Sometimes people are just assholes

Jan 11 2012 Published by under academia, gender

The other day my new lab had a happy hour to ring in the new year. I have also just landed a new grad student (WOO HOO) and also convinced a super-awesome high-level research scientist* to join my group. I'm seriously psyched. 🙂

While my newly-expanded group was all sitting around a table I realized all of the sudden that we are overwhelmingly female. Including undergrads and rotation students right now we are 7 women and 1 man. Weird! When I first started my lab we were pretty close to 1:1 but when numbers are small it is easy to fluctuate pretty quickly, I guess. I'm really happy with my group right now. Everyone is engaged and works together really well. I don't really care how many X or Y chromosomes we have.

Shortly after noticing that my lab had skewed in one direction someone on twitter made a comment about how the gender distribution of their lab was skewed (I'm not sure who started the thread-the first one in my timeline is @27andaphd). As expected with low n numbers, there were labs that were mostly male, and some that were mostly female. No big deal, right. But then the conversation took a weird turn. Someone* mentioned that they were in a male-dominated group and that this was good because they don't like to work with women because "I'm a hard ass". This was followed by @agreenmonster who tweeted:

I have a big problem here. This is an idea that gets kicked around a lot. The idea that women who are faculty are somehow not as rigorous as their male colleagues. And the ones that are competent are mean or psycho or evil and "pull up the ladder" because they don't want junior women to succeed.


Yes, there are some women academics that are assholes. There are also men down the hall that are assholes. Sometimes, people are just assholes. It has nothing to do with their gender. But there is a common stereotype that women are worse than men. And THIS is the kind of attitude that makes it hard to be a women in the sciences. If you get along with everyone you are "soft" and probably not rigorous. Maternal, maybe. But if you are a hard-ass then you are a "psycho" that is "pulling up the ladder". This is a ridiculous double standard. If this is what you expect from a woman scientist, then this is what you will perceive. It will be a self-fulfilling prophesy And it is FUCKED UP.

There are some shitty mentors out there. Some of them are women. But not all of them. If we only highlight the women that are assholes this leads to a perception that women and men are different. This sets the bar for all women, and it makes the whole academic situation harder. Because now, if you are a woman in academia you might try to behave in such a way that everyone won't think that you are "psycho". Maybe you try not to be aggressive or "bitchy" (the feminine of aggressive, to some). Now you are perceived as less rigorous or engaged. You can't win.

We have to stop this. If you hear this kind of bullshit, call it out. The twitter conversation about this topic ended with everyone agreeing that assholes gonna be assholes. And hopefully convinced some folks that they can't let these kinda statements just fly by without comment.

There is no such thing as a "male" way to do science. There is just culture and the way groups interact. I'm kinda a hard-ass, myself. I've been told that my lab has a pretty "male" culture**. In my group, I expect a lot of people. It's OK to be wrong, because if you are never wrong you are Doing It Wrong. But you have to be willing to defend your ideas and recognize when your arguments fail. Sometimes discussions get pretty animated (even aggressive). But we all understand that, while it is OK to be wrong, it is not OK to be disrespectful. You can tell someone their idea is full of shit, but it's not personal. Attacking ideas is expected, attacking people is not tolerated. There is nothing "male" about that. It is just kick-ass science.


*since they have a protected twitter account I won't list them by name here.

**don't worry-I also make sure the person that said this knew how fucked up it was.

NOTE ADDED IN PROOF: Hermie totally scooped me!!! Make sure that you go and read her views on this, which are spot-on.

[edited to remove my html cheating]

32 responses so far

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Dispiriting that this shit even needs to be said, but indeed it does...

    Then there was the LoR I read last night, for a Chinese trainee in a US lab. The (male) PI described the data that the trainee had "harvested." Bilious.

  • Pascale says:

    Unfortunately, the Queen Bee still exists. Until women reach a critical mass in a given field, some women will succeed by "not being like those others" and will pull up the ladder behind them.
    Many women considered assholes just do not fit the "mommy-bff" stereotype that others expect. Those others can fuck off; I embrace my inner bitch, that part of me that refuses to act like a doormat.

    • gerty-z says:

      I'm not sure that there aren't also "King Bees"-male PIs that act like assholes and try to keep others from surpassing them in stature, etc. Women, like men, do what they feel like they must to be successful. For some people, male and female, this ends up making them act like an asshole. I think it does everyone harm to highlight the women that are assholes, but treat it as one possible expected behavior of men.

  • tmbtx says:

    What's the saying about more variance within a group than between groups? This is bizarre to me that people try to split male/female tendencies. Looking back at my supervisors:

    1 was timid and never pushed back on obvious bullshit
    2 was an avid consensus builder
    3 was the bully to those not seen as equal
    4 was a by-the-book, meet your deadlines, keep your calendar up to date type
    5 told me there was not way I'd get my MS in time with such a shoddy first draft
    6 didn't even read my first draft
    7 was an uber-asshole that attempted to sabotage my PhD attempt

    I'd be really curious to see how people would guess male vs female. Numbers not in order.

  • thehermitage says:

    Geez Gerty, stealing mai pings w/ ur hoity toity professorness! No fairs! I demand a recount!!111!

  • geeka says:

    I'll out myself here. I'm the protected account. I originally entered the convo because I was interested in the ratio of males/females in the different disciplines. (I tend to be only woman in groups/classes unless it's a strict biology class, which I've never been able to figure out.) I was also reading the convo as people complaining about their labs, which, even under the best of circumstances, happens.

    What I (think I) said was that I don't traditionally work well in a group of females. (may not be exact quote, but generally that's my experience, and I can't find the exact twitter post, but I've said that exact phrase before). Part of that was because I'm a "hard ass" (as defined by others). This does not mean that I don't like to work with women. This doesn't mean I seek out men to work with. I LOVE to work with women that have their eye on the prize. I LOVE to work with women that can talk about science. I LOVE to work with ANYONE that can do these things.

    In my experiences (3 labs and some other related jobs), I've not had a good working relationship with my female coworkers. I *really* like where I am now. I'm not sure if it's the specific guys, the range in disciplines, the location, or being outside of academia. In fact, it could all be me that's the different one. I'm the only one from this place, I'm the newest hire, I'm the only one without children etc.

    I'm a hardass because I don't let people run over me and I voice an opinion. Some people see that as a negative, I don't. I want to change this idea. Part of this is also teaching younger scientists to speak up. I'm so sick of seeing bright students not fight for things. I don't know if they feel outvoiced or afraid or what, but I'm of the opinion that you don't have the right to complain, if you don't do something to change it. (Which, I actively participate in, in all aspects of my life.)

    I'm a hardass because I expect that when someone goes on baby/adoption leave, and they are responsible for ordering things for the lab, they should make arrangements other than "don't order anything for 6 weeks". I'm a hardass because I don't want to go to a sex-toy party at a co-workers house. I'm a hardass because I keep trying to hammer into someone that it's not okay to leave your kid in the hall because you are in the hood. I'm a hardass because I don't take vacations. I'm a hardass because I make my deadlines. I'm a hardass because I do more than what I'm supposed to do. But I'm also a hardass for sitting in the waiting room with a tech because her boyfriend beat her up. I'm a hardass for taking someone to the ER because she broke a 2L flask and needed stitches in her hand and could barely move b/c she was having a panic attack. In short, I'm ok with being a hardass.

    I've had my fair share of not getting respect from men. I've also had wonderful female coworkers (who are now assistant professors and doing really well). So, I, an n=1, work better with the current group of people that happen to be men in a different discipline, than I have with 80% of the women I have ever worked with. I'm not saying that I work better or worse with anyone because of what's in their pants. Yes, my group is male dominated, yes, I like it better than the woman dominated groups in my past, yes, I work better in this group, and yes, I am a hard ass: I stand by my tweet.

    I also understand with what Gerty is saying in this post: Gender does not make you any more or less a scientist and we should drop the comparisons. Or, as said by another: assholes are going to be assholes.

    I just wanted to clarify the tweet.

    • gerty-z says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Geeka! I think that we basically agree. Every group is different, and I would not argue that there are some women and women-dominated groups that are a pain in the ass. If you are in a good situation with a group of guys, then I'm just cheering. I just want to make sure people realize that when they highlight the fact that a dysfunctional group was full of women they are perpetuating the stereotypes. There are plenty of male-dominated dysfunctional groups, too. But it is pretty rare (maybe impossible?) to hear someone say that they just "don't like working with men".

      • geeka says:

        And I totally appreciate the foresight of not outing me b/c of protected tweets. 🙂

        I do think that we agree. It's weird that people highlight differences between men and women. Part of me thinks that we (as a society) are becoming more polarizing than not, and it's sad that it's this way. (Seriously, blue state/red state wasn't that pervasive 10 years ago). It's easy to fall back on the stereotypes, and it's even easier when you are brought up this way. (For instance: according to my family, I have a man's job, and that's why I don't have kids, and am failing as a woman).

        I think it probably goes both ways though, I do hear a lot of people saying that they don't like working with men (none of these ppl are scientists, FWIW). I think that for any group, there is some other group that doesn't like the first one.

        • gerty-z says:

          And I totally appreciate the foresight of not outing me b/c of protected tweets.

          well of course!

          I'm glad that you came by and joined in the discussion. Thanks!

    • Zuska says:

      I'm a hardass because I don't want to go to a sex-toy party at a co-workers house... I'm a hardass because I don't take vacations.

      Sex toys are awesome! Maybe you want to go the co-worker's sex toy party, maybe you don't, I don't see how either decision makes you a hardass. If you're not going because you want to prove you never leave the lab, especially for frivolous pursuits like sex toy parties, then you are a dumbass.

      As for not taking grandfather went to work in the coal mines at age nine. NINE. When they still used mules to haul the coal wagons out of the mines. He told us once "If we found a mule that was stubborn and wouldn't work, we left it alone. If we found a good mule that worked hard, we worked it till it dropped dead. Don't be that mule."

      • gerty-z says:

        I <3 Zuska. so much

      • geeka says:

        While there are situations in which you can be friends with coworkers, I feel that you don't have to be friends with every coworker. I did the requisite 'baby shower/marriage/housewarming/holiday gift', but for pete's sake, I am not going to buy every damn thing you sell, especially if you are selling hoagies for your kid's daycare and I don't eat meat. I don't know, maybe that makes me hard-hearted.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Indeed, I think the 1st tweet was mine, mentioning the ratio of women to men at work. We just got word that we're getting a new staff person, again, a man. Nothing wrong with that, except that it makes me wonder why is my field so underrepresented. I've seriously thought out loud why is it that there aren't as many women in our field. I love what I do, I find it awesome and engaging and wonderful and I think the field would benefit from having not only white-bearded dudes, but also some white-(bearded?) dudettes.

    The person that was in my position before was considered by many a bitch. I first I thought so too (guilty as charged). Then, as the months piled up I could see that unless I was a "bitch" to a few inconsiderate assholes in the lab, things would not get done, be damaged or be out of place (I seriously wish I could ban a few idiots from our premises).

    I've had both female and male mentors, and I can honestly say that my best mentor was a woman, she watched out for me, was never mean and if she had to put her "business pants" on to get stuff done, she wasn't afraid of doing so, even if some ill-intentioned people called her a bitch behind her back. My current mentor is .... special, he's a man, and has no tact, no manner, he can be brash. I don't hate working for him, but I do dislike his attitude. He's not afraid of saying no, or admitting failure ... those don't exist in his mind. And I get the brunt of the guilt when things don't work, even if I did as suggested. DFS.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Wow, I've missed a lot during my twitter silence!

    In one of the labs that I worked in, a tech (also female) did not like helping the female post-docs in the lab, because 1. women can't handle managing people, 2. large groups of women can't work together, 3. most women that she worked with never fawned over her the way that the men did*.

    However the original tweet was meant, the perception that women can be difficult to work with hurts everyone--because it is pervasive.

    My lab is currently all female, except for one male. This didn't happen 'on purpose', it just is. I'm sure there are times throughout the day that I'm called, bff, assshat, bitch, nicest person in the no particular order and likely interchangebly. I doubt this has to do with having a v vs a p. Related: we don't have pillow fights in the lab and there has yet to be a cat fight.....just sayin'

    *I added this last bit, not to totally be snarky, but because it was a inescapable part of her personality

  • FunkDoctorX says:

    Also posted at Hermitage...

    At a theoretical level I do not disagree with you one bit. Men and women have equal rights to be assholes and should not be judged differently if they are.

    However, I think it's worth taking a step back and realizing that, as humans, we just can't help stereotyping. It's built into how we learn to successfully function in complex social environments. For better or worse, when you need to rapidly make a judgment about someone you are going to make it based on the available information: sex, race, how they are dressed and how they hold themselves.

    Now I don't think you'll disagree that there is a significantly greater proportion of women that are warm and caring than men. Sure it's a stereotype, but it's a stereotype for a reason, because it is true in more instances than it is false (although this is not necessarily true of all stereotypes, to be sure). Thus, when a woman acts like an asshole, there is a greater level of disconnect between the stereotype and the actions, generating a higher level of cognitive dissonance in the observer leading to labels such as "bitch".

    I think it is disingenuous of us all to sit here and pretend we don't stereotype people based on gender. It might not be right, and we may fight against the tendency, but to pretend it is not there would be to lie to ourselves and deny our humanity.

    • gerty-z says:

      Stereotypes are very difficult to "unknow". I have no idea if women are actually more warm and caring AS SCIENTISTS than men. But I have seen how if just one woman acts even slightly aggressive (or less door-mat like) then all women get labelled as "psychos" that are pulling up the ladder after them. I think this is a destructive stereotype that is not necessarily grounded in reality. And I wish it would go away.

  • AGreenMonster says:

    Great post, Gertyz!

    Seeing as I threw the initial match to this discussion (swoosh!), I thought I should just add a comment.

    First of all, I totally agree that when a supervisor (or any one else for that matter) is a woman and an ass, the part that should be stressed is the fact that they are asses *not* the fact that they're women. I do believe in the equality of the asses. 🙂

    I apologize again for how my tweet was taken- I never intended for it to mean that any competent women supervisors are mean or psychos or not as rigorous as their male colleagues. It didn't even cross my mind that so much would be read into that tweet really. However, admittedly I probably didn't think very carefully either about what I was trying to say at that time either...

    Being a woman myself, I always wonder how much of what I do is because I'm one versus because I'm just me. It's not like I walk around thinking- “ok, I'm going to cook this food because I'm a woman”, or “I'm going to be a scientist because my XX genotype makes me a prime candidate to be one” or “I’ve got to x because I need prove something to people who think women can’t do this or that”. I’m usually either “hungry”, “trying to figure out the meaning of life”, or “got something to prove to myself only”.

    As we later discussed that night, it would be interesting to find out if there are indeed different advising styles between women and men. Understanding, of course, that the sample size of women advisors may not be as high as necessary to make appropriate correlations, and there would be lots variables (culture, impact of previous supervisor’s style, etc) to be taken in account. As a supervisor, does the fact that your student may be of a certain gender ever play a role in how you deal with them- even if it’s in a positive way? Does the fact that you might worry that someone will think you’re doing something because you’re a woman, impact how you actually supervise a woman versus a man?

    As much as we might all hate stereotypes, what "data" was used to come up with them that people probably “recognize” the type whether or not they agree with it?
    I’m also curious whether there really is no basis on the idea that interactions within a group of women vs a group of men vs a coed group may be different? You overhear lots of conversations where some people may wonder, for example, whether bringing in a treat to work is a bad idea simply because they’re a woman and might set the “wrong” example.

    I realize though that many comments will simply be anecdotes not real studies. 😛 I've often noticed (albeit this observation is very skewed by the fact that it was observed during middle/high school- not a very good time for most) that so many women are quite skilled at psychological warfare (the teenage girl is the scariest thing of all). As you said Gertzy, perhaps this is a result of trying not to be too aggressive or forward but it has made me wary at times when I’m having a disagreement with a woman. But I realize this is my own perception and I’d like to think I get along well with both females and men in spite of this.

    In the end, as several of us agreed- the key to a good team is not the number of x’s and the y’s within that team but simply the ability to get along and have good leadership whether it be from a woman or a man.

    Anyways, I’m not going to defend my comment because it was wrong, and I did/do take it back- but it definitely raises some interesting questions. After all, we don’t live in an idealized world but the point is really more to recognize and examine the possible assumptions we might be making.

    • gerty-z says:

      I kinda like Gertzy. It reminds me of Gretzy 😀

      I don't think that you have to apologize for your tweet. I reacted pretty strongly to it because this is a stereotype that I have run across fairly frequently (generally undeserved) and it really gets me a little cranky. I don't know where it comes from. Maybe when there were (even fewer) women in the field they had to behave in this way just to survive. Maybe there were so few women that one random asshole set the bar. Maybe ow the stereotype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. I don't know, and I sorta don't care. I just wish it would go away.

      As for women having different mentoring styles than males I would refer you to @tmbtx's comment. I think that the variation within groups is probably much greater than the variation between groups. I know some men that are very nurturing, and some women that are very difficult to work for. And vice versa. Like you said, if you want to be happy in a lab group the most important thing is to find a group that has the same values that you do so that you don't get caught up in a situation where you can't be happy.

  • Zuska says:

    I left a comment over at Hermitage's to the effect that I wrote on this very topic some time ago but can't find the post. This topic is a zombie, an undead myth that cannot be killed and that keeps coming back for our brains. I swear I want to put a requirement in place that all female first year graduate students in the sciences and engineering must take an intro to women's studies course that is a survey of all the basic bla-di-bla shit that women hashed through in the 70's and 80's in the humanities and social sciences before they moved on to Foucault and postmodernism and cultural studies so we don't all have to around reinventing our training wheels. Okay, the dudes have to take it, too. Is anyone reading Ruth Bleier these days? Sally Hacker? The Feminist Papers? Audre Lorde? Christine de Pizan? bell hooks? any of the gazillions of books on science and feminism? A thousand years ago, when I was a graduate student, you could count on two hands the number of books dealing with science and feminism.

    Back in those thousand years ago, we sometimes used to point out the ridiculousness and harmfulness of sexist stereotypes by transposing them to race. "Oh, I can't work for a black person, they are so psycho. I've always been more comfortable in a group of mostly white people." Okay, so the Obama-haters would probably agree with that, but whatever. But one can do it just by reversing the genders - does this statement or situation make sense if I turn it around? "Oh, I can't work for/with men, they are so psycho. I've always been more comfortable in a group of mostly women." Do people commonly say that? Do they generally think of men - most men, the average man, any given man, especially one in a position of power - as "psycho"? No? So what do you have to believe to have that statement make sense when you say it about women? That women are less than? Women are, at base level, messed up to begin with? Men are generally better than women at whatever?

    Somebody's shoes need a pukin' when that kind of stuff is going around!

    • gerty-z says:

      That sounds like a pretty interesting class. I've never taken anything like a women's studies (or related) class, and I haven't read any of those books. *makes list of new books to read*

      If this is the zombie issue, what is the secret weapon that will kill it?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Back in the 90s we had a female president who was very competent. I was amazed when a colleague, an ex dean, told me he was uncomfortable working for a female. I said it didn't bother me because I only cared about competence. His comment really surprised me.

  • Joat-mon says:

    Gerty-z, sorry for setting the male vs female discussion aside. I have a questions - how did you manage to find money and time to support 8 people as a junior faculty?

    • gerty-z says:

      I'll let you interrupt, just this once 🙂 Right now my group is 2 undergrads, 2 grad students, a brand-new sr. research associate, a rotation student, and me. Most of my $ is coming from my R00 award and startup, but I have also cobbled together a few pilot grants and some foundation money. The undergrads are free, one of the grad students got themselves funded, and rotation students don't cost anything. Basically, I only have to pay for 1 student and the research associate now.

      Time...well, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to deal with that. Right now things are going fairly smooth, but I am writing an R01 so I feel a little swamped.

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