is why it is such a surprise when it appears that they are).

female chemist said...

Successful and ambitious men are also often very selfish and difficult to work with. It seems that this is a common trait of people successful in academia - regardless of gender.

Anonymous said...

I agree with "female chemist" who said "Successful and ambitious men are also often very selfish and difficult to work with. It seems that this is a common trait of people successful in academia - regardless of gender."

that is so true.

However, if this is true (as it is), then isn't there something inherently wrong with the set up of academia being based on grad students and postdocs being "mentored" by faculty and more senior scientists? Being selfish and difficult is counterproductive to being a good mentor. And, indeed, in my own experience I have found this to be the case - after being a postdoc for more years than I was a grad student, and having shared similar experiences with many friends and colleagues who were also postdocs over the years, I can say that the PI you work for as a postdoc is not usually a 'mentor' in any true sense of the word but rather a boss.

Thus I find it disingenuous whenever PI's are referred to as "mentors," or when the postdoctoral gig is referred to as "training" or "mentoring". Usually there is little to no training or mentoring going on, it is just a job. And the reason there is little training/mentoring is due to the fact that a common trait of ambitious and successful academics is selfishness and being difficult to work with.

Conversely, if you find someone who is NOT ambitious and NOT successful, why would you consider them to be a good mentor either? it is a catch-22. I thus feel that academia shouldn't put such emphasis on perceived "mentoring" of students and postdocs as the foundation of a career, as it is rather disingenuous and does not actually happen for the majority of students/postdocs.

Katherine McLean said...

I think less of them. Just sayin'.

(The rest of these comments illustrate the reasons behind my declaration wonderfully. I think I'll just leave it at that.)