Things Change, People Change

A friend came to visit me last week, and that person commented on something I had written on this blog in sort of a sideways fashion. It is a relief when friends recognize some grief you are holding in, or pick out some off-hand comment you made that just doesn’t sound right- and give you the window to let it go. Anyway- that conversation has given me the courage to write about a few things that are going on with me that are difficult.

I have a picture on my office wall of a large group of young people in caps and gowns- taken almost 20 years ago. They appear to have no cares on a very happy day. I am one of the people in that picture. I remember what life was like then, I had few responsibilities- I was trying to made it through grad school (which was 50% girls FYI), was fairly naive, was NOT in a position that had any power whatsoever, and really only had to handle one task at a time. Oh maybe I remember some more ideal version of the past than was reality, maybe- probably- looking back now, it looks pretty perfect though.  I can say for certain that I never expected that my career would become important to me, and that managing the balance of my job, my marriage and my children would shape me as it has.

People who have known me a long time, comment that I have changed. I’m never sure how to take that- and on one level that hurts, on another level- I know it is true. At that second level, I want to scream-


And I’m not much one for screaming- maybe that helps you to understand how much emotion is behind those simple words.

How have I changed? I’ll just stick with one aspect of this for now.  I have developed a hard edge to my personality- an assertiveness that I’m sometimes unsure how to channel or control at work and in other parts of my life. This edge is something that I sensed before many times in women I knew who were higher up the academic ladder than me, but I never understood. There is a strong societal message that it is just unbecoming for girls to have this edge, this assertive (maybe sometimes even aggressive) way from time to time.  Us girls are so programmed to be NICE, be accommodating, to go with the consensus, to be reasonable. When I assert myself, which lots of times just feels like plain old protecting myself… I get told that I’m not being ‘nice’ (insert more screaming). A remark that I imagine is much more loaded and cutting to a woman than to a man.  I feel like I work up against that societal message time and time again every day and it is wearing…. and it is like double jeopardy to be called out for not ‘nice’ because of it.

So am I different now because of this- heck YES.  Was there any other option? I don’t think so.


23 thoughts on “Things Change, People Change

  1. Thank you for this post. It made me cry. It speaks out some of the feelings inside that I can’t understand or express. I’m still a 20-something grad student, but I’m virtually feeling the process of change going around inside me, and I don’t know whether this change is going to make me a better or a worse person and whether this change is normal altogether (as fast as it’s happening). I feel like I’m rediscovering the world and people. Nothing is easy as I used to think and it’s very hard to get what you want (if you ever do). People who I used to think were nice have other faces, and seems that everyone around are competing, and the game is not fair. You have to be strong to survive (and “strong” was never one of my characteristics). And yes, being “strong” contradicts with what the society demands of me, and what I have been trying to be in the past, nice and gentle and kind and forgiving. I’m just depressed and shocked how the “real” world actually is, and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same. As you mentioned, there is no option but to change; you just can’t be faced with all this and still be the same.

  2. I’m not sure if you’re talking specifically about giving and responding to criticism, but this reminds me of a conversation I had with several big-wig scientists not too long ago. The head big-wig said something to the effect of, ‘the best science is done in the face of intense criticism.’ I think the same could be said of a career or an individual. Be assertive! (or aggressive if need be). Critique your colleagues’ work and defend your own. Being perceived as “nice” is as much the responsibility of the one receiving the criticism as the one giving it. From what I’ve seen, the most successful scientists tend to be a bit more aggressive than the average. Just being nice really isn’t that helpful to anyone.

    Of course, there’s a line somewhere. I once witnessed a competitor laugh and then boo while my colleague was giving a talk. That wasn’t really helpful either.

  3. Thank you for this post. I come from a culture where women are supposed to be quiet and respectful. Although my family and husband do not subscribe to that thinking, his family does. I find I am playing to efferent roles and I find it so hard that I’ve given up trying to be some one i am not. It has affected my relationship with my inlaws. But science has made me hard and quite frankly I like who I’ve become

  4. Hell yes. I was done being nice years ago. I went to a working group meeting recently, and one head dude droned on and on and on, while everyone else just sat there staring into space. Being the ONLY person in the room who did the pre-meeting homework, everything he was blabbing about was completely off from my experience with the homework and from what we went over at the previous meeting. When I brought each thing up, I was told to “stop interrupting”, “stop cutting me off”, “just listen for a minute”… my head was gonna explode, fumes were shooting out my ears from the repeated attempts to stonewall me. You could cut the tension with a knife by the end of the day.

    Fast forward to end of meeting, after everyone trudged cluelessly through homework shit like I did, and frustratingly gave up after much WTFs. Now everything is being done the way I suggested it. There are worksheets and folders to put info in now. Head dude says “you rock” as I head to the airport. Um, ok. How’s about I send the bill for heart disease and blood pressure meds? I had to unleash my inner total bitch to make things work for everyone and the project. There are no other options if you want to get people past their egos and self-defense and onto the task. I see it coming a mile away now, and I don’t agonize over the decision to “be nice” or “be bitch” anymore. Default to bitch, cut to the chase, save time wasted on niceities that women are expected to do but men aren’t. People used to say I was “rough around the edges” before. pfft. I cut glass with my teeth every morning. My long time colleagues see the difference in me too. I like your word “unbecoming”. It’s strangely freeing yet edgy.

  5. I have been noticing this change in myself as well; I know it is necessary, but the comments I get along the way are kind of tough to deal with. I know that either they will succeed or that there will be a day when I will be more comfortable with going against the expectations; it better be the latter!

  6. JC- I don’t agonize over the decision to “be nice” or “be bitch” anymore.
    Me either, in most cases I just do what needs to be done and assure myself that I’m not in a popularity contest. What still nags at me though, is when there is a turf war over one thing or another (as happens frequently with space and about a billion other issues), and whoever is in the fray with me tries to use that ‘you are not being nice’ thing against me. Half of me (or maybe a quarter anymore) goes- you know he’s right, you should be nicer- it is practically a reflex I have to WORK not to give in to…… and the other half goes WTF did he/she just say to me?! Would he/she try that crap if I was a man?!

  7. No one would accuse me of suppressing my inner bitch–in fact, everyone would agree there’s nothing “inner” about her. For years my intermittently abrasive personality has caused me trouble socially, and still does (as when I’m criticized for speaking plainly). But I’m fairly convinced that it’s also one reason I am doing just fine in a science career, as I watch nicer women, every bit as smart and hard-working as I am, drop out of research at every turn.

  8. Ummm … I thought it was just me that had come to this realization. I’m a pretty easy-going person and can usually tolerate a lot but several people have recently tried to take advantage of me or have undermined my authority and I finally snapped. I’ve had to inform them that I will no longer tolerate their shit and that I will not be pushed around by bullies. Didn’t get much sleep for a while after that as I was constantly questioning whether I stepped over the line but eventually recognized that I did what had to be done.

  9. Thank you for this post. It’s been said by other commenters but it bears saying again. You hit the nail right on the head. Learning to play this game is hard. It’s harder when you’ve been conditioned all your life to play by a different set of rules, to strive for a different metric of success. It is *exponentially* more difficult when, upon adopting these new rules, you get slapped in the face for “abandoning” the former mutually exclusive ones.

    I am also still a 20-something grad student. But I can feel this happening. Sometimes I like the person I am becoming. The one who will ask for what she wants/needs without remorse. But in taking on this whole new aspect to my personality I find that it’s a lot of work to make that happen. It is a conscious effort. And in training myself to make that effort, to forgo being “nice” in situations where it is in my best interest not to be, I find that I sometimes inadvertently forget how to be nice when I want to be. When it is in the best interest of someone I care deeply about (and often myself) to be kind. Then I don’t like myself so much. It’s a hard line to walk. I’m still learning. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it hurts like hell. But what hurts even worse is to be told that you must “toughen up” to win at this game, then be benched for doing just that. It makes me rage.

    Thank you for putting this better than I ever could. I’m so glad to know that I am not the only one who feels caught between a rock and hard place with this. I ❤ you, drdrA.

  10. I’ve observed senior women who use that “hard edge” in a couple of different ways. Some use it to stand up for themselves, defend their science, and protect their students and lab members. That kind of assertiveness clearly is an asset. But I’ve also seen women use their hard edge in a vicious way, e.g. to take ideas and resources from others who didn’t have the power to fight back. The takers already had all the power, and the assertiveness just enabled these women to be *&%holes for their own gain, picking on those with a less secure future. Crazy as it may be, the takers firmly believed themselves to be in the right.

    It sounds like your personality has developed a sort of survival mechanism that has the potential to be used offensively. Developing the survival mechanism might be inevitable, but how you use it defines the kind of person you are. There is a distinction between being “not nice”, i.e. not passive and accommodating, and being a jerk. I don’t know if this is part of what you are struggling with. I sincerely hope not! But it does become an issue for some women, and bears keeping in mind.

  11. Beautifully said. I still struggle with this one… I haven’t really got the hang of it yet. I don’t WANT to not be nice, friendly, collegial – yet when I am I get walked all over. Assertive men are strong, assertive women are all manner of nasty names, and it’s all so pointless and such a waste of good science time!

  12. anon- I think that passive/accommodating vs. jerk behavior line is hard to walk, and it takes some learning. And vicious is no good- regardless of gender.

    JaneB- Assertive men are strong, assertive women are all manner of nasty names
    That’s a big problem for me.

    AA- Learning to play this game is hard. It’s harder when you’ve been conditioned all your life to play by a different set of rules, to strive for a different metric of success. It is *exponentially* more difficult when, upon adopting these new rules, you get slapped in the face for “abandoning” the former mutually exclusive ones.

    Uh huh.

    I find that I sometimes inadvertently forget how to be nice when I want to be. When it is in the best interest of someone I care deeply about (and often myself) to be kind. Then I don’t like myself so much. It’s a hard line to walk.

    and Uh huh. Also- determining when being nice doesn’t have a cost and when it does…

    Dr. J & Mrs. H- everyone would agree there’s nothing “inner” about her

    There are some circumstances in which I can do what needs to be done and have no regrets- there are others where this is not so simple.

  13. Oh DrDrA, thank you for this post. I’ve noticed the same change in myself, as a junior postdoc I can look back to my research days before I started grad school and think “wow, life was easy then”. There was so much less to balance, and most importantly, so much less was expected of me- I didn’t feel like every idea that I had that failed was hurting my career. And I was so nice! And unassuming! And willing to learn from everyone!

    I’m not so nice anymore, although I’m probably also not assertive enough yet. And it’s a tough balance, because while there genuinely are asshole PIs, both male and female, just being assertive doesn’t make you one. But when do you cross that line? Is it when frustrating things make you want to scream and you actually do it? Is it when you make a conscious decision to look out for your own well-being instead of everyone else’s first? I don’t think so, but I can see how it’s a slippery slope.

    I’m sure it must be hard for you to blog about things like this after having your anonymity compromised, but keep doing what you do- you’re an inspiration.:)

  14. Nothing wrong with having an edge, so long as the cutting side is directed towards outward goals, and in no way likely to betray inward and personal insecurities.

    I do think it’s good to be nice though. There is no necessary correlation between “nice” and submissive. You can go a lot further with a hard edge and a smile than just a hard edge or a smile.

  15. Developing and cultivating my functional bitch also let me feel all that much more appreciative of people and groups who I can trust and where I know I don’t have to use her. The difference between my postdoc environment and faculty environment are night and day in this regard, in the good direction–it was like I needed to be rehabilitated once I got here back into only using her in certain situations and not all the time.

    I totally know what you mean, too, about the guilt that it brings with it. I’m from Minnesota, where people REALLY have a hard time handling aggressiveness. I feel so lucky because I had a postdoc mentor who supported us ladies in finding this aggressiveness and using it when necessary, so that positive reinforcement of strength building helped reduce the guilt load somewhat. The blood pressure/physiological problems (hah jc) are still major though, lol.

  16. Outside observers know the difference between necessary and unnecessary behavior. I have a favorite case study of two women, just starting their labs in an essentially identical environment. Each developed a rep for being assertive. One, I think, is now viewed by most people as having been on the “just sufficient” side of the line and the other is viewed as being on the “raging asshole” side of the line. One could point to specifics along the way..but of course these will vary.

    I suppose this is supposed to be reassuring that if you are comfortable in your own mind that you are doing what you have to do and no more…most fair minded people will probably see it this way too. Hell, the fact that you care to wonder is probably enough evidence right there.

  17. I, too, struggle with this. My personality tends to be too assertive at times. In general, this is an asset, but sometimes, it’s really not. Imagine how horrible I felt this past week when I talked to my best coworker/friend about some issues we’ve been having in the workplace and how we might work on them – and he told me that I tend to make him feel stupid.

    My assertiveness- my belief in myself, my goals, and my approaches- makes me feel strong. But I NEVER, ever want to make my close colleagues feel stupid as a result (or else why would they want to work with me?). I need to learn how to do better on this one.

  18. Thanks for this post. Since starting my t-t job, I’ve noticed this change in myself. I have to fight for so much more now and there’s so little to be gained by just putting my head down and doing things quietly that I’ve been forced to grow a backbone and become assertive. And sometimes I feel like I am going too far – pushing others and myself too hard – but it hardly seems like a choice when time and resources (but especially time) are so tight. It’s a relief at the end of the day to come home and just be a nice, laid-back mommy for a few hours. If I didn’t have that enforced balance in my life, I think I’d go crazy.

  19. The word “nice” is overrated. Every time I hear someone use the word “nice” to describe somebody, it makes me want to barf. Whenever I’m caught using “nice”, it usually means that I am being facetious or apathetic.

    With regards to assertiveness, I think some people just don’t know the difference between being assertive and being an A-hole; hence, the line tends to blurred either on the assertee’s or the asserter’s side. (Yeah, these words are made up 🙂 )

  20. “People who have known me a long time, comment that I have changed. ”

    You have changed for sure, drdrA! No matter what people mean when they say that you’ve changed, you know that drdrA 2.0 is stronger, smarter, faster, better – kicks ass and doesn’t back down. If you hadn’t changed, you might not be writing this awesome blog. In the immortal words of Leo the Lip Durocher….”Nice guys. Finish last.”

  21. Managing the balance is always tough. But when you are doing what you were meant to be doing – working in your strengths and passions, it is much easier to stay engaged.

    Not sure we are beaten down over time, but based on particular jobs at points in time, that if not aligned, cant help but make us react.

    Rick Smith

  22. I used to tell myself – you think too much, you over-interpret, your advisor did not defeat you b/c you are a female… but as a trained scientist how can I ignore so many evidences?
    I started to LEARN to accept the fact. It was not easy though… when I finally learned to speak up b/c again I had to do the work and credit was given to male colleagues, my advisor replied – I thought we are a team.
    I just want to say – thanks for your post, you let a female PhD student know that she is never alone, and it’s OK to protect herself.

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