Learn to USE your voice.

In one of my recent posts I bemoaned the fact that sometimes I do a whole lot of asking for the same thing over and over again, without being listened to. I want to make it perfectly 100% crystal clear that fatigue of asking should under no circumstances cause you to give up and go away. I was reading a post written by Abel Pharmboy today– which continues the discussion about what allies of women in science can (and frankly should) do to increase the participation of women in science, and help those that are already there.

Abel posts a letter he received from an esteemed female scientist- relating to a panel discussion on work-family balance that this person attended-  where the panelists didn’t speak to the heart of the important issues.  It seems that those well-intentioned panelists themselves didn’t understand the important issues for the audience here- and the audience gave them a kick in the pants and let them know the realities. The writer of the letter seized the opportunity after this meeting to take the important issues to her chair, to ask for change – or to demand change rather, and she did not take no for an answer.

There are a couple of very very important issues here.

1.  Lesson #1:  Don’t assume that anyone knows what you want just because they are your ally.

Do not assume that your allies know what you NEED- even if they are really, and truly 100% your allies.  Allies do not have ESP-  they need you to express what you need in detail, in order to comprehend and respond to your needs as female faculty, postdocs and students.  This is especially true when your experience, needs and expectations are different from those of your allies… which they frequently are if you are a minority.

Now, a bunch of you are going COME ON LADY…. it’s so obvious what we need as women in science- … well to that I say… THEN WHY HASN’T IT HAPPENED YET???  And ya, sure, ok- this isn’t the only reason of course, but there are plenty of well intentioned allies out there but they can’t do what you want unless they KNOW what you want and need. Communicate these needs in detail- rather than just saying you need ‘childcare’ – you’ve really got to lay out the nitty gritty.

You wouldn’t go through a negotiation for a faculty position and just say you needed ‘startup money’ would you? You wouldn’t assume that the person doing the hiring knew exactly what you needed to run your specific research program would you???… why should you make the assumptions in other realms??

As one of my very absolute favorite collaborators likes to say … YOU are going to have to do some educating here.

2. Lesson #2: Use your voice to get what you want, and don’t take no for an answer.

Second, the writer of the letter did not sit around privately bemoaning the status quo, and complaining about how difficult her existence as a working woman in science is.  She was angry (and rightfully so) and she channeled that anger into a positive outcome and she was not deterred by people in the power structure that told her that what it is that she wanted couldn’t be done for some vague and slippery administrative reason. If I only had a dime for every time a situation like this happened to me, I could quit my day job and go neuter cats for free on some fantastic Mediterranean island.

I mean shit ladies- we HAVE TO FIGHT FOR WHAT IT IS THAT WE WANT, and we can not give up when someone says the word no. I’m telling you from personal experience, you are going to have to be able to clearly communicate the issues, you are going to have to come with some creative solutions (and sometimes these are amazingly simple) in hand, you are going to have to ask over and over- you are going to have to ask (or tell, as it were) multiple people- you may have to pitch an angry fit in someone’s office now and then when it is really a critical point.

3.  Lesson #3:  All you allies out there- you MUST listen, you must think outside the box, and you must act.

I have written about this before- more or less.  I know that you allies out there know some of the issues we women in science deal with on a daily basis, because you are good people… and some of you are very intuitive, and many of you have wives or colleagues that you see struggling. And for you- excellent colleagues and allies- I know that you are not purposely trying to keep women out of science- I know this in my heart.

But you can do better. You can educate yourselves about your unconscious biases you have (we all can, us girls too) and really try to listen when we come to you with an issue, and watch how colleagues treat us in faculty meeting.  You are going to have to think outside the box of what you are used to doing in your professional setting- to really deal with our issues and change the culture of academic science to be more inclusive to women. You are going to have to take a lesson from #2 up there- and not take the easy bemoaning-the-status-quo way out, you are going to have to fight and think of creative solutions to some of these difficult problems, and sometimes you are going to have to find a way around the answer ‘no’.

Wow, I don’t know where that post came from- I haven’t pitched an angry fit in someone’s office in a couple of weeks!


12 thoughts on “Learn to USE your voice.

  1. Some important points. As a person with long term health issues, and a woman, I agree that even the most well-meaning of allies and colleagues have different needs.

    For example, the woman next door to me wants to be able to leave by 4pm every day to fetch her son. I on the other hand want to confine my teaching to fewer days of the week, but have no problem working until 6pm. Another colleague with small children works four long days instead of five normal days, so that her little ones are only in day care four days of the week. Another female colleague wants to not have classes before ten so that she can visit her elderly mother and make her breakfast every morning, after sorting out her own brood. So what’s important is that we all have the right to work out what works for us, within a flexible working policy, rather than (as was tried) having a universal ‘parents don’t teach after 4pm’ rule because ‘that’s what’s needed’.

  2. Excellent post! I would add that allies need to sack the fuck up and give up the infantile need to be ego-stroked and treated nicely and given cookies and milk in order to keep up their efforts.

  3. Nicely put. I’m patting myself on the back right now because today, Advisor summoned (male) grad student and (male) postdoc for yet another discussion of the new fancy microscope he wants to get. Despite the fact that I elbowed into the last discussion of this microscope and contributed relevant information, I didn’t get invited to Discussion 2.

    I was doing experiments and getting a little steamed, but in the end I remembered that Advisor’s been a pretty awesome guy and probably didn’t do this on purpose. So later in the day, I stuck my head in his office and said, “Hey, I’m really interested in joining you when you’re figuring out what sort of microscope to get–maybe you thought I wasn’t interested, but I totally am.” Advisor responded by saying, “Yes, of course! In fact I was just thinking that you should have been with us discussing it, because you have more experience with this than the other two. I will definitely let you know next time.”

    So your post was very timely! I also find it helps to remember that not every standing-up moment will necessarily turn into a battle; just that you should be prepared in case it does.

  4. I also think it’s important for “those guys” to sack the hell up when coming up with seminar speaker lists…. I’m so tired of seeing 10 males, 1 female per semester. And the audience is 90% attentive female grad students and 10% sleeping poobahs.

    I requested a kick-ass female last semester and got TOTALLY blown off by three male profs (in emails and personal discussions). This semester I cc’d the entire dept list in my reply to “possible semester speakers?”…. I made the case that females need female mentors (WOmentors?) and last semester, the ONE female was great and all but pathetic in terms of diversity, kinda like the dept. Yup, totally ignored yet again. Have I mentioned I’m just a girl?

    And so, the email for next semester “got any speakers you want to invite?” crap went around this week – I’ve tried the nice card. I’ve tried the “let’s see which guys step up to the I-give-a-shit-about-diversity plate = ZERO”. Maybe it’s time to play the ANGRY PISSED OFF I-AM-NOT-ASKING I’M-TELLING YOU “THIS IS NOT RIGHT” card. have I mentioned how much i enjoy being THE BITCH? I could really use THAT GUY to help me!

  5. ‘Being an ally isn’t a motherfucking care bears tea party!’

    CPP- I feel a whole different post coming on.

    Ron- I read your comment over at Abel’s place- and yes- agreed on all counts.

    Dr. J & Mrs. H- Right on- this is exactly the kind of thing that I mean. This starts on the smallest scale- just as you point out- and moves on up to larger issues.

    jc- This is a case where you are meeting is active resistance, it seems. If you read the post linked under #3, I think it reflects what you describe very well. This may be a case where you should go on up the line. Start with individual faculty- find your allies – make your point- THEN TELL THEM HOW THEY SHOULD PROCEED IF THEY WANT TO DO MORE THAN JUST PAY LIP SERVICE TO THE INCLUSION OF WOMEN, then try the coordinator of the seminar series, the graduate student advisor might need a reminder, try the department chair next… etc. Is there an office for diversity or some similar administrative part of your instititution? – Or a dean who will listen??

    My point is that you can try educating your allies- but then in many cases you will have to go up the line and open all the stops to get what you want.

  6. drdrA, this is a superb partner post to the one at my place – let me add that it’s not really *my* post but rather that of a valued reader who has taught me a thing or two in trying to be an ally.

    One of my themes when starting my blog was the support of women in science and medicine. I wrote about it but I really didn’t know what I could do other than talk about it (i.e., I wanted to be an ally but I needed to know what I could do to help – it wasn’t my place to assume that I know what women in STEM disciplines need, right?).

    As I’ve said ad nauseum elsewhere, all of my PhD students and ~80% of my other lab members have been women. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from you awesome women that I began to think why this might be – I think it’s because I had a superb senior postdoc who was a woman and was a terrific co-mentor of our students. But then again, we were pretty heavily populated with women before that – I guess I’m thinking out loud as to what exactly I might have been doing to be an ally and what can I do to improve upon it. Absolutely key to this is having women scientists be angry and upfront with me about what they need.

  7. DrdrA, you make an excellent point…Thank you very much.

    As my mother used to tell me as a kid, “Americans have a saying, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ – we live in America, so make sure you’re a squeaky wheel!” Of course, at the time I thought it was dumb and embarrassing advice at the time, and I hated being squeaky.

    But now that I’m older and wiser, I think it’s a good thing to remember. Thanks for the reminder DrdrA!

  8. Abel- I really enjoyed your post and obviously the letter from your colleague as well. Many times incidents similar to this happen to me, but I am not as free as I might like to write about them- so if you don’t mind I’ll borrow an incident or two from you every once in a while!

    PhizzleDizzle- I love the sayings from the mom! My mom always told me that great opportunities aren’t just going to fall into my lap- that I have to go out and actively seek them out. Probably one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me. My mom is so awesome- sounds like yours is too!

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