Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Mentoring, Part 3: Guiding Women in STEM Careers

Mentoring Part3_imageOn January 18, 2018, I was invited to Cal State University-Dominguez Hills to participate in a day-long faculty and staff development symposium called “Courageous Conversations” where I gave three workshops. At the end, one of the participants, Dr. Michael Durand, talked to me about a conference she attended at Cornell University in the 1980s on Women in Science. From that meeting was borne a Career Guide for Women in Science that was published in 1988. Sadly, 30 years later, the problems women in STEM faced then are the same problems many women face today. Much of what is in the Guide is still applicable to women in STEM careers, especially for those starting out and their mentors.

This is a thoughtful document, and worth revisiting. A link to the complete Guide is here: https://nancylwayne.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/guideforwomeninscience2.pdf

Below, I highlight snippets of advice that I feel have stood the test of time:

About verbal communication skills:

“A scientist is judged by the effectiveness of oral communications skills. The skillful speaker captivates an audience from the first words, telling a story, entertaining, and teaching. The first tasks when designing a talk are then to determine who the individuals in the audience will be, and what their interests are. Second, assess the specific reasons for giving the talk and what is to be accomplished by presenting it. This will determine how the talk should be organized and what to emphasize.” OK – the section on Slides versus PowerPoint is very dated, but you can skip that part.

About writing a manuscript:

“Despite how one might feel after completing a paper, the most important parts of the paper are the title and abstract. In this information age where both title and abstract of almost any paper can be extracted from the computer and displayed on a screen in seconds, it should come as no surprise that these may be the only parts of the paper which the majority of interested scientists will read. The title and abstract should be written with the greatest care.”

About your career in STEM after graduating:

“When planning career goals, recognize that most faculty train their students to do what they do. Funding agencies are already funding that kind of work and may not feel that further work by a novice is cost effective. Will the new Ph.D. be competing with the advisor and his network for grants? Research laboratories and industry usually don’t want someone who does what the faculty advisor does. They want someone who is willing to solve their problems, either alone or as part of a team. Their interest in the graduate student’s thesis topic is not often strong. They want to know whether he/she is bright enough to take charge of other problems without much direction. Academia, on the other hand, is primarily interested in scientists who have new and original ideas, or new talents to complement those in the department. Academia expects detailed research plans and long-term personal commitments to producing outstanding research.”

About difficult questions for women during the job interview:

“In interviews (and later in private meetings with the boss) gender-related questions may be asked, so practice deflecting them if they are raised. Examples:

Do you have or plan to have children?

It is illegal to ask this, but it might be asked anyway. It’s impossible to prove anything was said in a private conversation. At worst for the interviewer, word of the question will discourage other female applicants… which may be what the interviewer had in mind. Don’t answer the question. Possible response: “Like your male employees, I consider this to be a private matter unrelated to my professional life.” Change the conversation by asking a direct question about a sticky area, if possible: “Is it true that the XYZ corporation relies on SDI funding to a high degree, and this funding is in jeopardy of cancellation if the NQR commission confirms mismanagement of funds?” When attacked, men attack back. By responding as through not threatened, and then striking back, she wins the interviewer’s respect as a fighter who won’t let him usurp her rights. She has done it in a way that does not close doors.”

Yes, illegal questions are occasionally still asked during job interviews.

About the one-hour interview seminar:

“The one hour seminar interview is advertised as a standard talk, but it is judged differently. It should really be viewed as an audition—similar to that for a part in a theater play or a spot in an orchestra. The department has gone to some trouble, paying the candidate’s travel costs and spending the day with him/her, in order to get a good look at performance. For this reason, the talk should be organized in a different way—as a showcase of the applicant’s talents. The talk must start with a general description of the problem and why it is of importance to the broad picture. If the department has a deficit in this area of expertise, a clear ten-minute introduction of the subject would be appreciated. The central portion of the talk should be a summary of what the candidate has accomplished. He/she should finish by outlining how this work naturally leads to further research to answer the next logical question.”

“During the question and answer period, the speaker should give the impression that he/she enjoys the challenge of one-on-one questions, and is delighted that they are so interested in this work.”

“The talk must project the vitality and enthusiasm and energy of the speaker. A talk that lacks this, however polished, will result in a negative response from interviewers. Honesty is important. Both over-confidence and lack of confidence are viewed as a lack of professionalism. Glibness, excessive use of jargon and inappropriate use of terms such as “obviously” are as annoying as hesitancy, nervous habits, and overuse of words like “perhaps.””

About the academic job offer:

“When the phone call is finally received offering a position as an assistant professor (or a member of the technical staff, in industry) at $mm,000 per year, resist the urge to agree immediately to the offer, sending letters withdrawing applications at other places. Be prepared for the call. Tell the department chairperson that you are delighted to be offered the opportunity to join the department and that a) you feel that everyone’s interests would be best served if you could visit the institution a second time, b) you would like to speak to him/her further about the details of the appointment (initial laboratory or personal/mainframe computer setup, teaching requirements, etc.), and c) you will respond as quickly as you can. When it comes to questions of set-up: supporting research space, computers and funds, it is absolutely essential that advice be obtained in advance from trusted advisers as to what is common. Otherwise, you might ask for too little, or annoy your potential employer by asking for too much. The set-up should be regarded as a “marriage present”—it is something one can only collect once.”

About managing a tight schedule:

“A priority list is essential for managing a tight schedule. Nonetheless, much time is often usurped by non-priority items. Personal and household chores were not on the sample priority list, although they had to be done. Chores can be accorded low or null priority because, after all, it’s the quality-of-life that counts not the service details… No one ever died from not having the bed made in the morning…Chores do not advance our knowledge of our universe, better the lot of mankind, or improve a resume. They just consume valuable hours of your life.”

About professional and non-professional behavior:

Parts of this section seem very dated, but readers might find this of interest from a historical perspective. On the other hand, the “dated” problems are ones that women still face in the workplace.

 “For colleagues to think of a woman as a professional, they cannot be allowed to see contradictory images of her persona or of her performance. Any excess use of cosmetics or of fragrance can generate the wrong images. While men leave framed pictures of the family on their decks, women scientists in the physical sciences usually do not. Such reminders that women have families and/or children conjure up images of motherhood and mothering; not leadership and business efficiency. Professional office images of a women scientist should not include visions of someone who distributes cookies or cake at work, or images of someone who makes coffee for the guys. The rules for men and women are still very different particularly in those fields where women are few in number.”

What do you think about this advice? Does it apply to your work environment?

About mentors and networks:

“In general, every field of study has its own network of scientists who call each other to help initiate new programs, or to hire new scientists. Members of the network introduce promising young scientists to other members, either at conferences or during visits of those scientists to the home institution. Without personally knowing the people of importance in a field, a scientist might as well not be working in the field. Networks are one of the most effective ways to advertise one’s work, to get a job, or to start a new program. Students can build strong personal contacts with the best scientists in the field even before completing advanced degree requirements. These contacts should be renewed often.”

About being different: women, minorities, and the handicapped:

“Take action to insure that your career directions will not be upset by prejudice. Document your successes and advertise your accomplishments to the most influential of your colleagues. Document briefly any occurrences of prejudice and send copies to trusted associates. Be sure that you have alternate career directions that will allow you to progress even if the bigots do limit some present efforts. Don’t be afraid to interact with people and keep in contact with friends and associates from previous employment. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from those you trust. Don’t expect people to be forthcoming always, but asking can’t hurt. By interacting, you are getting the most precious material of the age: information! This information can help guide your future career decisions.”

About professional advancement:

“Taking charge of your advancement means applying the rules to your advantage, and to the advantage of the institutions you represent. Having many contacts and collaborators across the country establishes credibility and prestige, even if your contribution is just a minor technique to which only you have access. Knowing the duties of your rank should not prevent you from performing at a higher level. Giving talks which can be documented on your resume, nominating yourself as the editor or field representative of your professional society, representing your department at national meetings all serve to make a desire for advancement more visible.”

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2018 by .

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