Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dear Kate - May 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'm a female PhD student. During my research work, I feel a bit different when working with a female or a male. With women colleagues (graduate students or post-docs), I seem to feel more comfortable discussing with them and asking for help. But when talking to men, I seem not dare to ask for more help or have deep discussions. I (slightly) hesitate to ask my male colleagues for help because I don't want people to feel I'm taking advantage of men, also it is a bit weird for me. When discussing with men, if there is a question jumping out of my mind, I hesitate to ask because I think it may be my own slow response or lack of knowledge.
I think there may be some psychological reasons from me. How can I overcome this barrier? How can I feel equally comfortable working (and talking, socializing, etc.) with male as with female?

Thanks a lot!

Female PhD

When I was an undergraduate at an engineering program, the ratio of men to women in most of my classes was around 8:1 or worse. This made me feel pretty awkward at first because I was a shy person anyway, and felt even shyer as one of those few women who “dared” to take engineering classes among all the men. I wondered, what must they be thinking about me sitting there, sticking out like a sore thumb? (It doesn’t help that I’m tall, and at 18, I wasn’t yet comfortable with my height!)

I worried about this in the case of my male professors, too, but I didn’t yet have proof that anyone doubted my capabilities. Then I started my sophomore year and sat down in a class with 6 women and 56 men. I know the numbers because the professor pointed them out and then proceeded to make a jaw-droppingly crude, sexist joke at the expense of me and the other five women. I won’t repeat it here, but you can be assured I will never forget it.

This event forced me to make a decision. I could let this professor’s attitude get to me and despair that my engineering career would be forever marred by derision from men. I could have shrunk back from the challenge. But I didn’t, and instead took what I consider to be a very simple, yet realistic viewpoint: There are some mean, insensitive people in the world. You are going to come across those mean people once in awhile, but they are the exception, not the rule. And if someone, for example, makes an awful joke at your expense, it’s not fair to label the group that person belongs to as a group that will never respect you. That professor didn’t make the joke because he’s a male engineering professor and all male engineering professors are like that. He made it because he’s a jerk, and some people are just jerks.

If you don’t speak up and risk getting hurt, you’ll never give people a chance to respect your work and treat you as an equal in the first place. You also noted that you worry about people thinking you’re taking advantage of men when you ask them for help. Try to frame the situation as one in which you can promote equality and respect across all divides, gender and otherwise. Maintaining a gender divide because you don’t want to be taken the wrong way serves only to perpetuate the divide for yourself and others. Crossing the divide allows both parties to benefit, and the only way to do it is to put yourself out there and practice, practice, practice!

I want to emphasize the importance of a support system, in this and all the situations you will encounter as a student and a professional. The hesitation you feel is partly a product of the gender issues in our society, but I also believe that most individuals are fundamentally nice, kind people. Identify who those kind people are in your network so that they can help you deal with the unkind ones.

Kate H. 
Kate H. did her graduate studies at MIT has been an instructor here for the last three years.
Thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H.! 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 for our Kates to answer! 


  1. Well said! Female PhD, you just have to keep doing it until you become comfortable with it, and do your best to not let negative experiences bring you down.

  2. Here is a alternative response from Riva Poor, one of the GWAMIT Mentors. It partially echoes and expands on AsthmaQuest's comment.

    " The best way to cease fearing an action that you know - or at least sort of know - really can't hurt you is to perform it, so you can observe that in fact it does not hurt you.

    As a scientist, it would be ideal, if you would ask for help - and/or perform all the other interactions that you're currently afraid of - fifty times a day for three weeks and tally the results. That is, tally how many good outcomes, how many neutral, and how many bad come from these currently feared actions - in any way you define good, neutral, and bad. Out of the 1,050 trials, I'm positive that you'll find fewer than ten bad outcomes and more probably, none at all.

    On what basis can I predict this? On the basis that I've done this myself for actions for which I had unreasonable fears. And on the basis that you yourself know, deep down, that the actions you fear will not actually harm you.

    Fifty times a day is far too many for the particular social interactions that you fear; so in your case, I recommend ten times a day for three months. Or pick any number you're currently un-comfortable with and do that number each day for enough days to amount to roughly 1,000 trials.

    You might object that a sufficient number of opportunities to perform the feared action do not arise each day. The answer is to provoke these situations and/or to imagine them - you know, waking dreams. (Waking dreams are just as effective.) But in any case, make sure you do the number of trials per day that you have set for yourself, so you can reach 1,000.

    Perform the feared action(s) one way or the other; then, after each performance, stop to notice the outcome; characterize the outcome (good, bad, or neutral); and keep a tally of the three types of outcome. Literally keep a tally. Carry a scrap of paper or a notebook, and for each feared action you take, notice the outcome, characterize it, and put a mark in one of three appropriately labelled columns.

    There are two reasons for performing the feared action(s) so many times: both to make the trial of the action a fair one and also to create a new habit out of performing the action(s), rather than avoiding it.

    I guarantee that roughly 1,000 such trials - however many a day you choose - will turn the currently feared actions at worst neutral for you and, far more likely, highly desirable.

    Now, go see for yourself just how liberating this is."