Friday, April 18, 2014

Diversions, Unexpected and Otherwise

When I wrote my last post, I had every intention of finding a way to make my current job work out, at least until I could find someplace else to go.

But today, I resigned.

There was no blaze of glory, just a letter of resignation. I will not be going into the gory details here. I will say that I have a great deal of respect for my soon to be former colleagues, and will be leaving bearing only good will towards them and the company.

But I just do not fit into the culture that has evolved there, and it is time to go while I can still do so gracefully and hopefully leave them with good will towards me, too.

I have neither a transition plan at my current job nor any firm plans for what I'll be doing next. So there's a lot to figure out.

I have a lot of reflecting to do, too. This is a scary move- I've been laid off before, and I've resigned to go to another job before, but I've never quit without my next step lined up. It feels so... I am not sure what- arrogant, maybe?- to be quitting a job with nothing else lined up.

However, Mr. Snarky and I have a fairly large buffer of money in the bank. It is there to buffer against lay offs, but also to buffer our lives against our jobs.

So, I took the leap. I am a bit excited, too. I am trying to give myself the pep talk I need to trust that I can aim for my biggest ambitions and be OK, while also being realistic about probabilities of success and our mortgage.

Once I figure out more details, maybe I'll be able to post more of them here.

I think I will hold off on the very good but rather depressing links I had been gathering for my links post. I'll post those next week.

This week, let's have a lot of good news and happy things from various people.

Jim C. Hines has gathered up essays on representation and inclusion in science fiction that appeared as guest posts his blog and has published them as an ebook. I read the essays on his blog, and they were quite good.

The Toast is an awesome site- check it out if you haven't already. And it is profitable after just 9 months!

My publisher got some nice local press:

Slomo is a familiar and popular figure on the boardwalk in Pacific Beach- Mr. Snarky and I saw him skate by many, many times when we used to live in that neighborhood and take frequent walks along the boardwalk. I never knew his backstory- but now I do.

There was also a guy who liked to skate around in nothing except thong underwear, often with his butt cheeks painted to celebrate the nearest holiday. The very first time I saw him, it was Memorial Day weekend and he had an American flag flying from his backside. I haven't seen a documentary with his story... yet.

This is a really sweet short film.

This blog of really bad real estate photos is making me giggle.

Share any good news of your own or the things that made you smile this week in the comments!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Surviving as a Woman in a Very Male World

I don't think I'm giving anything away if I say that I've been struggling a bit at work lately. Some of that has nothing to do with my gender, and some of it has everything to do with my gender. And some of it, its hard to say. I should also say: some of it is probably my own damn fault. I'm not perfect, by any stretch.

A lot of the part that has to do with my gender is due to cracks in the plasterwork I've put up to cover the disconnect between me and the male work culture I inhabit. The cracks have been growing lately, and I'm at a bit of a loss as to why. The particular guys I'm working with now aren't unusually sexist or obnoxious. In fact, I rather like them all. I've got some women on my team (I hired most of them) and there are other women at the company. It is, in other words, about as good as things are likely to get, at least on paper. Still, something is... not right for me. I suspect it is something about the company culture, but haven't pinned it down, and even if I had, I would not blog about it at this point.

It may also just be timing. Maybe I'm running out of my patience for trying to gracefully handle sexism in the workplace, and am coming up to the time when I'm going to going to go out in a blaze of glory...

But I'd rather not.

Still, the cracks are showing, and even growing, and I have been thinking a lot about what I can do about that. I need to up my sanity maintenance game, which has got me thinking about how I've survived (and even occasionally thrived) in my very male dominated work world. Here are my top three sanity saving techniques:

1. Maintain perspective

Even when my work is at its crappiest, I live a pretty great life. This is not to say that I'm going to stop trying to fix the crap, just that I won't let the crap obscure the awesome things in my life. I am (mostly) healthy. I have a great family, I live in a great place, I have enough money to go on great vacations... Etc., etc.

Lately, I've been consciously reminding myself of this as I turn the corner towards Pumpkin's school in the afternoon, and see this:

Seriously. I can't complain.

 Which brings me to my second technique...

2. Use mindfulness

I've written before about how I use mindfulness to maintain my equilibrium at work. In that earlier post, I mostly wrote about using a mindfulness practice to build my reserves of patience. I also use mindfulness techniques to fight the tendency to be derailed by BS at work. When someone does something that is BS, I try to recognize it for what it is, name it as BS, and then consciously put it aside.

This works for egregiously sexist things, but it also works for what I call the "accidental gaslighting" that pervades work places that are lacking in diversity. Since everyone (or at least everyone with the power, authority, and automatic respect) is of the same basic type, a lazy assumption that their way of thinking and responding is the one and only "right" way can take hold. If you respond differently to something, it is a problem with you, not with the thing to which you responded. This happens even when everyone thinks they respect you and value your input. They will in fact tell you that they respect you and value your input, but that you just have to learn to handle X or not be so sensitive about Y or what not.

And that is BS. Because often the X and Y are things like a confrontational discussion style ("it is the only way to make sure we don't succumb to group think!"), a tendency to talk over you ("you just need to talk louder!"), a tendency to make everyone earn respect ("but we do that to everyone!" ), and so on. Somehow they miss that their confrontational discussion style silences some group members, leaving only the ones who tend to think alike feeling comfortable speaking up. They miss that they don't talk over everyone equally as often, or in the same way. They do not realize that in fact, they do NOT make everyone earn their respect in the same way. Some people start with more baseline respect than others.

And they have never considered that their "male" way isn't the default "right" way. Of course, everyone should adopt their way!

Basically, they're Henry Higgins:

In fact, our entire culture is Henry Higgins. We have to have entire books written about What Works for Women at Work and how we can successfully be just the perfect amount more like men. Where are the books telling the men not to be such insensitive asses?

(No, I haven't read that book yet. I'm sure it is very good and helpful, but I'm not in a mood that would be receptive to its advice right now.)

All of this cruft tends to accumulate in my brain until I start believing that there is something wrong with me, too.

And that is the biggest BS of them all.

I fight it with the mindfulness trick of observing the BS thought, labeling it, and putting it aside. I imagine a big, sturdy box in my mind. I shove the BS thought in that box and lock it up. This works until something breaks the box open.

I also use side projects to help me remember that I've got some strong skills, and when I do come up against something I don't know or can't do right, I consciously put myself in a growth mindset by reminding myself that I can get better at anything if I work at it. (If you aren't familiar with the idea of growth vs. fixed mindset, check out Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

3. I only fight the battles I choose

I realized early on that if I fought every single sexist thing, I would wear myself out from fighting and not have any energy left to do the actual things I want to do. And by early on, I mean roughly half-way through college. Here is a tweet that sums this up well:

Not only does each battle exhaust some of my energy, but each battle damages me. Being a geek, I imagine this like the health points in a videogame. Each time I fight sexism in the workplace, I pick up negative health points, in the form of people perceiving me as a "complainer" or "not a team player" or what not. If I deplete my health points too much, I'll be out of the game.

The insistence that I'll only fight the battles I choose annoys some other women, who want me to fight the battles that matter to them, particularly when they perceive me as being in a more powerful place than they are. I understand this, and I am sorry. But I can't fight them all. I will not let anyone- not even myself!- guilt me into fighting every battle. I fight some of them, but I have to pick the ones that matter the most. I try to be cognizant of the need to help the women coming up behind me, and I will almost always make the time to give advice to a younger woman who asks for my help. I try to help as much as I can, but I cannot promise to fight all of their battles. I have to choose strategically. I get to decide when I fight, and when I walk away so that I can be there to fight another day.*

Those are my tricks. Does anyone have any others they want to share?

*Interestingly, calling out racism, homophobia, or ableism does not seem to deplete my health points as much as calling out sexism. Also, since I am in the privileged group in all of those cases, I feel it is my responsibility to speak up when I see these issues in the workplace, so I almost never walk away from those battles.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Random Thoughts

I have a bunch of  random thoughts, and can't be bothered stringing them together into a cohesive post. Perhaps they can't be strung together into a cohesive post. Either way, I'm posting them as little short independent sections.


I wrote a Tungsten Hippo post this week! It is about how I don't think the answers to all of our problems will come from STEM, and how that  factors into my decision to start the Tungsten Hippo site.

Also, I posted a couple of great recommendations this week: Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman, is a great book of essays for anyone who loves to read, and Why We Fly, by Evan Rails is a fun short ebook for anyone who likes to travel and wonders why.


If I ever get really, stupidly rich, I have two projects I want to do:

1. I will buy a big empty lot, put down the squishy composite stuff from playgrounds, and then commission a bunch of sculptures of animals and other things that kids can climb on. Then I will put coffee carts and benches around for the parents. Probably with free wi-fi.

This idea comes from taking my kids to the zoo last week and spending at least half of the time watching them climb on statues of animals. The new koala tree at the San Diego Zoo is particularly attractive to children. It usually has several kids climbing on it and several grown ups standing near it saying "do you want to go look at some animals now?"

I no longer fight this, and just accept that seeing some animals is only a small part of what we'll do at the zoo, but I can't stop thinking that a sculpture climbing park would be much more efficient.

2. I will fund a study to find out whether or not just giving struggling people money is a more effective solution to a range of problems than our usual interventions.

This idea comes from watching people go into the paycheck lending place near my house and being tempted to just go over and hand them $500 instead. I could not currently afford to do this for more than one or two people, and just walking up to someone and handing them a significant sum of money would be weird. But if I could do it as part of a study, then it wouldn't be weird. And if I were stupidly rich, I could afford to do this for a significant sample size.


I find myself wondering about sexism, racism, and other exclusionary behaviors in different fields. I wonder if it really is worse in tech than in other fields, or if the fact that people in tech are more likely to be active on social media and have a way to tell the world about the crap that happens.

I do not think tech is worse than science, but that is a personal impression, and I'd love to see some data. Does anyone know of data on this?


I follow a few conservative pundit-types on Twitter. The idea was to keep myself from living in the inverse bubble from the Fox news people. I can't stand any of the Fox news people, though, so I follow David Frum and Ross Douthat. Generally, they do the job of informing me what conservatives are thinking about the news of the day without making me want to reach through my computer screen and strangle them.

Last week, though Ross Douthat got in a discussion with Matt Yglesias about the gender wage gap and since I follow Matt Yglesias, too, I saw the entire exchange. And I wanted to reach through my computer screen and if not strangle Douthat, at least shake him a little. He was spouting the line about how women just choose to work fewer hours in less well-paid fields and really, what could we do about that? If he had ever considered what factors drive those choices, he gave no hint of that.

This prompted a mini-rant from me on Twitter, but also made me wonder: are there any conservatives who have really examined their own privilege and come away still conservative? It seems like this is at least theoretically possible, but I cannot come up with anyone who would fit this bill. I'd actually be really curious to read what a conservative who recognizes the full inequalities of our society proposes to do about them- so if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.


In fact, leave me comments on any of the above!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Weekend Reading: The Completely Lacking in a Theme Edition

I've got no theme for my links this week. But I have some good links!

First up, Andie Fox, who writes the Blue Milk blog, had a beautiful article about grief, uncertainty, parenting, and facing your fears.

On a more prosaic but still quite important topic: if you haven't seen this post on tipping yet, you should check it out.

I love this answer to the ever popular "why do we menstruate?" question.

Somewhat related (really, it is)... cows on the internet!

There's been a lot of discussion recently about whether or not a PhD is useful if you aren't going into academia (or another field where it is generally required). Nicoleandmaggie have discussed this a couple of times recently. I came across this post from someone who left a lectureship to go into the software industry, and I think it makes a lot of good points about some of the "transferable skills" you gain in academia.

I know that my own experiences are not generalizable, since I am in a STEM field in an industry in which PhDs are fairly common. I have held jobs that require a PhD and others that do not, and I have a mix of PhDs and non-PhDs in my current group.  Still, I agree strongly with the skills that are highlighted in that post. Maybe no one's experiences are generalizable once we leave the standard career paths for our fields, because all of these "alternative" careers are so different. And maybe that is one of the things that makes transitioning out of academia and/or off the beaten path so hard- all of your life you've been following a fairly well-defined map, and now you don't have a map to use at all, and that is scary, particularly early in your career when you don't have a large network of professional contacts to help you plot a new course and a large buffer of savings to keep you in supplies while you do so.

In one of the posts over at Nicoleandmaggie's place, they replied to my comment asking what fields I'd tell a non-STEM PhD to consider. I've been thinking about that, and will include some thoughts on how to find new career options in the book I'm writing now. Some concrete ideas I've had are: People in history, classics and other fields that have probably exposed them to a lot of interesting stories could consider game design (computer or tabletop). Probably any PhD would have the basic skills needed to do technical writing. I know that there are more options out there for non-STEM PhDs wanting a non-academic career, but I haven't tried to think of them before. I'll keep thinking!

Lots of people were talking this week about the French rule against answering emails after 6 p.m. (which turned out to be a false rumor). My own husband sent an article about this to me with a note about wanting to move to France. I wrote back that he could implement that rule all on his own, no help from the government required. I was only half joking. I do not routinely check work emails after I get home. I do so when I have something specific to check on- and then I look for those emails and only those emails. Even when I was in charge of IT at a small biotech, I only checked my work emails twice per night. Granted, my IT administrator checked his more often. He and I were working on a plan to set up a rotation for who needed to be checking emails after hours when I was laid off. The plan was that we would alternate weeks, and even on our "on" weeks, we would only be expected to respond to true emergencies. (No, I don't think this plan had anything to do with my being laid off.)

Those of us in knowledge work jobs usually have more power to set boundaries on when we do our work than we think- and if you think there will be negative repercussions to setting some reasonable boundaries on after hours work in your current position, I suggest thinking about finding another position. Really! There are healthier workplaces out there. I'm not saying that we don't have a cultural problem with overwork- I'm just saying that we can usually say no more than we think we can and put at least some boundaries in place.

Which brings me to an interesting podcast I listened to about women, obligations, and our sex lives. I don't agree with everything in that podcast, but there are certainly some interesting things to think about, and I completely agree that it is OK to say "no" to work to have time for relationships. (That podcast is from the Broad Experience podcasts that Ashley Milne-Tyte puts out, and I have enjoyed several of them- I think this will be one of my "regular" podcasts. I'm finding enough interesting podcast series in my searches that I think I'll eventually do a "my favorite podcast series" post- but please do keep leaving recommendations for new podcasts in my comments!)

Let's end with a couple of lolsob comics:

xkcd explains the heartbleed bug in its usual clear and amusing style

Listen to Me and "Not All Man".

And a fun performance:

Happy weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Ask Cloud: Interviewing

Last week, I posted a wrap up of my non-academic job search posts, and asked if anyone had any topics they thought I'd missed.

One of you pointed out that I hadn't written about interviews yet. There are two reasons for this, one good and one not-so-good. The not-so-good reason is that I feel much less confident in my own interviewing abilities than in my resume and cover letter writing abilities. However, I've seen enough bad interviews to have some ideas about what usually doesn't work, so perhaps I can distill some tips out of that.

The good reason is that the details of interviewing vary widely in different industries and jobs. If none of my other arguments have convinced you that you should be networking and doing informational interviews, maybe this will. The only way to find out what is expected in an interview in the industry you're trying to enter is to ask someone in that industry. Even within an industry, there is a fair amount of variation from company to company. I think the best advice I can give on preparing for an interview is to try to be well-rested and ready to think on your feet!

Still, here are some pointers that might be useful:

1. Be prepared to demonstrate that you know what you say you know

If you are applying for a hands on technical job, you might be asked to demonstrate those technical skills. It is particularly common to be asked to take a code test if you are applying for a job that
involves coding.

Even if there is no actual test, you will probably be asked questions that attempt to confirm that you know the things your resume says you know. Never try to fake your way through a technical answer. If you do not know the answer, just say so, and say how you'd go about learning that information if you needed it on the job. Also never inflate your role in a project when asked for details about something on your resume. It is dishonest to do so, and you never know who the person asking the questions knows. I once interviewed with the wife of one of the collaborators on one of my graduate school rotation projects. I'd never met her, and she had not changed her name when she got married, so I had no idea who she was when I was interviewing. However, she'd asked her husband about the project before the interview, and would have caught me in an instant if I'd tried to pretend my role had been bigger than it was. I didn't inflate my role, and she told me who she was. We had a laugh about the smallness of the science world. I got the job, and look back on that job as one of my favorite jobs ever. It is a good thing I didn't let a mistaken need to look more important on a project than I was short circuit that interview!

2. Know the basics about the company but come prepared to ask questions to learn more

Make sure you've read the company's website and know the basics about what the company does. Do a web search, too, and see if you can find any articles or other information about the company.

Come prepared with 3-5 questions to ask during the course of the interview. You want to have good, interesting questions for two reasons:
(1) It shows curiosity and engagement, which is a good thing to show in an interview
(2) You should be using the interview to determine whether or not the job is a good fit for you, and the best way to do this is to ask some questions.

You need to do the work to figure out what you want to know about each company. However, you can always ask your interviewer to tell you about the company culture. I particularly like to ask multiple interviewers this question and compare their answers (interviews in my industry are usually a string of 1:1 meetings).

3. Think about how you handle the "soft skills" and be ready to talk about it

I hate the term "soft skills," but I can't think of a less annoying catch-all for the work skills that involve interpersonal interactions. If you are interviewing for a position that involves management of people or projects, you will almost certainly get a lot of these sorts of questions. In fact, I would be nervous about a company that didn't ask any questions about management style and methods for a managerial position. Unless it is a former colleague who knows me well, the failure to ask me about this would be a huge red flag to me, possibly indicating that the company doesn't know what management is and why they need someone who knows how to do it.

Even if you are interviewing for a non-managerial role, you will probably get asked a couple of these questions, particularly about how you handle conflict at work. Examples of these questions are:
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult colleague
  • How would you handle it if you had a disagreement on technical approach with a coworker?
You can find example questions online, but I think the best preparation is just to think about how you handle conflict, and how you want to handle conflict, and be ready to talk about this, with a couple of examples in mind. Then you can react to any version of this question. In my experience, most of the "soft skills" questions boil down to how you handle conflict. 

And of course, there is the every popular "tell me about your biggest weakness" question. You might as well practice an answer to that one now, because you'll almost certainly run into it. Pick something that is actually a weakness but not an irredeemable one and talk about how you mitigate its impact on your work. I never ask this question myself, but I've been in panel interviews where it has been used. I've seen perfectionism and difficulty letting go of a project used as weaknesses to good effect. In recent interviews, I have used my tendency to get buried in operational details, and I talk about how I specifically set aside time on my calendar to come up for air and think about broader, more strategic issues. Note the form of that answer: I'm a middle manager- I'm supposed to be buried in operational details, but I should also be working on thinking strategically as I look ahead to future growth and I am most effective at my job when I have a clear view of the bigger picture of what my department and company are trying to do. I've picked a real trait of mine that has aspects that make it a weakness, but that has positive aspects, too. And I've said how I mitigate the weakness aspects. You'll need to think hard about what trait you can use- this is an answer you won't be able to crib from anyone else.

4. Know what you want in a job and be ready to talk about it

You will probably be asked to describe your perfect job, or where you want to be in 5 years, or some other nonsense. These are hard questions, since you want to sound ambitious, but not so ambitious that you sound like you view the current job as nothing more than a stepping stone. Also, I always think in my head that it is none of the interviewer's business what I want to be doing in 5 years- they can't guarantee me a job in 5 years, after all!

I usually answer these questions by talking about the main qualities that make me happy in a job: to feel like I am learning new things and to feel like I am making a valuable contribution. These are my happiness criteria- you should think about what yours are.

My third big criteria, by the way, is that I strongly dislike a confrontational/adversarial/overtly competitive environment, even one in which the confrontation is not meant to imply disrespect- but I don't usually talk about that in an interview. I try to suss out their culture, and if pushed about what I like in a culture, I talk about valuing strong teamwork, which is the positive corollary of my dislike of an adversarial environment.

5. Dress appropriately but in something in which you feel comfortable and confident

Dress expectations vary widely by industry (another reason to find a contact within your target industry!) but in general, you can't go wrong by dressing more formally. I personally always wear a jacket, because I think a well-tailored jacket is flattering on me, so it allows me to not worry about whether my stomach bulge is showing. I'm in a somewhat casual industry, so I don't always wear a full suit- but I have on occasion.

I think it is unfortunate that we judge people on their attire and I try to fight that tendency in myself, but it is reality, and not everyone even fights the tendency. So it is worth spending some effort to get your attire "right." In general, that means that women have to worry more than we'd like about the length of skirt and the cut of shirt (another reason I wear a jacket- I am large-busted, and the jacket keeps that from being an issue). I think nice trousers are fine, and I've interviewed in them. In some industries, though, the more conservative older men will frown on trousers on a woman. You have to decide for yourself if you care about that.

Men generally have an easier time. They can almost always do fine by wearing a nice suit, or a dress shirt and nice trousers. They are not completely off the hook on attire, though. They need to make sure their suit actually fits- particularly if they are going with a double-breasted style of jacket. An ill-fitting suit is noticeable and distracting at best.

6. Decide ahead of time how you'll handle inappropriate questions

Note that this answer, more than any other, is strongly geared towards the American job market. I've never worked anywhere else, and while I know there are different laws and norms, I don't know enough about them to comment on them.  Any readers who do should feel free to chime in on this in the comments.

If you are in a protected class (as defined by anti-discrimination law) you'll probably get an inappropriate question or two over the course of a job search. Actually, I think that if you are anything but a white American man, you'll get an inappropriate question or two. Well, maybe white male Canadians will get a pass- but the rest of us will get asked things that the interviewer shouldn't ask. Unless the only people interviewing you are human resources staff, you will probably run into at least one interviewer who doesn't know the rules and that one interviewer will always be curious about something he or she shouldn't ask about.

Over the course of my career, I've been asked about my marriage plans, my plans to have children, and how I handle child care arrangements. There was also one memorable interview where the guy asked me if I'd gone into my field to meet men. (I answered "No" and then said nothing more and waited for the next question.)

There are also well-intentioned questions that stray into difficult territory- when I was interviewing when Pumpkin was still a baby, one person asked me what I did for fun. The honest answer right then was that I slept for fun. (I stammered a minute, then answered that I spent my free time with my child, but also enjoyed playing music and reading. I got that job.)

There is no great way to handle these questions, and I think everyone has to figure out their own boundaries. Many men have no idea that women generally try not to talk about family when interviewing- they are completely unaware of the fact that research shows that there is a motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus. They have never experienced any negative impact from discussing their family at work, so they don't think these are potentially harmful questions for a woman. Some people are just bigoted jerks, and are trying to trip you up. Some people view themselves as strictly fair and honestly think that these questions are relevant and that they need to know the answers to be "fair." The optimal answer will depend on which category the interviewer is in, and of course you have no way of knowing that.

Personally, I generally answer honestly but briefly and with as little detail as I can. If I am then hired into the company, one of the first things I tell HR is that they need some more interview training. If I know the HR person, I might tell him or her at the time of the interview, but this can be awkward because it introduces the risk of a lawsuit if the company fails to hire me.

Other people might prefer to decline to answer- but be aware that the more clueless interviewers might be very confused by this and you might find yourself in the awkward position of explaining why those questions aren't appropriate, so include that in what you practice ahead of time.

Those are the tips I can think of. Any specific questions you wish I'd covered? Other advice you'd like to offer? Leave me a comment!
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