A good little girl

Published October 03 2016

A few years ago, some paperwork was supposed to be submitted by a deadline as part of a large collaboration. I was stressing out about it. A senior collaborator mocked me for wanting to make the deadline “like a good little girl.”

You know what? He was right. As a woman in science who’s always done well in school, I always have been a good little girl who played by the rules. I see the same thing with the students in my undergraduate courses. Young women are very rare, but the average performance quality of the women is much higher than the average of the male students. The good female students follow the class rules, while many of the good male students do not. The good female students come to lectures, come to discussion and start their homework on time. With good male students, there are those who are “good little boys,” but there are a number who really have atrocious study habits, who skip classes and then cram and bother me mercilessly right before the exam to try to make up for what they missed.

Even in my research group, the young women are uniformly the cream of the crop. They write the best-quality, well-commented code. They are more methodical and less sloppy in their research and generally follow instructions better than my male students.

With smart male students, I sometimes have to battle over the stupidest issues. Recently, I told a student to try something because the simulation wasn’t working. He grumbled because he “knew” it wouldn’t work; I said he had to do it anyway. Of course, it worked. I never have to put up with such crap with female students. If I ask that they do something, they go and do it; they also build upon it and develop it in different directions or augment it or try something new. There is never that step that’s like pulling teeth to get them simply to do what I say. I am not saying all male students are disobedient — far from it; rather, if I have to pull my hair out because someone is obstinate, it’s always a boy, never a girl.

I am sure these experiences have to do with how boys and girls are socialized. Across cultures, women are taught to be people-pleasers and to defer to authority. (Men from certain cultures are taught the latter as well, and it shows in how they respond to coaching.) The challenge is to get women to balance this deep-seated deference with speaking their own minds, developing and sharing their own ideas, and getting recognition for them.

Now, where am I going with this? Say a good little girl grows up and gets a faculty position. The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service than necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, and c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.

I am definitely guilty of vastly overestimating how much certain service roles would benefit my career. For example, I sat on several panels by the same program manager at the National Science Foundation where I thought I eventually would get funding. I never did, and he left, so it was all just a waste of time.

Similarly, there were university awards that I felt my service on certain committees might help me get. I did get them. But when I saw my colleagues who completely eschew all service getting similar awards, I felt like I had wasted a ton of time for no good reason.

I review papers for journals because I feel that if I am to be entitled to thoughtful reviews of my own work, I should do the same for others. It turns out there are plenty of people who have high expectations for the reviews they receive but review very little themselves because they feel it’s not a good use of their time. A colleague with a huge group literally laughed at me for reviewing a lot for a journal where we both publish. “You realize that’s not going to help you get your own papers published, right?” he chuckled.

It is entirely possible to be very successful and completely selfish. These people are the ones who are happy to let the likes of me, the good little girls, who feel insecure about their belonging in the enterprise of science, do more than their fair share in a misguided attempt to be accepted.

Any recognition or warmth or fuzziness that your willingness to please and serve and make deadlines and generally play by the rules will produce for you, the good little girl, takes too much of your time that should instead be spent on activities that directly advance your professional agenda. If you feel excellent teaching and service are important and if you truly enjoy these activities, go ahead and do them. But please don’t do more than your fair share because you think the sacrifice will benefit your career, other than in a very small and indirect way.

Are you postponing working on your own papers or proposals, or not relaxing over the weekend, because you are constantly backlogged with service obligations and teaching?

As someone who does that constantly, I am telling you: Just don’t.

If you have tenure, follow this list:

  • Go right this minute and put a “Not available to review” status at journals that often prompt you to review for them. Commit to rejecting all new review requests, no matter who sent them, for the next two months.
  • Get off all committees that you were put on in the past month. Or the past six months. Cite a scheduling or personal conflict. Apologize profusely.
  • Stop attending faculty meetings till the end of the semester. Cite a scheduling or, better yet, a research-related conflict.
  • Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all papers you have in the works with your students, and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each. Meet with students at least once about each of those papers in the coming two weeks.
  • Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all proposals you have in the works and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each.
  • Decide on a small number of work trips you will take each year.
  • Commit to two months of no work email on the weekends. (It can be done, or so I hear.)
  • Commit to two months of reading one nontechnical book per week. (Or running. Or yoga. Or blogging. Or anything that you can do just for you.)
  • Vouch never again to miss out on family fun (or quality time with your dog/marathon/whatever) because of stupid service.

People seem not to realize that good little girls become awesome grown women. Even the women seem occasionally to forget it. We could and should be just as self-centered as any mischievous little boy.

Sydney Phlox Sydney Phlox is the pen name of a professor in a physical science field at a major research university in the U.S. Phlox blogs at Xykademiqz.com, where this piece originally appeared on March 26, 2016. Phlox’s book “Academaze” was published in 2016 by Annorlunda Books.