– by Synapse –
One of my favorite quotes comes from the Women in the World Summit in 2012. It’s not about science, it’s about politics, but it really resonated with me.
“A guy is at a law firm or he owns his own business, and someone says to him, ‘Hey, you should really think about running for state legislature.’ And he goes and looks in the mirror and says, ‘Yes I should.’ Women will hear that same — if they even have that same conversation, which they don’t as often — and will look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, but I don’t know that much about foreign policy,’ or, ‘Oh, I haven’t been doing my job long enough.’ Women may need to get a little bit of the phony self-confidence that it takes to run for office.”
— Anne Kornblut, Deputy Political Editor, Washington Post
I love that Anna Kornblut describes the male side of this as “phony self-confidence” rather than the female side as a lack of confidence. I find the woman in this scenario being realistic, considering aspects of herself that would make her an inadequate candidate. The man in this scenario doesn’t pause. He does not consider any aspects of himself that would make him right or wrong or inadequate. He dives right in. Almost as if to say “Why not? I’ll figure it out.” Pausing stalls momentum. Being realistic causes pausing.
The consequences of being realistic while men simply forge ahead is evident throughout the professional world.
Women are less likely to ask for a raise. So we get paid less.
The way I often feel that this quote applies to women in science, especially at the stage I currently find myself, is in the question “Can I run my own lab?”. For those of us continuing to push down the academic path, this is our next transition point, seeking the tenure-track position. Staring down into the abyss of complete independence that we have worked so hard for. And hesitating.
We do not actually need to rely on phony self-confidence to answer this question though. At this point, we should be well stocked with some we-freaking-earned-it self confidence. We have our PhD. We have years of postdoc experience under our belt. We have mentored students. We have worked independently on research projects and designed our own studies. We have published. We have done everything (and sometimes more!) than our male colleagues at the same level.
But the angst-ridden question of “Can I run my own lab?” has come into conversation many times with female friends and colleagues. (Interestingly, it is a very rare topic with male counterparts). And, despite its frustrating female leaning tendency, amongst friends, this angst seems natural to express.
But when we let it escape from this safe zone and we allow ourselves to pause and reflect and consider any bit of inadequacy, this question can affect how we apply for tenure-track jobs. For one, we may hold back from applying to certain jobs that we feel are out of reach. Two, when we do apply and score an interview, the question will inevitably be turned on us… with a spotlight. “Can this candidate run her/his own lab” is THE question that faculty members like to drill during the interview process. And here, there is no room for angst. No room for lack of confidence in the answer being anything but a firm YES.
I can pump myself up with the best of them to find the confidence in my research capabilities and my long-term project goals. Yet I still hesitate to apply for jobs that I consider a stretch. And I know I have wavered during interviews when I face off against those faculty members who seem to enjoy finding a weak point to twist. These are the times when true confidence is no longer sufficient and the phony self-confidence needs to take over.
We need that phony self-confidence because there will always be a small seed of doubt. Perhaps we can blame higher estrogen levels for allowing that seed to grow and overwhelm our true confidence while shaking our fists that our male counterparts benefit from testosterone’s magic doubt-seed suppressing capabilities.
But perhaps we just need to learn how to fake it. Fling ourselves into the abyss headfirst. No looking back. Apply for that job. Interview without any exposing weak points. Allow no time for pause and reflection.
Look confidently in the mirror and declare “Hell yeah I can run my own lab”.
And then walk away.