Looking in the Mirror

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.

Women are less likely to apply for jobs or promotions that they consider themselves unqualified for.  So we don’t get them.

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.

This entry was posted in Biology, Diversity, Increasing Diversity in Science, Mom in Science, Women in Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Looking in the Mirror

  1. anonymous says:

    In my moments of dispair I remind myself of this:
    Do you have the skills? No. But also: NOBODY in your situation has these skills. You and anybody you compete with, did not have the opportunity to learn the skills it takes to lead a lab.

    Are you able to become the person you need to be? You can not know. Because you have not been in this situation. Yes, you can compare your inner self-image with the outer image you get from your advisers. But, really, do you know if you can not become a person like this? Look back at where you came from. You are not the silly high school teen or disoriented undergrad anymore, you are very different from then. You have become a professional. How will you be when you pick up the reigns in your own lab for a while? You will not know until you did it.

    Do I have the expertise to judge whether I have the potential to become that person? No. Those people on the committee however, do. THEY are the people to convince. Not you. It is pretty impudent to think you know better than those who evaluated so many other people and actually went through the process themselves. You can not know what they see or don’t see in you and what kind of personality/teaching style/research orientation combination they think fits their institution. Your job is to show who you are and what you can do. You are supposed to showcase your strengths and if it comes to it, show that you are aware of your weaknesses.

    What about rejection? It is not about you personally! Uncounted unknowns play into committee decisions. Many people who made it into a faculty position went through many application processes and then got the job, still. The take home message from this can only be that there is no one personality/skill set/research interest combination that fits every job. Don’t even bother to figure that out. Reflect on your performance (did I showcase my strengths and what type of researcher/person I am?), practice you job talk and your chalk talk and keep doing it.

    I am convinced there are institutions out there that will consider you a good fit. You just need to find them. Good luck!

  2. gibbs says:

    There’s a great quote by Hugh Laurie that I remind myself of whenever I feel I might not be prepared:

    “It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”
    ― Hugh Laurie

  3. Kirsti says:

    I tihnk there’s also merit in looking at the differences in this situation between women and men, and how they might be advantageous evolutionarily, and that we might learn to value those differences in our culturally advanced and modern “we can do anything” world.
    Men, evolutionarily, in the division of labour, take risks to hunt food, to provide for families and to protect their kin. They also die doing this. Women on the other hand, have provided a safer, more realistic and long-term strategy for their family and themselves. However, they can be just as successful at the same jobs, but go about doing them in very different ways.
    I would love to think that perhaps the realistic, safer, less narcisistic way of achieving, managing, progressing, building and learning is as valid (if not more so as women are probably – evolutionarily – less likely to die, burn out etc and will inhabit/inherit the earth) than a more male-centric way of saying “sure, I can do it”.
    Having men and women working together, and valuing the way each of them approach problems, solve them and progress, is what I would like to work in. I don’t want to be more like a man and “get some of their phony confidence”. This marketing facade is the phony bit to me, and I know plenty of academic women who refuse to change too.

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