Archive for the 'communication styles' category

Discussing obstacles for women in science – when is the right time?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Ben Barres speak at my institution. His talk about his research on reactive astrocytes (something I knew nothing about) was very intriguing. But what I want to comment on here is the 5-minute aside he took in the middle of the talk to discuss obstacles that women in science face. He brought up some issues that I was aware of and some that I wasn’t – i.e. the fact that by his estimate, around 95% of women have been hit on at conferences, making women less likely to feel comfortable attending networking/social events, potentially inhibiting their careers, similar to the column by Kelly Baker today advocating codes of conduct at conferences. All those points were thought-provoking and important, but that’s not my primary focus here either.

What really struck me was simply the fact that Dr. Barres, a prominent name with a large draw (as the Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford among other notable experiences), pointedly took time from his resesarch-focused talk, when he had a captive audience, to bring up this issue that is so clearly important to him, and to many of us.

As I looked around the crowded auditorium I saw that, as usual, 75% of the audience consisted of a combination of old white men (PIs) and young women (grad students, postdocs), while the other 25% were mostly young men and a few senior women. I thought to myself, “Who in this crowd would have ever chosen to attend a talk about the obstacles that women face in science?” I would wager that it would almost exclusively be the young women – those with the most at stake in the issue, yet those who are arguably the least capable of removing the obstacles.

For that matter, if one engaged senior PIs in a conversation about sexism in science, would they be receptive to hearing the message or would they take the opportunity to state their own view, or dismiss the conversation out of hand? In the context of Barres’s presentation, they had virtually no choice but to sit and politely listen without inserting their own response.

In short, I thought this was a brilliant way of getting an important message heard, forcing people who could and would avoid or ignore the issue in other situations, the people who really need to be aware of the issues and how they need to be the ones to act to change them, to actually listen. While I would not advocate or appreciate every academic talk turning into a political soapbox, I would love to see more prominent people taking on important and relevant issues like how we can foster women and underrepresented minorities in science.


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I told my boss I’m pregnant and it was weird and awesome

Aug 10 2015 Published by under academia, bosses, communication styles, empathy, motherhood

I was really nervous about telling my boss I’m pregnant. I have a great boss, and I was pretty sure it was going to be fine, but I still dreaded the moment. First, it’s just a difficult thing to bring up, as conversation (especially at work) never really leads into the topic. Second, as I’ve mentioned before, I was afraid that I would be representing women in an unflattering light, confirming sexist beliefs that we are more likely to ask for leave time, or put life outside of lab before work, and that that’s a bad thing. I was afraid of changing in my boss’s eyes from ‘promising scientist I’m training’ to ‘postdoc who’s going to stop producing data’ (though hopefully that would at least become ‘promising scientist I’m training who’s going to stop producing data for a short time due to normal life events’).

I read a little bit of advice on talking to your boss about this announcement. I originally planned on following some of it, such as knowing your rights/contract, and going in with a plan about how you could manage your projects and transitions. And even though I prepared those things, in the moment, I ended up taking a different route. I think it was because I was feeling so defensive, like I had to prove I was still a worthwhile trainee. I chose the tactic I’ll call ‘I really am still the person you hired and I’m going to pursue everything we’ve discussed for research and career planning and I’m going to make all this my priority‘. Which is ridiculous for a number of reasons. But that’s what I did – I basically word-vomited my plan for the next 6+ months regarding timing, grant writing and planning my career.

Aside from congratulating me, my boss did two awesome things in response to my weird need to prove I still cared about my future career. First, he followed my lead and talked about the things that I (apparently) wanted to talk about. He didn’t bring up leave time or money or replacing me on projects. He responded to my proposed timing for submitting a transitional grant application and we discussed my career goals. And it actually felt good. I at least convinced myself that I was driven to push forward on my career transition goals, and it made me feel better and in a less vulnerable position to have that be the center of the conversation.

Second, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “I will be happy to talk with you about whatever you want during this time, but I won’t bring anything up or push you to share. I know that a parent’s mindset and priorities can change a lot, in unexpected ways during this life-changing transition, and you can always discuss that with me.” [I’m actually tearing up as I type this, but I think it’s mostly the hormones.] I mean… you couldn’t ask for better or more appropriate emotional support than that from a boss, right?

I know that I’m lucky. Even though I still have to have that other difficult conversation about leave time and money, I know it’s going to be amiable and most likely turn out the way I hope. I wish that everyone could have as considerate a boss as mine, but perhaps the best we can do is spread the word on good stories of support like this and shape the minds and reactions of bosses now and in the future.


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Advice to young women: don’t laugh

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“Girls, if boys say something that’s not funny, you don’t have to laugh.”

-Amy Poehler

This is some great advice from one of my favorite feminists. I’d like to extend this advice to young women in an academic or professional context and advise them not to laugh while giving a presentation (unless there’s something truly funny).

To avoid sounding like a total killjoy, let me first say that I am a very happy person who smiles and laughs quickly and easily, and I love hearing or making other people laugh as well. But what I’m talking about here is the laughter that is not in response to something funny – it’s the nervous giggle that is generated from anxiety. Most importantly, this is a laugh that is almost exclusive to girls and women.

As an instructor at a women’s college, I saw many young women give presentations in everything from a casual setting in class to a formal honors thesis presentation. No matter the level, quality, or competence of the person speaking, I noticed the nervous giggle was nearly ubiquitous, and it came to be my pet peeve.

She giggles when she can’t remember what she wants to say next. She giggles when she misspeaks, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. She giggles when she accidentally skips ahead a slide in the presentation. In short, she’s usually laughing at herself for making mistakes.

This response is not all bad. It’s certainly better than getting angry, beating herself up for a little mistake. But it has a number of detrimental effects for the presenter:

1) Laughing at a mistake draws attention to the error. Usually this is something so minor or so understandable like skipping a slide and having to go back that the audience would not even be aware of it, and there’s no need to apologize or laugh in response.

2) Laughing appears unprofessional, like you’re not taking your work seriously.

3) The nervous giggle makes the presenter seem less confident and competent.

This final point is really the most important. On an individual level, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. You don’t want to do anything that will make you appear less confident in yourself or your research, or competent and understanding of your work, than you actually are. On a larger level, it is important to consider that this nervous laughter is a uniquely female trait. It is possible that the perception of a giggling young woman as less confident or competent compared to a male presenter could add to the stereotypes we are battling.

One important note is that I have rarely, if ever, noticed the nervous giggle in a presentation given by a female above an undergraduate level (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, other professionals). It is hard to say if there is a transition that occurs, where a woman matures or confidence is gained after college, or if the women I’ve met who go on to graduate school in science happen to be the women who never set out giggling or never got nervous. I do not believe the latter possibility to be true. I recently watched an amazing senior student give her honors thesis presentation. She is one of the most competent and confident students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching and clearly knows her field and her project very well; she is going on to an excellent graduate program and I am confident that she will be very successful as a scientific researcher. And yet, she giggled throughout her entire seminar.

If the possibility that there is a transition in young women from nervous giggling to confident presentations is true, what can instructors and mentors do to facilitate the transition (if only so I spend less time grinding my teeth down while listening to the presentations)?

1) Give direct feedback: “You clearly know your stuff, but your giggling makes you appear less confident. Try to be mindful of that in the future and cut back. Take a deep breath when you feel the urge to laugh.”

2) Give more opportunities for practice (and more feedback): anxiety contributes a large part to the nervous giggles, and more practice could make the talk smoother overall.

For more advice on minding your mannerisms: http://www.refinery29.com/2013/10/55289/uptalk-communication-mistakes#page-1


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