Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Getting Assertive

You are some of the mouthiest broads on the internet and I say that with both love and admiration. Being mouthy means not taking any shit. Being mouthy means standing up for yourself. Being mouthy means standing up for what’s right. Being mouthy means not getting pushed aside. Being mouthy is awesome. But it can be hard as lobster shells sometimes to be mouthy in professional settings.

Recently, I was applying for more funding, because well, that is the life of the academic. I always look to get feedback from my colleagues because it is remarkable how much better an application sounds after it’s been through a lab meeting or several rounds of reviewers. Most of my reviews were good, but one thing people consistently pointed to was my modesty in describing my accomplishment to date. And my modesty was not a good thing.

I know that I am not alone. That’s why I am writing this, actually. I always felt like I was a brassy bi”¦ah you know the rest. But it turns out that somehow, somewhere along the way, I’ve fallen into that insidious trap of modesty. That is subtle sexism at work, my friends. We are told over and over again to be modest, and when the time comes to brag on ourselves in huge neon fonts (P.S. I am not actually advocating for the use of huge neon fonts in academic writing), we generally have trouble doing it.

Now, of course, many women are assertive and can speak to their accomplishments without any of that bothersome modesty when need be. And that is awesome. If you have any pointers on how to do that, leave them in the comments! And get yourself a celebratory coffee. And, of course, new research is out showing that even the women who ask for promotions do not get them, so there are some questions as to how useful all of this is. But no one is going to get awarded huge sums of money for modesty, so here are some tips on how to shed that modesty when necessary.

1 ““ Get someone else to tell you what you do well. I know, it seems like the dreaded fishing for compliments, but it’s not. You’re not asking to get your ego blown to ridiculous proportions–you’re looking for the good things you do that you don’t even recognize. An outsider’s perspective can be a really good thing.

2 ““ Write after you feel great about something. Does running make you feel invincible? Did you just give an excellent, unexpected lecture on the Spanish Inquisition? Did you write a particularly clever introduction for your next paper? Take the time to surf the high and write some positive self-reflection.

3 ““ Pep talk yourself. This is the silliest one, I know! I feel like such a gigantic jerk-face sitting around saying “AA, you are doing some cool stuff! Tell them why it makes you excited! It will make them excited! And then the dollars will come rolling in!” but it actually (weirdly) works. When I make a point to recognize what makes my work so cool, it’s easier for me to give my contribution it’s due because at that point, it feels not like I am singing my praises, but the praises of the work.

Now, I’ve used grants as the example, but this is relevant to all sorts of applications. So come on, write it out, and give yourself the pat on your back you so richly deserve.

Do you have any advice? Share in the comments!

10 replies on “Women in Academia: Getting Assertive”

I always say, when some one reprimands me for being cocky, “Modest only gets you Sainthood.” And since I haven’t seen any miracles lately, I wasn’t fit for that route anyways.

I am one of the few girls in my major (digital cinema arts) and its not easy. I feel like I am always being underestimated, so I work my ass off. My advanced video production was “blown away” by how good my video was. He still compliments me on it like 6 weeks after finals. I just always want to say, “WELL WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?! OF COURSE IT WAS AWESOME.” I am an over-achiever after all. And I guess the modest side of me is always surprised when I people actually like my work. But then brass bia in me is like, “Duh they like it!”

I just have to bring that bia out a bit more,  I guess.

OH MY GLOB! I have been dealing with this so much recently, or at least it’s become painfully obvious how modest I’ve been recently for no good reason. I’m still all mouthy when it comes to discussing research and ideas and editing other people’s work at the lab, but I cannot talk myself up to save my life. It was most painfully obvious when I was sitting in on a meeting our lab section was having with a non-profit we’re helping out. Everyone was introducing themselves and what they do; when it got to me I said my name and basically a one-line sentence that trailed off into nothing… At a break, one of the guys in my lab came up to me and asked point blank “What the hell was that?”

I can definitely see it as partly a sexism thing: I am the only female in my lab section (ecology) and the only female and the only one under 40 in the meeting. Not that any of the guys are at all sexist or put me down in any way, but there’s something so ingrained about being the only woman in the room, being petite, being “cute”, being young, that is killing me to overcome. Written proposals and grants I actually do better at because I can write about my accomplishments and awesome research so much more easily than I will ever be able to talk about them.

I agree with what people have said so far, and I also think one way to tighten things up and make it seem less like bragging is to simply state what you have done or accomplished, without saying too much ‘this makes me amazing at ___’; people can draw their own conclusions about you if you state everything using positive vocabulary anyway, and it also leaves you more room to include more things (I write this from the perspective of applying for scholarships, where there is usually limited space).

Such good hints.  I think the most helpful thing for me is having my boss act not just as my boss but also as a mentor. He is great with constructive criticism (always constructive, never unnecessarily critical) and great with positive reinforcement. I’d really encourage people to find someone with a bit more experience who can be a sounding board for you and is a positive influence. You can take that positive base and run with it, making it so that you are the one who is growing and improving. While they might be there as a back stop, it’s all on you and you can do it!

This isn’t so much about being assertive for myself, but I try as much as possible to give credit where credit is due, and not to feel competitive with colleagues.  It makes me feel better to genuinely celebrate others’ accomplishments, and people are much quicker to talk about my accomplishments if the environment is one of collegiate congratulations.

I am a big proponent of suggestion #1, and have been on the other side of the table on that one on more than one occasion.  I’ve edited a few of my friends’ grant applications (and most of them got funding!) and have on more than on occasion said “This is not the time for modesty!  You can be modest all you want when you get the funding.”  (Interestingly, the people being modest were mostly men.)  Some more helpful things I’ve suggested include:

1.)  Take out all the waffling words. Phrase things assertively using the active tense and no maybes. (X did Y instead of X may lead to Y or X may be related to Y).  Hold back on the speculation — focus on what’s materialized so far.  This may not be helpful if nothing much has materialized yet.  In that case, speculate, but speculate with the active tense and confident adverbs, and keep the scope of speculation limited (ie, believable).  Terser is better, in this context.

2.)  Take out all the “very”s.  This generally tightens the proposal up and we often use too many of them anyways.

3.)  Get someone totally unrelated to your field (but preferably still a scientist) to have a gawk at it too, to make sure that the concepts are clear to non-experts.  I’ve edited everything from electrochemistry to dendrology proposals, and I assure you I know little about either of those subjects.  But the non-expert reader will ask what the lingo means, and make sure you’re not using too much of it.  Yes, science is jargon-y, but too much of it hinders clear, concise communication.

4.)  Make sure there is not a single extraneous word.  When in doubt, chop it — this is not the time for flowery prose or prosaic sentences about the role of electrochemistry in broader society.  Be ruthless with the red pen, and if you’re uncertain about it, hand it to someone who will be (like yours truly).

Er, that sort of drifted from the original question, but it’s what got me and several of my friends funding, so maybe it’s still useful?

Leave a Reply