Archive for: March, 2017

Why I’m Hopeful

Today, it is easy to be discouraged about the state of the world. On NPR today, I heard about the hunger crisis. Yesterday, I talked to a P.I. at a large research institution in despair about the proposed budget and its impact on research. My students come to school on a regular basis in near tears about the state of immigration, health care or the most recent crisis of the day. I have been guilty of burying my head to some degree, for my mental health. But recently, I had the privilege of taking part in a panel regarding the role of STEM education on girls.

I was invited to participate in the panel because I coach a science extracurricular activity at an all-female school. I had few of my students participating, and other faculty and high school girls were invited to be on the panel. When the day rolled around, I was grumpy about having agreed to participate. My children were both sick, I had family in town and it was rush hour when I had to drive across town. Adding insult to injury, the audience was composed of a measly smattering of elderly people; I’m not sure what I’d expected, but I’d hoped for a least a few more people.

The point of the event was to showcase efforts being put into encouraging young women to go into science and technology. The responses of the teenagers astounded me. The totally understood the perceived and stereotyped behaviors of women in STEM in a way I never did as an adolescent. They demonstrated a value for their own collaborative skills. And they left me feeling hopeful about future of women in science and tech.

When the moderator started asking us me questions, I realized how odd it was for me to be on this panel. I was sitting there giving “advice”, as a young person who had recently left science. Inevitably, as I introduced myself and my history, the moderator asked me the question: “so why did you leave research?”. Sure, I’d been asked that question before, but I’d never had to answer it publically or succinctly. And without realizing it, I had a great answer: I love science. After grad school, I was no longer interested in doing research. I was (and remain) interested in talking about science and I find it fulfilling and challenging. So girls, you should do what you love—I am. Sure, there were lifestyle reasons, but it ultimately came down to my personal interests.

Interestingly, I recently got an invitation to complete a survey about myIDP. It forced me to log in and revisit the assessment I’d done during graduate school. I completed it long before I transitioned to teaching and sort of wrote it off. In retrospect, they had me pegged before I was ready to admit it. So I guess my other advice would be to be open to suggestion—perhaps I’d have discovered teaching sooner if I had been more willing to do so. I’m hopeful that the next generation will be able to value and identify their own skills in STEM much more quickly than I have.

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Variability of sexist behavior

Mar 20 2017 Published by under female scientist, sexism, women in science

“Science is not about conforming to an ideal, masculine or feminine, but instead relies on the diversity of perspective that gives rise to insight. The individuals do not derive identity from the group; the group is defined by the identity of its component individuals. Or, as I phrase it to myself, the point is not whether I think like other scientists do; it’s that one scientist – me – thinks like I do.”

I love this quote from the essay “The Truth is in The Distribution” by Indira Raman. Her article gives a number of liberating insights for women in science based on her personal perspectives, which I found to be refreshing.

 

In other parts of the essay, she extends the discussion of variability to the range of behavior – good and bad – observed in scientists, relating specifically to the challenges faced by women in science. This part hit home for me, as I had been thinking a lot about the circumstances under which I ascribed someone’s behavior to sexism. These thoughts come across best in the cases of two individuals I had been dealing with.

Case 1 – a young man, fellow postdoc. In informal seminars where discussion is encouraged but usually occurs at low levels, he often interjected to ask the presenter (usually female) a question, but more often, to share a story or concern of his that was similar. In one instance where a fellow female postdoc was giving a practice talk for a presentation at a conference and several faculty members started critiquing her, the male postdoc added in his generic talk advice.

Case 2 – a young woman, research technician. In lab when faced with a problem, she would ask my advice. I would give her advice such as, “I would do X.” She would respond, “I’ll just do X.” What I just said, rephrased to sound like she just thought of it and didn’t need my advice after all. I never heard her do this with a man, including those more junior to me in the lab.

In the first case, my initial reaction was to label this guy a classic mansplainer, and consider how I could talk to him about what he was doing. After some thought and further observation, I recognized that he is just a super-talkative guy who believes everything he thinks is important enough to be said out loud, though he wasn’t typically condescending, and it was just circumstance that made him look like a mansplainer since he was often the only male in the room*. In the second case, my first reaction was to think this was just a really annoying way of talking through ideas. But after thinking more, I believe she is a mansplainer, who doesn’t like any idea unless it comes from her own mouth, but only when the other party is a woman.

So I realized that I was quick to ascribe bad behavior to sexism in a man and quick to forgive bad behavior as a personality trait in a woman, and it is important to consider the individual as only representing him or herself. That said, however… there are clearly patterns of bad behavior, and the range and variability of those patterns are not the only important metrics – the number of women affected by sexism (i.e. virtually all women) is arguably the most important, as was brought to collective awareness by the #YesAllWomen counter to #NotAllMen trends. Therefore, whenever we see sexism at play, even from a small number of men, we can’t simply write it off as individual variability. That is where I felt Raman’s essay was lacking – by accepting that it is a relatively small number of offending individuals making the field more difficult for women, it can indeed be liberating, but it remains essential to act against sexism where we see it, as well as proactively. She does acknowledge that she appreciates these efforts and that is not the focus of her essay.

For my part, I will continue to try to be more judicious in my own evaluations of people’s behavior that may or may not appear sexist to me, remembering the range in people of all sexes.

 

*Though of course it is valid to consider him (and us) a product of our culture generating this male-typical behavior, making it no coincidence at all that the only man in the room was also the only one who felt like his ideas were important enough to interject.


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I’m Not Oppressed

Mar 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

“I don’t see gender. I don’t think men and women should be viewed separately. I also don’t see color. I don’t distinguish between black and white. I see people. That’s what I do – I see people. When you separate genders and races, you run into trouble. That’s where problems can begin. You know, so many women in this country think they are oppressed. They are not! They are not oppressed in this country like women in other countries are. And don’t even get me started on the gender wage gap. It is simply untrue. It does not exist. Women in the US are not oppressed and they get paid the same as men!!!”

I sat in my senior colleague’s office in the upper management position in my company listening to a rather heated response to my “oh you’re wearing a red shirt, is that for Women’s Day (March 8th)? I didn’t know you were such a feminist.” Perhaps I should’ve been more careful than to imply that he may be wearing a color in solidarity of celebrating International Women’s Day. And no, he does not celebrate Women’s Day as it turned out. In fact, he appeared to express strong feelings not only about celebrating the day, but also about women’s “oppression complaints.” I couldn’t quite process that at the time – having just attended a weekend-long very intensive conference on neurological consequences of inflammation and recovering from a rather ill-timed stomach flu my children generously shared with me the moment I stepped off the plane – my own brain was probably succumbing to an inflammatory cytokine storm of my own. No, I did not respond. I sat speechless. Incapacitated.

That night and the following day, I couldn’t get my colleague’s remarks out of my head. Having just attended an amazing conference, where PhDs, MDs and NDs got together to discuss global disease patterns; I, on the one hand, was reveling in the fact how amazing that I get to go to conferences of such nature with incredibly motivated, intelligent scientists and clinicians… And on the other hand… Well, let me take you back to the conference.

I encountered a Santa-looking older MD at this conference who attended a talk of mine last December. He asked so many thoughtful questions in December, that I sought his attention at this conference, and started chatting with him. The conversation, at first, so inspiring and exciting, turned a more… interesting (troubling? creepy?) direction. After probing me for “are you married/do you have kids/how old are you” sort of questions, he steered the conversation into the realm “whoa, your husband is so lucky to have you. How did he get you? Did you have a lot of boyfriends before him?”

Um. Excuse me? What did you just ask me? And when did it become ok to ask these questions? Remember, we were just talking about adrenal health. Not my, what was it, personal life. WHICH IS NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS!!!

I excused myself. Told him I was getting tired and needed some rest before the next day’s talks started.

The next morning, I felt bad (why? what is wrong with me?) – I didn’t want him to think that I was rude or short or whatever else that women are taught not to do or be. I came up to him in the morning (short break = can’t stay too long to chat) and followed up on a question he asked me the night before. A scientific question. Not a personal creepy one. I sat next to him in a char. I was dressed down. My feet hurt from the night before. I wore keds, khakis and a sweater. He was staring at me while I talked. Then he placed his hand on my shoulder (personal space, dude!) and said that I looked so lovely “dressed down.” He kept saying that. Over and over. He also told me he “had a very nice time chatting with me last night.” Ok. It was time to go. So I wrapped up. But before I sprinted back to my seat, he told me how beautiful my hands were. And that I “must take very good care of them.” My hands thanked him. And my hands and I bolted.

Needless to say I avoided eye contact with him for the rest of the conference.

You know, when these things happen, I am always caught off guard. I think “they can’t possibly mean what they are saying/doing.” I try to make excuses – they are socially awkward, etc. etc. But in reality, there are not excuses. This was my third conference I attended, representing my company. This is the third time an older MD dude asked me exactly “how old I was.” This is the first time, however, someone went as far as to ask me very prying details of my personal life, touched me by my shoulder, commented on my hands. It is probably not the last.

So what I have to say is this – no, I do not feel oppressed. But the gender gap is more real than ever in the professional world. I would’ve liked to see the look on my colleague’s face when someone started prying into his life, asked him how old he was, and violated his personal space. Perhaps it is not only relevant but also very important that we understand gender differences. And celebrate them. We can then move on from what a stereotypically “smart” and respectable clinician or scientist ought to look like. And if a professional does not fit the stereotype, it does not mean there is an invitation to be asshole. Ever!

What frustrates me the most is not what is said. It is how I react or rather don’t react while I’m in this situation. Where exactly do I take a class on how to tell a jerk to go fuck himself in a polite, respectable manner?

 

 


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Motherly endeavors

Mar 09 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Happy International Women’s day!
In this post, I will be talking about something specific to women -mothers in particular: breastfeeding. I had a lot of anxiety, trials and tribulations when it came to breastfeeding my baby. It took a lot of practice, and for some reason, the process and all the transitions were very confusing to me. My personal goal was to breastfeed for 6 months. Maybe writing about my experience here can help someone else in the future.
Figuring out breastfeeding
Both my baby and I had a very difficult time in the first few days. The hospital lactation consultant sent us home with some extra stuff to help us out. Baby didn’t really eat the first couple days. Once we were shown how to supplement baby through syringe tubes and droppers, they let us go home, but the first 10 days were extremely stressful. Because baby wasn’t gaining weight, we had more frequent check ups, and a few 1-on-1 appointments with lactation consultants.
Thankfully, I have an awesome coworker that reached out and let me know about breastfeeding support groups in my area (totally free, no strings attached). I was very hesitant to go, at first, and really didn’t want to drive anywhere. But I am really glad I did. Seeing other moms dealing with some of the same things made me feel less crazy. And the scale that helped us figure out how many ounces of milk baby was drinking was also helpful. The combination of all of these people helped me to deal with my extreme emotions about why things weren’t going great, and more importantly, helped me work toward solutions and strategies instead of getting worried and upset about our slow progress.
In those first few weeks, I was totally not prepared for the crazy schedule. I know baby class tried really hard to prepare us, and I heard what they said, but I was definitely not prepared. Specific to breastfeeding – baby needs to eat every 2-3 hours for the first several weeks-months. That sounds pretty straighforward, right? What I didn’t realize was that baby could take 20-30 minutes….per side… per feeding……. That is a LOT of time. And NOT a lot of time in between. That was the hardest part for me. But after the first month or so things got a lot better. The feedings got a lot shorter, and the interval between feedings got a little longer (especially at night, which meant more sanity for me, yay!)
Fast forward to work
Going back to work full time right away was a big change, and at three months my baby was still eating every 2-3 hours during the day. It was important for me to not miss one of those “feedings” because I new that consistency was important for supply. I gave up working out  in the morning (my normal workout time) for the first few months after going back to work. I would breastfeed baby right before leaving for work, and then again about 2.5 hrs later (mid-morning). Then again at lunch, and again in the afternoon before I left for the day. Then I would rush back home after work to get one feeding in early evening, and then again at bedtime. I did this for 3-4 months until I was getting substantially less per pumping session than I was originally. Then I went to two sessions at work during the day. Oh how wonderful it was to get my lunchtime with friends back!!! This went on for several months until I was again producing a lot less. I went down to one session at work, but that didn’t last too long. Eventually the only time I was breastfeeding was first thing in the morning and right before bed. We made it to 10 months before breastfeeding rather abruptly ended for us.
 
Pumping place a.k.a lactation room (have a backup plan)
It was refreshing for me to learn that my law (can’t remember if it was nation, state or local), said that any employer having more than 50 employees is required to provide a place to pump. It cannot be a restroom. Unfortunately, even some of my male coworker friends with kids whose wives pumped assumed the bathroom was the go-to place. I found it very useful to immediately say to anyone who suggested it (even whose intentions were the best) “would you prepare your lunch in the workplace/public restroom?; this is lunch for my infant”.
Personally, I was provided a very comfortable space. Only twice did that close and lock the area where the room was without telling me to go out to lunch for the next hour and a half.  :/ It was acceptable to me (although not ideal) to go down to my car and plug in my adapter to pump in these instances. I did have a kinda dark parking garage to go into, and there was no one that really would have seen me. I can imagine this would be very distressing to me if I had taken public transportation or had my car in a busy area.
Babies grow, time flies
Looking back, I am very proud of the journey. It has some gnarly challenges, but it was so beautiful and well worth all the tears and pain. I would do it all over again.

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