On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

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).

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Poll results: Good news! Listing parental or family leave on your CV seems more likely to help than to hurt. More committees should give applicants opportunities to list major life events.

Recently, we did a poll asking about parental or other family leave and CVs. It was prompted by both a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs and an email from Tess Grainger who asked:

Is there is any evidence of bias related to parental leave, or it a thing of the past? How many people have been on a search committee (recently) in which someone indicated any kind of negative bias associated with a parental leave (or leave for illness, eldercare etc.)? Is this something that still happens, or should I and others not hesitate put these leaves in our records?

Poll results are below, but the brief answer to Tess’s questions seems to be that listing parental leave on a CV is unlikely to have a big impact but, if these poll responses are indicative of the field as a whole, listing leave seems more likely to help than to hurt. In many countries, applicants are already given specific guidance on when/where/how to list leaves on CVs. At the end of this post, I call on North American search committees (especially those in the US, where we are way behind on this front) to start routinely giving applicants the opportunity to list leaves, career interruptions, and major life events.

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Poll: Parental leave and CVs

Back in 2016, I wrote a post about formatting a CV for a faculty job application (aimed especially at folks applying for positions in the US). In that post, I wrote:

One question that came via twitter was how to indicate slow research output due to having babies. I have seen people do this, and I try to take it into account. For example, when going through CVs, I keep track of things in a spreadsheet where I note the year of the PhD; I would add a note there to take into account family leave for birth of a child, eldercare, etc. However, there is no question that there are still a lot of biases against women who have children, and that it could easily trigger implicit (or even explicit) bias. So, I would recommend against it (even though it pains me to type that).

More recently, a few things prompted me to reflect on that advice. One of those things was a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs. Another was an email from Tess Grainger who asked:

Is there is any evidence of bias related to parental leave, or it a thing of the past? How many people have been on a search committee (recently) in which someone indicated any kind of negative bias associated with a parental leave (or leave for illness, eldercare etc.)? Is this something that still happens, or should I and others not hesitate put these leaves in our records?

Those are all really interesting and important questions! So, today’s post is a poll (written with Tess) to try to get a sense for what is going on. Most of the questions in this poll are geared towards people who have sat on at least one search or award committee. There are also two questions asking people who did list parental leave or other family leave on their CV about where they listed it, as well as a free response question at the end — those can be answered by anyone, even those without experience on search or award committees. And, finally, if you know of publicly available examples of CVs that list leave, please share them in the comments!

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I couldn’t make it in academia without my invisible support network

I recently got some good work news. (Hooray!) When I heard, one of the first things I did was text a group of friends who are also academics. They have become an essential source of support for me. I wanted to tell them the good news, yes, but I also wanted to thank them. I had almost given up on this thing over the summer—I wasn’t sure it was worth the time I was investing in it, and thought it didn’t stand much of a chance. They told me it was worth it and gave me the encouragement to go forward with it. So, without them, this good thing may well not have happened.

And that’s just one example of a time when I benefitted from my invisible support network. Both in Atlanta and here in Michigan, I’ve benefitted immensely from this behind-the-scenes support. These networks help with specific situations: Is it worth applying for this thing? What do I do about this tricky work situation? I think this behavior by person X seems not okay—am I being overly sensitive? What do you think of the wording on this really important email—is it too strong? Did I screw up when I did Y? I can’t decide between A & B—can you help me think them through? There’s also the general venting and commiserating and celebrating and checking in on each other. These support networks aren’t visible to outsiders, but they feel essential to my ability to do what I do.

It’s possible that the title of this post is an overstatement—maybe I could make it without my behind-the-scenes support networks?—but I’m really, really glad I don’t have to. I don’t want people who will agree with everything I say, but I do want people who I know will be supportive, even if they’re challenging me.

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Guest Post: What not to say to a pregnant colleague

Today, we have a bit of a hybrid post. It starts with a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous about things colleagues have said to her during her pregnancy. Her post definitely resonated with me – I thought of writing a similar post when I was pregnant with my third child, because I was so annoyed by some of the comments I received at work. After the guest post, I’ve added some thoughts of mine, as well as some questions that I’d love reader opinions on. My hope is that this post will encourage people to think more carefully about what they say to pregnant colleagues and create a space where people can talk about their preferences.

The guest post:

I am a postdoc who also happens to be pregnant. Around the sixth month of my pregnancy something happened. I must have become large enough that it was obvious to everyone in the department that I was indeed, pregnant. Suddenly, I began receiving comments about my body, my impending delivery, and what my life would look like after having a baby. (This is my second child; I have no delusions as to what postpartum life is like).

Here are a few of the comments I received over the span of two weeks:

My body:

“Wow, you’ve really let yourself go”.

“If a baby weighs 8 lbs then where do the other 25 lbs come from?”

Misconceptions about maternity leave:

“It will be so nice for you to have a break while you’re on maternity leave”.

“Think of all the writing you’ll get done while the baby is sleeping!”

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There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:

-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.

I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.

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Sexual harassment changed my career path, even though I wasn’t the target of the harassment

Back when I was a graduate student, I visited a lab where I was hoping to do a postdoc. I had thought about lots of different options and was by far the most enthusiastic about this one. I reached out to the PI and was thrilled when I was invited for an interview.

At the interview, I saw the PI harass a grad student and a postdoc (both of whom are women). Sometimes, harassment is subtle, and it’s only later that you fully realize something was wrong. This was not that kind of harassment. I mostly haven’t shared the story with others, but, when I have described what happened to a few people, their jaws dropped (literally). And it was definitely sexual harassment – this was not a case of a PI being a bully to everyone in his lab (though obviously that is unacceptable, too). He would not have done the same to men.

I left the interview feeling very confused. This was the place I wanted to be in terms of the science I wanted to do, but I really didn’t know that I wanted to be in that environment. But did it mean I wasn’t committed to science if I didn’t go somewhere that was a great fit science-wise because I was concerned about the climate? Fortunately, while I was working through this, I spoke to some people who made it clear that it is absolutely okay to consider the work environment. I was not less committed to science by not working there; rather, I was committed both to science and to my personal well-being.

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Guest post: Women and relationships in academia: a curious journey of self-reflection

Note from Meghan: This is a guest post by Merritt Turetsky (@queenofpeat on twitter)

It’s not the first time a survey caught me by surprise. There was that time I glanced through a Cosmo survey – a guilty pleasure on a long flight – and realized that I was now lumped into the oldest age category.

How did that happen?

I actually like being mature, so was able to brush this off fairly quickly. But this survey was different. It somehow felt more personal. And I can’t stop thinking about it.

This survey was part of a department-wide review of gender balance issues. For years, I talked glowingly about my department, with a sense of pride that came from being part of an environment with strong women. When I was hired, I negotiated with a female chair. There was a good balance of female professors across full and associate rankings. Plus, there were several couples in the department. In my mind, this was all evidence that my department supported women in STEM and work-life balance. And as my husband and I accepted separate advertised positions and joined the department in 2008, we became yet another couple in a family-friendly work place. As a group, we seemed like we were on the right track towards gender equity.

Right?

Over the past month, we’ve taken on some self-analysis and it has revealed a few surprising trends. Despite our feel-good aura, our gender balance has not budged in the past 20 years. Females comprise 20% of our faculty, and this has been more or less constant.

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Newly-hired tenure-track N. American asst. professors of ecology are 59% women (no further updates)

(Last update: June 3, 2018. No substantial changes since the original post, only very very minor quantitative changes. A recent update adds a link and brief discussion of new data on the gender balance of ecology PhD recipients and postdocs. Those data provide useful context for the data I compiled.)

Like last year, this year I once again quantified the gender balance of newly-hired tenure-track asst. professors in ecology and allied fields at N. American colleges and universities. I also conducted a poll asking readers what they expected me to find. Click the link to the poll for details on how I compiled the data, and why I went with a gender binary even though that’s not ideal.

I’ll present the results first, then the poll results, then some discussion.

Warning: long post ahead. That’s because I’ve tried to discuss the results thoroughly and carefully, and to anticipate and address questions that readers are likely to have. You really should read on, but if you just want the headline results:

  • 59% of tenure-track asst. professors of ecology hired in N. America in 2016-17 are women. Combined with last year’s data, it’s 57% women over the last two years. If anything, that’s probably a slight underestimate, for reasons explained below. This is good news!
  • Ecologists as a group remain unaware of this; many think recent faculty hiring in ecology is <50% women.

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Choosing reviewers, recognition not recall, and why lists like DiversifyEEB are useful

Last week, I was assigned a paper to handle as an Associate Editor at American Naturalist. After reading through the paper and deciding it should go out for review, I began the task of finding potential reviewers. There were two people who immediately stood out to me as qualified reviewers. But AmNat likes to have a list of six potential reviewers to work from, so I continued through my standard process: 1) try to think of another person; 2) struggle with that; 3) think “surely I can write the editorial office folks and tell them we should just go with these two I already thought of because they’re perfect”; 4) decide I need to try harder before giving up; 5) after some more effort, end up at a list of six (or, in this case, seven) people who would be good reviewers, ranked in the order in which I’d like them to be asked. After going through that process, the two people I originally thought of were still on my list, but they were numbers 4&5. For some other papers, the initial people I thought of didn’t end up on my final list at all. And I have never had the first two people I thought of end up being the first two people on my list of six.

In other words: there were really good options who I only thought of after working at it for a while; those people were better options for this task than the people who initially occurred to me. To me, this is striking, but not really surprising. It’s what motivated the DiversifyEEB list that I created with my colleague, Gina Baucom. We all have biases, and those make it so that the people we think of first aren’t necessarily the best ones. And, moreover, our biases make it so that we’re more likely to think of well-known white men. That’s just how our brains work.

As I thought through this on my walk home, it reminded me of a story Kay Gross told me shortly after DiversifyEEB launched. Kay said that, many years back, she had a conversation with Margaret Davis. What Margaret told Kay is that, when she got a phone call asking her to recommend people for something, she would say, “Let me think about that and get back to you”. She did this because she had noticed that the first set of names she thought of were always men. But, if she thought it over more, she came up with more names and more diverse names. I found it especially interesting to learn that Margaret Davis had created a set of cards, adding a new card whenever she met an interesting woman scientist; during the time between getting the call and getting back to the person, she consulted that set of cards (her own personal DiversifyEEB list!) to think through people who were well-suited but who didn’t initially occur to her.

Back to the specific topic of finding reviewers: Charles Fox and colleagues have done a set of really interesting studies related to gender and the publication process. In one, they found that just 25% of the reviewers suggested by authors were women. In another, they found that only ~27% of the reviewers invited by associate editors were women. I initially thought that perhaps one solution to the problem of lack of gender diversity in reviewers would be to have more journals ask for lists of 6 potential reviewers — perhaps thinking longer about who should review something would increase the diversity of who they think of? But it turns out that Functional Ecology already asks their AEs to come up with 6 potential reviewers, so clearly that, on its own, will not solve the gender balance problem.

After more reflection, perhaps it makes sense that the lists are still pretty biased, even if they have more people on them: these potential reviewer lists still rely a lot on recall (that is, who I think of as I think about a particular topic), not recognition (that is, choosing from a list of names that might be suitable). And the original motivation for DiversifyEEB was learning (from Joan Strassmann) about psych research showing that the best way to come up with more diverse groups is to rely on recognition, not recall. (If you remember nothing else from this post, remember “recognition, not recall” as a strategy for increasing diversity!)

So, if you are an associate editor for a journal (or, really, in any other position where you are trying to come up with a list of scientists for something):

  1. It’s worth the effort to try to come up with a longer list. In that process, you are likely to think of people who are better options. This will lead to better reviews (or a better seminar series or candidate list or whatever it is you’re trying to do.)
  2. Once you have your list, consider the diversity of it. Does it include diversity in terms of race, gender, career stage, and institution type (including non-academic ones)? In some cases, your list might intentionally be lacking a form of diversity (e.g., a candidate list for an endowed chair probably won’t include many early career folks). But, in most cases, a lack of diversity will reflect our inherent biases. (We all have them! The key is to recognize them and work to counter them.)
  3. If your list seems to be lacking in diversity, try to find lists that will give you more ideas. DiversifyEEB is one, but you can also look other places (e.g., if you are trying to think of Darwin Day speakers, a scan of the editorial boards of journals like Evolution, AmNat, J. Evolutionary Biology, etc. might give you ideas). Another great strategy, especially for looking for reviewers, is to go to the webpage of the person you first thought of and look at their grad students & postdocs. This includes looking at recent grads who have moved on to other positions.

As I said above, the key is being aware of the biases we have, recognizing when outcomes indicate biases are at work, and working to counter them. Lists like DiversifyEEB are one way to try to do that, and I love knowing that Margaret Davis had created her own version of a DiversifyEEB list long ago! I’d love to hear from readers about what strategies you use to try to increase diversity when coming up with potential reviewers, seminar speakers, etc!