Sunday, December 25, 2011

Memory Protection

We are talking about memory.  In the last post, I mostly rambled on about some past memories, both first-hand memories as well as second-hand (an interesting thought: how many of your memories are based on vivid events someone else experienced and told to you?).  My original intent, however, was to do some exploring about the neurological aspect of memory.  So I'll continue here with more focus on cognition and memory.

I was watching a TV show the other night called "Into the Wormhole", which talks about the latest research in physics and related topics. This episode was about immortality and geriatric research (I suppose this is physics--immortality.....infinity?) and some promising progress toward extending the life span of yeast and mice.  The researchers confidently state that that it won't be long before human life spans will be increased to 800 years or more.  Really? Aside from the question of where we're going to put all those octocentinarians (didn't these researchers ever learn about "carrying capacity" in school?), there's the worry about caring for them.  Perhaps their bodies can live for 800 years, but what about their minds and memories? 

Most people suffer what is known as Age-Related Memory Impairment (AMi), and the deficits often involve short-term memory. As people age, their ability to refresh recently acquired information declines.  This decline is linked to faults in "episodic memory" processing, which relies on knowing the when and where the information was acquired.  That is, the information content is linked to the source of the information and associated physical or emotional factors, so that remembering is facilitated, for example, by simply imagining where you were when the information was acquired.  As a student, I could often recall my notes on a specific topic by visualizing the page in my textbook or notebook.  That linking apparently does not work as well as we age--with new information.  I think such links remain mostly intact for memories laid down when we were younger (for normal aging; people with diseases such as Alzheimer's apparently suffer more severe injuries to neural pathways). So, a sight or smell or activity (brushing your hair, feeding the dog) automatically stimulates a specific memory or recall of information learned in the distant past. 

As we age, those associations between the information and the surrounding factors are not made or are only poorly made.  That is my observation of my short-term memory changes.  I will perform some routine task such as taking a daily vitamin or brushing my teeth and an hour later I'm wondering if I did or if I'm remembering yesterday's routine. I cannot recall anything specific or different about the surroundings that would tell me, "Yes, you definitely took your vitamin because the phone rang right after or you noticed that a light bulb was burned out in the bathroom."  These lapses happen to everyone at all ages, but now seem to be more frequent. I now consciously note something about my surroundings or do something unusual (reverse my routine) if I want to ensure I recall doing something (and avoid repeating it). I now appreciate why those pill dispensers with compartments corresponding to the days of the week are so popular with the elderly.

In his later years, my father seemed to have suffered from an extreme case of short-term memory loss.  He could not remember what he had for lunch or that he had just taken his medication an hour before (although he could vividly remember events 70 years in the past).  His inability to make that linkage between the act of taking his medicine and the situation surrounding that act (who was present, what time of day it was, whether the TV was playing, etc.) meant that he could not distinguish that particular event from similar events of taking his medicine on previous days.  This memory impairment was incredibly stressful for him because he was aware of it.  If you asked him, he could not tell you whether or not he had taken his medicine that day. He remembered taking medicine in the past, but not specific instances. 

What can one do to protect memory as we age? There are all the usual suggestions: keeping mentally active, following a healthy diet, avoiding medications that impair memory, etc.  Those of us in science have no deficiency in terms of intellectual activities.  We write, do math, create graphics and other visual images, and speak in front of audiences.  We use "both sides" of our brains: the left hemisphere, which supposedly involves linear, logical, analytical thinking and the right, which involves nonlinear, holistic, intuitive thinking. Is this enough to protect us from AMi or more dreaded things such as dementia? I once thought so, but am not so sure anymore. 

I came across an interesting bit of research, which found that auditory training (music training) improved memory abilities as one ages.  In fact, the number of years of musical training was predictive of non-verbal memory performance and time span of cognitive ability.  The suggestion seems to be that there is something unique about the auditory experience.  Perhaps.  Or maybe it's just the fact that musicians have developed secondary linkages in their brains through a novel activity that is unlike daily activities involving, for example, reading or writing or walking.  In other words, your brain has developed backup pathways that can take over when the primary ones are blocked during aging or disease.

My guess is that other novel activities requiring mental concentration or memorization (and stimulate new neural linkages) would work similarly.  I've mentioned this idea before, but it's worth repeating.  In his book, "A Whole New Mind" Daniel Pink talks about how to expand your mind or to keep it sharp.  One activity he explored was drawing.  He signed up for drawing lessons and discovered that drawing is all about relationships or "perspective".  Drawing is all about seeing, in other words.  Learning to draw or paint will develop and strengthen aspects of your brain that you may not use often.

I think the novel aspect of the activity is what is relevant, not the specific activity.

I think the take-home message here is: have some hobbies that are mentally challenging and different from your primary work activities.  If drawing or playing a musical instrument do not appeal to you, I think physical activities requiring substantial skill or concentration will do the same thing: golf, skiing, surfing, Tai Chi, or learning a second language.  It's not clear if taking up these things later in life has the same effect as adopting them in one's twenties.  I imagine that forming redundant pathways and linkages early on when your brain is still developing is more effective than trying to do it with an older brain.  I played a musical instrument for many years and also developed drawing and painting skills.  In my thirties and early forties, I learned karate and became fairly skilled at it.  I no longer play an instrument or train in karate, but I think those brain pathways are still there; I remember how to read music, for example, or perform a karate move (although my body may no longer be able to carry out the physical action).  Now I wish I had done more activities like these.

But, it's never too late. 

There are programs involving brain games designed to improve cognitive function such as Lumosity and CogniFit.  You usually have to pay a subscription to get access to all the programs designed to get your brain in shape.  Some will do an assessment of your cognitive abilities for free and let you do some initial training.  I've tried these and they definitely teach you some things about your mental abilities and where you need improvement.  I was shocked to discover that my "working memory" was way, way above average, more than twice that of the world average (either I am that good or the people taking the assessment are really bad at this).  This score did not agree with my impression that my memory was on the decline.  My reaction time was also above average--again not my perception.  On the other hand, my divided attention and spatial perception abilities, which I always thought were very good, were below average.  In any case, wherever your weakness, the program designs training to improve those cognitive skills.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Memories

It's that time of year when families reunite for the holidays. These get-togethers can be fun or stressful depending on the health status of the older family members or the employment status of the less successful family members. They are always the settings for indelible memories. 

If you only see your parents or grandparents once or twice a year and they are over sixty, it's usually a shock to see how much they've aged since your last visit. At least that was my experience during the latter years of my parent's lives.  Although it was disturbing to see their physical decline, it was more stressful to see the mental decline. When I was a student and visited during the holidays, the first question always was, "When are you going to be finished?" Later, they couldn't seem to remember that I had finished school and had been working at a university for twenty years. Their first question to me when I arrived for a visit was, "How was school this semester? Did you do well?" I suppose their persistent belief in my student status was due partly to the fact that I was in school for a very long time and partly to the fact that both my husband and I were at a university and talked about being in class or doing research, which were also places and activities we talked about when we were students.  It makes sense, in a way....

My husband's parents were in better physical shape than mine, but were mentally worse off in some ways, if you can imagine that.  His parents (and their friends) seemed to get obsessed with certain drugs and whether my husband and I were hooked on them.  We were never sure where they got this idea, except from TV soap operas. They grilled my husband on each visit about our finances (we were fine, no debt), about our friends (no heroin addicts), about our jobs (we had not been fired), etc.  This inquisition continued well into our 40s.  They also were convinced that drug-sniffing dogs were deliberately addicted to the drugs they were trained to find (this explained why they were so eager to find the drugs).

"What about bomb-sniffing dogs?" I would ask.

His parents lived in Florida during the winter, so that's where we would go during the Christmas holidays. One year, I decided that I would visit my parents and my husband would go alone to Florida. That was the year of his infamous encounter with "Aunt Becky", one of those stories that becomes family legend.

Aunt Becky was actually my husband's great aunt by marriage. She lived in an up-scale condo in Miami Beach. That Christmas, his parents decided to visit Aunt Becky one afternoon. She was in her 70s, so my husband was expecting a frail, elderly woman, perhaps needing a walker to get around. When they arrived at her condo, my husband was shocked when the door opened. He described her to me as very healthy, very blond, very tanned, and dressed in a skimpy jogging outfit that showed off her very well-proportioned body.

And that was apparently the least of the surprises in store for him. 

Aunt Becky proceeded to give her visitors a tour of her condo, during which she made suggestive remarks about recent male visitors (she was unmarried, having outlived several husbands).  Everyone, including my husband, was laughing along with her about her raucous remarks. Then, while his parents were taking in the view of Miami from the balcony, Aunt Becky suggested that my husband might be interested in seeing her bedroom. He reluctantly went along with her, not wanting to offend her by saying no.  She pointed out her bed, which was a waterbed (this was the 80s), and suggested he try it.  When he declined, she pushed him down on the bed and jumped on top of him. He said she was incredibly strong, and between her strength and the sloshing waterbed, he could not extricate himself.

It was then that his parents walked in.

His mother yelled, "Aunt Becky, get off [my husband's name]!" They thought it was pretty funny, but my husband was mortified.  His parents told that story for years, much to his chagrin.  Unfortunately, I never got to meet Aunt Becky. I often wondered what would have happened had I been along on that visit.

My husband's parents and my parents are now deceased (as is Aunt Becky). So we are long past the stage of having to make the annual trek to our respective childhood homes (and deciding which set of parents to visit during the holidays). We've also moved past the period of watching our parents' decline from being physically active and mentally sharp to being frail and faltering in body and mind.

We've instead transitioned to watching each other age, both of us being at the point where our parents began showing the first symptoms of decrepitude.  We watch each other for impending signs of dementia and worry over every little lapse in memory or inability to dredge up the name of some obscure (or not so obscure) actor or political figure.  He forgets to turn the oven off, and I make a mental note that it's the third time in the past few months.  I can't remember something he told me the day before (he claims), and I can see he's taking note of my forgetfulness as well.  It gets to be a contest.  I only forgot once this week to set the security alarm. He only misplaced his keys two times. We joke that between us, we have a whole brain.

Neither of us looks our age....yet.  My doctor always exclaims when I go in for my annual visit, "You look fantastic! I can't believe you are only [my age]." (I get the impression he doesn't have too many patients like Aunt Becky).  The nurse, taking my blood pressure, says, "You're going to live forrreeevver." A slight exaggeration.  However, my grandmother did make it to 97 and she had most of her marbles at the end (I'm counting on those genes).

Well, I had planned to talk more about the neurological aspects of memory, but I think I'll postpone that until the next post.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Movie Heroine

I recently received a comment about the series I did a while back on how women are portrayed in Hollywood movies.  In one post (Feminism and the Movies), I used several examples of movies by James Cameron, including the Terminator series, and applied a couple of tests designed to gauge how central female characters are portrayed (as true heroines or as stereotypes designed to support a male protagonist).

One of these is called the Bechdel Test and the other is one I made up called (tongue in cheek) the Feminist Film Test.

It's been a while, so I'll repeat them here:

To pass the Bechdel Test, the movie must have:
1. Two women (who have names),
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.
The Feminist Film Test requires that the movie:
1. Have a female lead,
2. Who survives or succeeds,
3. Without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, etc.). 

The commenter focused on the fact that I said Terminator II failed the two tests and argued that technically this movie passes both tests, pointing out how the lead female character (Sarah Connor) had matured from the helpless victim in Terminator I into an aggressive, militaristic woman with a violent plan (to save the world) in Terminator II.

Well, maybe Terminator II squeaks by on minor technical points (Sarah speaks briefly to another woman and does take charge of her destiny), but this comment misses the point of the litmus tests and my series on feminism and the movies. My purpose was not to identify "anti-feminist" films or to nitpick movie details, but to question the presumption that these are films that align with feminist ideals and/or provide useful role models of "strong female characters" simply because they have women who can shoot, cuss, and fight as well as a man.

The two litmus tests I described are meant to make people think about stereotypes and how women are portrayed in film.  One blogger, talking about the Bechdel test, emphasizes that "passing the test does not necessarily make it more feminist, or otherwise, positive-for-women." Nor does failing the test make it a bad movie.  This blogger goes on to explain that the test is a crude tool to begin examining sexism in movies.  If you look at the site that lists movies and whether they pass the Bechdel Test, you'll see lots of nitpicking about minor details; but it's not very productive to focus too closely on these tests (or try to find technical loopholes). 

Both tests are designed to uncover the glaring pattern of sexism in Hollywood movies.  When you have to really search and search for movies that portray true heroines, you have to conclude that there is something wrong somewhere.  Can you think of, say, just ten movies (out of the thousands made) in which there are two female characters who have meaningful conversations (about something other than a man) that advance the storyline (see end of this post for a few)?  Hollywood writers, directors, and producers seem to have difficulty in creating strong female characters without making them violent, gun-toting, and physically threatening (with a few exceptions, see below). In the past, women were routinely portrayed as weak victims (to be saved by a man).  Now it seems their only option to be "strong" is to adopt violent, masculine behavior.

Let's be realistic.  These are male fantasies:  the helpless woman (needing to be saved by a man) and the "I can be as tough as a guy" woman (a titillating sex object). Movies with such characters are not sincere efforts to portray strong women. They are in these films solely to sustain the male (mostly adolescent) viewpoint.  One can speculate as to the reasons: screenwriters/directors/producers are mostly male and, therefore, emphasize a male point of view; the target demographic is the young adolescent male, and action movies are geared toward their perspective. There's nothing wrong with this; the objective is to make money on these movies, after all. However, one wonders why Hollywood is ignoring half the population of movie-goers.

But back to the point.  What constitutes a strong female character who is the heroine of a film? She might be mentally and intellectually powerful, emotionally resilient, highly competent and skilled (in something other than gun play), of great moral character, and courageous...all without resorting to violence.  A heroine is defined as "a woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for her brave deeds and noble qualities".  Is Sarah Connor a true heroine?  Do we admire her or feel repulsed by her adoption of violent methods to solve problems? Is her plan to kill the creator of Starnet (the computer network that will take over the future world and destroy humanity) courageous, noble, or admirable?  Was she a good mother (to John Connor)?  Is she a role model you would want your children to emulate? 

I'd say Sarah Connor is the anti-heroine.  Not that there's anything wrong with an anti-heroine character....just don't confuse it with a heroine. 

Can we think of other movies, even violent movies, in which a true heroine appears?

Yes.  There are very violent films that manage to depict strong female characters who are the antithesis of the Sarah Connor character (in T2). One example that comes to mind is Police Chief Marge Gunderson in "Fargo", played to perfection by Frances McDormand. She manages to solve an extortion/kidnapping/murder case and captures a killer (carefully shooting him in the leg, instead of blowing his head off)...all while pregnant and suffering morning sickness.

This film passes the Feminist Film Test (Marge succeeds without any male assistance), but fails the Bechdel Test (technically, Marge interviews a couple of female prostitutes, but the focus is on men [the killers]); she also talks briefly on the phone with a high school friend, but about a man who is stalking Marge).  Does that mean the movie is flawed from a feminist standpoint? Of course not.

In my view, this film provides a compelling portrait of a real heroine.  Marge is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of woman who is successful in a very male-dominated profession.  She's a heroine, not because she catches a killer, but because of the courage, integrity, and humility she displays in her professional and personal life. 

Some other movies with well-developed female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man and whose interactions advance the storyline: 
Gone With the Wind (1939)
All About Eve (1950)
The Bad Seed (1956)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Julia (1977)
Nine to Five (1980)
Silkwood (1983)
Working Girl (1988)
Mermaids (1990)
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Enchanted April (1992)
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Black Swan (2010)
The Help (2011)

Image Credits:
Still image from Terminator 2, TriStar Pictures
Still image from Fargo, Gramercy Pictures

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Art PrintsWe all want it, but do we always give it to others? I was reminded recently of the importance of respect in dealing with other people, especially those we may not know well.  Impressions based on how someone looks, what others may have told us, or an unconscious (or conscious) bias are more the norm.  It’s human nature.  When we meet someone for the first time, we immediately begin forming a mental image, looking for clues about their morals, intelligence, and other inherent traits, and filling in the gaps based on our past experiences with other people bearing similar superficial features.  This approach is, of course, a dangerous one.

One of the things I admired the most about my father was that he was unfailingly respectful of other people, even when they were treating him with contempt.  He was an uneducated man, a dirt-poor farmer who grew up in the rural Mississippi countryside.  It was presumed (incorrectly) that he was unintelligent, unmannered, and bigoted, based solely on his situation (I also experienced similar presumptions when I first ventured to other parts of the country and the world).  As a child, I watched more educated or wealthier people treat my father with disrespect.  Yet, I never saw him get angry or raise his voice to anyone (not even his children when they let snakes loose in the house [a pest control experiment]).  He listened respectfully and responded politely to others who clearly thought themselves to be his superior and made a point of emphasizing the difference.  

As a teenager I was embarrassed by my parents (who wasn’t?), but the lesson of his respectful nature did sink in, and I’ve later come to appreciate just how important it is.   I’ve tried hard to follow my father’s model, but it’s difficult, especially when other people are disrespectful of me.  Some would argue that such people are not deserving of respect. However, it’s not really about them; what’s important is your behavior and whether you choose to take the high road or get down in the mud with your attacker.  And I use the term, “attacker”, because disrespectful acts are definitely attacks. I’ve talked a bit in past posts about “verbal attacks” and ways to handle them (here and here).  But often we don’t recognize when we are being attacked, especially when it involves subtle disrespect. 

In any case, I know my father would say that to maintain one’s own self-respect, it’s essential to preserve your respectful treatment of others.  I’m not advocating here that you should not defend yourself against unfair treatment. Just that you do so without showing disrespect for the other person.

Image Credit: The Farmer by Fred Neveu. I really like this painting, which perfectly captures the affable, hardworking character of a dying breed of family farmers.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recurring Dreams

Someone recently mentioned to me the often common occurrence of recurring nightmares that plague those of us who have spent a lot of time in school. You know the ones: you are taking a final exam and realize that you've somehow forgotten to attend this particular class...or you are trying to find the room where your dissertation defense exam is being held and you are lost....or you can't find your class notes and have an exam in a few minutes.  There are many variations on this theme, but they all have the same underlying fear of failure. 

I had such nightmares periodically all through school and even long after I had obtained a Ph.D. and had a job.  Mine always involved high school and an inability to find my locker (where my books and class notes were) or the appropriate classroom (always a math class) or both.  In the dream, I would be forced to go back to high school (regardless of age or the fact that I already had a Ph.D.) to take a math class that I had somehow neglected to take.  So there was also an element of not fitting in with the other students due to my age and other factors.  There I would be, back in high school...sort of like in the movie, Peggy Sue Got Married, in which a woman has an accident at her high school reunion and wakes up back in the 1950s.  In that case, Peggy Sue gets to relive a lot of events during her high school years, but with the mind of an adult. 

My dreams were similar to Peggy Sue's in that I would have the mind of an adult and all my memories and skills acquired up to that point.  You would think, then, that I would be more adept at finding my classroom and keeping track of my class notes.  But nooooo....I would be totally at a loss to figure out my class schedule, the locations of my classrooms, and how to find and open my assigned locker.  In some cases, I would find my classroom, but I would be so hopelessly behind, due to prior absences, that I would just sit there in complete bewilderment at what was being discussed.  Or I would find myself taking an exam for which I had not studied. Excruciating for someone who was always prepared for exams and always made high grades.

You would also think that someone who had managed to acquire a Ph.D. in a science field would be immune to such dreams.  Quite the contrary.  For me, they actually got worse after I completed my schooling and was working as a professor at a university.  I found these dreams to be unsettling because I realized that they indicated a lack of confidence.  I suspected also that they were related to my tendency toward perfectionism. 

Ultimately, however, I discovered how to stop these recurring dreams.

I had been reading about lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer realizes that they are dreaming and is then able to direct the dream.  The advantage of lucid dreaming is that you are only restricted by your imagination, not by the laws of physics or rules of society.  I've only managed to have a handful of lucid dreams over the years, but they were all quite amazing and realistic...bordering on out-of-body experiences.  The trick is to realize that you are dreaming, which is not as easy as it sounds.  For me, when I think I am dreaming, I apply a test, which is to see if I can fly.  If I am able to fly, then I know I am dreaming and can proceed to direct the dream.  It's a tricky balance, however.  I think what is happening is that you are in between a state of dreaming and consciousness.  Once you recognize you are dreaming, it often happens that you wake up because you slipped too far toward consciousness. 

My lucid dreams always seemed to have a very practical storyline.  The first lucid dream I ever had involved an ability to shoot a laser beam from my fingertips.  So what did I do with this amazing gift?  I proceeded to use it to trim the trees in my yard of dead branches!  Other dreams involved flying and traveling great distances to see different ecosystems of the Earth.  A bit more adventurous, but still practical from a professional standpoint.  These are quite vivid dreams, which upon waking, are difficult to distinguish from a real memory. 

I had other recurring nightmares about elevators, for example (don't ask me why, because I don't have a phobia about elevators in real life).  I began thinking that perhaps lucid dreams could be used to rid myself of these annoying recurring dreams. Unfortunately, I couldn't just turn lucid dreaming on and off at will.  I had to wait for one to occur spontaneously.

That's what finally happened with the school nightmares.  I found myself in the middle of a typical dream in which I was running around my high school, desperately looking for my math class, when I suddenly realized that this was a dream.  I then stopped and said to myself, "I have already graduated from high school and college and also completed graduate school. I have a Ph.D. and a job at a university. I don't need to go back to high school and take some silly math class."  Then I just turned and walked out the front door of the high school.  I never had these dreams again, and my sense of confidence increased dramatically.

My experience exemplifies one advantage to learning how to dream lucidly: overcoming fears and other psychological barriers to success.  You can accomplish the same thing with psychotherapy, of course, but going the dream route may work faster.  It certainly worked for me.  From what I understand about it (which isn't a lot), the best predictor of lucid dream ability is whether you have good dream recall.  I've always been able to recall my dreams in great detail; in contrast, my husband reports that he has great difficulty recalling any dreams at all.  In any event, dreams provide powerful insights into your psyche, and the ability to modify or control them might provide a means of treatment for certain disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, for example).  It is definitely a way to minimize or eliminate nightmares.

I've been quite pleased to be rid of these recurring dreams about school.  However, I wonder if students these days have such nightmares?  Considering that skipping class and not having to take notes (the professor provides these on a website) are more common now than when I was a student, perhaps these fears of missing classes or losing notes are not as great? On the other hand, maybe it's worse?

Photo Credit: Promotional image for Peggy Sue Got Married, Tristar Pictures.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

They Took My Joy__I Want It Back

Those of you familiar with rhythm and blues singer, Bettye LaVette, will recognize the title of this post as the lyrics from the song, "Joy", written for her by Lucinda Williams. I was sitting in the audience listening to LaVette singing this song when it hit me that these lyrics described something I've been feeling lately....about science.

It may sound strange that I had this reaction to this song, which reflects LaVette's early career struggles in Detroit, New York, and Memphis. LaVette has been singing for a long time now (she's in her 60s), but only recently has been "discovered", earning a Grammy nomination for "Best Contemporary Blues Album" and and an award for "Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist".  But there are many parallels between the competitive worlds of music and science in finding success and simultaneously keeping one's "joy".

LaVette has been in the music business for over forty years, much of it struggling to gain respect and recognition for her work. If you listen to her perform today, you see why critics call her "the greatest soul singer in American music". LaVette is a consummate performer. She's not just technically good; she reaches out and grabs the audience emotionally. Her voice literally oozes raw emotion, gritty and defiant.  The video link above does not do justice to the actual, live experience, but gives some idea about her style.  As I listened to her performance, I recognized (without knowing anything about her history) the years of practice and focused effort required to attain the level of expertise I was witnessing.  I knew I was in the presence of someone unique, someone who had struggled to become the best.  She made it seem effortless, of course. That's the hallmark of an artist at the top of her profession.

Many talented women working in competitive fields are often overlooked. As we all know, this is the story for women in science. Actually, more than overlooked. Many of us struggled to even be allowed to practice science. Even without the early discrimination, however, women would have had a difficult time (and still do).  Science is a hard profession.  It's especially hard when our work goes unrecognized, and the joy we once felt at doing science is slowly, inexorably ground out of us.  The things that attracted us to it in the first place (curiosity, passion, concern for the environment, a desire to help others) are gradually bled out of us in the struggle to find research funds, to publish, to fit into a male-dominated world, and to gain a modicum of respect.

This is what LaVette sings about in "Joy". Of her early years trying to make it in a hard industry. First in Detroit, then New York, and later in West Memphis and Muscle Shoals (Alabama). The song's lyrics describe how she lost her joy and looked for it in different places; in the end, she sings that "I don't want you anymore...cause you took my joy" and finally "you took my joy...I want it back".  The song describes the loss of joy, the subsequent search for it, the despair at ever finding it, the dismissal of what led to the loss of joy, and then the angry demand for getting her joy back.

I can only imagine the struggles a young, black woman went through during the early 60s in America and in the highly competitive world of music.  She put out her first single in 1962, but did not cut her first album until 1982--twenty years later.  And twenty more years went by before she began to receive major awards and recognition commensurate with her talent.  How many of you could continue in this way, for so long, for so little?  But she clearly kept at it, honing her craft.  During the performance I saw, LaVette talked ironically about her recent "discovery" by the music industry and the awards and nominations that are now being showered on her.  I think there are a number of women, in many laboratories and offices around the world, who are shaking their heads at similar ironies.

How can such obvious talent be overlooked for so long?  I've talked about "talent" in previous blog posts and how it is not something one is necessarily born with, but instead is the result of "deliberate practice" conducted over thousands of hours. Perhaps a person is borne with a suite of physical, intellectual, and emotional attributes that predisposes them to be musicians, artists, or scientists.  But it still takes enormous amounts of time and focused energy to acquire the necessary technical skills and confidence to outperform everyone else with those inherent attributes.  To observers, their performance seems effortless; hence, the perception that it did not require much effort or practice to achieve.  We may intellectually recognize that a famous musician or athlete has to spend a lot of time practicing her craft, but emotionally we believe that they must have a special talent that no one else has.

I think people believe in "natural talent" because they don't want to consider having to invest all that time and effort on something and then fail to succeed at it.  It's easier to say, "Well, I tried, but I just wasn't as talented as Bob or Sue (who outperformed us)." Unfortunately for these people, the belief that talent, not hard work and practice, is all that is required to succeed will doom them to mediocrity, if not outright failure. Many other people, especially young people, want success and fame now, in their twenties, certainly by their thirties. Why should it wait until they are old and can't enjoy it? It's much easier to watch someone like LaVette perform and think, "I could do that, only if I had the talent." Or luck.  That's the other belief about "sudden" success.  One only has to watch the early tryouts for American Idol to see that hundreds of thousands of young people believe they have the talent to be performers, yet have exerted little effort at developing their skills. The naivete is simply breathtaking.

The truth is that to become really good at something, even if you have some basic "talent" for it, requires a lot of work, sacrifice, and time.  My guess is that even for the best, it is about ten percent talent and ninety percent drive, hard work, and endless (deliberate) practice.  Maybe a few, exceedingly lucky people hit it big early in their career, but if you look at the history of most early achievers or so-called prodigies, you find that they have spent at least ten years at hard practice before they were "discovered".

If so much time and effort are required to attain a high level of skill, how can one possibly keep going without reward or acknowledgment for so long? That has been the lot of LaVette in the music field and is also the story of many women in science.  We plug along while watching less talented men sail past us.  But we are catching up. A few women are getting the recognition they deserve.  And the struggle has given us something that those, who have not had to work hard, lack. We have put more effort into developing our talents, creating our unique voices, and learning to persevere.  We've had to, to survive. LaVette's style, for example, would not be so emotionally charged, so compelling, or so distinctive without that long, hard experience getting to where she is today.  I think the same is true for women in science. We've had to work harder and smarter than male colleagues, but it has made us unique.

There is a message here for women in science, which is why I'm describing Bettye LaVette's story. It's not that we should keep struggling because success will eventually come. That might be one eventuality of perseverance at a career and a welcome reward at the end.  It might be one lesson to learn from her story.  No, the message is about not losing one's joy in the pursuit of one's dream.  From the moment we make the decision to embark on a science career (or any career), we begin to give up some of those early ideals, passions, dreams, and other emotions that attracted us in the first place. We begin to compromise as we encounter the realities in the process of training, getting a job, and keeping that job.  Some of us manage to hang on to a few of our early dreams and passions, but I doubt that there are many mature scientists out there who are completely satisfied with their scientific emotional well-being.  All one has to do is ask, "Do you still feel the same joy and excitement (about your work) as you did when you first dreamed about being a scientist?"

In the beginning, many of us are simply driven by the need to know and are completely satisfied with finding the answer (as well as the process of looking for it).  We don't need an award to feel good about figuring something out. But somehow, we gradually move away from that simple satisfaction to wanting more as we advance through school and into the working world. For some, it's to beat the competition to publication, or to gain international standing in the scientific community, or to win prestigious awards or positions on panels, or all of these. These achievements are all false goals that bring only temporary satisfaction and, worse, feed the desire for bigger and better accolades.  We get focused on numbers of publications and citations, our H-index, landing a big grant, or getting our next paper published in a Glamor Science Mag. These are the measures of "success" by which others judge us and may be important for us to advance in a science career, but we should take care that the pursuit of such things does not take over our emotional well-being. If we do, we risk losing that original joy of seeking knowledge and making discoveries.

When I was a child, I experienced the simple pleasures of discovery and learning. I saw that scientists could continue seeking knowledge and experiencing that joy of discovery...and make a career of it.  What a deal!  I recognized that this aspect set a science career apart from many other types of careers one might choose from.  I could actually do work that I loved to do and be paid for it.  Interestingly, this emotional reward that scientists enjoy is the same for musicians and artists.  Their work is their passion; their passion is their work. This is another interesting parallel that the Bettye LaVette story has reminded me of: how closely related science and art are from an emotional (and creative) standpoint.

What I did not realize, when starting out, was how difficult it would be to sustain that original joy; how career setbacks, professional jealousies, work-life pressures, struggle for respect and recognition, and other factors could dampen and bury my joy.  I imagine that that is what LaVette is singing about. In the process of doing what she loves (singing), she lost her joy. The business (and politics) of music must interfere greatly with the sheer joy of performing music.  And the same is true of science.  Women in science may find themselves singing the same song...if they are not careful.

So after almost forty years in science, I can relate to the refrain, "they took my joy....I want it back".  I don't just want it back; like Bettye LeVette, I'm demanding it back.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Clone Me

You finally have your own lab and are ready to hire one or more technicians and/or a lab manager plus post-docs and students. Do you hire someone who is like you or completely different (assuming candidates of equal qualifications)?

Some scientists seem to hire clones of themselves.  Perhaps they assume that it will be easier to interact with someone who is more like themselves or that their work habits will be more to their liking.  With a large team, the thinking might be that a homogeneous group will work better together, be more productive, and efficient.  Early in my career, I favored people who were similar to me in terms of work habits, organization, and personality.  I discovered, however, that a more diverse group or partnership is better at problem solving and more creative overall than one with very similar personalities and skills.

When I started out as a PI, I had one assistant/technician, and the two of us worked side-by-side doing fieldwork and labwork. I felt most comfortable working with another woman whose personality and work habits were similar to mine.  In other words, a clone of myself.  My research often took us on field trips of a week or more to distant locations where we would be spending 24/7 together.  I knew that I wanted someone who (like me) was hard-working, uncomplaining, quiet, well-organized, and generally task-oriented.  After technical qualifications, personality and work ethic were important considerations for me.  Anyone who has done fieldwork knows that personality clashes or disagreements over work habits can frequently arise and cause much misery, especially for the project leader.  Such clashes can, of course, occur in the lab or office setting, but are magnified during travel, living in close quarters, and in conjunction with various logistical and other travel-related problems, which add to the overall stress.  Fieldwork is difficult enough without having to deal with someone who has to be constantly cajoled into getting up early or working late to finish a task or who complains about everything.  If my research had been totally lab-based, I could see (maybe) working with someone whose personality was, let's say, abrasive, as long as they did the work.  However, I knew that the person I selected as an assistant also needed to be a good travel companion and would be easy to get along with.

My point is that my early decisions about a research assistant were driven by a narrow focus on personality and anticipated working conditions (in addition to the obvious technical qualifications).   It did not occur to me then that there might be advantages to having someone quite different from me as an assistant.  This early situation also differed from later in my career when I had a larger research group with up to ten people (employees, students, volunteers).  With a larger group, there was a greater opportunity to work with people who were very different from me in personality and problem-solving skills. 

When we consider diversity in relation to the workforce, it is usually from a legal, EEO standpoint: race, religion, age, gender.  However, that is not what I'm referring to here.  I'm talking about diversity in interpersonal skills, work habits, and personality traits that influence important skills such as problem solving.  When you are hiring someone, you are concerned with two main aspects: their technical qualifications and how they will fit into (and contribute to) the work environment in your lab.  As employers, we tend to focus on the technical aspects and neglect to fully examine how that person will complement the existing team.  If we do consider the latter, it may be to seek out someone like us, rather than someone very different.  This approach can, of course, get us into trouble if it leads us to exclude certain protected groups that happen to differ from us. Aside from the legal ramifications, this approach is short-sighted in terms of developing a team that has diverse problem-solving or interpersonal skills and consequently has a broader range than a more homogeneous group.

I did not begin thinking seriously about diversity with respect to my research group until a problem arose with a postdoc.  This postdoc caused a lot of bad feelings within my research group, which included students and several master's level technicians.  Her main problem was "PhDitis"--she felt that she was superior to anyone lacking a Ph.D., regardless of their experience and skills.  At the time, I had several excellent technicians who had master's degrees, but with years of job experience.  Some were experts in certain lab analyses....techniques that this postdoc had never performed herself.  Yet she still felt that she knew better than they did...and often expressed this sentiment.  As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of grumbling.  I had tried talking to this postdoc about how skilled my technicians were and that they really responded better when their expertise was appreciated and acknowledged. Unfortunately, these words fell on deaf ears.  So I came up with another approach.

After doing a bit of reading about team diversity, I assigned my group a paper on the topic (which, unfortunately, I can no longer find--this was some years ago) to be discussed at our weekly lab meeting. I also asked each person to take an online test (similar to this one) that would identify their "personality type"--according to a Myers-Briggs typology.  When we met, we listed everyone's personality type and discussed the makeup of our group, whether our personalities were complimentary or duplicative, and which personalities our group was missing.  This exercise was intended to be a fun way to get everyone to understand and appreciate what each person brought to the group.  I don't recall the exact breakdown, but we had quite a diversity of personality types.

Most everyone seemed to find the exercise enjoyable and interesting (and a welcome departure from our usual lab meetings).  Most everyone understood why I organized this particular lab meeting and expressed a positive reaction to my added comments about how each person, regardless of background or educational achievement, was important to the success of the research we conducted.  There was one exception.  You can guess who did not recognize the reason for this meeting and who argued about the relative contributions of individuals to a team effort.

Although I failed to change the post-doc's mind about the value of team members with different educational backgrounds, I developed a deeper appreciation of diversity and the potential benefits to a research group and to me as a PI.  When I later considered applicants for positions in my group, I especially looked for well-qualified people who were complimentary to me in personality.  I'm more introverted and tend to be a perfectionist, for example.  So I began hiring assistants who were outgoing and had interpersonal skills that I lacked.  A PI who is naturally gregarious but disorganized might benefit, for example, from hiring someone who was highly organized, efficient, and more introverted.  Someone else might be a "big-picture" kind of thinker and would benefit from hiring a person who is more detail-oriented.  If you are a PI who tends to be "low-key" and modest (and reluctant to self-promote), you might benefit from an assistant who talks a lot about your research successes, someone who essentially does your bragging for you. These are just a few examples. You can probably think of more...that especially relate to you and your situation.

Everyone has one or more short-comings in terms of work habits and/or personality.  Even if you have a well-rounded personality and good work habits, it's unlikely that you will possess ALL the problem-solving or interpersonal skills to cope with every professional situation.  For example, previous posts have talked about leadership styles here and here, which can differ dramatically in terms of interpersonal skills. Leaders tend to fall into two types: those with good interpersonal skills and a focus on their followers' needs and those who are more task-oriented.  The first type of leader has mostly communal qualities: nurturing, sensitive, sympathetic, warm, collegial; the second type has agentic qualities: aggressive, dominant, ambitious, controlling.  If you fall into one of these categories, it's likely that you lack the qualities of the other type of leader (although it's possible to combine some qualities of both).  Some of these traits might be changed with effort, but others are hard-wired and resistant to change. 

Recognizing my limitations (e.g., interpersonal skills) was a prerequisite to identifying the type of assistant who might enhance my team.  It's not easy to examine one's limitations, but the effort can pay off in the long-run.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What About Bob?

We are discussing a hypothetical scenario involving Jennifer, a scientist working for a consulting company, who has a problem with her co-worker Bob (see previous two posts). Jennifer has discovered that Bob is communicating on her behalf with the manager of a refuge where she is leading an important project. The refuge manager feels more comfortable communicating with Bob, even though Bob is not part of Jennifer's project.  Instead of calling or emailing Jennifer, who is the project lead, the manager is contacting Bob, with whom he is better acquainted and has dealt with in the past.

Jennifer initially thought that Bob was just trying to be helpful....but now is not so sure. 

I posed the possibility that Bob might have an ulterior motive for his actions, evident by his persistence in intercepting and responding to messages about Jennifer's project. In the last post, I noted that Jennifer failed to deal effectively with Bob in the beginning. In addition to straightening things out with the refuge manager, she should have confronted Bob and asked him not to respond to any more messages on her instead forward emails or otherwise direct any communications to her.  Instead, she made the mistake of thanking Bob for the forwarded messages, which apparently encouraged him to continue.

Let's assume that the situation has not improved, and Bob is still interjecting himself into Jennifer's affairs, even after being asked to stop. This is a warning sign that Bob is probably trying to undermine Jennifer.

What should Jennifer do? Storm into Bob's office and demand that he butt out? That's not likely to work, especially if Bob is deliberately trying to sabotage Jennifer's project.  Even if Bob is simply a bumbling idiot who doesn't realize the damage he might be doing to Jennifer, her tirade will likely backfire.  Should she go to her boss and complain?  No, that will just send the message that she can't take care of the problem by herself. 

Jennifer takes some time to think about her options and comes up with a three-pronged approach for dealing with Bob and his interference in her project:

1.  First, she stops responding to or acting upon any emails or other messages from the refuge forwarded to her by Bob.  She does not thank Bob or contact the refuge manager about whatever the email was about.  By no longer acknowledging Bob or acting on these forwarded messages, Jennifer takes the first step in removing Bob as Gatekeeper of the information flow between her and the refuge. Bob no longer gets any feedback that his interference is working.  The refuge manager, no longer getting responses to messages sent via Bob, begins to have second thoughts about communicating with Bob instead of Jennifer.     

2.  Second, Jennifer sends email progress reports to the refuge manager each month, enthusiastically highlighting significant findings.  And, most importantly, she copies her boss at the consulting company on these emails (not Bob).  This action accomplishes several things. She shows her boss that she's keeping the client updated about the project (which will counter any hints by Bob that she's having communication problems). Her boss responds to these messages with, "Great work, Jennifer! Thanks for keeping us all informed."  Her emails regularly remind the refuge manager of who is in charge of this project and that the consulting company is supportive of her in this role.  In addition, she creates written documentation of her communications with the refuge (in case the refuge manager later complains). Finally, her regular email correspondence prompts the refuge manager to begin responding directly to her once it's obvious that she is the one with knowledge about the project, not Bob.

3. Finally, Jennifer develops another line of communication with the refuge. She befriends the refuge manager's administrative assistant who readily agrees to provide Jennifer with a heads-up about any goings-on that relate to her project. The assistant sees and hears everything and, having had her own run-ins with the "good ole boys", is more than happy to help Jennifer out.  This action might be useful if the manager continues to be obstinate about keeping Jennifer informed about refuge activities involving her project.

In the end, Jennifer successfully completes her project.  Her boss is very pleased with how she kept the client (and him) informed about the project.  He is confident that he can put her in charge of larger projects in the future.

And what about Bob?  Well, he tried to tell Jennifer's boss about her communication difficulties with the refuge.  However, things didn't turn out quite as he imagined. The boss, instead of asking questions about Jennifer, began quizzing Bob about his role in the situation and why he was wasting time monitoring Jennifer's activities.  Bob ended up being reprimanded for interfering with Jennifer's project and was put on probation.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Comfort Level

In the last post, I described a hypothetical situation in which a female project leader (Jennifer) is having difficulty with some of her male colleagues.  Instead of contacting her directly with some important information affecting her project, the manager of a refuge where she is conducting a study has contacted someone else in Jennifer's organization who has no involvement in the project (Bob). To make matters worse, Bob is attempting to "help" her by answering these emails (instead of simply forwarding the messages to her and informing the sender of his error).

Over the years, I've experienced variations of this annoying situation.  Female colleagues have also mentioned this problem.  The details change, but the underlying theme is the same. Instead of contacting the woman who should be receiving the message directly, the message sender instead talks or writes to another man who may be the woman's supervisor, employee, student, collaborator, husband, or the guy in the next office. The man who receives the message typically forwards the message, sometimes immediately, sometimes not. He may inform the sender of his error, or not.    

So what's going on here?

First, I think that people want to deal with people with whom they feel most comfortable.  They prefer communicating with someone who is similar to themselves. This is the reason the refuge manager in the hypothetical scenario persists in contacting someone he knows and feels at ease with.  Similarly, the instances I've personally encountered involved men who seemed to be more comfortable communicating with other men and who were uncomfortable interacting with a woman (of equal status).  In these cases, it's male workers who feel more at ease interacting with other males, especially concerning more "masculine" endeavors.  We can imagine other situations in which the gender roles are reversed or which involve other contrasting types of people. 

I imagine that there are also those men who, because of their stereotypical thinking, feel that their message cannot be understood by a woman and needs to be communicated to a man (who will understand and might have more experience communicating with the woman in question).  There are fewer of these dinosaurs nowadays, but they still exist.

Second, this situation is exacerbated by an intermediary who tries to help out by responding to the message. This man may be trying to be helpful or he may be doing something else entirely.  In our hypothetical scenario, Jennifer's colleague, Bob, is receiving messages about Jennifer's project and instead of simply forwarding them to her, is responding on her behalf.  We don't have enough information to know whether Bob is trying to be helpful or has an ulterior motive for his actions. Regardless of his motives, however, by responding to the message (instead of informing the sender of his error), Bob has set himself up as Gatekeeper of communications between Jennifer and the refuge manager.

This type of situation may be a minor annoyance or it might be a Problem.  If Bob is trying to help, it's just a brief irritation.  On the other hand, Bob may be taking advantage of the situation to undermine her.  Jennifer is a new employee in a consulting company, where competition among employees may be intense.  Bob may be trying to insert himself into a project that he wanted to lead, but instead was given to Jennifer.  She is new, so may not be fully aware of office politics or have had time to identify the sharks.

Jennifer responded initially by contacting the refuge manager directly to say that she had received the information (but did not point out his error in contacting Bob).  I think this action was appropriate, given the circumstances.  She sent a clear message to the refuge manager that she was the rightful recipient of the information (which hints that they should contact her directly in the future).  This was the minimum action that someone in Jennifer's situation should have taken. 

However, Jennifer did not address Bob's actions. She should have asked him not to respond to any future messages from the refuge on her behalf and to simply forward the messages to her.  Actually, this step was critical not only to insuring that Bob could not interfere, but so that the refuge manager would have no other option except to contact her directly. As long as Bob was available, the refuge manager could ignore Jennifer's request for direct communication.  Also, by dealing with Bob in such a direct way, she would also gain some insight into his motives for interfering in the first place (critical information for Jennifer to survive in her new workplace).  If Bob persists in his role as Gatekeeper, then Jennifer will know that he is not simply trying to "help" her. 

If Bob continues to intercept messages meant for Jennifer, then she has a much bigger problem on her that will take some creative thinking to resolve.  In the next post, I'll consider how Jennifer might handle Bob's persistent interference.

Image Credit: Still image from "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), Jalem Productions

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tell Me

Consider the following hypothetical encounter:

Jennifer is a newly-hired scientist at a consulting company.  Because she has extensive experience in her field, she is immediately put in charge of a project to assess long-term impacts of the BP oil spill on bird populations within a wildlife refuge.  The work entails interactions with refuge personnel, who are all male and might be best characterized as "good ole boys".  She initially meets with the refuge managers to finalize details of the project and her team's schedule.  Time passes, and the project is going well and staying on schedule. 

Then Jennifer receives a puzzling message from a coworker, Bob.  One of the refuge managers has sent him an email concerning activities that might interfere with Jennifer's fieldwork.  Bob is not part of this project, but has worked with this refuge in the past on other projects.  Instead of just forwarding the message to Jennifer and telling the refuge manager that he's contacted the wrong person, Bob replies for Jennifer saying that he'll make sure her team is informed.  Jennifer feels unsettled, but can't quite put her finger on what's bothering her about this. 

She decides that it was just a simple mistake, and sends a brief email to the refuge manager that she appreciates the heads-up and will modify her sampling schedule accordingly (and does not mention his faux pas).  A couple of weeks later, however, her field technician mentions that Bob has been getting and responding to additional emails from the refuge manager about her project. 

What is going on here?  Should Jennifer be concerned?  Should she take some action?  If so, what should she do? In the next post, I'll analyze this situation and offer some possible responses.

Image Source: modified photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Friday, September 30, 2011

Is My Lipstick Smeared?

In episode 11 of the 4th season of the television series, Mad Men, Peggy gives a presentation to Playtex executives.  Before she gets to the conference room, one of her male colleagues (she had earlier rebuffed) notices that her lipstick is smeared on her teeth.  He doesn't warn her.  She gives her presentation, failing to notice that people are trying to alert her to the lipstick problem.  Later, someone breaks the news to her.  Her colleague just smiles.

If you are unfamiliar with this TV series, it is set in the 1960's New York and focuses on an advertising agency. Although the show revolves around Don Draper (the main ad man), there are lots of episodes and scenes that deal with women working in a male-dominated world.

I was reminded of this show and the scene described above during a conversation with a colleague.

I was talking with this male colleague about a women-in-science group that I sometimes attend.  He inquired about what we were discussing this semester, and I mentioned that one topic I hoped to address was leadership styles.  He soon began talking about several university administrators who happened to be women and mentioned something that he observed one of them doing at meetings.  Apparently, this woman would walk into the conference room, sit down, open her purse, and begin to carefully apply lipstick. When finished with her makeup, she would call the meeting to order. 

My initial response was something along the lines of, "Hmmm. That's interesting.  I wonder why she did that?  Most women would apply lipstick (those who wear it) in private." We were interrupted by the arrival of some other people, so I did not have a chance to question this colleague further about why he mentioned this particular example during a discussion of women in leadership positions.

I later thought more carefully about this conversation...not about why a woman in a high position would call attention to the fact that she was a woman by conspicuously applying makeup (I suspect she was oblivious to how this looked to others), but how my colleague interpreted this behavior.  

One might dismiss the lipstick observation as an offhand, unimportant remark.  However, it clearly made an impression on this colleague, who was obviously critical of this woman and offered this up as an example of her poor judgement.  It reminded me of critical comments made about a woman's physical appearance or other attributes that have no bearing on their professional capabilities. 

This colleague is married to a professional woman who is very successful and highly regarded.  Consequently, I figured that he was making a statement about how women need to be careful (in dress and behavior) to avoid calling negative attention to their gender in professional settings.  Perhaps he was leading up to a suggestion that our discussion group counsel the younger members about inappropriate behavior?  Or maybe he did think that this woman's lipstick habit indicated an overall incompetence in chairing meetings? I'm not sure.

Women can call attention to their gender unintentionally, especially when nervous.  Some women play with their hair or jewelry, which is acceptable in a social setting, but might send unintended signals in a professional setting.  Men seem to be particularly alert (consciously or subconsciously) to sexual signals.  Lipstick, which has an interesting history by the way, is a sexual signal (although its sexual connotations are not always recognized).  I think this is why my colleague noticed it, but I doubt that he realized why it was so memorable.  I also doubt that the female administrator was aware of this either (and would probably be mortified if someone pointed it out to her).

I know that some women dismiss such concerns about dress and behavior, saying that they should be judged on their professional capabilities rather than their wardrobe or personal quirks. However, the fact that this senior male faculty member had noticed the lipstick application, remembered it years later, and pointed it out to me (in the context of women in leadership positions) suggests that women are still being judged inappropriately, even by men who are generally supportive of women.

Photo Credit: AMC, Mad Men, still image of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To Each Her Chimera

We are talking about leadership style choices for women.  More specifically, I'm considering leadership qualities that are more consistent with the feminine stereotype (nurturing, cooperative, modest) versus the male stereotype (assertive, dominant, outspoken).  In previous posts, I've examined the two extremes: Leading from the Heart (traditional female qualities) and Command and Control (traditional male qualities).  In this post, I look at a leadership style that combines both traditionally masculine with feminine qualities: the Chimera.

By definition, a chimera is a composite creature, sometimes having disparate parts (lion's head, goat's body) or composed of genetically distinct tissues.  I've stretched the definition somewhat to describe the female (or male) leader who displays both traditionally female and traditionally male behaviors. One might argue that it's an inappropriate choice, since chimeras are typically viewed as being grotesque creatures that don't fit in.  I'm taking a different in which such a composite combines the best qualities from two disparate sources and creates a new whole that works well.

This woman has adopted a mixture of strong leadership qualities that are stereotypically male, while retaining some communal qualities.  By being assertive, ambitious, and outspoken, she sends the message that she's capable of going toe-to-toe with the boys.  However, having a few communal qualities (cooperative, nurturing) will show her to be in synch with her traditional gender role.  Many successful female leaders fall into this category.  As I noted above, however, this approach does not always  put a woman on equal footing with a man whose natural gender-based tendencies are congruent with strong leadership qualities.

There is also another set of leadership styles, often referred to as transactional vs. transformational.  The transformational leader sets high standards of behavior and establishes herself as a role model by gaining the trust and confidence of her team.  She frequently discusses past achievements with her subordinates and offers new ideas for achieving even higher goals.  This type of leader mentors subordinates and encourages them to advance to the point that they outgrow their current position and move on to a higher level position elsewhere. This leader often retains strong ties with these mentees, eventually becoming colleagues and developing long-term working relationships.  The transactional leader, by contrast, manages subordinates by setting up defined responsibilities, monitoring their work, and using a reward/punishment approach to make corrections. 

A woman who exhibits the transformational type of leadership behavior might be much more successful at being perceived as a strong leader, compared to the transactional approach. This would be true, of course, for men as well.  However, it might be an added quality that helps a woman overcome the disadvantages of the gender-leader inconsistency.  Research suggests that women, more than men, adopt aspects of the transformational style, including: 1) motivating their followers to feel respect and pride in being associated with them, 2) exhibiting excitement and optimism about future goals, and 3) mentoring.  Perhaps women can use these in place of aggressive or competitive behavior to demonstrate strong leadership.

Well, there you have it.  The topic of leadership styles is obviously complex, and I've only skimmed the surface.  However, the material I've covered has helped me to better understand what the issues are for women in selecting a leadership style and some of the options that might work better than others.  Every person's situation is different, so that the choice of leadership style must be tailored to the particular circumstances.  This point also means that a leader must be prepared to change styles as conditions change.  Moving to a new job, transitioning through career stages, or interacting with different groups of people all require periodic reassessment of leadership modes.  Those leaders who insist on using the same style no matter what will likely run into trouble at some point.

If you are in a leadership position and are having difficulties, it might be beneficial to reassess your leadership behavior.  If you are a woman, it is especially important to determine what your organizational expectations are for its leaders and how gender roles are viewed in your workplace.  This is where female role models may be especially important.  Those women who have successfully established themselves as leaders in their fields will have adopted those specific behaviors that work.  By observing them and how they lead will be invaluable to younger women struggling to develop their own styles.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Command and Control

I'm discussing three leadership options for women.  In the last post, I described a leader who exhibits traditionally female qualities (nurturing, cooperative): Leading from the Heart.  In this post, I will consider a leader who has for the most part adopted (or naturally has) masculine characteristics congruent with strong leadership (assertive, competitive, aggressive, etc.): Command and Control. 

I know several women, both in academic and non-academic settings, who favor this style.  Although they are successful in the science profession and may be strong leaders, they are not always viewed in a completely positive light.  Some of them seem to have difficulties gaining the respect of subordinates, peers, and/or superiors.  According to experts, the problem may lie in the inconsistency between gender role expectations and leadership expectations.  A woman who is assertive and outspoken may be seen as presumptuous and over-confident.  If she has mostly discarded all feminine features, she is especially criticized for having violated her gender role and is seen as a flawed person, regardless of how successful she is professionally.  Although this probably explains some of the reactions to such women, I'm not so sure this is the whole story.

I’ve particularly intrigued as to why such women are frequently challenged (or disrespected) by subordinates (male and female).  I don’t have enough in-depth information to be certain, but I can speculate about some possibilities. I suspect that a woman who is assertive, aggressive, and competitive, but whose work is not of the highest quality (evidenced, for example, by publishing in low-tier journals or not bringing in large grants) would be viewed as having an over-inflated ego.  The same might be true of a young female who has not yet established a strong professional status, but behaves as if she has.  The fact that she is acting in a contra-gender fashion might add further to the negative perception.  (A man, by contrast, might not be downgraded as much for having an over-inflated ego).
In decision-making, a leader may behave democratically and allow subordinates to express opinions or make decisions autocratically and discourage any input from subordinates.  If a woman is highly regarded by peers and successful, then behaving autocratically would seem to be justified (to a degree, but not as much as for a male).  On the other hand, a woman who is perceived as having a too-high opinion of herself would have special difficulties with subordinates.  If she’s not that successful and also ignores her subordinates’ input by being autocratic, then she will likely not be seen as a capable leader.  Eventually, her demands are seen as irritating and repressive, and subordinates begin to rebel, challenging her decisions... at first behind her back, then face-to-face.
An autocratic approach could also sully interactions with peers--other scientists.  In joint projects as PI, she might insist on making all the decisions and not invite co-PIs to participate (or veto their opinions, if they do not coincide with hers).  You can imagine how well this would go over with her colleagues. I've seen this situation on several occasions involving lead PIs who were female.  They treat co-PIs the same way they treat their staff:  assigning tasks, monitoring their work, and excluding them from the decision-making process even though they may have co-designed the project and are responsible for a major aspect of it.  I suspect that such women either think this behavior is expected of them as a leader or they are over-compensating for low self-esteem.

In any case, adopting the Command and Control style of leadership can be problematic for a woman, especially in interactions with colleagues.  Perhaps a senior woman who has reached the top of her profession might successfully implement this style of leadership, but I would expect that even she would experience some resistance. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leading from the Heart

In the last post, I promised to muse about the different leadership choices women may make.

Women more often exhibit communal qualities (nurturing, cooperative, supportive) and are generally concerned with the welfare of others.  Men more often exhibit agentic qualities (assertive, aggressive, confident, attention-seeking), characteristics traditionally ascribed to a strong leader.  A woman seeking a leadership style may behave in a mostly feminine fashion (Leading from the Heart), in a masculine manner (Command and Control), or in a mixed style (Chimera).  

In the following posts, I will try to explore a bit more deeply each of these options, looking at why they work or don't work well for women.  In this post, I take a closer look at the leader who exhibits mostly traditionally female qualities.  This person may be male or female, but the female will be behaving in a manner consistent with the feminine stereotype.

This leader is concerned with the welfare of subordinates and may exhibit few qualities expected in a strong leader.  She may be timid, backs down when challenged, is tentative rather than confident (in stating an opinion or giving orders), is usually soft-spoken, rarely speaks up in meetings, and is more happy being in the background.  On the other hand, she is empathetic, concerned, honest, collaborative, encouraging, and supportive--attributes that make her good at team-building and mentoring. Such a woman may struggle with her leadership role, especially if she finds herself in an organization that favors the Command and Control type of leader and/or where there are few other leaders like her.

However, there is a growing recognition that the take-charge, autocratic type of leader is not compatible with the 21st century world where people from diverse backgrounds have to work together and where complex problems require teams of people who can all contribute creative ideas.  The networking skills of the female leader may prove to be an asset in the future, rather than a liability.  A woman in science, especially in academia, also will be training or mentoring others, which requires many communal qualities.  A female scientist in a non-academic setting will likely have a staff  who look to her for encouragement, vision, and emotional support.

I can think of several women who fall into this category.  Not surprisingly, in many science settings such women still are not generally viewed as leadership material and are undervalued.  Will this change in the future, as networking and other communal skills become more appreciated or in demand? Is this a viable choice for a woman in science now?  Is this style more likely to be successful in academia compared to other settings?  I don't have answers to these questions, but I do think that this style might work for some women in some circumstances.

In the next post, I consider the Command and Control style of leadership.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

She's Too Bossy!

Imagine the following scenario:

Jane is a PI at a research laboratory and has been asked by the lab director to be team leader for a new, high-profile project.  The other team members are mostly male, some of whom have served as team leaders for previous projects.  Jane has never been selected before, but was tapped in this case because she is the acknowledged expert on the topic of this new project.  Jane is very excited about this new challenge and dives right in, setting up meetings and organizing plans for tackling the project. 

She wants to show that she's a capable leader by taking charge and being decisive.  In the first meeting with her team, she lays out her plan for the project, assigning different members to tasks based on their respective areas of expertise. As she is going through her plan, she notices several people frowning and others who are making inaudible, but clearly critical comments to their neighbors. When she finishes, no one says anything...they just sit and stare.  The atmosphere in the room is definitely hostile.  Later, Jane learns that her team members have complained to the director that she is too "bossy" and "dictatorial".  Jane is mystified by this reaction because on other projects male team leaders typically set forth the overall plan and assigned roles in exactly the same way she did.

What happened to Jane in this hypothetical scenario is not uncommon.  Women who display traits normally associated with strong leaders (assertive, independent, dominant, out-spoken) are criticized as being "bossy" or, worse, the other "b word".  In contrast, if a woman behaves in a more feminine way (soft-spoken, hesitant, nurturing), she is judged to be a poor leader.  A recent paper Are Leader Stereotypes Masculine? A Meta-Analysis of Three Research Paradigms explores the classic no-win situation that women leaders may experience.  This work is summarized in The Glass Hammer, a website for women executives.

The problem lies in the inconsistent expectations for leaders and for feminine behavior.  Leaders are expected to behave in a dominant fashion, be assertive and outspoken--characteristics that are consistent with stereotypical male behavior.  A man behaving like a leader is more readily accepted.  However, a woman who displays normal leadership qualities is viewed as being presumptuous; her behavior clashes with the feminine stereotype.  This Catch-22 situation is sometimes referred to as the Double Bind.

These leadership stereotypes work against women, sometimes in a subtle way, but can have a definite effect on a woman's career.  If an assertive, outspoken woman is passed over for a job or promotion because she's judged to be "overbearing", while a man with the same characteristics is hired, this is discrimination. Similarly, if a woman is seen as being less qualified for a leadership position because she's "too nice" and is not selected on this basis, this too is discrimination.  The key here is that a decision is made based on gender stereotypes, not on actual capabilities.  The fact that such an action would be considered discriminatory and illegal would probably come as a surprise to some people who hold such beliefs (e.g., based on traditional social values or religious beliefs).  They may view women (and some men) with predominately communal attributes (cooperative, nurturing, caring) as being incapable of being strong leaders.  However, anyone who makes hiring or promotion decisions based on such reasoning may find themselves in very hot water.

Not all women in science have problems in terms of leadership.  For some, their leadership style may coincide with the expectations of the organization.  In academic settings, communal behaviors are compatible with teaching and training, so that women may safely display such characteristics without detracting from their overall role as a leader.  However, in other science jobs, mostly involving research and other competitive endeavors, there may be a greater expectation for a leader to be more aggressive, forceful, confident, and outspoken.  It is in this setting that the organizational expectations for leader behavior and female behavior are major determinants of a woman's experience...and, ultimately, her career success.  If the expectation in the organization is for the Command and Control type of leader and a woman's natural inclination is to be something else, there will be problems.  Some men may also run into this conundrum and have similar difficulties being viewed as capable leaders.

A woman (or man) who is unaware of leadership pitfalls may fall prey to such biases.  She may think that her problems with subordinates or superiors or her failure to advance in the organization are her fault.  She may begin to question her capabilities, which leads to a loss of confidence and a downward spiral effect on her overall performance.  By itself, leadership difficulties may not be overwhelming, but may tip the balance along with the added pressures to publish, bring in high-profile grants, and balance family and work.  This is what I suspect contributes to the "leaky pipeline".  I also think that subtle disadvantages for women and advantages for men compound over time, leading to greater disparity at each career transition.  Women in STEM fields see others (men) who do not have to work as hard and/or seem not to have the same difficulties.  The failure to meet expectations has an increasingly greater impact as a woman advances from student to professional. This is extremely discouraging.

When women are given opportunities to perform in a leadership role, they may find the position difficult or they may even completely fail...and never recognize why.  Superiors, co-workers, and subordinates may unknowingly contribute to such failures because of their biases.  Some women eventually decide they are just not cut out to be a scientist or engineer and quit.

The disadvantages from various sources accumulate over a career, until a breaking point is reached.  Leadership bias is only one of several potential ways a woman may be disadvantaged.  However, it's interesting that leadership skills increase in importance with each step up the career ladder from student to post-doc to assistant professor/junior scientist to tenured professor/senior scientist and beyond.  Lacking any formal leadership training (and the natural acceptance afforded men in leadership roles), a woman is at a huge disadvantage.  Without leadership skills (or savvy about avoiding gender-leader inconsistencies), a woman may become increasingly disadvantaged as she is faced with more and more leadership responsibilities at each career transition. 

So, what can women do?  One obvious answer is to be aware of leadership pitfalls and how inconsistencies between organizational expectations and gender roles may arise.  Developing good leadership skills is also important.  But what leadership styles work for women and why?  In the next post, I consider three options women have to choose from in a leadership role.