Right back at ya

If you’re female and you’re reading this, stop whatever else you’re doing for a moment and go read these three posts at Women in Wetlands, now also on my blogroll. (Found in the comments here.) They offer sensible and practical advice on how to respond to situations such as this one:

Imagine you are in a meeting among colleagues, post-docs, support staff, and clients. You are part of a group who has received a $1.2 million grant from BP (British Petroleum) to do environmental impact assessments at some of their drill sites. You have just given an overview of your research project (to assess the effects of oil exploration activities on wetlands in Kookamoonga, BP’s newest drill site). When you finish and look to the group for some positive feedback, a senior male scientist (known for being loud and opinionated) states that:

“The research proposed by Mary involves a large amount of fieldwork in a VERY remote location, and in my opinion is too difficult for a woman to lead or conduct. I think it would be best assigned to Bob (his protege’) to head up; maybe Mary can be responsible for the sample processing and data analysis back here at BIU.”

What do you do?

I’ve been in some variant of every single one of these situations, including the one just described, and I wish I had been better prepared to deal with them.

It’s tempting to think of the Senior Male Scientist as some old guy that you don’t know well and never talk to anyway. In real life, though, it could be your friend or mentor, someone you trust, someone whose opinions you value. He might not say explicitly that a woman can’t lead – he’ll just suggest a male candidate to replace you – and, mind you, it’s not sexist at all, he just wants the best possible person to direct the project, and in any case this is a matter of professional judgement and you should not be so sensitive about it.

The beauty of the responses suggested in the WiW posts is that they’re civil enough to be used on a friend and that they let you make the statement you need to make without getting dragged into unnecessary discussions. There’s no point in analyzing the Senior Male Scientist’s possible intentions. You just need to respond to the words you’ve heard.

There’s another reason to avoid protracted discussions of this sort: verbal sparring can only get you so far. I’ve seen enough situations where Dr. X was universally praised by colleagues for his excellent arguments and professional demeanor in the debate with Dr. Y, it was just so very unfortunate that the department would have to side with Dr. Y anyway. The debate would be a spectator sport, as opposed to something that could actually affect the outcome of the case. The lesson for you is that, instead of spending your time debating Senior Male Scientists with regard to their choice of wording, it could be more worthwhile to figure out why exactly the department sided with Dr. Y and how this might be applicable in your case. (That could be money, prestige, any number of things.) Making good headway in that direction is far more likely to convince Senior Male Scientists that they should take you seriously.

Which is not to say that you should not argue with Senior Male Scientists. You absolutely should, if only because having a good response will make you feel in control of the situation and that’s good for your morale, or because these things do make a difference in the long run. But short responses work better than long ones, and don’t give the Senior Male Scientist an opening to bring up the ever looming topic of your sensitivity if you can help it. That’s of course easier said than done. I haven’t always been good at it. I wish I had read posts such as these many years ago and taken some time to practice the responses in question. Then again – if you can’t come up with a good response, keep in mind that it’s only words…

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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