Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hello, can you hear me?

I am at my wit's end and I'm not sure what to do. I'm not sure if there's anything I can do that won't earn me the label of "shrill overreacting woman" or, worse, "not a team player". But I do know one thing:

I am sick and tired of being ignored in department meetings! Or in any departmental discussion, for that matter.

Being ignored takes many forms. There's the classic one: I say something that gets roundly ignored; someone else says the same thing 10 minutes later and is roundly praised. There's the not-so-subtle one: several colleagues have loud and prolonged discussions about departmental issues that they *know* I'm interested in, yet don't invite me to participate and/or minimize my ideas when I do express them, casually and in passing. There's the even less subtle one: I tell my colleague that I have a great idea about X, only to find out later that the colleague has passed off X as his own great idea.

And then there's the worst one: [note: original story deleted; after posting it, I had second thoughts as to whether the details would be too revelatory. Suffice it to say that it involved someone speaking over me as if I wasn't even there.] I was so appalled that I didn't say anything; in retrospect, I'm not sure if there's anything I could have said that would have helped.

I know that this happens to a lot of women, and I do have strategies for dealing with some of it. I don't share ideas with Idea-Stealing Colleague anymore. When someone else gets praised for a statement I made earlier, I thank the person for building on my idea (or something similar to remind the group where the idea came from originally). I try to drop subtle and not-so-subtle hints to Loud Discussion Colleagues that I'm interested in the subject too (or I close my door). I talk to Department Mentor sometimes about the issue, and when he's around sometimes things will improve. Unfortunately, he's not been around lately, and particularly not during the most egregious of these examples. But there's only so much I can do.

I can't help feeling marginalized. This is happening more and more frequently lately. Part of me wonders how my colleagues can collectively be so thick-headed to not realize how poorly they are treating me, and how little respect their actions show for me. And this is definitely not just a junior faculty thing, because my newer, more junior colleague gets shown a lot more deference than I am in these situations. Do they not realize that this ultimately hurts department morale? That having one colleague who feels unheard does not lead to a good working environment? And why is it that they think I have nothing worthwhile to say? Because even if that's not what they mean, that's what their actions say, loud and clear.

If anyone has suggestions, short of drop-kicking my colleagues out the nearest window, I'd love to hear them.


Ianqui said...

Ugh. That really sucks. I wish I had something to offer here, but more often than not, I feel like you. I actually once said, in a faculty meeting but mostly under my breath, "But it's not like it matters because no one's going to listen to me anyway." Still, it's nothing like what you describe, so I hope that you can find some kind of solution to the problem.

far away said...

I have some advice, which is easier said than done..
try making taking notice of you worth while for them. For inctance, Get a big-shot to give a lecture in you’re department, and be the one who introduces him to everyone. So talking to him(her) goes through you.
Similarly - organize a conference, so people will need you in order to present their stuff. It seems un-scientific, but I've seen it work.
If you can get a name as an expert in a practical scientific issue so people would come to you for advice, that can be helpful to.
good luck!

C said...

I've had different variations on the same theme. I don't have much in the way of advice to give, but maybe it's comforting to know you're not the only one?

Once in a departmental meeting they were discussing a particular topic which I knew about and taught, unlike other members of the dept. I gave my opinion (along with everyone else), but it got ignored. It fell to the chair of the meeting to explicitly point out that since I was the expert in the topic and they weren't, they should be paying more attention to my opinion.

I've had the experience (several times) of talking in a departmental meeting and getting interrupted. This has led to my current style of talking in a meeting whereby if I have the floor, I must subconsciously be scared of someone interrupting, because I talk rapdily (also happens if I'm nervous) and then I get laughed at in the meeting for talking too fast. I can't win.

Sometimes I've been interrupted and talked over by my boss during meetings, to the extent that some others (women) have noticed that he treated me particularly rudely. Whilst he does tend to do that to an extent with everyone, he did it more strongly on this occasion. I don't know what his problem is.

I have a resigned attitude to all this. In the case of my boss, he has the power to do what he wants within certain parameters, and since any progress on this issue I might make wouldn't be worth the ill feeling and other waves I might make, I choose to accept it. I have other battles to pick, there are other ways to get my voice heard, although "heard" usually means ignored, even for the men in the department, so I don't feel I'm losing out any more than they are, anyway.

More generally speaking, I don't know that there is a happy medium. If I behave within the bounds of acceptable politeness when talking in a meeting, I don't have as much of a voice as the men do. To get more of a voice, you have to overstep somehow, I think. Whether you're just normally assertive and people interpret that as more bitchy, or whether you somehow put flashing neon lights around what you say, people are going to take it as too much. Any more than the standard woman's less-than-fair-share contribution and they are going to take it as too much.

A secret tape-recorder in a meeting would allow for a transcript, which would provide objective evidence, should any be needed, but to get anything to change? Very hard. You need something that achieves some change without the people in the meeting being made aware of their transgressions (because noone likes their faults being pointed out, and they'll just resent you even more). In some areas of life that may be possible, but getting CS men to listen to women? HMMMMMmmmmm. I don't know of anything.

K said...


One possibility you should consider is working on your voice and body language. The results you're getting suggest to me that either your vocal projection is lacking, or your body language isn't powerful. Not knowing you, I could be wrong, but perhaps someone you trust can give you their opinion. In my experience, few professional women have both of these in place, and every professional woman can benefit from improving them.

A voice trainer who can teach you to project (and possibly lower your pitch, depending where it is now) could pay big career dividends, and is lots of fun too. I'm also fond of Roger Love's book "Set Your Voice Free," which includes a CD of vocal exercises that I use whenever I find a few minutes to practice. (Exercises on CD totally beat exercises in a book, because there's no need to remember anything. Just pop in the CD, or rip it and click the MP3s, and follow along.)

For body language, I suggest the "Power" and "Sales" chapters of John Molloy's book, "Live for Success." It's long out of print, but it's worth the effort to find a copy. It's one of the best career success books I've read. Molloy has an unmatched understanding of how nonverbal behaviors affect your job performance.

Women will always be slighted by men at meetings, unfortunately, but part of the reason is that women usually have more tentative nonverbal cues than men (and aren't even conscious of it). One of the most thrillingly memorable moments of my time as a CS Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon was seeing Mary Shaw sharply cut down Merrick Furst at a faculty meeting for repeatedly interrupting her. That lady takes no shit. Sometimes you simply need to be aggressive about telling people not to interrupt you.

Audrey said...

Even with more assertive/aggressive body language it can still be an uphill battle. I was just talking to a coworker about this the other day, how we pre-emptively act in a much more direct manner than we might otherwise, in the hope that someone will actually listen. But it only helps so much. And I think women encounter a certain amount of backlash from being as direct or aggressive as some of the men we work with.

I saw an article a while back about how female researchers tended to get smaller amounts of lab space allotted, have a harder time finding out about grant and research opportunities, etc. as a result of various institutional biases and social factors (if the men in the department socialize with each other more in casual settings away from work, they're also more likely to support each other at work and pass along useful information, while women might miss out by not being a participant in those social activities). I can't find a link to it right now, though.

Scooter said...

In reading the comments, parallels to my wife's career started popping out. She was told to improve her public speaking/presentation skills, and one of the ways that was mentioned was toastmasters. She got a major promotion shortly after joining them and giving speeches regularly to them. They're very modestly priced, and I think their website is

Colin said...

I'm a 6ft gorilla of a man and I get a similar treatment. I guess some of it is my body language and general meekness (almost as much as my geekness). I was going to suggest you just have to use the coping strategies that you have already formulated and make the most of the situation. Having read the comments about body language though I think that could help. I know I ought to think about that some more.

The one thing to watch out for is to avoid ending up becoming like those who are putting you down, it's sorta like bullying, don't over compensate. When people are being pains most of the time they don't really realise what they are doing.

Lisa, Paper Chaser said...

What appalling behavior, though, really. My feathers are thoroughly ruffled for you, Jane. And yeah, my department acts the same way....:-(

Jane said...

Wow, thanks for the great ideas, everyone!! This is why I love the blogosphere. :)

I do actually have a low-pitched, powerful voice already, but I'm wondering if my language and/or body language sabotages my voice sometimes. That's something I'll be looking at more closely in the future. (and I'll check out some of the books/organizations/etc that people have suggested here, too.)

It is a bit comforting, too, in an odd way, to know that others are experiencing it too. That doesn't make it less sucky for any of us, but knowing that this is not just a CS thing, or a departmental thing, does make me feel a bit less like a freak.

I'll keep you posted!

Janet said...

Same thing happens in the business world. I've had to call my male collegues on it more than once and even dragged one into our boss' office so I could have it out with him with witnesses. Be firm and don't back down.

I've read that women are taken more seriously if they wear jackets or blazers instead of sweaters. Can't hurt.

Keep working hard and eventually they won't be able to ignore that you are really good and know your stuff. While it is a shame that women still have to work harder than men to get ahead sometimes, it seems to be the case.

sb said...

copied this from , I think the idea of a "male repeater" sounds good:

"Hearing female voices. This is common outside the sciences: woman says something at meeting, is ignored. Five or ten minutes later, man says same thing, and everyone agrees. Dominant ideas shouldn’t always come a from male voice. Klawe said sometimes has a designated male repeater who deliberately brings up points she’s been ignored on, then gives her credit for them, thus pointing out that they’ve ignored her."

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Coming to this really late, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate this post, and wish it didn't suck quite so much. I'm beginning to wonder if I don't encounter a much milder version of this from some of my students...but in any case. I'm sorry you have to keep struggling about this all the time.

Lexa said...

Sadly, sexist work environments still exist in many places, but usually are related to heads of the organisation/department are sexist themselves. The only solution I've found that made me happy, was to find another organisation where the head isn't sexist, and thus can actually feel ready to accept my ideas...

Dr. Shellie said...

I know exactly what you mean, and it really sucks. The worst part is that after a while, you start expecting to be ignored, or (at least subconsciously) believing you don't deserve to be heard. Here are a few things I am trying:

First, I try to be very deliberate in my comments. I listen to the discussion, think of what I want to say, and sometimes even scribble it down first. Then I make sure to ask my question in a very level tone of voice and follow up until I get the whole answer. If someone says something offensive or dismissive, I try to come up with a very neutral, non-defensive sounding question to figure out whether their intent was genuinely nasty or just accidental. (There is a good book on "non-defensive communication here: which I can heartily recommend for this.) So for example, if two colleagues are talking about a subject on which you are an expert but not including you, the trick is to say in a very non-defensive, neutral, and pleasant voice, "Have you seen my paper on X? Have you tried the methodology I recommended for analyzing the data?" and repeat similarly until they hear you. Eventually (one hopes) they acknowledge that you have something to say.

However, you own behavior can really only do so much-- the problem is your colleagues, NOT YOU. So you will (unfortunately) have to fight them by getting as much leverage over them as you can. This means external recognition-- invited conference talks, editorial boards, grant money, endorsements from big shots, and so on. And, of course, the best you can do: GET AN OFFER FROM ANOTHER DEPARTMENT! That turns people around faster than ever... and is extremely good for the pysche.

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