Boys vs. Girls

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I am fortunate enough to have a great group of researchers under my wing this year. With the collaborative effort of my PI and I, we are herding like them jello on a hot day–it’s actually going a-ok for the moment and I’m pretty happy with how things are going. These researchers all happen to be females and so am I. The PI they work for is male. They get regular face time with me each week for several hours as we collect data, work in schools, and generally travel around. They get one hour a week with the PI for a weekly research meeting where it’s all business. As it should be.

The interesting part working with a group of females is that sometimes I feel like the male counterpart doesn’t quite know how to hang with us. It’s not weird or inappropriate, but minus the amount of facetime, he sticks to business. While I see the value in that, these undergraduates want to talk to someone. They want to be mentored. They want the human connection. Call it a generational thing if you want, but they thrive on interacting now that they’re comfortable. I stumbled across this article from HBR and it resonated and validated my thoughts. It’s not that the PI is a bad guy, he’s just not into the emotional stuff, he’s into research. And shouldn’t he be?

A few weeks ago during our weekly meeting, the PI was caught in another meeting that back logged his schedule. Instead of wasting the time or canceling, I sat down with the research team to check in, see how everyone was, and where the research was heading. After completing business, the students began to chat for a few minutes. I figured they would leave shortly as we were done, but they stayed with me for almost an hour. I was surprised by this initially, but once we started conversing, I was surprised by how fast the time went. Empathy and awareness of others is a quality that I don’t always associate myself with. I have learned to be better about empathizing with people as I’ve grown older, but it’s not my strong point. My PI is even less empathetic by nature, making me look like a sainted academic in some cases.

As we chatted, we started talking about future plans, careers, and other ‘girl talk’ which was pretty harmless. After the hour, one of my researchers looked at me and thanked me. I asked her why she was thanking me. Her reply was simple, “you took the time that no one else will right now. my family is overseas (military) and they’re not always available for these kinds of chats. you make me feel less crazy about graduating and not always knowing what I should do next.” I told her I was happy to listen and the team left.

The following week we were all crammed in a van heading out to collect data and one of my students said, “I have two questions, one related to research and one not related at all.”  I said, “ok, ask me the non-related one first.”  She asked me how I’d become such a good cook. She had made a couple recipes off of my other blog and said they were really good. Was she pandering? Brown nosing? Being genuine?  I was honest and said, “practice.” I then shared a bunch of stories about a temperamental oven I had once where I kept burning cakes. I took the time to share my failures before my accomplishments in the kitchen on purpose. By showing and telling these young ladies (and gentlemen in the van) that I had failed and burned things hundreds of times before I ever thought about blogging the very ‘best’ of my culinary work, I tried to tune into the fact that cooking could be like life or research. Not always perfect. By being authentic instead of flashing my bravado around about my latest kitchen creation, I hope that it displayed the fact that I am human. I then shared the fact that my ‘kitchen aid fund’ had been depleted because I needed some new tires on my car. Priorities people.

I enjoyed this paragraph quite a bit: “From an early age, men often overvalue their strengths, while women too frequently underrate theirs. In reality, we all struggle to feel a stable sense of value and self-worth. Men often defend against their doubts by moving to grandiosity and inflation, while women more frequently move to insecurity and deferral. Men seek more often to win, women to connect. So long as the path to power is connected to proving you’re bigger and badder, it’s no surprise that men have mostly prevailed.”

I see this time and time again. In myself, in my peers, and in my students in middle schools. They have the tools yet they undervalue their worth as an individual. When did this happen? Should I stop seeking to connect and move into the category where winning become paramount? As a new faculty, it can be extremely difficult to navigate power issues, politics, and stakeholders in your new professional circle.  Can it be as simple as boys vs. girls? Armed with this new knowledge, how do new faculty bridge the gap of gender and identity to create their own space in academia?  This is a tough set of questions for me and my brain.

How do you connect with students? Do you skip building relationships and move into productivity? How do you manage the expectations from all the parties who are invested in you?

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