Telling Women (of any age) to Calm Down

Jan 29 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I've had someone, from another land, come and talk to me about problems in her lab. She's not the PI, she's an older, experienced tech. Someone who knows what "He's dead, Jim" means. Her PI is young and not tenured. The PI is jumpy.

And jumpy is a kind and gentle way to put it. I do know the PI, a little. I'd say the PI is borderline neurotic. I'd also say there are underlying reasons for this. Not excuses, observations. The PI is worried about tenure. The PI has issues with her research program. If the PI came up for tenure now, it would not be A Good Thing. But, the PI also has time (3 years), brains, and good ideas. The PI works hard. The PI does not have to be jumpy.

Part of me would like to say to this PI: calm the fuck down. But I can't and I won't. If anyone says to me now, let alone back when I was a whelp, "calm down", I (now) stifle (only sometimes) my preferred response which is "I am calm" and then punch them in the throat, so that I break their hyoid and larynx and cause them to asphyxiate. If I am in a slightly good mood, I give them my best steely eye (which is saying I am about to punch you in throat, but you're not worth it), and say "telling a woman to calm down is insulting, patronizing and feeding into gender-stereotypic roles about behavior and enthusiasm".  I say to them "my passion and enthusiasm are me, and I'm dreadfully sorry that you don't feel the same way about your science /work / exercise regime".

So what to do about this PI? I believe she would be happier if she could look at the tenure issues somewhat differently. I know her lab would be happier. And while a drawer of chocolate is a good thing, it won't consistently solve the problems of a jumpy PI. My current solution: I will take the PI out for a glass of wine. I will give her a place, in confidence, outside of her tenure hierarchy to unload. I will refrain from advice unless asked, and just try to show that the world is not coming to an end. At least not in the next three years.


9 responses so far

  • scitrigrrl says:

    I hope if/when I need a talking to, I have someone like you to take me out for a glass of wine and provide some perspective.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    I wish I lived in your town so we could go out for a glass of wine. 🙂

  • Nicky says:

    Best blog post I have ever read.

  • Glasses of wine (er, scotch) with my blogdaughter are the best. I highly recommend it.

  • Established PI says:

    You are doing the right thing by helping her calm down by giving advice and guidance. I don't see why you don't want to give unsolicited advice, though. I find that too many junior PIs don't know what questions to ask or think that some subjects are out of bounds. Don't give advice on how (or why) to relax, but instead give practical advice on dealing with the issues that are putting her on edge. In particular, if there is some way that you can advise or empower her to take control of something that she feels is out of her control, that can go a long way towards making her feel more secure. Even if what she is experiencing is free-floating anxiety rather than concern about any particular issue, find a way to focus her on some sort of actionable item (there is always something we can all be doing differently). And buy her an extra glass of wine.

  • B Kiddo says:

    wow. this is fantastic. thank you for giving me the words with which to respond. I have students and postdocs who are told to 'calm down' and this will help us all.

    And yes - good for you for taking her out and treating her like the adult she is.

  • Jaws says:

    If I can suggest an intermediate case that I tried at random in my misspent youth — in an even-more-gender-role-poisonous environment than academia has had for at least half a century (military officers) — and seemed to work, despite my own Y-chromosomeness:
    (1) Meet the junior, Y-chromosome-deficient officer who is demonstrating some confidence-with-role problems for lunch in a quiet place, such as the officers' club;
    (2) Have a nice meal (no alcohol on duty!), and some non-work-related conversation;
    (3) Ask if the junior would like to discuss confidence-with-role problems without calling them that.

    Note that I said "discuss." Note that it was left — as much as a higher-ranking to lower-ranking individual conversation can ever be! — as a matter of choice. And note that it's open-ended so that the conversation could be picked up at another time, such as when the junior has later decided "I'm now ready to discuss this, because _I'm_ choosing the time and location etc." It seemed to work, as both individuals with whom I tried this got more focused, got more confident, and eventually made colonel below the zone (= early promotion to full professor) despite having raised worries as lieutenants whether they'd ever make major (= tenure).

    And that's my unsolicited advice regardless of gender.

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