Modesty

I’m going to get back to the job search series, I swear. I think we are about up to what to do if an offer should come your way, and it is going to take me a bit of time to write that section… so I request your indulgence.

In the meantime- I’ve been stewing a little bit about luck and planning, confidence and arrogance, self-promotion and being a girl. By accident the other day I ran across a couple of articles including this one and this one. The PDF files for these are available on Jo Handelsman’s Faculty Web Page, if you are interested in reading the complete text (you should, if you haven’t already, and the Babcock & Laschever book is really excellent, and is listed in useful books above). An excerpt from that second paper just jumped out and grabbed me:

Summarizing research on gender differences in self-promotion, Babcock and Laschever(25) conclude that girls and women are socialized from an early age not to self-promote. The recurrent admonition to girls not to brag or show off is so deeply embedded in gender norms of behavior, they posit, that not only is it difficult for women to engage in self-promotion, but self-promoting women are viewed negatively, and susceptible to social penalties. Miller et al., (26) for example, found that when students were given a written ‘boasting’ statement, their assessment of likability of the author was much lower if they thought it was written by a woman than if they thought the author was a man. Other research has shown that likability is an independent predictor of recommendation for advancement.(20) Rudman(27) performed a series of experiments with simulated job interviews in which students interviewed scripted actors who were self-promoting or self-effacing about their expertise at a computer game. The purpose was to select a partner, with the goal of receiving a fifty dollar prize if together they won the game. Self-promoting men were favored for hiring over self-promoting women even at the risk of losing the prize.

So, you are telling me that I’m programmed to be modest, I’m in a job where I need to be self-promoting…and as a woman I’ll do worse BECAUSE I’m self-promoting (which I don’t do well, but just for the sake of argument). Great. This just sucks. And right now I know you are all saying- to quote my friend Andrea- What, is she new here???

This post isn’t going to come out too well thought out- I’m just warning you now. A few days ago I made a comment on a post by Physioprof at Drugmonkey (who was following up a post by Sciencewoman)… and a follow up comment on a post by Drugmonkey… where I had said that one makes one’s own ‘luck’… and what I said was….

too often when things go well in my job, I just think- well, I got lucky. This downplays my own active role in making the good things happen, and I don’t think my experience is all that unique- especially for women.

What I meant was- be prepared, think ahead, plan ahead, … then when the right opportunity or moment arises, as unexpected as it may be, you will be ready for it. (This second part, by the way was PPs whole point)

‘Well, I got lucky’ ?…- I was thinking: I won the lottery in my work… I was thinking: it just happened….. I wasn’t softening anything with a qualifier because the brainwash that has apparently unconsciously been done on me since I was in diapers, about being modest- usually leads me to discount my own small successes. But DM replied….

This downplays my own active role in making the good things happen, and I don’t think my experience is all that unique- especially for women.

It is tricky. If one goes around bragging that one deserves every grant award one receives as if this was some objective reflection of overall merit as a scientist, well, this is just a touch conceited. Perhaps more than a touch. Not to mention it has a tendency to imply that someone who is not similarly successful is unworthy. Since we don’t want to come across as insulting and arrogant, many people (no not just women) soften with qualifiers indicating luck or chance.

Ah, no. I’m not suggesting that one should go around bragging that absolutely everything one has done is DESERVED, and that one is the greatest thing since sliced bread (male or female). But I do think it is a bad thing that us girls might be considered arrogant or conceited for occasionally thinking, realizing for the first time, and perhaps acknowledging that they had an active role in making good things happen.

Just had to get that off my chest.

(And, I sure didn’t mean to imply that efforts, no matter how successful or not, don’t matter… they do, they matter tremendously- and that is what I meant by preparing yourself by planning, thinking, etc.- so that when and if an opportunity presents itself you are ready. If Sciencewoman was offended I sincerely apologize.)

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12 thoughts on “Modesty

  1. Well, I got lucky this time- as in, I won the lottery in my work… it just happened.

    I’m a little confused. Are you saying that something awesome just happened in your work? If so, tell us what the fuck it was!

  2. No – I’m saying when the rare good thing does happen- I tend to write it off as a freak accident. uuugh I can’t even express myself well today.

  3. I think the net result is that there is a more narrowly defined set of behaviors that are likely to facilitate success for women in science. It can seem like a no-win situation, but I think the fact that there are women that do it means it is simply a *difficult* situation.
    It’s still unjust, and something to be confronted just as we confront other gender sterotypes. But it is not insurmountable on a personal level.

  4. Becca-

    Sometimes I have zero confidence that it’s NOT a no win situation. This mostly happens at times when I see senior successful women that I know roundly disliked by pretty much everyone who passes through my office.

    This is very discouraging.

  5. With respect to the “luck” thing, one additional reason for this is that when one is just plugging along doing one’s thing and sometimes results come out fantastic and other times crappy…it seems like luck of the draw. As in, this grant I just wrote is no better or worse than the last one…so why was this one triaged and that one given a fundable score? or, my experimental design and carefully supported rationale for these two experiments were of equivalent quality…so why did one come out fantabulous and one a pile of frustrating junk?

    Sometimes I have zero confidence that it’s NOT a no win situation. This mostly happens at times when I see senior successful women that I know roundly disliked by pretty much everyone who passes through my office.

    I’ve been in an academic unit that seems to have a disproportionately large number of women investigators with whom I’ve been familiar from grad into tenure and (in some cases) Full Professor-dom. Perhaps about a 50/50 ratio F/M in the entering stages if we consider the PIs from the most senior woman downward. Outcome in terms of staying, moving to new institutions, moving to industry, leaving science, etc are approximately similar. What isn’t similar is that most of the women have been viewed as ….unpleasant. But I will emphasize, not by everyone. There have been some who come across outside the immediate labgroup as ….unpleasant but everyone in the lab group is very loyal and likes the PI. Some where at least a few people in the lab group like the PI. Some where no matter the local reputation, the outside peers think she’s just fantabulous.

    I guess what I’m saying is that no matter what, some people are going to think strong women PIs are ….unpleasant. This does not mean that everyone that really matters (one’s trainees and scientific peers, for example) will do so. As far as local higher-ups go? Well, I’d say it is better to have a rep for being …unpleasant and getting the resources you need to do great science than it is to be congenial, not get the resources and be loaded up with service work.

  6. Bikemonkey-

    Right- I’m not totally discounting a seemingly random factor in many aspects of science/life. We have all had the kinds of situations you describe… and they do seem completely random sometimes.

    As for being ‘unpleasant’… I guess I’m not worried about popularity contests- this is just how I live my life. Some people will think I’m a decent person, some people will not like me. I’m fine with that.
    My problem comes in when strong women who might be viewed as being ‘unpleasant’ – don’t get the resources they need BECAUSE they are viewed as unpleasant….

    ‘Rudman(27) performed a series of experiments with simulated job interviews in which students interviewed scripted actors who were self-promoting or self-effacing about their expertise at a computer game. The purpose was to select a partner, with the goal of receiving a fifty dollar prize if together they won the game. Self-promoting men were favored for hiring over self-promoting women even at the risk of losing the prize.’

  7. No amount of studies should prevent a woman from doing the things that are necessary to further her career, even if people view her as (let’s just stop dancing around, eh?) a ball-busting bitch (BBB). The more BBB’s men are exposed to, the less of a knee-jerk reaction they will have to this kind of person. Eventually, they may grow to like the BBB type as much as they like the self-important arrogant prick (SAP) personality type. The way I see it, I’ve had to desensitize myself to the SAP, they can learn to deal with the BBB. It’s only fair.

  8. fair indeed acmegirl, fair indeed!

    but I’ll just note that in my rather limited experience (and my institution is not sweetness and light by a long shot) the few congenial type women got the least. so in my view, whatever is being lost through a reputation for unpleasantness or aggression or BBB is not accruing to the meek and mild (or even just plain decent) types anyway. that would have to be the lesson for any women training around our environment.

  9. I like to think that I used to be a BBB, never taking crap from anyone and always ready to standup for myself. Then my masters advisor happened. Everytime, I disagreed with anyone the comments “oh the claws are coming out” or if I was disagreeing with another a fellow female ‘catfight’ was mentioned. I became very quiet and do this day am hesitant to be aggressive in my questions. Although I value the art of diplomacy, I long for that twentysomething woman that I used to be, the one that just never gave a shit and was full of herself.

  10. Sorry I left out the point of my comment. I think that insignificant comments can have a huge impact of both men and women. The chipping away at my confidence as also led me to think of myself as lucky that my current advisor wanted to take me on, and lucky when I do well. Whether that has to do with grooming from a young age or because of the impact of my master advisor, once that thought process gets into your head its hard to get it out.

  11. ScientistMother-

    I think you are quite correct, that the accumulation of small aside type damaging comments reduce the status of the person toward whom they are directed in a group- and are extremely damaging. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

  12. Yeah, sometimes I wonder if I have absorbed just enough of the self-promoting, traditionally-male science culture to get ahead, while retaining just enough traditionally-female self doubt and self deprecation not to come across as threatening.

    OK, that was not a terribly positive formulation. Let’s rephrase.

    I have noticed several colleagues who are very passionate about their work and constantly promote it in conversations with others. I think it gives them a lot of energy in their research. However, they are kind of annoying and not very receptive to social cues. I am trying to talk more to others about the things I enjoy and am passionate about, while at the same time being a good listener.

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