What advice would you give to a young female STEM graduate?
September 20, 2011 7:53 AM   Subscribe

What advice would you give to a young female STEM graduate? I have eleven years experience. I graduated from a STEM program in 2000 and recently received my MS degree also in a STEM field. Five years of my experience were in industry, the last six are in a research lab in academia. I am not a student, I am a regular employee of the university. My MS degree came from another university. During these six years I have never seen sexism like I have seen it here. It is anticipated my current place of employment will no longer be because our funding will cease. We are all looking for jobs.

Throughout my career this is how I handled myself professionally:
*I look at my male colleagues for direction - are they dressing up for Halloween? No? Then I do not.
*I have kept my emotions at a minimum. Twice in my career I have cried in front of someone. One time was because I received news my grandmother died.
*I do not belong to women engineering societies because I believed - how can we be viewed as equal when I am separating myself?
*I can carry on conversations regarding football, classic cars, and other fields my fellow male coworkers find of interest.
*On average I wear a skirt to work twice a year. This is mostly because I have an event after work. I never wear an outfit which should I need to fix something I wouldn't mind getting it dirty. My point - I am not "high maintenance" in my choice of clothing.
*I do not carry a purse to work. I use a nice messenger bag.
*I do not make general jokes about men or about women.
*I sometimes run work situations by my husband who will offer me advice from a third party perspective.
*I rarely go out to lunch alone with another male coworker. If this occurs it is because the business environment calls for it. My husband knows about it these rare lunches and the reasons for them.
*I have no problem standing up for myself regarding engineering decisions I made with mounds of documentation behind me to show the decision was the correct one.

I do not believe the sexism directed to me could have been prevented. Given that I am looking for another job it occurred to me perhaps there was some good advice I missed along the way. I want to start the next job off right with this useful advice. Therefore, assume I am a bright eyed, excited, young, female STEM graduate ready to take on the world. What advice would you give her?

Anonymous in case others from work are on MetaFilter.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly? Look for jobs in industry. Academia is, oddly enough, something of a good old boy's club in a lot of places, particularly outside the humanities. Industry tends to be a lot less tolerant of that sort of thing, in my experience, probably because HR departments actually have some power in industry whereas in most universities they have a lot more control over staff than faculty. You'll probably find that the field is just as male-dominated as it is inside the ivory tower, but where everyone is focused on making money for the company and job security depends less on seniority and more on productivity (i.e. tenure doesn't exist), some of that clubbishness may be less pronounced. You may also find that you work more closely with people in different departments than most academics do, which should open up the possibility of interacting with other professional women.

Depending on your field--which seems to be engineering of some sort--you may find that industry is actually hiring fairly briskly.

But I would question your lack of participation in women's professional societies. I've heard that such things can be very helpful in other contexts, and provided those aren't the only societies you're participating in, I don't see the criticism you seem to level at them as being valid. I'd also suggest you look for women's sections in more general societies, as I know they exist in the legal field and would imagine they exist in other disciplines.
posted by valkyryn at 8:05 AM on September 20, 2011

Can you clarify -- are you looking for advice on what would be a good job for you for someone with your professional experience? Or are you looking for advice on how to avoid sexist behaviour in the workplace? Or a mix of both?
posted by modernnomad at 8:06 AM on September 20, 2011

You might want to reconsider your decision not to join women's organizations.

In my field, at least, these organizations are not "separating." Men are free to join, and do, because they want to create a culture that is welcoming and supportive to all smart, talented people interested in our field, regardless of gender.

Women's organizations can connect you to mentors who can give you an additional third-party perspectives—from someone who knows the technical side of your field and the subtleties of the culture of your field, and what it's like to be a woman in your field. Women's organizations can give you information about the sexism that other people have encountered, so you have a better sense for whether what you are undergoing is run-of-the-mill, or exceptionally bad. They can help you learn strategies that have worked for other people confronting this sexism. They can educate you about your legal rights and responsibilities.

I don't think anyone with their eyes open in STEM would deny that women face special challenges in these fields that men simply do not, and women's organizations can help you 1) navigate these challenges as an individual and 2) work to change the cultures and institutions in your field to make your field a better place for all women.
posted by BrashTech at 8:06 AM on September 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

It's not enough to defend yourself against workplace sexism. This is the hard part: in order to clean up workplace problems everyone has to be active in calling people on their shit directly (when it happens), professionally (without insults) and if possible without obvious anger (because it's often unconscious). The status quo will continue until people who suffer from workplace prejudice and privilege start pushing back and letting those who practice it to continue.

Of course, you must have the backing of both HR and direct management -- which you should. But all the writing on official policy forms is meaningless if situations aren't addressed at the source and right away. The worst thing is that things you do that would land a male colleague the respect of his peers as an "assertive action-oriented go-getter" will get you labeled behind your back as an "arrogant bitch".

And that's why you might want to reconsider professional associations. Knowing that others have your back, and knowing what the local resources are if things should get out of hand, and having a social atmosphere for sharing information informally, can be a helpful resource. (Some associations are nothing more than gripe fests, so choose your group carefully.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:11 AM on September 20, 2011

First, the nature of universities is that everyone, being fairly independent and secure in their jobs, has few social restraints placed on them and don't understand social boundaries. There are no institutional correcting mechanisms in place to get people to stop doing what they're doing. If it isn't sexism, it's general abuse of employees. Plus, honestly, in academia, you're either a professor who runs things, a graduate student with tons of potential that the professor is grooming, or you're "hired help."

If you like doing research and don't want to go into industry, consider government laboratories or univerisity-affiliated research labs (Lincoln Lab, Sandia, Oak Ridge, etc.) that have more of those institutional restraints in place that make the places better work environments and have the expectations that their employees are integral, valued members of the staff rather than just appendages of the tenure-track faculty.

The point of those professional associations is, in part, to get the information you're asking for here: namely, how do you deal with your experiences as a woman and manage your career so that you're successful and happy, drawing on the experiences of others. Consider getting involved in one and asking the same questions there as you're asking here.

Also, in the midst of your question, you never articulated what you actually want to do with your life. What kind of problems do you want to solve? How much money do you want to make? Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
posted by deanc at 8:14 AM on September 20, 2011

I can't reassure you that industry will be any less sexist than anything you've experienced in academia. In my experience, businesses really don't answer to anyone, so unless an actual criminal offence is committed against you (assuming there's enough evidence to actually press charges), you are at the mercy of whatever behaviour they want to fling at you without even the protection of the law. The union won't be able to help you - there won't be a union. HR certainly won't help you - that's not what they're there for, they exist to defend the company from lawsuits, which, see above. If anything turns nasty in an industry job, assume you will be totally on your own with no recourse.

I appreciate that you have done your utmost to conform to masculine behavioural norms and be the "best man for the job", and therefore, in your mind, you can't be accused of anything along the lines of Working While Female (as in Driving While Black). I think you're probably right that none of the sexism you've experienced could have been prevented, but that's because of the way your colleagues chose to behave, which is not within your control at all. My opinion, admittedly worth what you paid for it, is that you could have worn flower-print dresses to work every day, cried copiously every time you saw a kitten, and carried a pink bag that declared "I love shoes and chocolate OMG LOL!!!" and the sexism levelled at you would have been no more and no less.

What you need to think about is building up your own strength, as opposed to deflecting attacks and identifying with your oppressors. I think you might benefit from joining some women's organizations, but not because it would increase or decrease the sexism you experience. I repeat, that's out of your hands. It would be a way of building a network of allies, and from the sounds of things you could do with having a professional network that's not all-guys all-the-time, particularly not all-sexist-guys all-the-time.
posted by tel3path at 8:26 AM on September 20, 2011 [11 favorites]

For those wondering, STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
posted by alms at 8:30 AM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd agree that you might want to reconsider the idea of joining one of the various Women's Organizations such as WISE or SWE.

As a former male member of SWE (I was primarily a member since they ran the most ambitious high-school engineering outreach program) I never found them to separatist, they were mostly about good, practical advice about developing a successful career, albeit focused on specific issues. And heck, some of the various information I got from SWE has helped me in my career as well.
posted by kaszeta at 8:30 AM on September 20, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
I gave details about myself professionally to focus the question. I felt it was important for others to know I had experience already, but may have missed some advice along with way. The advice I seek is open because despite my work experience I may have been taking the wrong approach. This is why the question is posed as - What advice would you give to a young female STEM graduate?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:44 AM on September 20, 2011

If you realize you are in a terminally sexist environment, consider getting a job elsewhere sooner. Bravo for putting up with that crap for six years, but who needs that? Yeah, it would be great if people countered sexism wherever they saw it, but it's not your job to do that at the risk of your career.

The professional women's organizations are great for networking, which should help you find a job or manager where problems with sexism are not as bad. I frequently attend the meetings of a women in science organization here and don't find them to be separatist at all. Try out different organizations for a meeting or so and see how you feel about things.

If your job skills are flexible enough to take you into a different field, you might consider that. I'm in academic biology, and I won't say that sexism is nonexistent here, but it's much better than the stories I've heard from female colleagues in physics or engineering.

Regarding the clarification from Anonymous, people are likely to focus on the issues you identified in the post. If you have other, more specific questions, feel free to ask.
posted by grouse at 8:48 AM on September 20, 2011

From your description it sounds like you think as long as you don't present as too girly then they will treat you like one of the guys. Trust me, this never works. It's not you, it's them.

Have you hear of the blog Thus Spake Zuska? She is an engineer who writes about women in science quite a bit. You may find some of her posts useful for perspective from a woman who has been in it for a while. I'm linking to her "why there are no women in science" posts specifically since that seems relevant for your question.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:51 AM on September 20, 2011

The advice I seek is open because despite my work experience I may have been taking the wrong approach. This is why the question is posed as - What advice would you give to a young female STEM graduate?
In that case, I suggest you read this essay on women in science by Philip Greenspun, which applies to women as well as men. Not because I believe it or think that his arguments are the best ones, but because it's worth being bashed over the head with that perspective so that you can evaluate and consider your goals.

So much depends on specifics: what do you want to do with your life? What makes you happy? How much money do you want to make? Do you see yourself in a job for a large organization or would you rather focus on startups? Etc., etc., etc.

In general, the women who are involved in SWE and the like are the "norm." No one I know who joined those organizations regretted it. It might also help give you the outside perspective you need regarding what career options are available to you.
posted by deanc at 9:16 AM on September 20, 2011

Female-bodied STEM educated person with experience in both industry and academic settings here.

Join and participate in societies and organizations relevant to one or both of your gender and your career. Both gender-specific and technology-specific networking and mentoring can benefit your career.

While you may desire to be treated as "one of the men", you control only how you present yourself and not others' perceptions or reactions. Accept that your gender, race, age, and other aspects of your identity are effectively immutable and concentrate on being, and being perceived as, a professional.

Dress, act, and speak appropriately: not like a girl or like a man, but like a respected member of your profession.

Identify and call out sexist, racist, ableist and other privileged behaviours and make it clear you expect the same of others. Work conscientiously to improve the workplace and industry environment for all members of your profession. This advice is not limited to women and other disadvantaged groups: seek and make use of allies in your industry and workplace.
posted by thatdawnperson at 9:21 AM on September 20, 2011

Here is a piece of advice that I would give to someone entering a new career, starting a new job, etc (and it also modifies one of your rules). I will also admit that I didn't do these things until my last few years at fulltime jobs.

Do have lunch with others, alone or with a group (this includes males). Are there new people being hired? Have lunch with them. Do you work with a group? Have a weekly lunch. I don’t understand the rationale behind your rule, OP (don’t eat with other men alone), especially if you can have lunch in public places. If you follow this rule then you too would be judging someone based on gender.

Over the last few years, it really has helped me to build up a network, find out what is going on at a workplace, find out what places are hiring, and even learn how to do things from colleagues and coworkers. At one of my former workplaces, having lunch alone with a colleague led to creating a class for me and my coworkers. I’ve also known many former work colleagues who were hired for new jobs based on these connections that were formed during lunch.

I'd also give the recommendation to go to a new workplace and identify skills that you want to learn in the next year,years, and go about finding out how to learn them on the job. Volunteer for projects. Proble your coworkers. Ask your supervisor for training. I actually think that if you are in the sciences and academia, you probably already have this skill -- but remember it translates to corporate environments if you end up in such an environment.
posted by Wolfster at 9:22 AM on September 20, 2011

You may be a little too focused on blending in, in a market where standing out is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the most successful women I know in my STEM-y business are conspicuously feminine, in terms of clothes, hobbies, etc.

Mind you, if you're not girlie yourself, there's no point in girlifying, as I also know successful female engineers that ride motorcycles and have buzzcuts. 'Be Yourself' is the best advice I can give, trite as it may sound. The energy you expend not being yourself is tremendous. Tremendous. Mostly it saps your confidence which is the overwhelming internal difficulty for women in male-dominated fields. It also makes you less memorable and less fun as someone to work with.

I think you're kind of getting the worst of both worlds by both being 'one of the boys' and yet segregating yourself from one-to-one lunches. So long as it's not the same person all the time, you should be cultivating the sort of relationships were romance is inconceivable but if someone's looking for a great person for Project X you will be on their radar. One of the most damaging sexism-like-things in male fields is from simply being out of the network. Talk loudly about your husband until you're clearly Mrs Monogamy Off Limits, then lunch the heck out of people.

My industry doesn't have a women's association as far as I know, at least in this country, but I do go out of my way to make friends with other women in the biz and go out and have girls nights and whatnot. Amongst other benefits it really helps with the confidence thing, to feel less alone.

Ask. Ask. Ask. I read 'Women Don't Ask' and I can't tell you how much it helped me in real, practical terms.

Have a look at some advice on fighting stereotype threat. It's sort of a mind-judo thing. Dorky as it felt I found the thing about writing down your values and why you're in the field really useful.

The rest of your guidelines seem cool to me.
posted by Erasmouse at 10:07 AM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

So much great advice already.

I too have a MS (computer science) in a STEM field and have been working in industry for the last three years. I've found that it's a relatively progressive field. Also, I think my peers tend to be pretty comfortable working in mixed gender groups, so I haven't encountered serious sexism. However, I relate to your fears.

I was a lot like you--a male acting female--but I went to grad school with a bunch of girly girls and changed my mind. I met women who wore skirts everyday, were unashamed to wear pink, knitted, giggled--and still published great research. They didn't get treated with any less respect than I did. So, my advice to any young female STEM graduate would be:

1. Be yourself. You teach others how to treat you; if you act like you're ashamed of yourself, other people will take advantage of it. If you treat your workplace like a place where you have to hide what you really care about and put on a mask, you'll burn out more easily. We work really hard in STEM fields; spending 8-12 hours a day not being yourself sucks. What's more, standing up for yourself means that you'll help make your workplace more friendly towards people like you. You might be paving the way for other women to join you at work. So be yourself.

2. Get to know your peers; the advice and insight you get from your colleagues is invaluable in helping you solve problems. Listen more than you speak. Put your ego aside and focus on solving the problem. Collaborating is also the best way to show off your skill set; when it's time for you to find work, the people you work with will be able to give you good references.

3. Check your assumptions about gender; the person who has influenced me the most in terms of getting me into "masculine" hobbies (surfing, camping, hockey) has been a woman. Men are the ones that taught me about fashion. Don't limit yourself unnecessarily by putting people into categories and making assumptions about them before you get to know them.

4. It is okay for you to make mistakes. Be honest about them and fix them. Don't let people abuse you or yell at you just because you made a mistake.

I wish I'd known this BEFORE coming in, but I always learn things the hard way.
posted by millions of peaches at 10:10 AM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

*cough* Tel3path for monarch *cough*

Just jumped in to say that everyone who has touched upon gender assumptions, sexism and behavior is absolutely correct - new in the field or no, it doesn't matter what you do. If you can be "read" as a woman, you will be treated as such. Start networking with other women to create a "safe space" where you can commiserate with female colleagues.
posted by Ashen at 10:29 AM on September 20, 2011

As another STEM lady, I would like to very strongly cosign the recommendations others have made about joining women's groups in your field for networking, mentoring maybe, and personalized advice.

I think a lot of us women in male-dominated fields have dabbled at least a little in male-identifying. ("Male identified woman" is a good search term for background info on the phenomenon.) It never really works, though. When you intentionally try to present yourself as being not like other women and as having male interests, etc., you're competing on an uneven playing field. This won't cause you to actually grow a penis. You're always going to be at a disadvantage. You're not a man, and pretending or presenting yourself as manlike can have a serious undermining effect in the long term.

And, as others have mentioned, it doesn't work short term, either. Not even a little. Personally, when I've tried to sort of play along, all it's accomplished is escalation. I've tolerated unacceptable behavior that made me incredibly uncomfortable, I've kept my mouth shut when coworkers spouted off ridiculously misogynistic crap, I've gently deflected sexual harassment and marginalizing, and for what? So some idiot would confer the status of 'honorary' man? I think we ladies can aim a little higher than the status of Junior Dudebro.

Men in female dominated professions don't usually aim to pass as women. We shouldn't be doing the converse.

(My unusually harsh tone is reserved for things that make me really mad because I've done them myself, so that's not directed at you.)
posted by ernielundquist at 10:53 AM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

In that case, I suggest you read this essay on women in science by Philip Greenspun, which applies to women as well as men.

Or don't. That's a particularly bitter take on the professions of science. Greenspun comes at it from the point of view of making as much money in the least possible time. There are a lot of people who don't persue research or use it as a springboard to other things, but that 'average trajectory' of a research science career doesn't ring true in my experience.
posted by bonehead at 11:00 AM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

From your description it sounds like you think as long as you don't present as too girly then they will treat you like one of the guys. Trust me, this never works. It's not you, it's them.

As an aside, this sort of attitude might not be conducive to to building relationships with other women within STEM; if you have little professional contact with women, you might be overlooking this issue. As both a STEM(-ish) student and employee, the women who appeared to treat gender conforming as some sort of liability tended to alienate other women and came off as sexist. If you're naturally a very male identified woman, that's one thing, but it sounds like you're trying to suppress anything about you that reads as conspicuously feminine. People see that you're not being true to yourself, and it doesn't put them — be they male or female — at ease.
posted by thisjax at 11:09 AM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

That's a particularly bitter take on the professions of science.

I mean, that was sort of the point. It's worth hearing a particularly bitter take on the issue. It's hard to give advice here because the starting point before answering always needs to be "what are your goals?"
posted by deanc at 11:13 AM on September 20, 2011

(from a male perspective) I have found working for a large engineering corporation with strict rules about treating each other with respect that there's minimal sexism in this environment. I hesitate to say none because i'm not in a great point to see it necessarily.
posted by garlic at 1:13 PM on September 20, 2011

I teach at a small engineering college, and I help run a co-curricular program on gender and engineering, so I and my colleagues regularly do, in fact, give advice to fresh-faced, excited, young female engineering graduates.

There are a lot of great comments here, and I'll definitely point my students to this thread.

The single most useful piece of advice I can give to a new alumna is this: It's not you.

It's not you.

As a woman in STEM, you are in violation of gender schemas, our unspoken mental models for how people behave. These schemas tell us that men are professional, women are nurturing, and that men do science and technology, women do the liberal arts. And schemasare largely unconscious and unnoticed, unless you're on the wrong side of them (as a women in tech, but also as, for example, a male caregiver). These schemas manifest in lots of ways: Not having women's t-shirts at tech conferences. Referring to women with children as 'working mothers' (when did you last hear 'working father'?). Being left off e-mails. Being asked why you're dressed up if you wear a skirt to work. All the little (or not so little) things that tell women they don't belong, not really.

On the one hand, it sucks. To realise that you're in a world which is, in a very real sense, stacked against you. But it's also freeing, because you no longer have to internalize it as being your fault, or think that you're not as good as your male colleagues, or that maybe you should just leave. And schemas have a lot of explanatory power: my students frequently say things like, 'ohhh, that's why my team assumed that I would be the one to coordinate meeting times.' I describe learning about gender schemas as taking the red pill in The Matrix: on the one hand, the world is a lot crappier than the one you're used to. On the other, now you understand what's actually going on (and you can join the revolution!). And once you learn that this kind of casual sexism is not malicious, and is not evidence that you're surrounded by misogynists, it's a lot easier to deal with your colleagues.

Not that there's a bright shining line, but everything I said here is about unintentional, implicit sexism, not (in grouse's lovely phrase), a 'terminally sexist environment'. As garlic points out above, most companies have specific policies in place against discrimination, but I'm sure they are disregarded in many workplaces. It's worth talking to women employees about the corporate culture before you sign on.

So no, the sexism directed at you could not be prevented. That's because (say it with me, now!) It's. Not. You.

More reading: Virginia Valian's book, Why So Slow?, to learn more about gender schemas. Take the Gender-Science association test at Project Implicit. The Geek Feminism blog. The Microaggressions Tumblr.

[aside: This is my first MeFi post. Sorry it's so long.]
posted by debcha at 2:27 PM on September 20, 2011 [8 favorites]

You're looking for jobs? It's time to rethink your opinion on women's engineering societies.
You don't have to mention it to your male colleagues, but it might make you feel more at ease with yourself if you experiment with some different ways of presenting yourself now. It's not as though you'd have a promotion or raise at stake.
posted by yohko at 8:26 PM on September 22, 2011

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