Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The many forms of assertive women

This last season of Project Runway has gotten me thinking about how people perceive competent and assertive women.  I have run across quite a few forms of assertive women in my undergrad/grad training.  In fact, I am one myself.  I am always interested in which of these women are termed “bitchy” or mean.  Assertive women may be any combination of:

-sharp-witted/sharp tongued
-rule sticklers

In my experience, being sarcastic along with being sharp witted and a rule stickler is the surest combination for having people perceive someone as bitchy.  Some people don’t like being reminded that they’re not the smartest person around.  I have also noticed that being cold (i.e. not smiling a lot or not generally projecting that you like people) is a bigger problem for women than it is for men.  People expect women to be “nice” and friendly so if a woman is unfriendly, it’s a strike against her in a way it isn’t against a man.  In fact, men may get a bonus for being friendly, while women can only get points taken off if they are not.

When I was an undergrad I was a bit intimidated by assertive women.  I was unsure of myself and wondered how they could be so confident.  Now, a few years later, I find I really like assertive women- the more outspoken, the better!  I’m glad to see women that have been successful and still have rough edges- more importantly, I’m glad that there’s not only one personality type for successful women.  As for Irina from Project Runway, while she didn’t go out of her way to be nice, she never did anything unfair and everyone else knew they were competing against her.  If she’s honest when she said she would never say anything behind someone’s back she wouldn’t say to their face, then I don’t see what everyone was complaining about.  Or more precisely, I do see why they were complaining- she wasn’t sweet or friendly- but I don’t think that’s a legitimate complaint about a competitor.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Academic Love

In grad school (and beyond, I imagine), hardly anyone ever tells you "Good Job!"  There are few formalized performance reviews and no bonuses for doing good work.  My strategy is to look for things that are like telling you "good job" without explicitly saying those words.

One of the other grad students in my lab and I trade the good comments our advisor says about the other one.  Sometimes when I'm talking to my advisor about my project, it's all very technical and the discussion is focused on where the project is going and how I'm going to get there.  But if my advisor mentions my project to one of the other grad students in the lab, he tends to be a lot less technical and focus on how great my project is or how far it's come or how excited he is about my latest result.  If my advisor mentions how awesome another student's project is to me, I always remember to tell that student that our advisor thinks their work is awesome, and there's another student that does the same for me.  It's always nice to hear that my advisor is excited about my work!

However, the real currency in the research world is time and attention.  If someone spends time with me talking about my work, and thinks hard enough about it to ask me good questions, that's academic love.  My friends have spent hours grilling me to help me prepare for qualifying exams-  and I think that's the nicest thing they've done for me.  The people who have really ripped in to my research are telling me a few things aside from all the things I need to address in my work: that they think I am capable of doing excellent work and they respect me as a researcher.  After one particularly grueling session with me, my advisor, and some big name researchers, my advisor made some comment about how I seemed elated.  Of course I was elated, big names were paying thoughtful attention to my work!  It was awesome.

Ironically, this means that someone just saying "good job" without any further comments is about the worst feedback I can get.  I suppose "terrible job" with no further comments would be worse, but I haven't had that happen. Yet.   Anyway, these short comments generally mean that whoever hasn't really thought about whatever I'm working on.

As for showing academic love, I really enjoy helping people (well, people I like) with their work when I can.  Reading application essays,  listening to people talk about their grant ideas and asking questions, teaching people software, and listening to someone talk through the homework problems when they are stuck are all things I have done for people I like and truly believe will succeed.  I do try to be explicit and tell people when they have done a good job, or at least when I first started being in a position where I could tell people they did a good job I did.  Lately I have been forgetting.  I think the longer you have been in the academic system the easier it is to forget to say the implied "good job."  Would it make research a nicer or easier place to be if we remembered to say it, or is the implicit system good enough?