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Women in Geosciences: Improving your Chance for Success

Written by: Alaina G. Levine
Published on: Feb 25, 2014

Hello, I am a woman. Yes that makes me fundamentally different – I dress differently, I approach problems differently, and I may have different interests from men. So yes there is a difference between the sexes, but those differences should be celebrated – after all, a world in which there exists only one kind of human is incredibly boring.

But guess what, World? Just because I am in a different physical form than a man and have different perspectives than a man, doesn’t make me less competent in my profession or less deserving of success. This is a mindset and attitude we all should adopt – no matter your gender.

Now of course we don’t dwell in a one-dimensional universe, nor a land of sunshine and lollypops that always supports both sexes equally. We know that there are both conscious and subconscious biases that contribute to females, and in particular, females in geosciences (and STEM in general) not advancing in their careers at the same rate or as far as their male counterparts. In fact, we often can blatantly observe the injustices and biases, as they take certain forms: We see there are fewer women in leadership roles, and women generally making less money than men in the same position or at the same career level, for example.

Part of this is due to our own labels that we (both men and women) attach to certain behavior exhibited by each gender. These are (mis)perceptions: whereas a man who champions a project, leads it to glory and inspires his team might be referred to as aggressive, confident, authoritative, communicative, and commanding, all seemingly positive attributes, a woman in the same position is (mis)perceived negatively. If we are rallying our troops to complete a project, we may be characterized as bossy or witchy. Whereas a man who does not respond immediately to a question might be considered contemplative, a woman who takes her time to think out the solution is misconstrued to be passive, weak, and questioning.

So, ladies, what can we do to contribute to, ensure, and enable our own success in a landscape that is clearly biased?

  • Take ownership of your career: it is your career, not your PI’s career, and not your colleague’s career. It certainly isn’t the domain of a pig or a zombie, who may come in both male and female form) that you might encounter along your path. Don’t let anyone get in the way of your own success, most of all, you.
  • Use your own definition of “success”: Starr Jones, a successful lawyer and broadcaster, has been quoted as saying “I am the writer of the only dictionary that defines me”. I couldn’t have said it better. Don’t let others tell you what professional victory has to be. We are all different and each person’s career will differ from another. Make sure you clarify in your mind early on what you want to do and what it takes to achieve your goals. And keep in mind that there is there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for women’s achievement in geoscience and beyond. I can give you all the advice about pursuing leadership opportunities and negotiating and promoting yourself in appropriate ways and if you choose not to do these things or to do them in a different manner than I propose, that is OK because it is your choice and your life and your prerogative. I should not judge why you did X or why you didn’t do Y. There are 1000 reasons why someone makes a decision and both women and men can support each other by not judging and finger pointing and accusing others that “you did this all wrong, you should have done it this way or should you have asked for more money, etc.”
  • Speak up: project your voice, stand tall and be proud of your accomplishments. This doesn’t mean being cocky. Rather it implies being able to communicate your brand and expertise to potential decision-makers and partners. Let others know what your values are if you see an injustice and right it, right away. If you see protégés or other women (and men) who are subordinates or earlier in your career than you are now and they are having trouble, be it in the form of blatant sexual harassment at a conference or subtle sexist undermining in front of others, speak up.  I can’t tell you how you will do that as this is up to you. But the point is don’t sit back and let others be victimized. Be the victor and help those around you to become their own victors.

Furthermore, if you need something to advance your career, program, field or team, ask for it. Demand it. You have put too much work into being a successful scientist to keep your mouth shut when an opportunity is upon you. And even if the opportunity is not apparent, go out and get it, or create it yourself. This is what being entrepreneurial and innovative in your career and in science is all about and is a requirement to keep the scholarship of geoscience, not to mention your own career, moving forward.

I recall hearing a story of a young woman who was uncomfortable with the idea of telling others in her field, at conferences, in networking occasions, etc., about the fact that she had received the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. She felt it was bragging. I can understand this mindset- in fact as we know in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to do self-promotion. But in science as a whole, you have to let the other party know what your value and competitive advantage is. If that includes an amazing credential like a Fulbright – you aren’t bragging, you are giving the other party strategic information about yourself that will allow them to make a decision – a decision to perhaps engage you, for a project or hire you for a job.

  • Always negotiate: one of the reasons why women tend to lag behind men in salaries is because fewer females negotiate their compensation package. You should always negotiate. The employer is expecting you to negotiate and as I have written before, this is one of the many tactics you must take if you want to get ahead.
  • Don’t squeak up: Some women, especially younger ladies, have a tendency to end their sentences with a question-like tone (“I did my dissertation research on deep ocean microbes in the mid-Pacific?”) which of course, subtly communicates to the other party that you may not be confident or competent in your expertise. Another linguistic idiosyncrasy I have noticed some women use is referred to as creaky voice or vocal fry. This is where your voice almost stutters in the middle of the word, almost with a deep glottal stop, which reminds one of a creaky door. This too denotes non-confidence. I have even seen younger women speak in an almost “child-like” tone, which again sends the message to the other party that she is not as high a level as someone else. You must banish these linguistic actions from your repertoire. They have no place in a professional forum such as STEM and it is vitally important that everyone always perceives you as a professional and a leader.
  • Don’t set a “success point”: why should you limit yourself? If you have dreams of being an astronaut then go for it – with smartly crafted contingency plans in place of course, just in case you don’t meet that goal. But for many women, they set a bar for themselves which they define as a point of success, where they know they have truly “made it” and become successful and then don’t go any further. And of course that is always your prerogative. But to be frank, more woman than men do this. On the other hand, where a man might set a goal for himself – I am going to get this job or write this paper, etc. - he won’t stop there. He will continue looking ahead to see what next thing he can do to make himself even happier in his profession and even more successful. Don’t fall under the misguided notion that you have to set a limit for yourself – you don’t. You can keep going and shoot for the stars.
  • Don’t accept inappropriate behavior. No matter where you are in your career, you have certain inalienable human rights. No one, not your PI, not your co-author on a paper or grant, not your boss or subordinate, has a right to treat you in any way that is not human-like. You don’t have to “take it” to advance your career. But some women – and even men do this too – if they experience shameful (key: shameful for the perpetrator, not for you) actions, perhaps in the form of subtle or overt sexual harassment or sexist remarks or behavior, or anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, they let it slide. They tell argue that what they experienced was not harassment, they tell themselves “of this is just him being an idiot.” And while there certainly are idiots in all fields, if someone does or says something that evokes a fear or disturbance in the pit of stomach, trust your instincts and do what you can to protect yourself. This may be as simple as standing up to this pig and saying” I don’t find that comment funny or appropriate and I would prefer you don’t speak to me about this/in this manner again.” Of course on the other end of the spectrum, if the person is downright vicious, it might require you to contemplate career move. The bottom line is that you don’t have to stand by and let bad things just “happen” to you. You can stand up for yourself, which may well also serve you well to demonstrate to yourself just how strong a woman you are.

Right after I presented this webinar, a major initiative was announced by two outstanding women leaders– Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the bestselling book Lean In and Anna Maria Chavez, the CEO of the Girl Scouts. Their “Ban Bossy” campaign seeks to boost the confidence of young girls and encourage them to pursue leadership opportunities. Girls who are aggressive in their career, they note, are often referred to as bossy, whereas a boy might simply be called a leader.

We should ban bossy from our vocabulary, especially as a negative connotation used for women in power. But remember, you are the boss of you and of your career, so don’t be afraid to go out and show the word what you can do.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Networking for Nerds, her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers, will be published by Wiley later this year. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.