Three Books that Changed my Life as a Female Professor in Academia

Dr. Sarah Gaffen

Professor, Gerald P. Rodnan Endowed Chair in Rheumatology, University of Pittsburgh

President-Elect, International Cytokine & Interferon Society (ICIS)

It’s an unfortunate but well-documented fact that bias against women is rampant in the professional world (not just academia). Although I have been more fortunate than many of my female peers in this regard, I have certainly experienced this, mostly in little ways, though occasionally in jaw-droppingly big ones. Two examples will suffice. As a grad student in the early 1990s, a PI of a neighboring lab told me, “Women shouldn’t try to do science because to be successful, you need a wife.”  Sadly, this type of thinking is not ancient history. A few years ago, I was slated to give a major talk at a prestigious conference alongside two men. Upon seeing the program, a senior individual at my institution said, “I see that you are the X-chromosome invitation.”  Importantly, men are not the only perpetrators of such bias; women are just as likely to negatively judge other women and unconsciously reward or favor men.

Even so, this does not mean women cannot succeed in professional careers, and there are many great resources to help navigate this. I will briefly highlight three books that changed my perspective and gave me valuable roadmaps for success.

Women Don’t Ask (The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change) © 2007

Ask For It (How women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want) © 2008

Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

This eye-opening pair of books was written by Linda Babcock (professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University) and Sara Laschever (an author and leading authority on impediments to women’s careers). As the title suggests, Women Don’t Ask discusses the many ways in which women are hesitant to ask or negotiate for more. “More” could mean many things, salary and promotion being obvious. However, more could also mean recognition, vacation, lab space, speaking opportunities at conferences or seminars, lab space, or in my case, an endowed chair. The book goes over how being hesitant to negotiate leads to job dissatisfaction. Just as significantly, this also harms organizations when productive employees leave without clarifying what it would take to keep them. It’s often much more cost-effective to retain a talented individual with a pay increase than to replace them. Ask For It covers some of the same ground but provides a fantastic “how-to” approach to make asking for things – i.e., negotiating –  not only less terrifying but actually to become a habit. A “negotiation gym,” as the authors call it.

For me, Ask For It in particular, provided some real “ah ha” moments. When I sought an Assistant Professor faculty position as a postdoc, I did virtually no negotiating, despite having three job offers. I was just thrilled that someone was willing to pay me to do this fantastic job, and I (erroneously) assumed that I would burn bridges or seem greedy if I demanded more than was offered. More or less the same thing happened when I was given tenure and promoted to Associate Professor, despite having an offer at another institution. By then, my salary was considerably behind my peers, despite my above-average performance. I had no real idea of how to “threaten to leave” when I secretly knew I was unlikely to do so. Understanding that my boss and I were on the same side made it easier for me to negotiate – I had never really appreciated that I could be doing my boss a favor by asking for what I wanted. Instead of framing the conversation as “give me this or I will leave,” I was able to more comfortably say, “I have this other offer, but I have many reasons to want to stay here … what can we do to make things more comparable so that we both benefit?”

Thanks to these books, I have been able to negotiate for many things that have improved my life as an academic. I bet you can too.

The No Club © 2022

Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart

Another issue for women in professional settings is a prevailing culture in which women do disproportionately more service work compared to their male peers. The No Club was formed out of a regular lunch meeting of 5 senior women faculty at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. They were highly successful but felt overwhelmed.  The book opens with one of the women comparing her daily calendar to a male peer’s. Her day contained hours of teaching duties, advising junior faculty, reviewing for a journal, and attending this or that committee. In contrast, her male colleague’s calendar was mainly devoted to his work—no wonder she was working late into the night at personal cost

This outstanding book is full of data-driven metrics showing that (1) women are asked to do far more “nonpromotable tasks” (NPTs) than men, to the detriment of their careers, (2) both men and women ask other women to do NPTs disproportionately, and (3) women volunteer to do NPTs more often than men.  Warning- don’t take the phrase NPT too literally- “promotable” doesn’t have to mean job promotion or payment per se. NPTs are essential tasks to one’s institution but provide minimal benefit to the person who does it. For example, writing up the minutes from a faculty meeting is a classic NPT. So is taking time to provide career advice or mentorship to another colleague’s student, or writing a blinded peer review, or (depending on your position) agreeing to teach lectures.

Once you start recognizing them, you will see NPTs everywhere. This is not to say that one should avoid all NPTs—these tasks need to be performed by someone, and often they are enjoyable or satisfying. But many are not, and they don’t always have to be done by you – recommend a male colleague instead. Be mindful of how much time you use for NPTs versus career-boosting activities. Grant-writing, paper-writing, and guiding students and postdocs are not NPTs. Sometimes it’s not evident whether something is an NPT – volunteer activities can carry prestige or salary support (food for thought, is being President-Elect of the ICIS an NPT or a career booster?). Serving on grant review panels (e.g., NIH study sections) is an important part of being in a research community and can have tangible benefits to one’s research and grant-writing skills. Sometimes you will directly benefit from reviewing a paper that is very relevant to your research.

Any female reading this needs no convincing of the contentions that women volunteer more and are “voluntold” more, but how does one prove that experimentally? The authors describe studies in which a group of male and female study subjects was brought together and given a computer with a “volunteer button” (and no communication among the group was allowed). Everyone was informed they would receive $1 for participating. If someone in the group pressed the button within 2 minutes, everyone would get $2 – except the person who pushed the button, who would only receive $1.25. In other words, everyone benefitted if the button got pressed, but the person who did the work got less benefit than the others. Unsurprisingly, women were ~50% more likely than men to press the button. In a male-only group, the button got pressed just as often as in the mixed-gender group so that men CAN press the button; they do it far less if women are around. Many variations on this theme illustrate how NPTs fall on women and that women are just as guilty as men in asking other women to volunteer.

The No Club describes excellent strategies to avoid NPTs, including a “24-hour rule”: you can say no right away, but you cannot say yes to anything without a waiting period. There are more, but you need to read the book.