Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Resource Highlight: iREFS

You don't go through MIT without having to climb a whole, big heaping mountain of stress (and snow, in recent months). Happily, MIT tries hard to provide a number of resources at different levels of formality to help you deal with stressful situations and ongoing stress. iREFS is one of the newest of these resources.

REFS at MIT stands for Resources for Easing Friction and Stress, and is a peer support program at the Institute. REFS students are trained by ConflictManagement@MIT in support, conflict coaching and resolution, informal mentoring, listening, de-escalation and mediation, and continue to receive additional training as part of their position. They are a confidential resource* on campus and provide a low-barrier, peer to peer avenue for dealing with any kind of problem you may have, whether it is personal, professional or academic.

As of this year, the Institute and the GSC has started the iREFS program (alongside dREFS and medREFS) - REFS that are not tied to any department but are available to the entire MIT community. These students are available for contact and well-versed in other resources on campus that may be of service, so no problem is too small to contact them with! Since they are your peers, they are also super likely to be familiar with and understanding of many types of problems that we as graduate students (and people) may face.

Training to be a REFS happen throughout the year so if you are interested in participating in this great program, check them out!

*Note: confidential resource means any conversations with REFS are kept strictly confidential and nothing will be shared without your permission. Exceptions are rare, extreme circumstances (e.g. imminent risk of harm to self or others). REFS cannot be subpoenaed. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Introducing the new GWAMIT Executive Board!

Emerging from beneath a Gronk-deep Boston snowbank, we are the brand new GWAMIT executive board! We are Nora Xu, Alex Toumar, Annie Marinan, Wenda Tian, Paula Ruiz-Castillo, Kelly Brock and Sarah Spencer, and we are excited to serve this year as leaders of this awesome organization. Between us, we have a wide range of industry and research experience, over 20 collective years of grad school under our belts, and a vast array of professional and extra curricular pursuits. What binds us is our interest in advocating for the development of women at MIT and beyond. You can learn more about us here.

This year, we are looking forward to engaging with our members and the wider MIT community on established and new advocacy initiatives, facilitating conversation on gender and diversity on campus and continuing GWAMIT's legacy of awesome events.

Check out our Resources page for a list of available resources, interest groups and other things we think you might find interesting and valuable. For more information or to contact us, check out the GWAMIT WebsiteTwitter and Facebook.
The new GWAMIT Exec Board during a retreat at the College Club of Boston earlier this month, together with past board members and members of the GWAMIT Advisory Board. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dear Kate - January 2015 Edition

Dear Kate – January 2015 Edition

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.  You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous.  We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.

We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.   
Can a woman have kids and go for tenure? Why do older, white male MIT faculty ask me if I want kids when I'm asking them for career advise? Does my response (yes I do want kids) change what they tell me? Isn't that an illegal question (it is in the regular working world)?

And, is there a way that I can respond to that question that respectfully challenges the reasoning behind their asking? I feel like I let myself and women down by acquiescing.
             - Professor Mom

Dear Professor Mom

An older, white male faculty member once gave some very sage advice to me and a female friend when we were both thinking about tenure track and family decisions. He said: research, teaching, and young children were all full time jobs-- it was possible to do any two of the three well  at the same time, but you couldn't really do three out of three  well all at once. I think he is probably right. This, counter-intuitively, makes  the tenure track more feasible at a truly  top-notch university than at a second-rank university:  top-notch universities are much more likely to really get it, and let you pause your teaching for the crucial year or so you will need it most.  On the other hand, the women I knew who seemed to have it easiest managed to go to research labs when their kids were young (making sure to teach at a local university one or two semesters  to have that teaching track record built up for later) and then took a tenured position at a university once their kids were school age or beyond.
Your research career will last for many many decades; you will have young children (by which I mean pre-Kindergarten) probably for less than a decade of your life. Things like the dynamic of your marriage, whether your kids sleep through the night early on, how much money you and/or your family is in a position to throw at quality childcare help, whether you have extended family or parents nearby to help, and other things will define the parameters of how stressful that period will be. Or what I am trying to say is: your personal life will impact your career decisions, it has to, so it could be an appropriate question in some circumstances. And someone will ultimately have to know all the parameters to help you negotiate creative solutions.
But the above assumes a supportive older male mentor who maybe  has had a family of his own; there are also plenty of scientists (male and female!) who will still dismiss/think less of anyone who expresses any interest in doing anything other than science 24/7. So while a yes may give you a wealth of helpful creative work-life balance advice, it is a significant risk. So before saying "yes I want kids"  I would feel the person out, by instead of saying "yes"  reflecting the question back:  "I am really interested in how your answer to my question would change depending on whether I said yes or no?" His response should quickly tell you where he is coming from, and you can both go from there.


Kate C.

Dear Professor Mom

A mother can absolutely go for tenure!  Unfortunately, she has a lower chance of making it.  The "baby penalty" that women pay in academia is well documented, whether it means not making tenure or struggling through the first years of her child's life... or both.

Tenured professors are undoubtedly well-aware of these challenges, whether they personally support mothers in pursuing tenure or not. If you want to test their responses, try explaining that your husband wants to stay at home and care for the kids. Whether or not this is true, you may witness a look of relief - a sure sign that their advice DOES change based on your plans for family.  It is also a way to respectfully challenge an outdated perspective.  

If your husband does not want to stay at home and you don't want to lie, try explaining that a grandparent is planning to move in with you or that you plan to hire a nanny.  One thing is certain: it is extremely difficult to balance a tenure-track academic career and "normal" childcare responsibilities like picking your child up from a 9-5 daycare.  So, whatever your childcare backup plan for helping you through the tenure track, talk to your mentors about it.  Just remember that you are asking for their advice for a reason: if they have concerns about your plan, those concerns might be valid!

Good luck!


Kate B.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor, Kate C., and Kate B.

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dear Kate - December 2014 Edition

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.  You may submit as many questions as you would like, and all questions are completely anonymous.  We will submit a subset of questions to a selection of mentors in industry and academia at a variety of ages and career levels, and post their responses on the blog.

We hope you enjoy this feature, and please feel free to use this column to spark discussion among your own mentoring groups.   
I recently watched the movie "Before Midnight". I am surprised how much work the wife need to do in the family, even if she is talented and can have very good job. Meanwhile, the husband can keep doing the job he likes and doesn't need to worry much about family chores. There are also some examples around me, that the wives sacrifice their jobs for families, even including someone with PhDs. Despite, their husbands seem unaware of these. If the wives complain about their situations, it is likely to start a family quarrel. How can I avoid such implicit male chauvinism?
Movie Goer

Dear Movie Goer,

Attitudes towards sharing in household chores, family, and career are things you should take into account as you're finding a life partner.  It's more common today for younger people to find like-minded people who will share responsibilities, rather than assuming one person will take them on.  What you should not do: choose your partner's career over your own.  Both of your careers are important, and while you should both be open to compromise, you must not give up your own opportunities to raise a family or support your partner's career unless this is truly your own choice.

Choosing your partner's career over your own because you're pressured into it is a recipe for resentment and thwarted ambition, and hopefully you have chosen a partner who is willing to discuss and make compromises.  One of my classmates waited to attend grad school until his partner had finished her program, in an attempt to balance marriage and grad school with a minimum of pressure; this was a compromise they had made together, and it worked well for them.  On the flip side, a friend made an agreement with her partner that they would accept offers at the best school where they both received faculty job offers.  They did end up going to a school where they both got offers, but because she had better prospects than him, she left better offers on the table; they discussed it further, but her husband refused to modify their agreement.  She now regrets the choice they made, and it has affected both her research and her marriage.  From these experiences and others, I would encourage you to have a frank and honest discussion with any potential long-term partners about how you would navigate these issues, and how well you could come to a compromise that you can both live with, happily.


Kate M.

Dear Movie Goer,

You have asked the $1B question. If I had the perfect answer to this, I would market it and get rich! There is ample literature on work – life balance and male vs. female roles in families. Most of the research boils down to men thinking they do a lot, but really doing very little to help out the family unit. Nevertheless, the 21st century husband is MUCH better than the 20th century one. Just catch an episode of “Mad Men” and you’ll see.
Here’s an article that a fellow mom / colleague sent to me about the “default parent.” . According to the article, the default parent is “the one responsible for the emotional, physical, and logistical needs of the children…it is typically the one with the uterus.” In my own family, I am DEFINITELY the default parent and quite frankly, I would not give it up! I do have a fabulous career and I would not give that up either! I make time to spend with my daughter! I want to be the one helping with homework and reading the bedtime story every night.
Here are some tips I would recommend for the working mom.

1.     Outsource everything you can. Get a cleaning lady. Get a yard service. Hire someone to paint your house and clean your gutters. If you a working parent who is married to a working parent, you do not need to spend your time with this stuff.
2.     Live close to work. This is a huge time saver. As a working parent, lack of time will be your biggest enemy.
3.     Take advantage of work flexibility. Come in early, work late, work on weekends or as you need to so you can get your job done. Make sure you work somewhere that supports a flexible schedule!
4.     Get a support network. Find yourself other working (or non-working) mom friends. Often you can carpool or share duties with other moms much more easily than with your spouse. Plus, your marriage will be much better if you have a girlfriend or two to air your minor complaints about how your spouse is not picking up the slack. And, quite often he won’t. Get over it.
5.     If it’s important, push your spouse to do his part. Figure out your priorities and make sure your spouse knows them. For example, if you have an important work project, let him know. Make sure he tells his boss that his wife has an important work project. His boss will understand when he has to leave early to take the kids to soccer.
6.     Hire a babysitter regularly. Having a date night with your spouse at least once a month is a must. You need to see each other as 2 adults, not as mom and dad.
7.     Most importantly – view child-rearing as a privilege, not a chore! Don’t think of the time you spend with them as an inconvenience. You will find that every minute you spend with your kids will make a difference. Your kids will be off to college soon enough.
I have seen families where spouses share family duties exactly 50/50. Everything is a chore. They never see each other. I think that “you can have it all” – but you have to work for it and realize life is not fair and it is not 50/50. You may even have to work harder than you worked in graduate school. In the end, it will be worth it.


Kate F.

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor, Kate M., and Kate F. 

If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Resource Highlight: ICEO

This recent Huffington Post article by an MIT senior highlights many of the ways that women and minorities may face discrimination at MIT:

We would like to take this opportunity to highlight a great MIT resource for those facing issues of discrimination, the Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO), Professor Edmund Bertschinger. 

The ICEO’s mission is to advance a respectful and caring community that embraces diversity and empowers everyone to learn and do their best at MIT.  Misogyny, racism, and harassment of any kind violate not only the ICEO mission but MIT’s mission and policies and are definitely not okay. The ICEO wants to change the culture – as well as policies and procedures – so as to make such behavior costly to the offenders.  Many resources including the ICEO can provide support to victims of such behavior; the ICEO can also help create institutional change where needed.  You can be part of the change you want to see by speaking up – by emailing or, if you prefer complete anonymity, to use MIT’s anonymous hotline

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dear Kate - August 2014 Edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

Dear Kate,

I recently finished a master's thesis with my advisor of three years and have since moved on to a PhD program with a new advisor. For many of the ideas I had for my project, my former advisor would dismiss them in favor of his, even though I turned out to be right in most cases. When I handed in drafts of chapters of my thesis, he had me rewrite it twice. In the end, he gave me a B on the thesis because the main conclusions of it came from him and that he didn't even think I grasped the big picture. Now he expects me to be first-author on the paper resulting from my thesis. I don't understand why he would even let me be first author on a project I supposedly do not grasp, nor do I think his comments are fair considering the level of revisions for theses I hear about from other students. This entire ordeal of working for him has left me feeling like a second-rate graduate student and researcher, when I have worked incredibly hard for the past three years. But my new advisor thinks I'm really good. What should I do?

Underappreciated and Overworked

Dear Underappreciated and Overworked,

I feel for you! Please do not take your professor’s behavior personally; shake it off and move on. Experiences like this in grad school (and beyond) are very common and they will help you develop a thick skin. I don’t think there is any working scientist out there who does not feel like this sometimes. Making the decision to change groups may be the correct one for you.

As to your professor’s behavior - it is certainly possible he acted maliciously; it is also possible that he was trying to help you. Receiving feedback on your thesis draft from your advisor is a good thing. Regarding your professor dismissing your ideas in favor of his own –there could be non-scientific reasons (maybe political or funding) for his actions to which you are not privy. As for authorship of papers – would you have felt better if he told you to write the paper with him as first author and you doing all the work? I think you should congratulate yourself on producing some publishable work!!

Do remember that if you are uncomfortable with a situation or feel you a being treated unfairly, you should speak up and/or make a change. It is also important to learn how and when to stand up for yourself. A mentor or older graduate student is perfect to talk to. Realize that these types of situations are not uncommon – both in graduate school and in the working world. You need to learn to keep moving towards your goal and not dwell on past events.

Kate F.
Kate F. received her PhD at MIT and works in the Boston area

Thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate F.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of Kates (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dear Kate Question on Feminism and Responding to Offensive Comments - Part II

Every month, the GWAMIT Mentoring committee runs an advice column named after Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

This week, the column was not written by one of the GWAMIT Mentors as usual, but by Kelley Adams at the Violence Prevention and Response office at MIT Medical. To reduce the length, the question is addressed in two parts linked below. This is part II; part I can be found here.

The tragedy in Santa Barbara California has sparked a nationwide debate on misogyny, male privilege, and feminism. This in addition to the White House's recent task force on sexual assault on college campuses has resulted in a greater and broader conversation of these topics in our personal and professional spaces. My question is how to address peers and friends when they make statements that are casually misogynistic/insensitive without being labeled as a (forgive me) "feminazi"? All of my female friends have examples of such behavior from close friends who would defend them to the death if personally hurt by a man but say things like "well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder" or "well what about men's rights?" or "women falsely accuse men of rape all the time"? I don't want to attack my friends but I am uncomfortable just standing by. Any thoughts or tips on how to navigate these conversations without negative repercussions?

YesAllWomen (face this concern)

This section, part II of the response to your question will address specific strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments, regardless of the speaker’s intention. 

One response to the critical analysis of terms like “feminazi” is that they’re just words; they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, especially when it comes to violence prevention. Contrary to this view, violence against women (as well as other genders) occurs because it is tolerated in our culture. Without rehashing the discussion of rape culture in Part I, the things that contribute to the continued tolerance of violence include low conviction rates (only 3% of rapists go to jail), hostility towards survivors when they attempt to report, and blaming victims for their own assaults, just to name a few. All of these things may seem unrelated to offensive or insensitive jokes or comments, but language is powerful; regardless of intent, the more rape jokes that are told and laughed at, the more trivialized rape becomes and the safer rapists feel in their environments.

Historically, we have tried to prevent rape by telling women how not to become victims, which does not work since rape only happens when rapists decide to rape. Current best practices in sexual violence prevention involve the use of an active bystander approach. Being an active bystander can include saying something (alone, with friends, or getting someone else to do it) when a situation doesn’t look right, or making sure a friend who has had too much to drink gets home safe.

All of the following suggestions are based on some assumptions: that the person who made the comment is someone you can approach and speak with, and that they do not have significant power over you in some capacity (i.e. can’t fire you, won’t react violently, etc.). If one of these is not true for your situation, get in touch with someone you trust on campus to talk about it and problem-solve together (MIT resources listed at the end).

In situations where it is safe to do so, I suggest that people speak up when someone makes a comment that is offensive, insensitive and/or misogynistic because it is important to communicate disagreement. How many times have you been in a situation where someone says something offensive and the group’s reaction is to just look at each other, ignore it, and/or change the topic? These types of reactions are forms of passive tolerance. Plus, there is often someone else around who is just as offended by what was said as you are.

General strategies for responding to offensive or misogynistic comments:

1)      Be curious: Ask the person to expand on what they meant by the comment, ask them what prompted it (i.e. what made you think of that?), and/or ask them where that belief comes from.

2)      Cultivate empathy: When someone says something insensitive or hurtful about a group of people, this is a good indicator that they likely have never considered what it might be like to be a part of that group. You can ask the person how they would feel if they belonged to that group and heard that comment, or if they would make the same comment about someone they know personally who is part of that group (a common example is to ask people who blame victims for their assaults to consider how they might feel if some they care about were assaulted).

3)      Call it like you see it: If you are comfortable doing so, don’t hesitate to label a comment (not the person making it) “insensitive” or “misogynistic”, with the caveat that using the word  “misogynistic” tends to result in you having to do some basic education on gender and feminism before you can even discuss the offending comment.

4)      Educate: Often misogynistic comments are based on misinformation, stereotypes, and are factually incorrect. Arm yourself with knowledge, and be prepared to talk about what you know. This is a great way to engage with someone and lessen the chances that they will react in a defensive way so that you can have a conversation about the topic. Most people are reasonable, want to be good people, and are willing to at least discuss their beliefs.

Building on these general concepts, here are some talking points for each of the comments you listed as examples in your question:

1.      "Well when women smile when they are saying no, they're really just saying try harder."
·         You might want to ask something like, “What makes you think that?” or “How do you know?”, and then raise the question of why it is that body language is perceived as more credible than verbal communication.

·         In this specific example, you might want to talk about the socialization of women as compared to the socialization of men - women tend to be socialized to be nice, not to upset anyone, and to take care of others - could it be that a woman smiling while saying no is trying to convey that message in a polite way or trying to let the person down easy? Not to mention, living in a world where women are harassed and hurt on a daily basis, wouldn’t it make sense that a refusal given to someone who could potentially hurt you would be conveyed as gently as possible?

2.      "Well what about men's rights?"

·         Feminism advocates for equal rights and opportunities for everyone, and in doing so works to address the harms that traditional forms of masculinity and femininity cause people of all genders.

·         Men's rights activists (MRAs) are another thing altogether; this is a group that feels wronged by women as a group and espouses misogyny under the guise of protecting men's rights (for example, see this discussion of the gunman at UCSB and his interest in MRAs).

·         Furthermore, talking about issues that are specific to women (or predominantly experienced by or disproportionately affect women) is in no way asserting that issues affecting men are less important. Because the social structures that enable sexual assault against women to occur are the same that enable sexual and other types of violence against all genders to occur, the aim is to change these core structures. We need everyone involved to be able to do that in a way that is beneficial on a societal level, so prioritizing the rights of one group over another is counterproductive in reaching this goal.

3.      "Women falsely accuse men of rape all the time." 
·         I am so glad that you mentioned this, because I hear it constantly. Despite popular belief, this statement is empirically false. False reports of rape occur at the same rate as false reports of other major crimes, despite the fact that there was a “study” that came out a while back claiming that almost half of reported rapes are false accusations. This inaccurate finding and the study it came from have been reviewed and determined to be shoddy science.

Unfortunately, violence and beliefs that foster it are prevalent throughout our society and culture at all levels. This is expressed verbally through comments at the individual level, displayed through abuse and mistreatment within relationships and friendships, and evidenced by the lack of services for male victims of sexual violence, for example. The good news is that we have the ability to change this, and we can start to work on this monumental task by talking about it.

References and further reading:

Atherton-Zeman, B. (2012, Jul 17). “’Nice Guys’ Contribute to Rape Culture.” Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from:

Futrelle, D. We Hunted The Mammoth: the New Misogyny, Tracked and Mocked.

Moseley, W. & R. Gomes. (2013, Feb 4). “Ten Things to End Rape Culture.” The Nation. Retrieved from

Ridgeway,S. (2014, Mar 10). “25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from:

Starling, P. (2009 Oct 8). “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women without Being Maced.” Retrieved from:

Stotzer R. L. (2009). Violence against transgender people: a review of United States data. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 170–179.

For a list of MIT Resources, go to

Despite “sexual misconduct” being in the URL, all of these resources also assist with other issues. If you reach out to one and they feel that another resource could be of better service, they will connect you.