Sunday, June 28, 2009

Positive Feedback Loop

Does the gender of professors influence students’ performance in courses they teach and in choice of science as a career, thereby influencing the future participation of women in science?

A new study examines one reason why there are not more women in science: the influence of female professors. The authors found that female college students are 37 percent less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and comprise only 25 percent of the STEM workforce compared to their male counterparts. Gender of professors had little effect on male students, but a “powerful” effect on female students’ performance in math and science classes and likelihood of graduating with a degree in a STEM field.

Most striking is the finding that the gender gap in course grades and proportion of majors in STEM fields disappears when math and science classes are taught by women. Similar assessments of other fields (humanities) showed little impact of professor gender on student outcomes.

The authors conclude that “these results are indicative of important environmental influences at work.” See the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education for more information and a link to the study.

Friday, June 26, 2009

SWS Conference

I'm happy to report that the Women in Wetlands symposium held at the SWS conference in Madison, WI this week was a rousing success. We had excellent presentations by seven speakers (see photo), who talked about writing, giving presentations, NSF grants, mentoring, and alternative careers in wetland science. The session was well attended by both male and female students and young professionals interested in improving their skills.

There was plenty of positive feedback from attendees, who expressed their thanks for the opportunity to hear some really helpful information and to talk with successful women.

We also held our annual business meeting and installed new officers.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How to Counter a Verbal Attack Disguised as a Compliment

The previous two posts have described some tactics for dealing with verbal attacks (based on the writings of Suzette Elgin), some blatant, some not so apparent. Most verbal attacks contain a statement designed to sucker you into a lengthy defense of yourself or your actions (the bait), but they also contain a “presupposition”, which is an indirect challenge. You should never respond to the bait. Instead, address the presupposition. In the last post, I gave an example of a verbal attack that appeared to be a complement.

Mary’s supervisor is describing her work to her colleagues and to his superiors:

“Well, Mary’s work is APPARENTLY highly regarded by our clients; I’m not sure why exactly, but I guess it’s true.”

I asked in the previous post: What is the bait? What is the presupposition? What would you say in response, if you were Mary?

The attack is evident by the emphasis on the word "APPARENTLY" and in the off-hand remark, "I'm not sure why exactly, but I guess it's true." The bait can be restated as, “the clients mistakenly think that Mary’s work is good, but it is not”.

You might be tempted to respond (in a very insulted tone of voice), “My work is excellent and is always completed on time and in full!! That’s what impresses the clients.”

If you respond this way, you will look defensive and people will wonder why you are so upset. Your supervisor will likely smirk and say that he only meant to compliment you on your work and doesn’t understand why you are “so sensitive” or are “over-reacting” to an innocuous comment. He may go on to apologize to everyone for your outburst. You, in the meantime, will be looking for a hole to crawl into. He may later confide to his superiors that despite your apparent good work, your emotional instability makes you a bad risk to put in charge of projects or to deal directly with clients. This scenario is not what you want, no matter how tempting it is to defend your abilities.

What should you do instead? Identify the presupposition and respond only to that. The presupposition is that your supervisor does not have any evidence that your work is highly regarded by clients. Your response should be:

“When did you begin thinking that my work is not highly regarded by clients?” Say this in a neutral, non-confrontational tone.

This response 1) does not lead you into an undignified defense of your abilities or accomplishments, 2) puts your attacker on the defensive (where he belongs), and 3) tells your attacker that you recognize the attack for what it is and are not going to play his game.

Your surprising response will very likely discombobulate your attacker (especially if he is accustomed to getting a defensive reaction). He will likely sputter a bit, but eventually will have to admit that your work is indeed excellent and the clients are very right to acknowledge you. There's not much else he can say.

For more examples, see the previous two posts.

More on Verbal Self-Defense

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?

If you read the previous post, you will have an idea of what not to do. Verbal attacks almost always contain a statement (the bait), which is designed to sucker you into a pointless argument and make you look ridiculous and weak. Under no circumstances should you fall for the bait and try to respond as in the following:

“What! I can do fieldwork just as well as a man.”

“What has being a woman have to do with anything?”

“I’m perfectly capable of leading this expedition to Kookamoonga! No way am I staying behind as a lab tech or a desk jockey.”

If you respond this way, you will walk right into the attacker’s trap. You will then get embroiled in an undignified verbal battle with this bigot—in front of everyone.

Verbal attacks such as this are designed to enrage you and put you into a defensive position. As Dr. Suzette Elgin explains in several of her books on verbal tactics, the verbal attack also contains a “presupposition”, an indirect attack (sometimes very innocuous). It is the presupposition that you should address in your response.

In this case, being female, your leadership ability, and your role in the larger project have been attacked. What is the presupposition here? It can be stated as, “Women are inferior and second-rate scientists (and poor leaders).” You should respond directly to this presupposition:

“The idea that women are somehow inferior scientists and poor leaders, especially in our field, is quite outdated---so I am astonished to hear it from you, Dr. Blowhard.”

Alternatively, you can say:

“The idea that women scientists are somehow inferior and poor leaders is quite outdated—I am sorry to hear that you feel that way.” If you can say this in a tone that conveys pity for the attacker’s apparent lack of modern thinking, all the better.

Then immediately begin reiterating the major points in your plan to carry out your project in Kookamoonga (important point: avoid making eye contact with Dr. Blowhard or any other member who may agree with him while you are restating your points). If you are interrupted by Dr. Blowhard, state again that, “you are sorry he feels that way” and continue with your description (again avoiding eye contact).

The above tactic can be applied to innumerable situations. Be aware that not all verbal attacks will be as blatant as in this example. Some will appear as off-hand remarks. For example, your supervisor is describing your work to your colleagues or to his superiors:

“Well, Mary’s work is APPARENTLY highly regarded by our clients; I’m not sure why exactly, but I guess it’s true.”

This is a verbal attack disguised as a compliment. If you are Mary, you may or may not be present to defend yourself. If you did hear this, how would you respond? What is the bait? What is the presupposition? What should you say in response?

The answers will be in the next post.

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt Me

We’ve all found ourselves facing someone who is unjustifiably critical of us or our actions. For example, you are called into your advisor’s/boss’s office, and he proceeds to criticize your work habits. This comes as a complete shock to you because you work really, really hard, putting in many more hours than other people in the lab and generally do an excellent job. He finally says, “If you REALLY want to get your degree (keep your job, etc.), YOU would get to WORK on time.”

What is your response? Go ahead and take a few minutes to think of your answer….

I can almost guarantee that you went for the “bait”. You would launch into a defense of your occasional lateness or whatever it is you are being accused of. You huffily reply that you are sometimes late coming in because of traffic, sick children, etc., but that you also frequently work overtime during lengthy lab analyses or fieldwork. He comes back at you saying that your overtime does not compensate for chronic lateness. You continue to defend your actions, ad infinitum.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that what happened was a Verbal Attack (VA). How do you know this? According to Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin, a VA is characterized by two features. The first is the structure of the statement. It is composed of two parts: the bait, which is the obvious attack, and the “presupposition”, which is the less obvious attack. In the above example, the “bait” is the charge that you do not get to work on time. The “presupposition” is that you do not want to get your degree (keep your job, get a promotion, etc.). The other cardinal feature of a VA is the word emphasis. The emphasis on certain words (REALLY, YOU, WORK) alerts you to an abnormal intonation.

A VA often takes the form: If you REALLY wanted to__________, you would ____________.

If you REALLY want to keep your job, YOU would WORK harder.

If you REALLY cared about your office mates, YOU would not talk LOUDLY on the phone.

If you REALLY intend to finish your DEGREE on time, YOU would have completed your ANALYSES by now.

Without this anomalous word emphasis or without the bait-presupposition sentence structure, the statement may not be an attack, but an expression of concern. The person delivering this statement in a calm, non-judgmental manner may be trying to point out a problem s/he sees in your performance. If delivered with the anomalous intonation, it may be a VA. If your advisor/boss is typically a reasonable person who has always looked out for your interests, then such a VA might simply mean they are having a bad day or are under some undue pressure. On the other hand, if your supervisor is routinely critical of you without substantive justification, then such a statement is very likely a VA. There are also people who routinely use VAs to control and manipulate others, especially subordinates, and you may run into them occasionally.

Your gut will immediately tell you if you are under attack. And your first inclination will be to go for the bait.

So how do you deflect such an attack? The answer is, avoid going for the bait. Instead, you say something like, “When did you start thinking that I did not want to finish my degree (get a promotion, etc.)?” The phrasing is important. By starting with “when”, you presuppose only that the other person at some point started thinking that you don’t care (it’s neutral and reflects what they just said to you).

If you instead respond with “Why do you think…” or “What makes you think…”, then your question presupposes that your supervisor has a reason for thinking that what you just said is true and that you want them to tell you what that reason is. If you hand your attacker this invitation, you can be certain that they will take it and gleefully respond, “Waltzing in here late every day tells me YOU DON’T CARE about your DEGREE!!”

By instead asking, “When did you start thinking that I don’t care about…?”, short-circuits the entire attack. According to Dr. Elgin, it will likely result in one of two outcomes. Your attacker may be so discombobulated that you did not go for the bait, they give up the attack entirely. The other likely response is to give a specific example of your lateness, to which you will have a much better chance of responding (by explaining, for example, that you came in at 9 am on Tuesday because you stopped at the campus science supply store to pick up something that your advisor/boss ordered for the lab). In which case, you will have set yourself up for an immediate apology, sheepishly delivered by your attacker.

An even better response is to say, “Of course I care about my thesis (job, promotion, etc.).” and then quickly change the subject by asking your supervisor’s opinion about something or saying that you thought of a really great idea while driving to work. You do this quickly without pausing between sentences and without making eye contact with your attacker. If they persist in the attack, then go to your “When did you start thinking…” question.

What do these responses do? First, they tell your attacker that you are ignoring their “bait” (this is always a surprise, especially for people who routinely use this method of attack to control others). Second, you respond directly to the real attack instead of letting it pass unchallenged (also a big surprise). Third, you send them a clear message not to try that again with you; that you won’t play that game. Most importantly, they allow you to deal with the attack without wasting your time and energy in an endless argument that might escalate into a name-calling, nasty exchange.

If your supervisor is normally a decent human being and is just having a bad day, you want to defuse the situation as quickly as possible, allow him/her to save face, and preserve your good working relationship. If your attacker does this routinely to you and others, creating a toxic workplace, you can use this approach to derail their bad behavior while preserving your dignity.

To those bullies who use such verbal attacks to intimidate others: STOP it. We’re ON to you.