Early-Career Women Scientists’ Discuss Assertiveness
This is a fictional discussion among several early-career women life scientists following a talk on assertiveness at a Biotechnology Center event. The dialogue is inspired by comments made by real-life women scientists.
Bonita Morales, PhD: An expert in non-transgenic gene editing. Just two years after finishing a postdoc, she is creating a startup business using a disease-resistant grapevine cultivar that she developed.
Monique Aster, PhD: Genetics researcher with five years of experience working at Regenuvate, a cell and gene therapy startup.
Sarah Johnson, PhD: A protein scientist who engineers proteins and peptibodies at a large biotech firm. She would like to get more involved in using them in clinical applications.
Sue Grabowski: Graduate student who is finishing up a PhD in microbiology and is interested in fermentation science. She is frustrated that it looks like getting her degree will take longer than she anticipated.
I picked up a few tips on how I can choose words to sound more confident. For example, I could stop describing my ideas by starting with “Maybe.” But honestly, I’m not sure if changing my language or acting more assertive will solve the whole problem. Women scientists experience bias that less assertive male colleagues never experience.
Right. I think it’s more than women needing to learn how to be more assertive. It helps, sure. But we need to know what to do when that isn’t enough, when our ideas are still overlooked or ignored.
Yes, I’m offended when people say that we need to change ourselves to compensate for bias against women. When women are assertive, some people perceive it as aggression. However, the same assertiveness is often considered acceptable in a man. That doesn’t seem fair. I think biased people and systems need to change, not us.
Well said. System change is happening slowly but too slowly. We can help change happen faster by supporting each other. I like the idea of publicly supporting and agreeing with ideas put forward by female colleagues.
Yes, supporting each other is important.
Do any of you find that some male colleagues take advantage of your niceness? One man often asks me to take his turn at cleaning shared lab equipment but never returns the favor. It may sound trifling, but little things like that add up. [Everyone groans and nods.]
They might try it with me, but I don’t let them get away with it. I negotiate a favor that I want in exchange and even get it in writing.
Oh, no! You might come off as being aggressive! [They all laugh.]
This is helping me think of other common problems. For example, what can we do about how women tend to get less credit than men on publications for our research contributions?
You need to be proactive. Tell the primary authors about your contribution and expectations early, like this: “I hear you are writing up our project. I’ll send you a summary of my contributions to help you determine where my name belongs in the list of authors. Let me know if you have any questions.” Or even better, talk about authorship before you do all the work.
Nice! And there’s no “maybe” about it!
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