Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.
– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword
When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.
I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.
In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).
Since the poll results started coming in, I’ve been thinking about other places where this applies. One obvious place relates to mental health. I know some people do not seek mental health care because of fears of how it might harm them. To use one example, I was recently at a seminar where the speaker mentioned that law students can be really nervous about seeking mental health care for fear it might mean they won’t be admitted to the bar later. People have asked my advice about whether to disclose mental health conditions (generally as part of a diversity statement on a faculty job application). Similar to my advice about parental leaves on CVs, I’ve tended to recommend against disclosing mental health conditions in diversity statements, again worrying about biases that persist related to mental health.
In the end, the issue comes down to how to assess the risks vs. rewards of different options. This is particularly hard when dealing with things that are hard to quantify (including biases) and that change over time, sometimes rapidly. It’s hard when a potential downside seems unlikely but also really, really bad. How do you compare that to the more likely, but much less beneficial upside? And it’s hard with things where we have limited experience. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are hard to quantify, variable, with asymmetric costs & benefits, and where we have limited experience.
When I am the person that someone is seeking advice from, I think a key role of mine is to be a sounding board, to help people consider the different options and, to the extent possible, to help them weigh the pros and cons of those options. But reflecting on all this reminds me that I probably need to do a better job of considering my own biases (which will be influenced in part by my own experiences) and how those are influencing the advice I’m giving and the things I’m (perhaps inadvertently) highlighting or downplaying. To go back to the colleagues who gave me advice on promotion—I am 100% sure their advice was based on having come up through a system that was much more hostile to women and to seeing the effects that had. And when I thought about why I was surprised by the responses to the poll, I realized that some of my thinking had been along the lines of “Well, I’ve never heard anyone say anything specifically about CV statements, but I’ve heard a lot of sexist crap over the years.”
What strategies do you use for yourself as you consider different options, especially when you don’t have (recent) data to inform the decision? How do you help mentees as they make those decisions? I’d love to learn about different strategies that people use!
* “Probably” because it’s a very unscientific poll. I am still concerned about possible biases in what people will admit to, but we asked the poll questions in a way to try to get at observed behaviors, in part to avoid social desirability bias that might occur if we asked people about their own views.