But I Want To Earn Everything All On My Own Merits! #scio11

At SciO11, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Anne Jefferson, Joanne Manaster, and Kathryn Clancy did a great session titled "Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name".  (See summary here.) The discussion ranged over a lot of topics, and near the end, someone in the audience said "I don't want to get a [job/fellowship/grant/whatever] because of affirmative action, I want to get it on my own merits." I said, why do you imagine that the dudes getting those jobs now all got them all on their own merits?

Not that they aren't qualified, but do you imagine they had no help along the way, that there was no one pulling levers for them, no one setting them up, no one greasing the wheels for them, no one opening doors and helping them glide along? Why do we imagine everyone else who gets stuff got there all by their lonesome with no assistance from anyone else? I don't even know what the fuck it means to get somewhere all on your own merits. You can't even learn to wipe your own ass all on your own merits.

UPDATE:  Hermitage's post on this same topic is tremendously awesome and full of much wisdom.  Please read.

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32 responses so far

  • I was borne wiping my owne asse.

  • Aunti Disestablishmentarian says:

    with your own bootstraps? Owwch! That's rough!

  • LadyProf says:

    Quentin Crisip once said that if we got what we deserved, we would all starve.

  • Cherish says:

    It's a nice myth that we're brought up to believe applies to everyone but ourselves.

  • becca says:

    Ok, I think pride in "I did MYSELF!" is totes adorable in my 18 month old and has the potential for being totes obnoxious in one who is old enough to tie their own shoes. It's polite, nay, the *morally correct and decent* thing to do to acknowledge how much help you get from other people.

    BUT (and I may be showing my tremendous bias here) I think that by arguing in favor of such refined and civilized behavior... you're gonna make much less progress on the patriarchy problem than if you encourage the women to be bitchy arrogant self promoters. Because I think, judging from 18 month olds, that being a bitchy arrogant self-promoter is probably innate.
    Possibly though, it is just a flaw in *my* DNA.

  • Tracey S says:

    I agree completely. People of both genders get their positions for all kinds of reasons that don't necessarily have to do with their nascent intelligence or their hard work. They may deserve them anyway, or they may not. I didn't get my job because I'm a woman, but I did get it because my old boss liked me and knew someone who was hiring and because I was young and the department head realized that everyone else working there was exactly the same age and planning to retire at the same time and they better get some fresh blood in there ASAP. I also work hard and have a good attitude and do well in interviews. My own merits? I don't know - it wasn't my field, I kind of got hired on luck, but I learned fast and I do a good job now.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    Anyone who doesn't realize that serendipity and other such random forces are at work in their lives AND that the best any of us can do is work hard because [Pasteur]"Chance favors the prepared mind" is kidding hirself. Everyone needs an advocate or four (and some basic social skills).

    I personally find no shame in taking advantage of every opportunity provided to me because that's the quickest way to get where I want to go. Let's be honest: I didn't get these fellowships "on my own merit" - I got them because I had people who were willing to write awesome letters for me (and I wrote a decent application). They put their names behind me, in support of me. I am fortunate to have that kind of support.

    This *I did it all by myself look at me!!!11!!!* attitude is crazy. Unfortunately, to err too far on the side of "but I had so much help" WHEN FEMALE is worse. Rock and a hard place... again. *sigh*

    Thanks Zuska. Nicely said (and much more concisely than I).

  • rknop says:

    Like they always say, it's not what you know, it's who you know.

  • FrauTech says:

    Spot on, as always!

  • Chris says:

    It took a really, really hard effort for me not to get completely frustrated and start screaming and hair pulling when inviting under 35 year-old (approximately but pretty much anecdotally consistent in this case) female scientists to participate in a “gender issues in science” session at a conference because the typical response was “I don’t feel discriminated against, all that was sorted out 20 years ago and I just find you and the whole topic embarrassing”.

    But I took a deep breath remembering that it was not until I was about 35 when I finally saw the light. I think this has been discussed at your previous site, but just to reiterate, due to the “attrition rate” (in inverted commas because attrition seems so neutral a word in contrast to the causes behind it) the majority of women in science are under 35, the majority of those young women truly believe that the issues were all resolved by our brave female forebears and find it embarrassing and horrible for anyone to mention that there may be a problem, that still they may not be getting positions they deserve because of the equipment they were born with and heaven forbid that they get some kind of undeserved handout. (Which is sweet but sadly naïve)

    How to educate those women in their 20’s of the fact that the issues are there and potentially more egregious because they are more hidden? I have no effing idea, but until it happens, it will always appear that there is a “whining” minority “complaining” about something the majority gives a shit about or even feels completely icky in having brought up in their presence. A survey taken in the organisation I used to work for concluded that the majority of women in that organisation thought things were pretty much ok. And I don’t doubt that survey, they probably did. The majority of women in the organisation are under 35. The powers that be decided that this meant things were fine and probably it was just because women wanted full time careers as mothers which was why the numbers of women dropped from approximately 40% at post doc level down to less than 10 % at senior (post 35) level.

    Just a side question which no-one has ever been able to adequately answer for me but which seems somewhat important: if someone did not grab something on their own merits, specifically, if you read the abstract and title of a successful grant proposal that sounds suspiciously the same as an unsuccessful grant proposal that you (particularly as a person with a female name given the stats showing that is somewhat of a handicap in getting your work funded) might have submitted to a different organisation the year before, is there any way you can actually look at that grant proposal? Or is plagiarism of other people’s ideas only ever discovered through the random chance that you or someone kind who knows what you are working on (and is prepared to be unethical since they should ethically not say anything) will happen to be sent someone’s grant proposal to review?

    • ginmar says:

      If a bunch of women scientists still get the same blow to the self esteem that everybody else does, it's bad indeed. Where does that start? Assuming that one's gotten ahead in one's career because of affirmative action is distressingly common in all the women I know----and completely absent in the most loathsome men you can imagine.

      I have a friend who's a nurse, perhaps outside the career field here, but still....She's kind, professional, wonderful. She suffers from an incredible fear of planes and yet must fly now and then. Despite her fear of flying, she has on at least three occasion done nothing less than save someone's life by correctly diagnosing and treating simple illnesses or injuries. Once it was her own hubbie, who has diabetes that she manages more than he does. And yet she does this while terrified. This is to say nothing of what she does at her job, where she might modestly mention to me now and then that she noticed a tiny thing here or there and mentioned it to the surgeon and it turned out to be a Very Big Thing indeed. My point is that she doesn't grasp that this makes her a superstar, a hero, a very amazing person indeed. I keep tellng her, "I couldn't do what you do." She tells me, "I couldn't do what you do." (I'm a soldier, blah blah blah.) And I've seen female soldiers in the field who go, "Oh, did you hear about that battle in the city?" "See it? I was in it!" And their response? "Wow, I couldn't do that." They couldn't have been more than twenty. Who had been working on them to damage their confidence so much so early?

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Federally funded grant applications are FOIA-able.

    Do be careful in your accusations. Remember that your field is filled with very smart people reading the same lit that you do. Major scientific ideas can be more common than most people assume.

    You may have been hosed but you should get some disinterested peers to evaluate the evidence, too.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Also, even IF the funded person had read your proposal as a reviewer, how do you know s/he wasn't deep in the process of working on the same topic already? With NIH grants anyway, it can be easily 2, 3 years from original idea to funded grant.

  • Zuska says:

    This is very tough. I know someone outside the sciences who had stuff she was working on, in a pub that was reviewed by and rejected by a senior scholar, turn up weeks after the rejection in a talk by the senior scholar. Almost verbatim. Presented as "some new stuff I have just started working on". The plagiarized soul was in the audience. And, as it played out, there was not a damn thing that could be done. Who would believe senior scholar would steal - what need would SS have, SS is so famous and successful! Unless you have airtight evidence you may end up looking sour grapey because people always make excuses whether plausible or not - they can IMAGINE plausible (see DM above). Plausible is possible is likely is you are crazy & disgruntled.

    Jesus I'm cynical. Very sorry to be no comfort or help.

    • ginmar says:

      I had that happen in as blunt a way as you can imagine. Following the chain of command, I presented an idea to my NCO (non-commissioned officer) and he rejected it. Then he presented it to the OIC (officer in charge.) Everybody knew about it. I have to wonder how people like that live with themselves.

  • chall says:

    I'm very careful about thinking anyone has gotten where they are without the help/support of anyone... it's one of those urban myths that we love to tell imho (fits the hero complex and great story making). Not saying people aren't responsible for their own success or something like that, simply that most every one who has succeeded in good funding or professorship or what have you have had someone to support/bounce ideas/suggesting/linkage. Doesn't mean anything more than that, just that a great idea isn't all you need to succeed.

  • skeptifem says:

    If the best candidates always got chosen then there wouldn't be any incompetent bosses. There are a shit load of them. You can only believe in getting somewhere on your own merit if your merit actually gets you somewhere, instead of something else. The attitude accepts the authority of others uncritically, and well, fuck that.

  • Zuska says:

    Sometimes "I want to get there all on my own merit" also means "I don't want to believe discrimination exists" and/or "even if it does, it will never happen to ME because I am special and better than all those losers who let their careers get bogged down by that stuff that doesn't even exist anymore." Magical thinking.

  • Chris says:

    Drugmonkey: hypothetical situation! Arose when thinking about people getting things not on their own merits and wondering even if it was due to morally unethical reasons there was anything that could be done. Certainly my experience is that there is not. I reckon because of the way science is structured, the better you are at getting things not on your own merits, the more successful you are likely to be, more than in any other career which does not put such trust in people acting with integrity and which does not have such intense competition at every single step along the way.

    The whole foundations of science are built on the premise that everybody is imbued with lashings of honesty and integrity. Which means it is hugely vulnerable to abuse if even only a few are not. But what about if more than a few are not. What if most of us, being corruptible, have been corrupted.

    Just a simple example: I bet that every STEMmer out there can name at least one author who shouldn’t have been an author. (Would love to lose this bet though). In my particular field, it is hard to imagine the contributions of more than 2 or 3 authors could be justified in many of the papers that have been published and yet the field is full of papers with many more than that. As a junior scientist I inevitably put undeserving authors on my papers because I was scared of the consequences if I didn’t. Is that acting with integrity? Well no. If lip service is paid to academic integrity when it comes to authorship, it’s only a short step for lip service to be paid to other academic integrity issues.

    So, supposing the initial premise is completely wrong and in fact the majority have issues with integrity? I don’t know for sure, but I do feel like the system is one big ostrich with its head in the sand enabling those with no integrity huge scope for exploitation. And I have witnessed it occurring, but proving it? Well as previous commentators pointed out, given how things are structured, it’s just not possible.

    I’ve become extremely cynical over the years too, but nevertheless wonder whether we couldn’t actually figure out a better, more fair and more robust system if we started from scratch, but this time with the premise that the majority don’t have integrity (except for me and my friends of course :-) ) and work from there... A system that is not in denial about humans vs academic integrity and recognises that to get somewhere on your own merits you need to level the playing field: affirmative action, employment quotas, double-blind peer review of journal articles, but perhaps even a return to the old days in certain aspects, such as the pre 1970’s when a science academic relative of mine never had to write a grant to have a successful research career: back in those days when a university employed an academic they gave them the resources to actually conduct the research they employed the academic for. What a concept hey! It meant at least that all your nascent, developing and innovative ideas didn’t have to get sent out there into the ether to who-knows-who-but-just-hope-like-hell-they-have-integrity to decide the fate of your research.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My comments were more than hypothetical since it pops up during grant review now and again. In the several times it involved my developing research plans I know for certain fact nobody stole any ideas from anyone. But is sure could've been made to look that way.

    Authorships are interesting because standards vary from subfield to subfield. I find people are very insistent that their tradition is tha only way and anything else is at least borderline unethical. Nonsense of course. Which is worse? Authorship for the undeserving or being left off authorship for work that would have been deserving in at least 10% of the labs on the subfield?

  • Thegoodman says:

    My name is Kyle, I am a recovery bigot.

    I feel like this particular topic is very divisive between the sexes. Many of us out of arrogance/delusion WANT to believe we are self made. Telling anyone that what they accomplished is out of pity/luck/privilege strips that person of their self confidence and puts them in a defensive position.

    I am a late twenties, white, male, engineer from the midwest. I fit just about every white stereotype there is with the exception of money (I grew up pretty very poor and borrowed all college money). For a very long time I truly believed I was a 'self made man' because I was completely obsessed with my humble background. What I failed to realize is that there are hundreds of things that equipped and prepared me for success, and I had most of them backing my situation. I consider myself successful because I am happy and make a decent living but my trip is far from over and I am sure I will receive plenty more help along the way.

    I think affirmative action is a great idea and I am one of the few white males I know that support it. I am not trying to make this all about me (I know I usually do this, and suppose I still am). I just wanted to let you know that not all of us are douche canoes and there is hope, as well as a lot of work yet to do.

  • Kea says:

    Aahhhh, hah, hah! LOL! Actually, I shouldn't be laughing. I was once young and innocent, and I seriously believed that people could get somewhere if they tried hard enough. Now I know much, much better.

    I don't know about fields where people still behave vaguely like human beings, because I'm in physics. Advice to young female physicists: if you value your job and your life (ie. you are self serving) then do NOT, under any circumstances whatsoever, start complaining and being bitchy. They'll get rid of you real quick, No matter how good your work is. They will happily give credit for your work to the Cute Young Dudes. Or take it themselves. They are quite capable of collectively ignoring you. If you do not belong, you will be dealt with. To those who are willing to fight: way to go, sisters!

  • jingxiamnh says:

    Wow, this was extremely interesting to read. Have you ever regarded as submitting articles to magazines?