Friday, January 30, 2015

Unexpected Lessons In Grad School, Part Two: Gender Matters

Lesson: Gender matters sometimes, even for grad students in a generally supportive environment.

A professor once gave my class some excellent advice on scientific presentation.  He said that every time one gets up to speak in front of colleagues, even in a casual setting like a lab meeting or small seminar, one should be as well-prepared and professional as would be expected for a job talk.  His point was that each presentation reflects on the speaker’s reputation as a scientist and scholar, and I try to keep this in mind.

Some months after hearing this advice, it also occurred to me that if a woman happens to be working in a field that is skewed toward men, her gender might already be a more salient factor as soon as she steps to the front of a room to speak.  A scientist’s presentation skills, confidence level, and quality of work are obviously important regardless of gender, but these metrics might be evaluated more stringently for a female scientist giving a talk (even on a subconscious level, because I believe that most scientists are not consciously sexist).  Furthermore, what is assumed about her overall competence as a result of these metrics might have a greater impact on her career than if she were a man.  In a male-dominated field, a female speaker’s public presentation could even impact what others assume more generally about Women In This Field.

I don’t intend for this post to be a manifesto, but I do think what I just said deserves some consideration of the broader context.  There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that perceptions of competence can differ based solely on gender.  To cite some primary sources, one study in which subjects performed a contrast sensitivity test showed that men and women are held to different standards of competence (Foschi, Social Psychology Quarterly, Sep 1996).  There was also that memorable 2012 PNAS paper highlighting how, when faced with two hypothetical applicants with identical profiles except for name (Jennifer or John), science faculty members of both genders were more likely to offer John a laboratory manager position, and with a higher salary than would be offered to Jennifer (Moss-Racusin et al., PNAS, Aug 2012).

In 2014, another PNAS paper confirmed and enhanced the 2012 findings by showing that in choosing a candidate for an “arithmetic task” based solely on the candidates’ physical appearances, employers of both genders were twice as likely to choose a male candidate (Reuben et al., PNAS, Jan 2014).  The degree of individual bias correlated with the Implicit Association Test (IAT) score, which in this study measured the degree to which the subject associated an individual’s sex with his/her science-related ability.  Even after receiving objective information about the candidates’ actual performance on the task, “suboptimal hiring decisions” (i.e. hiring the candidate with lower performance) tended to favor a lower-performing man over a higher-performing woman.

A meta-analysis published earlier this month concluded that overall “women may be more likely to face discrimination in male-dominated environments, whereas, on average, neither gender has an advantage in female-dominated or integrated environments” (Koch, D’Mello, and Sackett, Journal of Applied Psychology, Jan 2015).  Encouragingly, these authors also found that gender-role congruity bias (i.e. preferential selection of men for male-dominated jobs) is reduced when the applicants are shown to be highly competent, when the decision-makers are “motivated to make careful decisions,” or when the decision-makers are “experienced” with “organizational decision-making” and are not simply pulled from, say, the frequent psychology study population of undergraduates.

Now, I am fortunate to be in a gender-balanced lab and relatively gender-balanced training program on a campus that is enormously collegial.  I have mentors and instructors of both genders who actively promote the advancement of women in science.  I also emphasize that I have not, as far as I am aware, experienced any instances of overt gender-based discrimination that have affected my educational opportunities.  That said, I am also a trainee in a subfield of neuroscience – imaging and analysis of cortical network activity – that is male-dominated, which probably has some association with the topic’s heavy emphasis on technology development, hardware, and computational techniques.  I love and believe in my project, and there is no other scientific topic in which I’d rather train. However, my intellectual excitement for my research doesn’t blind me to the reality that my field is still gendered.  I certainly have experienced, witnessed, and heard about episodes of subtle or inadvertent sexism, which can still be impactful.

As part of this reality, I’ve had to learn that men and women often assert themselves and/or respond to negative interactions in very different ways.  At one point, I sought out the advice of a female mentor because I was having difficulty navigating a particular research-related situation.  The situation involved some interpersonal dynamics that I thought might have something to do with gender, but didn’t necessarily want to label as such.  The mentor practically read my mind and told me that in this circumstance I should in fact “act more like a man,” i.e. be more aggressive in advocating for my point of view.  It was slightly jarring to hear a female faculty member so matter-of-factly confirm the gender differences I had suspected, but her attitude was also reassuring, and her advice certainly proved effective.

About three months later, another faculty member and I unexpectedly started discussing the issue of gender differences in science, and in particular how men and women respond to negative interactions in the workplace.  This faculty member pointed out that many men tend to "call B.S." readily and then promptly move on, without giving it much more thought, whereas women – irrespective of competence, confidence, or ability to be aggressive – sometimes tend to ruminate about what happened.  This struck me as being an uncanny reflection of how I responded to unexpectedly negative interactions or inappropriate comments: briefly freezing with surprise, trying to exit the interaction in an uneventful and often non-confrontational way, and then obsessing afterward about all the things I should have said in the moment.

Goals: To be a more assertive or aggressive self-advocate, when constructive; to recognize when a situation is “B.S.” and point out when it is problematic or inappropriate; and to let go of negative interactions afterward instead of ruminating about them.

The aforementioned conversations echo other discussions I've heard on “The Broad Experience” by Ashley Milne-Tyte, a podcast I highly recommend.  One particular episode focused on gender differences in workplace communication and quoted Barbara Annis, an expert on gender intelligence: “So women tend to worry more.  And as I mentioned, ruminate more, that internal dialogue that goes on. And I always say to women, think about this, is there any cheese down that tunnel [i.e. a real problem], first of all, to worry about this?  Or is it time to, you know, say OK, I’ve handled it to the degree that I can, and now I’m going to let it go. [….] Now there are some things that it’s really important to worry about, so I’m not saying dismiss on things that are really vital.  But the small things, if they are on your worry list I would strike them off and create a clean slate.”

Having some lactose intolerance myself, I find the cheese analogy particularly resonant.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Unexpected Lessons in Grad School, Part One: Confidence Matters

Now that I'm halfway through my second year as a PhD student, and recently submitted a fellowship application describing My Thesis Project and My Intended Scientific Training, I’ve been reflecting on the first 1.5 years of grad school and making a list of What I’ve Learned So Far (and/or Am Still Learning).  Some of the items on my list were unsurprising, such as:

1) Developing some broad understanding of neuroscience and a more in-depth understanding of my narrower research field;
2) Two-photon imaging (which, by the way, is awesome), some MATLAB programming, and various other experiment-related techniques;
3) How to read papers more efficiently and critically;
4) Grant-writing;
5) Presentation and teaching skills;
6) The importance of strong mentorship;
6) The necessity of unwavering support from family and friends, plus lots of tea and dessert (and some wine).

But as generally happens in life, several other lessons were unforeseen, and gave rise to new personal goals.  I thought I’d write about them as a series of three blog posts, this being the first.

Lesson one: The power of confidence is very real.  

In my years before grad school, it repeatedly struck me that because I tended to be comfortable speaking in group settings (in med school, those were typically the Problem-Based Learning or Doctoring groups), I was frequently perceived as being a highly competent student.  In reality, my comfort level with participation in discussions or with public speaking didn’t necessarily reflect my mastery of lecture material.  Even so, it was clear to me how an appearance of confidence could create an assumption of competence.

During both college and med school, measures of progress and achievement are frequent and often externally defined in the form of exams, essays, or short-term projects (such as preparing a piece of music for performance).  But in grad school, competence is less concretely defined on short time scales.  There are classes, sure, and having a knowledge base in neuroscience is clearly important for becoming a neuroscientist, but successful completion of classes isn’t remotely sufficient to make a good scientist.  Instead, scientific competence has much more to do with creativity and innovation, ability to understand the literature and also see beyond it, ability to design and re-design experiments, project management and trouble-shooting skills, ability to work well with colleagues and advisors, and a whole lot of perseverance.  In theory, one develops and/or solidifies these attributes over the course of a PhD and then further develops toward being an “independent investigator” during a post-doctoral fellowship.

It turns out that although these metrics of competence may be very different from the metrics before grad school, the connection between outward confidence and perceived competence – and the potential disconnect with actual competence – is just as strong.  If you asked me whether I am a competent scientist, my answer would be “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”  I am reasonably sure of my potential for becoming a productive and capable scientist, but I’m also near-constantly and sometimes painfully aware that I still have so much learning and growing before I get there.  My self-doubts about being very much “in training” can seep into what I project externally, and since confidence and self-advocacy often go hand in hand, my doubts could definitely affect not just how I am perceived, but also the opportunities that I seek or am offered.

Especially when it comes to rectifying a weakness or learning a skill that is very necessary for my research, such as MATLAB programming, I tend to feel insecure until I feel that I've achieved enough competence in that skill.  But how would I define “enough competence”?  In the past year I’ve had to recognize that I may never achieve the level of mastery that I would ideally possess for any given skill, that there will always be scientists who have years more experience and ability than I, and that my own benchmark of competence will constantly shift as my training progresses and my research pursuits evolve.  That the target is moving doesn’t mean that I’m not making solid progress, progress about which I should be confident, because my incremental progress will still enable me to produce solid science in my own right.  Thus, I am trying to redefine my conception of competence to include the effort I expend and the progress I make, and to hold more confidence as a result.

Goal: To develop greater confidence in my abilities and progress, while working hard to constantly improve my competence as a scientist.

P.S. Based on what I’ve heard from other grad students, this process of navigating our scientific and personal development is fraught with insecurities for everyone, whether we are outwardly assertive or not, and so I sense that this first goal is shared by many of my peers.

There have also been some interesting media discussions related to this subject.  The specific topic of how confidence and competence relate to gender, and possibly to success, was explored in-depth in a fascinating and provocative article published in The Atlantic last May: "The Confidence Gap" by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.  More on gender in a future post.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Some thoughts on blogging, this time around

I originally started my blog (then called “Life as a feast”) two months after graduating from college, with my goal being not just to chronicle my food experiences, but also to encourage myself to cook regularly and try new food routines.  In my very first post back in August 2010, one of the rules I laid out for my blog was: “Any discussion of my personal/academic/work life will be limited to immediate food-related topics.”  That worked very well for the first year, and even early in medical school when my weekly schedule was quite predictable.  But school and life became busier and less compartmentalized, I got behind on posts, and then my blogging became quite infrequent (an understatement).

Admittedly, this doesn’t offer much confidence for how things might go this time.  But recently I’ve been wanting to write again, at least a little, and not just about food.  I still like photographing and describing food experiences, and I intend to keep improving my cooking and baking skills.  However, I am also thinking about some new blog posts on topics that in fact have a lot to do with my personal/academic/work life: my changing/improving feelings about living in Los Angeles, for example, or particularly impactful books, or maybe even some of the unexpected lessons that grad school has taught me so far.

And as I do more and more academic or “professional” science writing in the formats of manuscripts, protocols, and grant proposals, it’s an especially nice change of pace to write in a more casual tone on non-technical subjects (or even downright fluffy subjects like, say, cake), without organizing tons of citations.  It's also lovely to see my writing quickly laid out in a pretty format instead of spending hours nudging finicky paragraphs into a certain number of 0.5”-margined-pages.  Why blog about anything, though?  It would be more private to just journal for myself, or to write something and email it to my family and five friends who might actually read it.  That would also be a smaller commitment than posting regularly, even at long intervals.  But I find fun in the blogging process, in the act of writing and posting something with which others can interact, no matter how trivial the product or how small the audience.

So at the start of this new year, I’m transitioning this blog into something sort of new for myself. I haven’t figured out exactly what it’s going to be or how long it will last, but there it is.  Here’s to 2015!