gender differences

To be the Brave and Imperfect Female Graduate Student

To Celebrate International Women’s Day, I decided to forgo my typical academic-esque post. I am not one for personal stories, but a recent realization has inspired me to address one particularly significant issue we ladies of academic face.

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed an unsettling pattern in my conversations, particularly with my professors. For the past two semesters I have been enrolled in two classes that have been particularly challenging for me: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Statistical Inferences and Analysis. Both classes have, to put it lightly, tested my patience. There were times in the GIS lab, as a realized I was closing in on hour 6 of time spent on a project, that I wondered what on earth possessed me to follow this particular career. I tend to pick up concepts quickly, be it from an innate ability to understand information quickly or just working hard. Yet, in both of these classes, that immediate, satisfying comprehension did not necessarily arrive in the timely manner I am used to. Instead I struggled. Instead I’d agonize over whether or not I was typing commands correctly in ArchGIS. I’d get frustrated when I did not immediately understand the different types of z-scores. It was not until the other day when both of these professors told me, independent of each other, that the main reason I struggled with these classes was because I was afraid of not doing the assignment perfectly.

 

This struck a cord with me, and it wasn’t a happy tune. Yesterday evening, I stumbled across a TED talk by Reshma Saujani titled, “Teach girls to be brave, not perfect,” in which Saujani discusses how woman have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and are therefore overly cautious. Saujani cites studies of fifth graders found that the more intelligent the girls, the more more likely they were to give up on a difficult assignment, while the more the intelligent the boys, the more likely they were to meet the challenge. Young girls were more afraid of showing their imperfection while attempting to complete the assignment. Saujani says women do not necessarily suffer from a lack of confidence, but it is this socialization of perfection that causes women to take less risks in their careers. If women were socialized to be brave, rather than socialized to be perfect, that could move society forward.

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All graduate students already, shall we say, encounter a daily  crisis-of-self (or maybe that’s just me). Be it from coursework, grant writing, or just the ongoing battle of “will-I-get-a-job-that-isn’t-at-a-banana-stand?” saga (though there is always money in the banana stand), I think there is an additional issue that plagues graduate students, particularly females. I think that many of us were (and continue to be) socialized to strive for perfection.Why are we so concerned with being perfect? Wouldn’t it be more useful for our academic careers to be socialized to take risks, to be unafraid of failure, to be brave?

During my classes, I notice that females are not particularly vocal in class. Maybe we don’t speak out in class because we don’t want to sound unintelligent. In her insightful guest blog for “The Professor is In”, Karen Cardozo also explores this topic, noting that women take fewer chances and risks than men. “For example, in test-taking studies, researchers found that upon closer inspection, perceived gender differences in performances resulted not from wrong answers, but from women’s greater tendency to leave an answer blank when unsure about it (thus eliminating even partial odds of hitting upon the correct answer).  When the experiments were revised to insert the instruction “do not leave any answers blank,” there was no gender disparity in performance.” Furthermore,  studies have shown that males tend to dominate classroom discussions compared to females, possibly because, “women prove to be extremely vulnerable to interruption. Numerous studies have demonstrated that in mixed-sex conversations, women are interrupted far more frequently than men are…Moreover, once interrupted, women sometimes stayed out of the discussion for the remainder of the class hour.” While, luckily, my male peers do not interrupt my female colleagues, I should point out that in order to change the socialization of perfection into bravery, it will take the efforts of both females and males.

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Since I began applying for graduate school, I had multiple professors (all female) ask if I applied for external funding, specifically the NSF. Thinking that I was not qualified, or worse yet, that I would devote all this time to apply and therefore put myself in the position of possibly failing, I didn’t bother. It was not until last fall when I was reading advice on how to write a successful NSF application, did one of my professors (once again, female), ask me what I was reading, and then inquire why I wasn’t applying for the NSF. It is absurd that I talked myself out of applying so many times. It was the encouragement from my female professors and colleagues that drove me to apply for the grant last fall. It took someone explicitly telling me that yes, I am qualified, and even if I weren’t, I should apply anyway.

Regardless of the outcome, I think having the courage to apply for these grants is a personal success. Unfortunately, women are less likely to apply to major grants.  While the social sciences have noted that women are beginning to be more fairly funded in the social sciences (specifically in the UK), there are still issues in gender balance of how many women apply for grants, and the percentage of them who receive them. Similarly, in the job market, Saujani notes that men are likely to apply for jobs when they meet approximately 60% of the requirements, while females only apply when they meet 100% of the requires. With these discouraging numbers, it’s no wonder that women think we cannot apply for grants because we don’t have enough publications, experience, or simply don’t want to risk failure. We need to change the perception of perfection: socializing women to think they are only valuable if they are perfect hinders us more than it helps us.

So in order to remedy this whole socialization of perfection, I think we, female academics, need to socialize our colleagues and peers in the process of being brave. Those of us who spend our field seasons working in deserts, rainforests, and mountains littered with poisonous snakes, bugs, plants, basically all manner of creatures that could harm us, may disagree: to do these things does require bravery. What I am talking about is having the bravery to take risks in our careers. We need ignore that pesky and unproductive manta, “I may fail at this, if I do, I’m not perfect,” and instead replace it with, “I may fail at this, but oh well, I was brave for trying.” To achieve this, it will take a concentrated effort for all of us, fellow female peers and colleagues, not to mention male peers and colleagues, to encourage bravery, and show that perfection is overrated.

On a final note, public outreach is an invaluable tool academics can use to encourage the next generation of women to be brave, so show how perfection is harmful. This past weekend, in collaboration with GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane), I hosted a workshop that taught middle school girls about human osteology, bioarchaeology, and forensic anthropology. I made sure to tell the girls to ask questions, and share their ideas–there were no stupid questions and ideas in my lab. Whenever I asked a question (why do you think female pelves are different from male pelves? When do you remember when you got your first adult molar? ), the girls were not afraid to call out answers, nor were they afraid to answer my questions incorrectly. In fact, they loved sharing their ideas. In other words, they were brave, and did not care about giving the perfect answer. Hopefully this is a trend that continues.

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