February 2017

I’m a woman in academia. I’m a woman in science. And I’ve been very lucky that for most of my career I’ve been treated like “one of the guys”; there have been occasional misogynists in my pathway, but I’m sure that’d be true outside academia as well. Still, lately the whole “woman” issue has really been getting into my craw.

Here’s a bit about why.

For the last three years, I have run a research experience for undergraduates (REU) along with a colleague at another university–for the sakes of this post, let’s call him Raj. Raj is one of the kindest, most generous people you will ever meet; he’s absolutely brilliant to boot. Involved in this REU was a grant application. The grant had room for a single PI (principal investigator), and co-PIs. Raj had been filling out this application by himself, and when I moved geographically closer to him as a result of my postdoc he asked me to join as co-PI. I leapt at the opportunity.

Raj and I work really well together. We balance each other out. I love to write, and I think it’s fair to say that I wrote (or rewrote if it originated from Raj) most of the proposal–no small feat, let me tell you. I hate budgets, but Raj is very good with that and talking to grants offices (another thing I dread); I can honestly say I just nodded when he showed me the estimated budget.

We had very slim chances of getting this. Very few of these grants are awarded in the first place and even some well-established REUs do not get renewed. To make our chances slimmer, neither of us had tenure; worse than that I had had my PhD for less than a year and was in a postdoc that was two-years long while applying for a three-year grant. Because of this last fact, we decided it would be hosted at Raj’s university all three years.

There were times before we submitted–in fact, the email exchanges still exist–where I told Raj he’d be better off removing me completely from the grant. That my status as a naive, newly-granted PhD with no tenure-track in sight couldn’t possibly help. But he refused to submit the grant without my name also on it. To him I had put in my fair share of the work both in terms of writing as well as planning. He also has worked very hard to try to ensure we both get paid equally. Like I said, he’s an amazing human being.

Miracle of miracles. We got the grant. But now we come to the first moment of misogyny: the reviews. All of the reviews mentioned how it would be great for Raj to mentor me in mentoring undergraduates (which seems a bit…off-topic. You would think an REU would really emphasize providing Us with REs. Not a co-PI with…I don’t know.). But one of them specifically mentioned my gender. This reviewer thought it would be great to give this grant to a team with a female on the roster because so few females are on so few rosters.

Now, granted, this worked in our favor. So maybe you couldn’t call it misogyny. But the bigger point is that gender entered into the equation at all. Who would want to go to work thinking a main reason they were hired was so they could be the token female? Not me. Who would want to go to work thinking they must be an example and “role model” for the rest of womankind or even just those who aren’t yet tokens? Again, not me.

There was one major bit of truth to all of this: I was green and Raj definitely mentored me. Many days he talked me off many proverbial cliffs of “What have I done to these kids? I’ve totally just let everyone down! This never could be done in eight weeks!! What was I thinking?!”. Also, going back to the comment that Raj is one of the kindest most generous people, I live with him and his family during these summers. We celebrate birthdays together, we carpool in to work every day, we’ll pick up dinner on our way back. It’s a very nice, definitely atypical, “family” experience.

Each year Raj and I have led one project; we have each mentored half of the students. My project the first year was based on something I had thought about while in a specific research group in grad school. The second year my project was based on tools developed by my adviser, and the first thing the students had to read was my Ph.D. thesis.

So far the results of this REU have been impressive (though I am biased). My groups have produced three papers, and Raj’s groups two. The publications for all groups have been in very strong journals (knock on wood…two are still under review). And the non-research professional development opportunities have been extremely positive. Raj invited a few specific scientists in our subfield to speak. I have invited most speakers, making sure that we hit people outside both our subfields as well as just outside academia (fingers crossed on the non-academian I’m gunning for this year). Every summer we take a road trip and drag the students to my alma mater, where they give a talk and attend a conference and meet current graduate students.

And now we get to the second “woman” thing.

Now is the time to discuss the renewal of the grant. Raj I think wants to renew, but can’t immediately. I would love to renew. These have been some of the most fun summers for me. And despite the intense stress of “must publish in eight weeks” it’s good for me. I absolutely love working with the students, and I think we’ve done great things for them.

But many people, in front of me even, ask Raj if “he” (and not if “we”) are going to renew. I never have been asked if I intend to renew, though I have been asked if Raj intends to renew. It’s like our community sees me as Raj’s “mini-me” or “Raj junior”. On that note: I have actually had people on hiring committees see my grant with Raj and ask me in a job interview “How do we know you’re not ‘Raj junior’?” Literally. That has been a verbatim question.

I should have known then that that particular job wasn’t to be mine (their loss. Raj is a great guy. They’d have been lucky to hire a “Raj junior”.). I still took the logical route and pointed out that Raj and I currently have no papers together and that the projects I have led for the REU were my projects and not Raj’s. But retrospectively that question definitely was more declarative than inquisitive. And I was so remarkably hurt. After all of the time and work that I have put in I get no respect. I felt like the Rodney Dangerfield of my field. And I cannot help but think that a chunk of this has to do with gender. Maybe some people think as that one reviewer did that since few women hold these types of grants I clearly was the mentee and didn’t do “that” much. My non-tenure track status also may have also impacted this; however, I really do believe that if I were male, I’d be asked if I were renewing, regardless of my current job title. And I think if I were male, I would not have been asked if I were “Raj junior”.

So what does this have to do with February? Our applications for the REU are due February 14. And while looking at the applications for students vying to work with us, I can’t help but juggle all these thoughts in my mind. I am still planning to stay primarily with Raj and his family this summer. It will be awkward and somewhat sad (in part because this is the last year before we renew at a to be determined time, at which point who knows if we’ll get renewed), but that’s mostly because I feel like I’ve let him down. I don’t even know how and not sure if I ever could express how; it doesn’t really make sense I suppose. But between that and the frustration at the reality that our community sees the structure and leadership of the REU as it does, seems like the perfect mood for reading applications, right?

And now, here’s the soundtrack for my reading of apps. General genres are (British) indie, blues/rock and a couple of dark hip-hop/raps:

  1. Mardy Bum, Arctic Monkeys
  2. Formation, Beyonce
  3. Psychotic Girl, Black Keys
  4. Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked, Cage the Elephant
  5. Fighters, Canon
  6. Easy to Forget, Drugdealer with Ariel Pink
  7. Michael, Franz Ferdinand
  8. Whistle for the Choir, the Fratellis
  9. Blank Space/Stand By Me, Imagine Dragons
  10. Seaside, the Kooks
  11. Star a War, the National
  12. I Love You Baby I Love You Doll, Parekh & Singh
  13. Black Math, the White Stripes
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