Book Review: I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam, 2015

I’m a regular reader of Laura’s blog and have read several of her other books and was therefore looking forward to reading her newest book I Know How She Does It .

The book is essentially an analysis of time logs of successful women and a discussion of successful strategies for living a fulfilling life. Time tracking is a very effective way of seeing where your time goes; during the day you record what you did with your time in 30 minute blocks. Laura defined successful women as those who earned over $100,000/year and had at least one child under 18 living at home with them. The book is therefore ideally geared towards women in this particular situation, but several of the insights are applicable to everyone. We are definitely talking about first-world problems here.

The target audience for this book is women like me who are driven in their careers and who also have a family life. Many of us want “to have it all” and are frustrated by the old scripts that tell us that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”, that you can be a good mother or a good employee, but not both, or that you should maintain strict separation between home and work life if you want to succeed. These narratives aren’t helpful and perhaps aren’t really true. They also induce a lot of guilt in women that doesn’t seem to be a hang-up that men have.

One of the take away messages from reading Laura’s book that I liked was that instead of talking about work-life balance or work-life blend, Laura is using the metaphor of a mosaic for how you spend your time. I really like this way of thinking about time because it allows you to see that fitting in the pieces of your life is like solving a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that is flexible and allows you to come up with your own final image and way of fitting the tiles of your life together. I think that these ideas of flexibility and autonomy are really key realizations to take away from this book. Many women I think get stuck in a false narrative that work happens from 9-5 p.m. and that the rest of your life has to be squeezed into the margins. This really isn’t sustainable or realistic, especially if you are a knowledge worker. She also spends some time debunking the myth that going part-time or “leaning out” always relieves these pressures.

Another thing that was fascinating about the book was that you get to see how other successful women are spending their time. Looking at other women’s time logs is rather voyeuristic, but can lead to the generation of new ideas or strategies to try out in your own life. I also like Laura’s approach to thinking about time on the scale of 168 hours (1 week) as opposed to getting bogged down in the daily crunch. While particular days may be work heavy, others are full of time spent with family; if we were only to look at things on a daily basis we would have a very skewed view of reality. We live in a society that brags about overwork and sees it as a badge of honour, but the average hours worked per week by the women in Laura’s sample was 35.

In Chapter 3 Laura discusses some strategies that successful women use in order to live full lives. These include split shifts, telecommuting, planning based on weeks not days, and retooling weekends. While these are ideas that have been bandied about before, Laura provides examples of how real women use each of these strategies effectively to make their lives easier.

Chapter 4 is focused on strategies that can be used to consciously design a better work life. These include obvious things like planning ahead, focusing on real work with maximal payoffs rather than merely keeping active with “busy work”, surrounding yourself with good people, and building in slack to your schedule. Laura also recognizes that some workplaces are still suck in the mentality that if a worker is burning the midnight oil then they must be a loyal, committed, hard worker. In my experience this often means that the worker doesn’t manage their time or projects effectively and has been slacking off during some of their work hours by using social media, web surfing, or playing MineSweeper. She makes the argument to be “strategically seen” at work given these preconceived notions of what it means to be a hard worker (i.e. face time is all important).

In Chapter 5, Laura offers some tips on the home front, with a focus on parenting and encouragement to re-examine mornings, evenings, family meals, and to take time to play and really be present when you are spending time with your kids. The section on outsourcing was incredibly funny to read. Several women in the study had hired housekeeping services, but then would frantically pre-clean before the cleaning crew arrived. She also makes the important point that child-care is not one size fits all and that what works for your co-workers may not work for your situation.

Often the thing that falls by the wayside during this work/life two step is self-care. Encouragingly, Laura found that during the course of a week, most women were getting enough sleep and were pretty good about exercising. Sometimes finding “extra” time is all about really examining how you are currently spending your 168 hours per week. Blinding browsing Pinterest or checking email represents “found time” that you could get back if you became more conscious of these automatic habits that have no real payoff.

Chapter 9 is all about mastering the tiles of the mosaic and offers recommendations like learning to better estimate how long things will actually take you to do, using travel time, multitasking when possible, taking advantage of unexpected free time, and taking a step back every once and a while to look at the whole picture.

There is a lot of creativity on display here in the tips and tricks that have been gleaned from other women’s schedules and there are a lot of practical things for you to try in your own work/family/personal life. I especially liked Laura’s focus on flexibility, breaking outdated rules and ways of thinking about work and home life, and the metaphor of the mosaic. The book will be most useful and will speak to working moms with children at home, but is a valuable read for anyone looking to fit all of the pieces of their life together in a format that makes them happy and fulfilled.

PhD Tree: The website that lets you see how incestuous research science is

Last week I received an unusual piece of spam in my email inbox. It was from a website called PhDtree.org . Evidently someone thought that it would be an awesome idea to spam email addresses acquired from PubMed in order to publicize the site.

The concept behind the website is an interesting one. The idea is to follow the academia genealogy of scientists through their research careers. It’s an idea that I’ve joked about with colleagues at conferences and it’s therefore interesting to see someone attempting to make it a reality. It’s somehow been auto-populated as I haven’t added anything to the site, but two entries from my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees are present. Sort of a 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon for researchers. It would be interesting to identify people who are hubs in the network. Someone has even decided that it’s worth doing an Academic Genealogy of Nobel Prize Winners .

At the moment the tree and most of the entries are very heavily skewed towards one sex. It would be interesting to see if an analysis of the data could highlight leak points in the leaky pipeline or identify particular PIs that exhibit biases in the trainees that they take on.

Not sure if it will take off or not, but it’s an interesting idea.

Jurassic World’s Portrayal of Women and Scientists

*This post contains some spoilers, do not continue reading if you wish to protect your future movie viewing experience.*

Last weekend my son and I went to see Jurassic World. I enjoyed Jurassic Park when it came out and like science fiction movies in general and was pretty excited to see the film. I’m also a biologist and dinosaurs are cool so I was stoked!

I generally have low expectations for many films as a feminist scientist and many fail to meet the Bechdel test . Female characters are often relegated to the sidelines or only talk about dudes and romantic relationships.

I was therefore happy to see within the first 30 minutes of the film that four female characters were introduced. Judy Greer plays a mom sending her two sons off for a visit to see their aunt who is in charge of the daily operations of Jurassic World. She’s a lawyer and it’s revealed later in the film and she and her husband are contemplating divorce and it seems like they’ve shipped the kids off for a fun adventure while they work out the details of their split. One of the sons, Zach, has a girlfriend who has come to see him off. Aunt Claire is played by Bryce Dallas Howard as a highly driven, emotionally unavailable career woman. When her nephews arrive she foists them off on her assistant Zara played by Katie McGrath. The fourth female character is a technical support worker (Vivian) in the command centre played by Lauren Lapkus. The film passes the Bechdel test because it has greater than two women in it, several of these women talk to each other, and these conversations involve something other than talking about men.

Unfortunately the female character development isn’t stellar throughout the rest of the film and features many tropes such as the frigid, type A, career woman who has no time for family (Claire), the highly emotional mother (Karen), the put upon younger assistant (Zara), the token techie woman (Vivian), and the overly clingly girlfriend who needs constant assurances about the status of her romantic relationship (Zach’s girlfriend).

Some icky things that happen during the film:

  1. Claire’s wardrobe choices. That white suit and pumps are awesome and powerful for the boardroom. For tromping around in the jungle searching for kids and avoiding dinosaurs? Not so much. There’s actually a scene at the top of a waterfall in which Claire modifies the suit that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the situation.
  2. Zach says a prolonged good-bye to his girlfriend at the start of the film. He then proceeds to stare/ogle other young women at various places around Jurassic World to the point where the younger brother calls him out on it. Creeper alert!
  3. There is a thoroughly creepy sexual harassment incident as the central command of the park is being evacuated. The male technician (Lowery) who has decided to valiantly stay behind to hold down the fort attempts to kiss the female technician (Vivian) as she’s leaving and is firmly rebuffed. Turns out he assumed that she would welcome his advances because she’s never stated that she has a boyfriend. Turns out that she does have a boyfriend, but hasn’t talked about him because she’s a professional and doesn’t talk about that stuff at work. What a stunning concept! This was doubly uncomfortable because the situation garnered huge laughs from the audience.
  4. The assistant Zara dies, but doesn’t do so quickly. Nope, the flying dinosaurs play around with her a bit first up in the air, then play with her in the water and try to drown her, and she finally meets her end when the flying dinosaur that’s gobbled her up is itself eaten by the gigantic, aquatic Mosasaurus dinosaur.

The scientists don’t fare much better. Dr. Henry Wu (played by BD Wong who was also in Jurassic Park) is still working in the lab, still engineering new dinosaurs, and evidently didn’t learn anything from the experiences in the first film. He’s portrayed as having no moral compass and is part of a larger military conspiracy effected by Hoskins (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). He gets to be the evil scientist who is in it for himself and leaves the island on a helicopter with a mysterious briefcase which we assume contains plans and genetic material for a new crop of dinosaurs that we’ll no doubt see in the next film.

Overall the movie is a fun romp and the special effects are amazing. Unfortunately the portrayal of women and scientists in the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

DoctorAl Digest

Here’s a list of links that I’ve found interesting this week:

  1. Octopi are cool creatures. A lovely video of new species looking for a name (h/t Malcolm M. Campbell)
  2. Women in Science calling out the whole Tim Hunt debacle using the cheeky #distractinglysexy hashtag on Twitter.
  3. A thoughtful post on making decisions over at the Beyond Managing Blog.
  4. I’m currently reading the book “I Know How She Does It” by Laura Vanderkam. Her website has focussed on associated issues of the work/life mosaic for women the past few weeks.
  5. Jacquelyn Gill’s tweets this week (@JacquelynGill) on her field work have been fascinating!
  6. Tanya Golash-Boza pushing back against the workaholic culture of academia with her refreshing post “Summer Hours: Enjoy your summer and be productive too!”
  7. The importance of “Finding new definitions for career success” over at Tenure, She Wrote.
  8. A reminder that some academic departments are toxic over at the Conditionally Accepted blog

On-line Storage of Lab Protocols

In the labs I’ve been in previously, common lab protocols were stored in a binder in the lab for reference. Usually I’d make a photocopy for my own use as a place to start and as I optimized the protocol for my experiments I’d mark up this copy. Once I had a solid protocol worked out, I’d generate my own copy of the protocol so that it served my purposes. When I started my own lab I wanted to make sure that my students had a binder of protocols that they could refer to for their own experiments. At the same time I wanted to prevent protocol drift (i.e. the inadvertent changing of a protocol over time). I thought about the common protocols that we would use in the lab and generated several binders for these that are stored in the lab. This approach works, but it’s a bit clunky and limited the students to looking at the protocols only while in the lab. I recently decided that it would make sense to generate a central, on-line repository for our lab protocols.

A quick search of the web showed that researchers do this in different ways. Some labs make their own Wiki to hold this information, others use cloud storage or an online protocol repository, and others used a campus intranet or password protected website. I’m currently in the process of evaluating all of the possible options. How does your lab store and manage experimental protocols? I’d love to receive advice and hear about options in the comments below!

Open vs. Closed Office Door

Interruptions are the bane of my existence. When I’m in the zone working on something it is very disruptive to be interrupted. As I do most of my work in my office on campus and my office is located directly across from the departmental office, there are plenty of sources of interruption throughout any given day. This can include people who pop by to specifically see me, loud conversations or noises in the hallway, and the persistent buzz of the door at the end of the hall every time someone uses their access card to open it.

During my first several years as a professor I had an open door policy. I didn’t have a great sense of the culture in my department yet and I felt that being seen as more available would be a good idea. This was a great decision as it allowed me to get to know my colleagues and made me accessible to students. Generally speaking, I would say that in my department most of my colleagues leave their doors slightly open if they are in their office working.

A few years into my position, I realized that I was losing quite a bit of time to interruptions. Some of these were a consequence of the location of my office. If the departmental office staff were on lunch or when the office was closed I would sometimes have to sign for deliveries or field inquiries from students or visitors. These interruptions didn’t take up much time, but they definitely disrupted my work flow. I also noticed that some of my lab trainees would pop by with quick questions that they could have solved themselves and realized that perhaps I’d made myself a little too readily available.

Since April of this year I have started an experiment. I’ve purposely closed my office door when I am completing a task that requires a high degree of concentration, and only open it when an interruption would not be detrimental. Part way through the past academic year I also booked weekly appointments with each of my trainees so that they knew that they would have scheduled one-on-one time with me when they would have my full attention. Both of these decisions have greatly reduced the number of interruptions during the course of a day and I feel that I am more focused and productive while at work. The only drawback to this approach so far is that several of my colleagues have noticed that I’m coming in to work, but that I’m closing my door and have commented on it (not in a judgemental way, but because they have noticed a change in my behaviour).

It’s a pretty tough balance between being accessible and friendly vs. productive and cloistered. I think that this is something that a lot of faculty members struggle with and I think is very dependent on your departmental culture. I’d be interested to hear how others approach this decision. Do you have a personal policy about open vs. closed office doors?

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, 2014

Being a scientist is tough, but being a scientist who is female is tougher than being a scientist who is male. I know this because it has been my personal experience. I have had negative experiences during my training and work in my chosen profession that are shared by my female colleagues, but not one of these episodes have been shared by my male colleagues. I am therefore forced to conclude that most of these negative experiences are a direct result of my gender.

Equality and affirmative action have made some gains in the past decades and I am especially grateful. Without the work of these tireless pioneers I would not be a university professor. Sexism and misogyny have not gone away though; instead they have become subtle and in some ways more nefarious. Women experiencing sexism today risk “death by a thousand cuts”. One event by itself is survivable, but a lifetime of these smaller insults takes its toll. After a while you start to question whether it’s all in your head. I am being too sensitive? Pick your battles carefully. Don’t rock the boat. I’m sure he didn’t mean to come across that way, he’s a nice guy. Sexism and misogyny are clearly still a problem in science and academia. Two recent examples include the fiasco with the Ask Alice advice column at Science Careers and the illuminating interview of an academic couple in the journal Science .

What Works for Women at Work helps to articulate the subtle biases that women experience in their professional lives and is particularly relevant to scientists as a large portion of the interview data was collected from female researchers. The book focuses on four patterns that the authors identified in their data that represent challenges for women in their professional lives due to cultural and societal biases around gender. They are:

1) Prove-It-Again! I’ve already shown you that I’m a competent individual, but because I’m a women I need to prove my competence over and over and over again. If I’m meeting you for the first time you will make (often incorrect) assumptions about my competence just because I’m a woman.

2) The Tightrope. Women should behave a certain way. If I don’t act a certain way and I’m a woman then I’m trouble. Act too feminine; well you must be an idiot, so you’ll have to Prove-It-Again! Act too masculine and you are abrasive, aggressive, don’t play well with others, are difficult to work with, and lack social skills.

3) The Maternal Wall. If I don’t have kids then something must be wrong with me. Once I do have kids then I’m not serious about my career and somehow using my uterus has made me into an idiot and not fully committed to my work. If I chose to have kids then I should be at home mothering them 24/7 and therefore should “lean out” or give up my spot to someone who is fully committed to their career.

4) The Tug of War. Traditionally academia was a man’s game and was based on a monastic model of education. Do I try to play the game like the guys do? Do I do the opposite so that I can maintain my femininity? Can I attempt to change how the game is played? How are other women playing the game? Is there space for only one token woman in the game? Women often disagree with how other women are navigating this landscape; these disagreements are characterized as “cat-fights” and used to bolster the idea that women are irrational and emotional creatures.

That’s quite the stacked deck…certainly not a level playing field.

The strength of this book is that it clearly defines these biases and provides concrete examples of the behaviours that are the result of these biases that negatively impact professional women. The most valuable part of this book is that it goes one step further and provides strategies for combatting each of these biases. The authors are especially savvy since they recognize that one strategy will not work for everyone and they therefore offer multiple options that could be used alone or in conjunction through the course of a career. The strategies are realistic and take into account that you are playing a rigged game where you will likely be unable to change the rules of the game.

Part V of the book addresses the additional challenge of Double Jeopardy faced by women of colour who have to combat biases based not only on their gender, but also on their race. As a white woman this section of the book revealed my ignorance on the experiences of people of colour in academia. I need to do better.

The two final chapters of the book deal with the difficult decision of how to recognize a toxic environment and how to decide if it is worth staying, or whether the best career move is to leave. The final part of the book summarizes the book’s take home messages as 20 quick paragraphs.

I wish that this book had been available to read when I was just starting out my career in academia. It would have saved me many sleepless nights as a graduate student and post-doc, especially after I had my kids. I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and might have had better coping strategies than righteous anger. I’ll be recommending this book as a read to my trainees in an attempt to combat the “old boys network” culture that still pervades many aspects of academia. If you are a male academic wanting to be a real ally to your female colleagues, but don’t know where to start, reading this book would be a great first step. Perhaps the best analogy (especially if you are a gamer) for how “others” experience life can be found on John Scalzi’s website.

Blogs that I read

One of the great advantages to using social media (e.g. blogging, Twitter) is the wonderful people that you can meet and the impressive knowledge that you can acquire in a short period of time. Before I began blogging I lurked for a long time on-line in order to examine the landscape and get a feel for how bloggers go about blogging and how scientists were using Twitter. I’m still learning, but for those of you who are new to the on-line world, or are looking for new blogs to read I thought that I’d share links to the blogs that I read regularly. I list them below in no particular order.

  1. Apple Pie and the Universe

I’ve been reading this blog for several years. The writer is a female astrophysicist who is balancing a professional career with family. She has recently gone back to school to become a teacher and has a strong interest in public science outreach.

  1. Ask a Manager

Alison Green dispenses straight shooting advice on how to manage people. I’ve found her blog very helpful for providing perspective on my role as a professor managing my lab and a group of trainees. The scenarios presented here are sometimes shocking, but the advice is solid.

  1. Beyond Managing

Melanie recently left a job in the information technology sector and has become an entrepreneur. She often posts insightful pieces on productivity, managing people, and women in science.

  1. Dynamic Ecology

I am not an ecologist, but I enjoy most of the posts on this site by Brian, Meg, and Jeremy.

  1. Eat, Read, Science.

Betty posts great summaries of recent, cool science papers! Always an interesting read.

  1. Female Science Professor

This blog was recently referred to as the “gateway” science blog for many women in science that led them into the blogosphere or encouraged them to start blogging themselves.

  1. The Simple Dollar

Trent provides simple ideas for how to manage your money and live a frugal lifestyle without turning into a humourless hermit.

  1. Get a Life Ph.D.

Tanya provides useful advice and perspective for graduate students and those starting out on the tenure track.

  1. Small Pond Science

Terry et al. talk about what it’s like to do research at a smaller, teaching focussed institution. The “Recommended Reads” posts are awesome!

  1. Tenure, She Wrote

A fairly new blog that covers a wide array of topics in frank and honest voices from multiple contributors.

  1. Isis the Scientist

This was one of the first blogs that I read that really spoke to me as a woman in science. Dr. Isis tells it like it is, but offers effective strategies for real world scenarios.

What blogs do you like to read as a scientist? Leave links in the comments below.

The Positives and Negatives of Conferences

I’ve been going to conferences for >17 years and many things have become much easier compared to my terrifying first conference experience, but some things will always stay the same. Below I talk about some of the positives and negatives of attending conferences.

  1. Travel

This can be both a positive and a negative. Getting to your destination is usually not a particularly pleasant experience. The first few times on an airplane, bus, train, etc. can be exciting, but after a while it gets pretty boring. I am constantly amazed by the bad behaviour of other people while travelling. Recent changes by air carriers in Canada has made this even worse by charging for checked luggage. This has led to a massive uptick in the number of passengers bringing carry-on luggage that has to be stowed in the overhead bins. If you can fit a small adult in your carry-on bag you need to check yourself…and your bags.

Once you get to your destination the fun can begin! Many locales that you travel to as a scientist are international and interesting; I consider this one of the perks of the job! I’ve been to Australia, England, Portugal, Spain, Austria, and various North American cities. After you’ve been doing science for a while, you may end up visiting the same locations which is not as stimulating. When the Icelandic volcano erupted in 2010, I got stuck in London, England for an extra 5 days. In that case the delay was somewhat positive as I got to visit Kew Gardens and the Victoria and Albert Museum , but the uncertainty of when I’d be able to fly home was pretty stressful.

  1. Meeting new people

The vast majority of the scientists that I’ve met at conferences have been awesome and amazing. I’ve started new collaborations, shared knowledge, developed new research ideas, and learned a great deal. These interactions are what make a conference worthwhile for most of us. I could certainly do without the creepers and the gigantic egos however.

  1. Oral presentations

Watching other people present is always an education. A great talk can be inspiring and offer tips on how to improve your own presentations. A bad talk provides you with a list of what not to do and can put you to sleep. I often come up with ideas for material to use in my courses, or slide layouts that are more visually appealing.

  1. Poster presentations

It’s really hard to put together a strong and effective poster, so I’m always on the look-out for great posters and what they have in common. I’m not a huge fan of poster sessions because I’ve often had the experience of having only a few people stop by my poster. I think that oral presentations offer better exposure and opportunities and therefore encourage my students to do talks if possible.

  1. Social events and field trips

These events are usually lots of fun. I look forward to them as a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, recognize professional achievements, experience the culture and traditions of the host institution and country, and if I’m lucky- dance. I don’t enjoy being around scientists who drink to excess and make idiots out of themselves. I will remember that time in 2005 when you hit on that graduate student and refused to accept that she didn’t want to dance. It’s unfortunate that her first experience of being at a conference hosted by our society involved me tactfully removing her from the situation, making sure that she was o.k., and telling her that you were in the wrong. In retrospect I should have done more, but power differentials suck.

  1. Participating on the executive of your professional society

This is a great way to become involved and to meet new people. I’ve served on the executives of two different professional societies and I’ve gained a lot of transferrable skills and knowledge. Many societies have positions available for students and post-docs, so even if you are just starting out in science there are great opportunities available.

Overall, conferences are very positive, useful and fun experiences! I’d appreciate hearing your conference triumphs, tribulations, or disaster stories in the comments!

Book Review: Getting Things Done, David Allen, 2015 Edition

I first stumbled across an earlier version of this book while looking for ways to become more productive and efficient in my personal and professional lives. I have always been a Type A personality and a compulsive list maker which had served me well during my early education and undergrad degree. Once I transitioned to graduate school and a post-doc the number of projects that I had on the go simultaneously got to be a bit overwhelming. My primary frustration is that I would make awesome lists of things to do, and I would get a lot of the things on these lists completed. But at the end of everyday there would be several tasks that would keep getting punted onto the list for the next day. For some tasks that I frankly didn’t want to do, the shunting of particular tasks from one day to the next could go on for weeks. This was incredibly frustrating, but I couldn’t readily identify what wasn’t working.

When I read the first edition of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” it was an epiphany! The book really spoke to me and was directly responsible for improving my productivity several fold by implementing his methodology. What is described in the book isn’t rocket science and is in fact quite simple, but the way that it is laid out communicates the ideas very effectively. The other thing that I liked about the approach in the book is that you don’t have to do everything all at once and you can ease into this way of doing things. There are several tips throughout the book that will save you huge amounts of time if implemented. I’ve probably read the first edition of David’s book 3 or 4 times and I always pick up something new to try when I do.

I was therefore excited to check out the revised 2015 edition of this book given how helpful it has been to me in the past. A lot of the material is not new, but has been updated for today’s world. For example, in the original book personal organizing devices like the Palm Pilot were big sellers and email was just starting to transition from being cool and new to overwhelming. Although David doesn’t make explicit recommendations about personal tech (e.g. iPad, Blackberry, vs. Android platforms and apps), he does spend some time talking about organization and workflow in our electronic era which is helpful. There is also a new chapter on Cognitive Science which is interesting and backs up why David’s approach is so helpful for many people.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is by far the most useful and practical productivity book that I have ever read and was life changing for me. If you have not read the book and are interested in trying out his methodology I would recommend purchasing the 2015 edition. You’ll be very glad that you did!

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