Friday, March 09, 2007

Assertiveness Training (A Story About Me)

Or: Years of Anger Are Converted to Advice
Now announcing a new feature: Friday Advice! My epic-proportioned frustration with students who let themselves be trodden upon- and with the years I wasted underfoot- requires an outlet.

There are lots of things I wish I'd known before I came to grad school. One of them is how to choose a good lab. (Upcoming in Friday Advice!) Another is how to be a respected participant rather than a doormat.

In the last several years, I've seen a lot of young women, and rather fewer young men, suffer from not being very assertive. They get talked over, ignored, harassed, pressured, interrupted. It's as much fun as you'd imagine.

My lab, as I have mentioned, is a tank of pirhanas. I tried to be nice and polite. I never interrupted. I never hit back when people said mean, disparaging things about my research. At lab meetings, I cowered in the corner, occasionally offering a meek comment, lest they bite me.

I got saddled with chores that weren't my job. I was lectured on what experiments to do, when all I'd asked was where's the Saran Wrap. I got tired and angry and sad.

And then one day... I snapped. I was sick of being ignored and interrupted. I was ready to deck the next person who dismissed my professional, scientific judgment as 'just being negative'. Someone was rude to me, and I interrupted him back and said "This is what my data say. This is the answer. I don't care if you don't like it. End of story."

Once I decided that I wasn't going to put up with it any more, my frustration quotient went way down, and my colleagues stopped treating me like a punching bag. It's still an enormous effort to be on guard all the time, ready to hit back, but it's better than being put down all the time.

How did I learn these things? I don't quite know. A big part of it was I went and cried all over an acquaintance four years ahead of me, and asked her what to do, because she didn't take any nonsense. She gave me thoughtful advice, and I took notes. I watched other people. I practiced good responses in my head. I learned to take a deep breath before answering, so I wouldn't get flustered by attacks. I made up a set of stock responses and drilled out loud until I could say "That's an interesting idea, but I've already shown it's incorrect" without even thinking. I learned to trust my own judgment.

I still see people get run over. It especially frustrates me when young women do it. I want to shake them and cry "
Don't put up with it! Grow a spine!" But I remember I was once like that, and they must learn. They must want to be assertive more than they want to be nice.

Nonetheless, when I get my dream job at the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, I will teach a yearly course on assertiveness for young women, in hopes of forestalling some of the agony. (A coworker of Mr. S is coming over soon for drinks and a preview course!) And what will I say? Tune in next week!