Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why Me?

This has been happening to me a lot lately:

I meet someone for the first time in my new capacity as an Administrator and one of the first questions they ask me is "Why (or how) were you selected?" I italicized you because in 87.3% of the cases, there is an emphasis on you, not necessarily in an impolite way, but to emphasize the you-and-not-someone-else focus of the question.

There are unambiguous 100% neutral examples of these questions -- that is, when I meet someone who has a similar position at another university and we compare notes about our jobs.

But then there are some situations in which the motivation is less clear.

Possible explanations for why someone would ask this question:

Some people (academics or not) may be curious about how things work in the intriguing world of academia in general and/or in particular at my institution.

Some people are surprised, at least at first, at finding someone like me in this position (the first woman ever to hold this particular position at my university). Which leads to these further possibilities:

- They think it is cool and wonder what excellent change has happened at this institution so that finally a woman was selected for this position.

- They wonder if I am qualified for the job, or at least, was I really the most qualified? Perhaps I was selected because I am a woman?

Do men get asked this question so frequently? I don't know, but in a recent poll of n=2 male peers, I realized that, although I had been asked this question nearly weekly for months, these guys had not yet been asked it once.

I don't actually spend a lot of time obsessing about the motivation of these questions. I think that these issues will fade with time.

I will mention, though, that a few days ago when I was asked this question, for the first time there was a witness to it, and it was a different experience altogether. I didn't realize until then that all the other conversations had been one-on-one. This time, a colleague (another administrator) was present and disagreed with the apparently disrespectful way in which the question was asked and did not stay silent. I can fight my own battles when I want, but sometimes it is very nice to have allies.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Off Topic

A reader writes about her frustration with the prevalence of Women In Science (WIS) events that turn out to be about how to get out of science or, at least, academic science (research), and frustration with the number of workshops and other WIS events that focus on babies babies babies (primarily anxiety about the possibility that babies lead to "career suicide").

"There are very few events about how to do good research at the top competitive levels, the psychological travails of an academic lifestyle" ... "even something about common sexist gaffes (e.g. asking about your husband's job at your job interview) would be helpful ... I went to one .. event early on in my position here, as I work on an area .. with very few women and I like the XX companionship, but it turned out to be a networking event for women looking to get out of research. I still haven't been back."

"Is this problem [having babies and a career as a scientist at a university] just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?"

This reader provided a very long list of workshop titles to prove her point about the workshop obsession with work-life balance (= having a career and children) and leaving academia.

Has anyone else had this experience of being overwhelmed by an emphasis on opting-out or baby-anxiety topics?

I would hope that there could be workshop theme balance, such that topics included how to find non-academic careers in science as well as how to succeed in a research career in science. Women-in-science events at the university where I had my first tenure-track job were extremely important to me when I was getting started, and definitely included discussion of the topics the reader mentions as being of interest to someone pursuing a research career at a university. If there had been a major emphasis on getting out of research/academic, I would have felt even more isolated than I already did.
The topic of babies is clearly a critical one for many women, but it's too bad if this overshadows (or eclipses) everything else. I don't just mean that for women who don't have children (now), but for all women in science. The baby issue should be part of the discussion, but there are many important topics.

I don't mean to minimize the challenges of having children and a career as a professor at a research university, but I hope that in most fields it is easy to encounter -- in real life and in blogs -- examples of happy, successful professor-moms, so that early-career scientists can see that babies ≠ career suicide.

Another hope of mine, perhaps an even less realistic one, is that it wouldn't always be women talking about careers-and-babies, but that more men would be involved in these discussions. It is still common for FSPs who are invited speakers at other institutions to be asked to have a "pizza lunch" or whatever with female students and postdocs, typically to talk about work-life issues.* Are any of you in departments that routinely invite men to do the same?

For those who share the experience of my reader in not finding WIS workshops that focus on topics relevant to women who want to stay in (academic/research) science, blogs can help fill the gap to some extent, but there's no substitute for talking with others -- sharing stories and experiences, getting and giving advice and support, laughing and expressing anxiety. If you can't find that in workshops sponsored by a particular group, perhaps you can create your own mini-workshop or social-professional event, somehow getting the word out and seeing if there are others interested in discussion of similar topics. Alternatively (or in addition to this), see if you (and like-minded women) can get word to the relevant organizations for WIS and let them know what topics would be of interest to you.

* Not long ago, something rather cool came out of one of these women-lunch discussion things that I did years ago at another university. One of the women who attended my discussion later became a high school science teacher in the region where I live, so, when one of her students became interested in my general field of research, this teacher got in touch with me and we arranged that I would meet the student and introduce her to some undergraduates and professors involved in advising the undergrad program in my department and I thought this was a great, albeit unexpected, outcome of having what I remember as rather bad pizza while being quizzed about the usual work-life issues by anxious young women.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Think Different?

Not long ago, I spent some time with a very diverse group of academics: professors and administrators from the sciences, engineering, humanities, and the social sciences. It can be interesting to experience academically diverse committees and workshops like this one. Even if the overall experience is boring (that is, the doing of the thing that we are tasked to do and have outcomes and deliverables for the stakeholders etc.), but I like the people (well, most of them) and I am fascinated by glimpses of how other departments and disciplines operate.

Anyway, at this particular event, a group of us were sitting around drinking hot or cold caffeine and discussing what our priorities are in our daily work life. We were not talking about work-life balance (with or without cats); we were talking about work-work balance. That is, when faced with several (many) competing work tasks, all of which, in theory, need to be done now, which ones do we realistically do now and which ones do we do later?

This is what blew me away: when discussing two very specific examples that I will vaguely describe below, the physical scientists and engineers prioritized one thing and the humanities and social science faculty prioritized the other.

These particular examples involved whether we would deal first with a possible crisis involving undergraduate students or whether we would respond first to an urgent request from an unnamed upper-level administrator. The scientists and engineers opted to (hypothetically) wade into the student crisis and try to sort it out, but the others (hypothetically) opted to respond to the administrator first.

I hasten to point out that those who prioritized the administrative issue emphasized that they nevertheless were concerned about the students. We all agreed that both these issues were important and should be dealt with as soon as possible, we just disagreed about what should be done right now and what should be done immediately-after-right-now.

Why the difference, I wondered?

A couple of weeks after the incident, I told a colleague of mine -- a former upper-level administrator -- about it, and his explanation was that it was not so much cultural differences among disciplines (and definitely not degree of concern for students) but rather a function of the specific personalities of the administrators involved. That is, the humanities and social sciences faculty have long had very demanding and aggressive administrators, whereas the scientists and engineers have had more "flexible" administrators in our part of the university. We STEM people may therefore feel less pressure to give an immediate response to an administrator if we have another urgent situation to deal with at the same time.

I had never thought of it that way before, but it makes some sense. And, if my colleagues is right, it is a rather dramatic micro-illustration of the effect of administrative personalities on the operation of the units for which they are responsible. I suppose that can be good or bad, depending on the situation.