Dear Kate – October 2015

“How do I have a difficult conversation with another grad student who is stepping on my research area?

– Toes

Dear Toes,

First off, is the other graduate student working with the same adviser? If so you want to make sure the adviser and you are clear on what your expected role is and then the other student’s expected role is. The other part to keep in mind is that frequently there can be a lot of overlap between projects (I’ve found this varies by adviser/department/field, so what might seem like too much overlap from one perspective could be viewed as perfectly fine in a different field ).

All that aside, however, if you are not comfortable than something does need to be done. In terms of how to approach this, I think a good thing to identify is what exactly is bothering you — is it that the new graduate student is trying to publish your material? Or just trying to approach “your” problem with different ideas? If so, you could always look at working together.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, frankly, having competing work can be a part of science. I can think of several labs that work on very similar things and frequently try to “scoop each other”. It’s not my style of work, but some people enjoy the competition. Some people deal with that by not talking about their own work (aka keeping your results more secret until published).

Frankly, it’s a tough situation. Depending on the other student and what you want out of it, be careful of escalating things. When I’ve felt like there was perceived overlap between myself and another student, I approached my adviser about it and we talked about exactly which parts I was covering and what the other student could and would contribute. It was very helpful and calmed my worries (which were mostly groundless in my case). Plus it was useful in highlighting exactly what I was expected to produce.

Good luck!

– Kate O

Dear Toes,

What I would say to you first is, how do you define “your” research area? Perhaps try to see it from the other person’s side, maybe they think this area of research is “their” area. Then I would recommend sitting down with the other grad student, if you two have a good working relationship, and discussing what each can contribute to the project or what each of you will work on.

Without knowing more specifics it is hard to say whether your advisor should be involved, but it might help to bring your concerns to your advisor and perhaps try to work out with the three of you who should be working on what, and where to draw boundaries, if they should be drawn at all. In general it is best to err on the side of over-communication and being open and forthcoming with any concerns. It is better to address concerns or conflicts sooner rather than later.

I actually had a similar experience in grad school, but my feeling was more along the lines of: this person was going to take over a project that I really wanted to work on, because he spent way more time in the lab than I did. I ended up speaking to my advisor about what I could contribute to the project, and making sure I carved out a piece for myself. Setting clear guidelines for each of us really helped and gave me a sense of security that he wouldn’t step on my toes.

– Kate L

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate O., and Kate L.

Dear Kate – June 2015

I have male research colleagues whose work styles are very different from mine in that they prefer to work in a large group, are much more vocal (and indeed aggressive) in group meetings, and are able to focus on their work even when there is a lot of noise or background conversation in our lab. I, on the other hand, know that I concentrate best in a quiet environment when I can think clearly, or “hear myself think” so to speak, and focus entirely on the task at hand. I recognize that as part of a lab group, I need to work closely with and collaborate with my teammates, and of course I want to see the research project succeed as a coherent, well-integrated study. But my colleagues have now twice accused me of isolating myself from others and refusing to work with others. I have been confident up to now that it was just a misunderstanding of differences in work styles, but now I’m having doubts that perhaps I need to change my work style, but I’m afraid that that will just lead to much less productivity on my part. How do I maintain the work style that has worked best for me for so many years but still make it clear that I am fully on board as a team player?

– Can’t there be an I in team

Dear Can’t there be an I in team,

I would recommend the book by Susan Cain, “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.” She describes two different personality types: Extroverts and Introverts and their different working styles, strengths and weaknesses etc.. She is an articulate advocate for introverts.

I have lead a number of teams and have found that a team is most effective when a combination of these two types are involved ( There is sound research to back this up). I have also found that as an introvert, I need to operate outside my comfort zone and learn to communicate in a way that extroverts understand: join in, speak up  be assertive and express appreciation for their different approach while holding my ground on my own views.

Here’s a brief article on some of her views: https://hbr.org/2015/03/introverts-extroverts-and-the-complexities-of-team-dynamics.

Sincerely,

Kate L.

Dear Can’t there be an I in team,

There are several variables here: one is the particular research group you are currently in, another is the size of the group, another is the particular personalities (especially the dominant ones) of the other group members, yet another is your own needs. You can try to address each of these variables (and others you may know of) and try to make changes in one or another of them.

One possibility is to address the objection made that you don’t work with the “team”, by lining up support from one or another member of the group who might cooperate with you and help you present a better “team” appearance, making you less isolated, but still functional. You could identify a leading person or two in the group to try to get support in acknowledging your personal work style. How often have people who are quiet seen by others as standoffish or unfriendly? That’s a perception issue that needs to be dealt with.

Furthermore, if you are the ONLY woman in the group, it’s possible that your gender adds to your “separateness” from the rest of the group. You may actually feel that they are not welcoming toward you, and are using this excuse to interfere with your personal progress. I hope it’s not the case, but you need to consider it.

It may seem silly, but if you see “The Imitation Game” about Alan Turing, you’ll see that he too was a loner at his work and this alienated the others in the lab. Another worker took him aside and showed him how he needed to establish relationships with other members of the group, which he did, while thinking it was extraneous. Eventually this relationship that he built served to save a big part of his own work, so a purely psychological effect turned out to be important in the code breaking research they were doing.

Sincerely,

Kate M.

Can’t there be an I in team,

This sounds like a tough situation, because you might be facing both differences in work styles and differences in socio/cultural expectations. It must also be frustrating to be accused of being isolationist!

Do you know what types of behaviors and interactions your colleagues are interpreting as refusing to work with others? Is it simply spending time in the lab, participating in casual banter when spending time in the lab, or being around during particular times of the day or week? Or are there more specific interactions that people are expecting from you, such as asking colleagues how their work is going, asking for feedback and input on your own current work, volunteering for collaborative tasks, or talking a lot during meetings? If there is a colleague, advisor/supervisor, or mentor in your department you could speak to, they may be able to help you figure out what’s behind these comments. Ideally, you will be able to find a way to satisfy your colleagues by doing some of the things they actually value, while helping them understand that some of your work style choices are things you do to improve your own concentration and not as any type of rejection of the team.

Sincerely,

Kate A.

Dear Can’t there be an I in team,

A very interesting question.

It would be helpful to understand where the feedback is coming from (advisor or colleagues) and what evidence you have of your success as a scientist (publications, post doc offers, speaker invitations?).

While the scenario of the loud male scientist is all too common, and it is clear that different people do have different styles, it is crucial in all settings to be able to work with people and to be open to sharing data.  You don’t have to be loud but you will be expected to work with a team and give up some ownership.

The introvert dilemma is one written about widely. It is very important that we make room for people with all kinds of learning and working styles and it is crucial that the voice of the introvert is heard.

From some recent work i have read, a common strategy for such people appears to be to put on the cloak of a different and louder person for the short intervals where that is necessary.  the key is to give yourself the time and space you need to do your work the way that you prefer, but also be able to rise the occasion when a more outgoing style is necessary.

Good luck.

Sincerely,

Kate R.

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor, Kate A., Kate L., Kate R., and Kate M.

Dear Kate – May 2015 Edition

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.  You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous.  We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.

We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.   

I have always wanted to be a professor, and therefore all my college internships and post-college work experience has been in research labs. After several years in graduate school, I still enjoy research but am no longer sure the stress of the tenure-track, constantly changing grant funding, and long hours will be worth it. I am torn between wanting to continue chasing the academic dream or to start preparing for getting a job in industry after graduation. My advisor won’t let me do a summer internship. How can I know which career track is right for me?
            – Overwhelmed by Possibilities
Dear Overwhelmed by Possibilities,
First of all, it seems that your question has its own answer right there….you need to try a NON-academic internship. This would have the value of showing you just a bit of what the “real” world is like, but at the same time, it adds to your resume additional experience of a different nature from the academic experience. Repeating academic internships doesn’t necessarily add value, and the different nature of the applied world is often seen as having important value to a professor’s qualifications. Take a look at  the backgrounds of professors and you’ll see this. 
Your particular field is important here as well. The “academic” track is more likely for those in math and science, whereas the “applied” world is more the destiny of engineering graduates, so this needs to be evaluated.
Sincerely,
Kate M.
Dear Overwhelmed by Possibilities,
In any case, having a variety of work experience is beneficial from several points of view, and therefore should be considered seriously. One way to “try out” these different possibilities is to talk with people who seem similar to you and who have gone down one path or another. If you speak to a tenured professor, a professor still working on getting tenure, a professional who left the academic track, and a professional who never even started the academic track about their daily life and what they do & do not enjoy about their work, you will probably be able to imagine how you yourself would feel in these scenarios. It may also be reassuring for you to hear that people like you have had success and happiness along different paths, so your choice might be between being happy because of A,B, and C versus being happy because of X, Y, and Z.
Sincerely,
Kate A.
Dear Overwhelmed by possibilities,
The world outside academia is not significantly less stressful than inside. Academics have obligations throughout the year, but summers as a rule are more relaxed, in a business environment- not so much. Promotions and acceleration and path up the corporate ladder are no less stressful than academia and I would suggest that if you do achieve tenure the you have virtually achieved a job for life- the real world is nothing like that. In the US we live in an “at will” employment world which means you have no security really. So first things first, don’t assume the grass is greener elsewhere rather take the time to look ahead five, ten, even fifteen years and think about what types of activities, what types of interactions, and what types of pressures you want in your day to day life. Then reverse engineer. It’s a lot easier to switch from academia to industry than the other way around. 
Sincerely,
Kate S.
Dear Overwhelmed by Possibilities,
Here is my comment, as someone who ended up in academia, but spent some time in industry also.
Academia is not the career path that will make everyone happy, and the same can be said for the many types of jobs one can have in industry. It is important to be aware of the differences, and to think about what fits your personality and priorities. But it is also important to remember that you can always change your track in life, as you find out more about different career options, and about what aspects of a job work for you and what is a challenge. If you have questions about this, I suggest you talk to as many people as you can who have a similar background, but took different career routes. Networking events, alumni networks, and people you meet at conferences and even parties can be great resources for finding what people love and hate about each job description; after that, it is up to you to figure out where you imagine yourself. Some questions you can ask yourself is how much you like different parts of the job of an academician. The search for funding is always stressful and challenging, but if you find the experience of teaching and mentoring students especially rewarding, it may be worth it. In contrast, once you are a tenure-track professor, most of the hands-on research is done by your students. So if this is your favorite part of the job, an industry job may be a better fit. The more people you ask, the more insight you will get.
Also, remember that whichever your next step ends up being, it is not the job you will be stuck with for the rest of your life. You can definitely seek and find an industry job, and apply for academic positions if you find that is still your calling. The experiences you gain along the way will only help you. In fact, industry experience is hugely valuable in academia, both in terms of key skills you acquire (running a lab, working with diverse teams, presenting your work, getting support for your ideas) and in terms of your capability in advising future students. So if you are considering industry, there is no harm in trying it out.

I hope this is helpful!

Best,

Kate A.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor, Kate A., Kate S., and Kate M. 

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

Dear Kate – January 2015 Edition

               
Dear Kate – January 2015 Edition


If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.  You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous.  We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.


We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.   
 
Can a woman have kids and go for tenure? Why do older, white male MIT faculty ask me if I want kids when I’m asking them for career advise? Does my response (yes I do want kids) change what they tell me? Isn’t that an illegal question (it is in the regular working world)?


And, is there a way that I can respond to that question that respectfully challenges the reasoning behind their asking? I feel like I let myself and women down by acquiescing.
            
             – Professor Mom


Dear Professor Mom


An older, white male faculty member once gave some very sage advice to me and a female friend when we were both thinking about tenure track and family decisions. He said: research, teaching, and young children were all full time jobs– it was possible to do any two of the three well  at the same time, but you couldn’t really do three out of three  well all at once. I think he is probably right. This, counter-intuitively, makes  the tenure track more feasible at a truly  top-notch university than at a second-rank university:  top-notch universities are much more likely to really get it, and let you pause your teaching for the crucial year or so you will need it most.  On the other hand, the women I knew who seemed to have it easiest managed to go to research labs when their kids were young (making sure to teach at a local university one or two semesters  to have that teaching track record built up for later) and then took a tenured position at a university once their kids were school age or beyond.
Your research career will last for many many decades; you will have young children (by which I mean pre-Kindergarten) probably for less than a decade of your life. Things like the dynamic of your marriage, whether your kids sleep through the night early on, how much money you and/or your family is in a position to throw at quality childcare help, whether you have extended family or parents nearby to help, and other things will define the parameters of how stressful that period will be. Or what I am trying to say is: your personal life will impact your career decisions, it has to, so it could be an appropriate question in some circumstances. And someone will ultimately have to know all the parameters to help you negotiate creative solutions.
But the above assumes a supportive older male mentor who maybe  has had a family of his own; there are also plenty of scientists (male and female!) who will still dismiss/think less of anyone who expresses any interest in doing anything other than science 24/7. So while a yes may give you a wealth of helpful creative work-life balance advice, it is a significant risk. So before saying “yes I want kids”  I would feel the person out, by instead of saying “yes”  reflecting the question back:  “I am really interested in how your answer to my question would change depending on whether I said yes or no?” His response should quickly tell you where he is coming from, and you can both go from there.


Sincerely,


Kate C.


Dear Professor Mom


A mother can absolutely go for tenure!  Unfortunately, she has a lower chance of making it.  The “baby penalty” that women pay in academia is well documented, whether it means not making tenure or struggling through the first years of her child’s life… or both.




Tenured professors are undoubtedly well-aware of these challenges, whether they personally support mothers in pursuing tenure or not. If you want to test their responses, try explaining that your husband wants to stay at home and care for the kids. Whether or not this is true, you may witness a look of relief – a sure sign that their advice DOES change based on your plans for family.  It is also a way to respectfully challenge an outdated perspective.  


If your husband does not want to stay at home and you don’t want to lie, try explaining that a grandparent is planning to move in with you or that you plan to hire a nanny.  One thing is certain: it is extremely difficult to balance a tenure-track academic career and “normal” childcare responsibilities like picking your child up from a 9-5 daycare.  So, whatever your childcare backup plan for helping you through the tenure track, talk to your mentors about it.  Just remember that you are asking for their advice for a reason: if they have concerns about your plan, those concerns might be valid!


Good luck!


Sincerely,


Kate B.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor, Kate C., and Kate B.


If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.


Dear Kate – December 2014 Edition

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.  You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous.  We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.

We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.   
  
I recently watched the movie “Before Midnight”. I am surprised how much work the wife need to do in the family, even if she is talented and can have very good job. Meanwhile, the husband can keep doing the job he likes and doesn’t need to worry much about family chores. There are also some examples around me, that the wives sacrifice their jobs for families, even including someone with PhDs. Despite, their husbands seem unaware of these. If the wives complain about their situations, it is likely to start a family quarrel. How can I avoid such implicit male chauvinism?

– Movie Goer

Dear Movie Goer,

Attitudes towards sharing in household chores, family, and career are things you should take into account as you’re finding a life partner.  It’s more common today for younger people to find like-minded people who will share responsibilities, rather than assuming one person will take them on.  What you should not do: choose your partner’s career over your own.  Both of your careers are important, and while you should both be open to compromise, you must not give up your own opportunities to raise a family or support your partner’s career unless this is truly your own choice.
Choosing your partner’s career over your own because you’re pressured into it is a recipe for resentment and thwarted ambition, and hopefully you have chosen a partner who is willing to discuss and make compromises.  One of my classmates waited to attend grad school until his partner had finished her program, in an attempt to balance marriage and grad school with a minimum of pressure; this was a compromise they had made together, and it worked well for them.  On the flip side, a friend made an agreement with her partner that they would accept offers at the best school where they both received faculty job offers.  They did end up going to a school where they both got offers, but because she had better prospects than him, she left better offers on the table; they discussed it further, but her husband refused to modify their agreement.  She now regrets the choice they made, and it has affected both her research and her marriage.  From these experiences and others, I would encourage you to have a frank and honest discussion with any potential long-term partners about how you would navigate these issues, and how well you could come to a compromise that you can both live with, happily.
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Sincerely,
Kate M.
Dear Movie Goer,
You have asked the $1B question. If I had the perfect answer to this, I would market it and get rich! There is ample literature on work – life balance and male vs. female roles in families. Most of the research boils down to men thinking they do a lot, but really doing very little to help out the family unit. Nevertheless, the 21st century husband is MUCH better than the 20th century one. Just catch an episode of “Mad Men” and you’ll see.
Here’s an article that a fellow mom / colleague sent to me about the “default parent.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/m-blazoned/the-default-parent_b_6031128.html . According to the article, the default parent is “the one responsible for the emotional, physical, and logistical needs of the children…it is typically the one with the uterus.” In my own family, I am DEFINITELY the default parent and quite frankly, I would not give it up! I do have a fabulous career and I would not give that up either! I make time to spend with my daughter! I wantto be the one helping with homework and reading the bedtime story every night.
Here are some tips I would recommend for the working mom.
 
1.     Outsource everything you can. Get a cleaning lady. Get a yard service. Hire someone to paint your house and clean your gutters. If you a working parent who is married to a working parent, you do not need to spend your time with this stuff.
2.     Live close to work. This is a huge time saver. As a working parent, lack of time will be your biggest enemy.
3.     Take advantage of work flexibility. Come in early, work late, work on weekends or as you need to so you can get your job done. Make sure you work somewhere that supports a flexible schedule!
4.     Get a support network. Find yourself other working (or non-working) mom friends. Often you can carpool or share duties with other moms much more easily than with your spouse. Plus, your marriage will be much better if you have a girlfriend or two to air your minor complaints about how your spouse is not picking up the slack. And, quite often he won’t. Get over it.
5.     If it’s important, push your spouse to do his part. Figure out your priorities and make sure your spouse knows them. For example, if you have an important work project, let him know. Make sure he tells his boss that his wife has an important work project. His boss will understand when he has to leave early to take the kids to soccer.
6.     Hire a babysitter regularly. Having a date night with your spouse at least once a month is a must. You need to see each other as 2 adults, not as mom and dad.
7.     Most importantly – view child-rearing as a privilege, not a chore! Don’t think of the time you spend with them as an inconvenience. You will find that every minute you spend with your kids will make a difference. Your kids will be off to college soon enough.
I have seen families where spouses share family duties exactly 50/50. Everything is a chore. They never see each other. I think that “you can have it all” – but you have to work for it and realize life is not fair and it is not 50/50. You may even have to work harder than you worked in graduate school. In the end, it will be worth it.
Sincerely,
Kate F.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor, Kate M., and Kate F. 

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

Dear Kate – August 2014 Edition

 
The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.
 
Dear Kate,

I recently finished a master’s thesis with my advisor of three years and have since moved on to a PhD program with a new advisor. For many of the ideas I had for my project, my former advisor would dismiss them in favor of his, even though I turned out to be right in most cases. When I handed in drafts of chapters of my thesis, he had me rewrite it twice. In the end, he gave me a B on the thesis because the main conclusions of it came from him and that he didn’t even think I grasped the big picture. Now he expects me to be first-author on the paper resulting from my thesis. I don’t understand why he would even let me be first author on a project I supposedly do not grasp, nor do I think his comments are fair considering the level of revisions for theses I hear about from other students. This entire ordeal of working for him has left me feeling like a second-rate graduate student and researcher, when I have worked incredibly hard for the past three years. But my new advisor thinks I’m really good. What should I do?

 
Underappreciated and Overworked
Dear Underappreciated and Overworked,
I feel for you! Please do not take your professor’s behavior personally; shake it off and move on. Experiences like this in grad school (and beyond) are very common and they will help you develop a thick skin. I don’t think there is any working scientist out there who does not feel like this sometimes. Making the decision to change groups may be the correct one for you.
As to your professor’s behavior – it is certainly possible he acted maliciously; it is also possible that he was trying to help you. Receiving feedback on your thesis draft from your advisor is a good thing. Regarding your professor dismissing your ideas in favor of his own –there could be non-scientific reasons (maybe political or funding) for his actions to which you are not privy. As for authorship of papers – would you have felt better if he told you to write the paper with him as first author and you doing all the work? I think you should congratulate yourself on producing some publishable work!!
Do remember that if you are uncomfortable with a situation or feel you a being treated unfairly, you should speak up and/or make a change. It is also important to learn how and when to stand up for yourself. A mentor or older graduate student is perfect to talk to. Realize that these types of situations are not uncommon – both in graduate school and in the working world. You need to learn to keep moving towards your goal and not dwell on past events.
Kate F.
Kate F. received her PhD at MIT and works in the Boston area
 
Thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate F.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of Kates (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions!

Dear Kate Question on Feminism and Responding to Offensive Comments – Part II

Every month, the GWAMIT Mentoring committee runs an advice column named after Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.
This week, the column was not written by one of the GWAMIT Mentors as usual, but by Kelley Adams at the Violence Prevention and Responseoffice at MIT Medical. To reduce the length, the question is addressed in two parts linked below. This is part II; part I can be found here.
The tragedy in Santa Barbara California has sparked a nationwide debate on misogyny, male privilege, and feminism. This in addition to the White House’s recent task force on sexual assault on college campuses has resulted in a greater and broader conversation of these topics in our personal and professional spaces. My question is how to address peers and friends when they make statements that are casually misogynistic/insensitive without being labeled as a (forgive me) “feminazi”? All of my female friends have examples of such behavior from close friends who would defend them to the death if personally hurt by a man but say things like “well when women smile when they are saying no, they’re really just saying try harder” or “well what about men’s rights?” or “women falsely accuse men of rape all the time”? I don’t want to attack my friends but I am uncomfortable just standing by. Any thoughts or tips on how to navigate these conversations without negative repercussions?
YesAllWomen (face this concern)
This section, part II of the response to your question will address specific strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments, regardless of the speaker’s intention. 
One response to the critical analysis of terms like “feminazi” is that they’re just words; they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, especially when it comes to violence prevention. Contrary to this view, violence against women (as well as other genders) occurs because it is tolerated in our culture. Without rehashing the discussion of rape culture in Part I, the things that contribute to the continued tolerance of violence include low conviction rates (only 3% of rapists go to jail), hostility towards survivors when they attempt to report, and blaming victims for their own assaults, just to name a few. All of these things may seem unrelated to offensive or insensitive jokes or comments, but language is powerful; regardless of intent, the more rape jokes that are told and laughed at, the more trivialized rape becomes and the safer rapists feel in their environments.
Historically, we have tried to prevent rape by telling women how not to become victims, which does not work since rape only happens when rapists decide to rape. Current best practices in sexual violence prevention involve the use of an active bystander approach. Being an active bystander can include saying something (alone, with friends, or getting someone else to do it) when a situation doesn’t look right, or making sure a friend who has had too much to drink gets home safe.
All of the following suggestions are based on some assumptions: that the person who made the comment is someone you can approach and speak with, and that they do not have significant power over you in some capacity (i.e. can’t fire you, won’t react violently, etc.). If one of these is not true for your situation, get in touch with someone you trust on campus to talk about it and problem-solve together (MIT resources listed at the end).
In situations where it is safe to do so, I suggest that people speak up when someone makes a comment that is offensive, insensitive and/or misogynistic because it is important to communicate disagreement. How many times have you been in a situation where someone says something offensive and the group’s reaction is to just look at each other, ignore it, and/or change the topic? These types of reactions are forms of passive tolerance. Plus, there is often someone else around who is just as offended by what was said as you are.
General strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments:
1)      Be curious: Ask the person to expand on what they meant by the comment, ask them what prompted it (i.e. what made you think of that?), and/or ask them where that belief comes from.
2)      Cultivate empathy: When someone says something insensitive or hurtful about a group of people, this is a good indicator that they likely have never considered what it might be like to be a part of that group. You can ask the person how they would feel if they belonged to that group and heard that comment, or if they would make the same comment about someone they know personally who is part of that group (a common example is to ask people who blame victims for their assaults to consider how they might feel if some they care about were assaulted).
3)      Call it like you see it: If you are comfortable doing so, don’t hesitate to label a comment (not the person making it) “insensitive” or “misogynistic”, with the caveat that using the word  “misogynistic” tends to result in you having to do some basic education on gender and feminism before you can even discuss the offending comment.
4)      Educate: Often misogynistic comments are based on misinformation, stereotypes, and are factually incorrect. Arm yourself with knowledge, and be prepared to talk about what you know. This is a great way to engage with someone and lessen the chances that they will react in a defensive way so that you can have a conversation about the topic. Most people are reasonable, want to be good people, and are willing to at least discuss their beliefs.
Building on these general concepts, here are some talking points for each of the comments you listed as examples in your question:
1.      “Well when women smile when they are saying no, they’re really just saying try harder.”
·         You might want to ask something like, “What makes you think that?” or “How do you know?”, and then raise the question of why it is that body language is perceived as more credible than verbal communication.
·         In this specific example, you might want to talk about the socialization of women as compared to the socialization of men – women tend to be socialized to be nice, not to upset anyone, and to take care of others – could it be that a woman smiling while saying no is trying to convey that message in a polite way or trying to let the person down easy? Not to mention, living in a world where women are harassed and hurt on a daily basis, wouldn’t it make sense that a refusal given to someone who could potentially hurt you would be conveyed as gently as possible?
2.      “Well what about men’s rights?”
·         Feminism advocates for equal rights and opportunities for everyone, and in doing so works to address the harms that traditional forms of masculinity and femininity cause people of all genders.
·         Men’s rights activists (MRAs) are another thing altogether; this is a group that feels wronged by women as a group and espouses misogyny under the guise of protecting men’s rights (for example, see this discussion of the gunman at UCSB and his interest in MRAs).
·         Furthermore, talking about issues that are specific to women (or predominantly experienced by or disproportionately affect women) is in no way asserting that issues affecting men are less important. Because the social structures that enable sexual assault against women to occur are the same that enable sexual and other types of violence against all genders to occur, the aim is to change these core structures. We need everyone involved to be able to do that in a way that is beneficial on a societal level, so prioritizing the rights of one group over another is counterproductive in reaching this goal.
3.      “Women falsely accuse men of rape all the time.” 
·         I am so glad that you mentioned this, because I hear it constantly. Despite popular belief, this statement is empirically false. False reports of rape occur at the same rate as false reports of other major crimes, despite the fact that there was a “study” that came out a while back claiming that almost half of reported rapes are false accusations. This inaccurate finding and the study it came from have been reviewed and determined to be shoddy science.
Unfortunately, violence and beliefs that foster it are prevalent throughout our society and culture at all levels. This is expressed verbally through comments at the individual level, displayed through abuse and mistreatment within relationships and friendships, and evidenced by the lack of services for male victims of sexual violence, for example. The good news is that we have the ability to change this, and we can start to work on this monumental task by talking about it.
References and further reading:
Atherton-Zeman, B. (2012, Jul 17). “’Nice Guys’ Contribute to Rape Culture.” Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from: http://msmagazine.com/blog/2012/07/17/nice-guys-contribute-to-rape-culture/
Futrelle, D. We Hunted The Mammoth: the New Misogyny, Tracked and Mocked.
Moseley, W. & R. Gomes. (2013, Feb 4). “Ten Things to End Rape Culture.” The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/172643/ten-things-end-rape-culture#
Ridgeway,S. (2014, Mar 10). “25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/
Starling, P. (2009 Oct 8). “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women without Being Maced.” Retrieved from: http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/
Stotzer R. L. (2009). Violence against transgender people: a review of United States data. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 170–179.
For a list of MIT Resources, go to http://sexualmisconduct.mit.edu/resources-assistance

Despite “sexual misconduct” being in the URL, all of these resources also assist with other issues. If you reach out to one and they feel that another resource could be of better service, they will connect you. 

Dear Kate Question on Feminism and Responding to Offensive Comments – Part I

Every month, the GWAMIT Mentoring committee runs an advice column named after Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.
This week, the column was not written by one of the GWAMIT Mentors as usual, but by Kelley Adams at the Violence Prevention and Response office at MIT Medical. To reduce the length, the question is addressed in two parts linked below. This is part I; part II can be found here.
The tragedy in Santa Barbara California has sparked a nationwide debate on misogyny, male privilege, and feminism. This in addition to the White House’s recent task force on sexual assault on college campuses has resulted in a greater and broader conversation of these topics in our personal and professional spaces. My question is how to address peers and friends when they make statements that are casually misogynistic/insensitive without being labeled as a (forgive me) “feminazi”? All of my female friends have examples of such behavior from close friends who would defend them to the death if personally hurt by a man but say things like “well when women smile when they are saying no, they’re really just saying try harder” or “well what about men’s rights?” or “women falsely accuse men of rape all the time”? I don’t want to attack my friends but I am uncomfortable just standing by. Any thoughts or tips on how to navigate these conversations without negative repercussions?
YesAllWomen (face this concern)
Dear YesAllWomen,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and timely question. I will address it in two parts: part I covers feminism (below), and being labeled a “feminazi; and part II will cover specific suggestions for responding to insensitive and/or misogynistic comments.
Sexual assault on college campuses is getting a lot of national attention as an issue right now, and you are absolutely correct in linking this and other types of violence with societal structures of privilege, power and gender. The gunman in the recent UCSB shooting made this connection painfully clear as the media uncovered his videos and  “manifesto,” both of which reek of misogyny and entitlement. Those who commit these kinds of violent acts are often written off as crazy or mentally ill (and often this is true), but, perhaps more importantly, they show us what our society’s current beliefs and norms look like in their most extreme form.
In addition to a long history of tolerated violence and systematized oppression in this country, the variety of messages we as cultural beings and consumers are exposed to create an environment where violence is tolerated. This is what is known as “rape culture.” Rape culture is a concept used to identify problematic ideas and norms in a broader context so they can be altered in order to make our society a safer place. Often this is misperceived as a way of infringing on free speech rights.
To understand rape culture better, first we need to understand that it’s not necessarily a society or group of people that outwardly promotes rape (although it could be).
We’re talking about cultural that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence.
We’re talking about the way that we collectively think about rape.
More often than not, it’s situations in which sexual assault, rape, and general violence are ignored, trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes. [Shannon Ridgeway]
The comments you cite in your questions are examples of rape culture. You mention that such comments may not be intended to offend or cause harm, but it is important to note that the impact of these comments is the same, regardless of intention, and furthermore, they reinforce the existing climate that tolerates violence.
Feminism historically has — and likely will continue to have — negative connotations. Many have attempted to distance themselves from the word “feminism” (see: every utterance of “I’m not a feminist, but…”) not because of the ideals that feminism advocates for, but because of the negative stereotypes that have come to characterize it. In reality, being a feminist means that you don’t believe one’s gender identity (or race, or disability status, or sexual orientation, etc.) should determine their rights and opportunities. Notice the goal of feminism is equality, and not taking away men’s rights as men’s rights activists (MRAs) assert (warning: this links to misogynistic content).
Sexual violence affects all people, but disproportionately so with regard to gender. Around half of transgender people have experienced sexual violence (see Stotzer, 2009 for a review), sexual violence against women is very prevalent (one in five women in college experience attempted or completed rape –not including other forms of sexual assault), and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. This is not to say that only or all men are perpetrators, or that men are not sexually assaulted (one in six men are sexually abused before the age of eighteen), or that violence against men is not important. The goal is to eliminate allforms of violence by altering the social, cultural and institutional structures that condone it.
Returning to your question, I think you are justified in worrying about being shut down if you speak up against misogynistic comments, and calling someone a “feminazi” is a relatively common way of doing this. As Lesley Kinzel puts it, “feminazi” is: “a term designed to belittle and dismiss those who would criticize or even just advocate in favor of thinking harder about underrepresented perspectives and experiences.”
Furthermore, “feminazi” is a term that equates the desire for gender equality with torture and mass genocide, specifically the murder of more than 11 million people. Just think about that comparison for a second.
Generally, information and knowledge are the best tools for responding to comments that are insensitive or bigoted. Try not to get caught up in trying to convince the other person that what you have to say is not “just feminist ranting”; recognize “feminazi” and other such comments for what they are, and continue with what you want to say.  Remember that while you can’t get everyone to see things from your perspective, saying something may result in a seed being planted that opens the person up to change at a later date.
In conclusion, I want to commend you for being willing to say something when you hear these types of comments, as actions like these are what change social norms and move us that much closer to eliminating elements of our culture that foster sexual violence.
Most importantly, give yourself credit for speaking up for what you believe in.
Part II will address strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments and has further resources. It can be found here.

Dear Kate – May 2014 Edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.
Dear Kate,

I’m a female PhD student. During my research work, I feel a bit different when working with a female or a male. With women colleagues (graduate students or post-docs), I seem to feel more comfortable discussing with them and asking for help. But when talking to men, I seem not dare to ask for more help or have deep discussions. I (slightly) hesitate to ask my male colleagues for help because I don’t want people to feel I’m taking advantage of men, also it is a bit weird for me. When discussing with men, if there is a question jumping out of my mind, I hesitate to ask because I think it may be my own slow response or lack of knowledge.
I think there may be some psychological reasons from me. How can I overcome this barrier? How can I feel equally comfortable working (and talking, socializing, etc.) with male as with female?

Thanks a lot!
 
Female PhD

When I was an undergraduate at an engineering program, the ratio of men to women in most of my classes was around 8:1 or worse. This made me feel pretty awkward at first because I was a shy person anyway, and felt even shyer as one of those few women who “dared” to take engineering classes among all the men. I wondered, what must they be thinking about me sitting there, sticking out like a sore thumb? (It doesn’t help that I’m tall, and at 18, I wasn’t yet comfortable with my height!)
 
I worried about this in the case of my male professors, too, but I didn’t yet have proof that anyone doubted my capabilities. Then I started my sophomore year and sat down in a class with 6 women and 56 men. I know the numbers because the professor pointed them out and then proceeded to make a jaw-droppingly crude, sexist joke at the expense of me and the other five women. I won’t repeat it here, but you can be assured I will never forget it.
 
This event forced me to make a decision. I could let this professor’s attitude get to me and despair that my engineering career would be forever marred by derision from men. I could have shrunk back from the challenge. But I didn’t, and instead took what I consider to be a very simple, yet realistic viewpoint: There are some mean, insensitive people in the world. You are going to come across those mean people once in awhile, but they are the exception, not the rule. And if someone, for example, makes an awful joke at your expense, it’s not fair to label the group that person belongs to as a group that will never respect you. That professor didn’t make the joke because he’s a male engineering professor and all male engineering professors are like that. He made it because he’s a jerk, and some people are just jerks.
 
If you don’t speak up and risk getting hurt, you’ll never give people a chance to respect your work and treat you as an equal in the first place. You also noted that you worry about people thinking you’re taking advantage of men when you ask them for help. Try to frame the situation as one in which you can promote equality and respect across all divides, gender and otherwise. Maintaining a gender divide because you don’t want to be taken the wrong way serves only to perpetuate the divide for yourself and others. Crossing the divide allows both parties to benefit, and the only way to do it is to put yourself out there and practice, practice, practice!
 
I want to emphasize the importance of a support system, in this and all the situations you will encounter as a student and a professional. The hesitation you feel is partly a product of the gender issues in our society, but I also believe that most individuals are fundamentally nice, kind people. Identify who those kind people are in your network so that they can help you deal with the unkind ones.
 
Kate H. 
Kate H. did her graduate studies at MIT has been an instructor here for the last three years.
Thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H.! If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of Kates (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions for our Kates to answer! 

Dear Kate – March and April 2014 edition

 

 

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.
 
 
Dear Kate,
MIT is an amazing place — so full of opportunities and so encouragement that I can’t imagine having picked any other university to go to grad school. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve received a number of emails from my department admin (and others around MIT) advertising an abundance of fellowship/scholarship opportunities, but I have I begun to struggle with some deeper philosophical questions regarding the appropriateness of gender-specific awards. Of the last 10 in my inbox that went out to wider mailing lists, 8 were only available for women… now I understand the importance of helping elevate and empower women in academia but it felt to me that these types of gender-exclusive scholarships really should have less and less of a place in higher education. The US already boasts more women in higher education than men and the real challenge lies in the drop-off between grad school and postdoc/faculty. In that sense, wouldn’t it be better to channel these opportunities at bridging that gap rather than enriching the intelligent women who already attend? Have we gone too far? How will we know when we’ve done enough and need to focus on a different location in the pipeline?
Equality Emily
 
Dear Equality Emily,
 
I’m glad your experience as a graduate student has been so positive- I must agree MIT is an amazing place. It is true that overall the number of PhD earned by women has come to equal men in the last 10 years, but that is definitely not the case in all STEM fields. As you pointed out, the gender gap widens drastically immediately after women receive their PhDs. Why this is the case is not simple to answer although two factors stand out: the need to balance career and family and a lack of professional networks. A graduate fellowship is not just check to help your advisor offset the cost of your existence- submitting the application alone is a valuable professional development exercise, if awarded it is significant addition to your CV, it is an extra opportunity to improve skills necessary to be competitive, and it is a professional network. Should more be done to address policies and issues facing women as they leave their PhDs? YES, but we should not remove effective opportunities while trying to improve support at other points in the pipeline. There are many ongoing efforts to bridge gaps in academic post-PhD careers, such as the NSF’s ADVANCE program, the Career-Life Balance Initiative and grants to cover costs for childcare but there must be a shift in the academic culture along with policy changes for these efforts to be successful. I believe we will have done enough when the demographics of our academic leadership reflect our communities and support the diverse needs of the people those institutions impact.
 
Kate M.
Kate M. obtained her Ph.D. in Biology and is currently a program manager at MIT.
 
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate M.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions for our Kates to answer!