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Self-Doubt and Female Astronomers


New study:  Self-doubt plagues female astronomers, from Nature 463, 574 (27 January 2010)

This link was passed on by someone  in our department for discussion.  Though we didn’t get to it at our monthly Women in Astronomy lunch gathering, I did talk about it a bit with a post-doctoral researcher on our way to the lunch.

First, I think that many astronomers’ self-doubts are magnified by the gross over-confidence of some other astronomers.  Before I got to grad school, I had never seen so many people just get up and say things so confidently, even when they are wrong.  And not just “wrong” as in “oh perhaps we have different political opinions about that” but wrong as in “those numbers don’t add up, the conclusion is false, scientifically-speaking.”  Sometimes it’s hard to separate out the fact from fiction when people are speaking so matter-of-factly, especially when you are (say for example) a first or second year grad student and you still are figuring out what’s going on in the first place.

The problem is, even after I’ve spent years researching my thesis and am very confident in my field, I still don’t want to talk like that.  I still think a certain level of humility is not only required because we truly don’t always know everything, but also because it’s just polite.  However, will this sense of humility cost me in the end?  Will others look down on me for not being as confident, because I admit the shortcomings of my knowledge or the true length of my error bars?

There’s definitely a socialized difference by gender.  Girls are just taught to be more polite.  I have so much going for me against this socialization: my mom is a high-powered lawyer who takes crap from no one and taught her daughters to do the same, I did years of debate in which struggled to throw away all signs of feminine meekness while not being “a bitch” (this is a HARD line to draw for female debaters, especially in male-dominated events), I’ve studied my feminism.  And yet, I still act differently than my male colleagues.  This article reminded me of my upper-division physics classes my junior and senior year of undergrad, in most of which I was the only woman.  I noticed that if the professor made an error on the board, I was more likely to ASK “should the x be squared?” while my male colleagues were more likely to STATE “you missed the square on the x.”  I would often ask about an error when I knew 100% that I was right.  It was so obvious, yet I would ask.  It just seemed impolite to say it any other way, but in retrospect, someone could interpret that as me being weaker than the other students.  I don’t think it’s just a professor/student relation either; even in our comps exam study group, of all women of the same academic standing, we would rarely flat out say “you’re wrong.”  We’d often say “no, I think that in class the professor said it was xyz” or “are you sure you don’t mean abc?”  (Now, we probably had our more stressed moments where this wasn’t the case, but in general, we spoke with a degree of humility.)  Because after all, maybe they are right, maybe you misheard what they said, maybe you were thinking of something else.  But maybe you are right, too.

I’m trying to have less self-doubt.  I’ve had a few instances where I’ve had to stand my ground and insist that I was right to researchers that were more senior than I, and it worked.  But I still don’t want to become the kind of person who insists that they are right all the time.  I want to be the kind of person who says what I mean with confidence, but who is still open to hear what others have to say and open to reconsider my statement if someone proves me wrong.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 02/12/2010 4:50 am


    I liked your post very much. Having worked in banking for 22 years, I know just what you mean since there are many parallels between the two fields (highly demanding, competitive, primarily male, knowledge-based, etc.).

    Although you have not asked for advice, I would just say that many of these traits and behaviors that come across to the majority population as “lacking in confidence” are in fact signs of good interpersonal skills and a healthy dose of humility (which, as you say, this is useful to have). We are really talking here of having different styles, and it is important to have one’s own.

    We each have to make our styles work for us, and it can backfire to say it like the majority group would say it when we are in the minority group because it just doesn’t fit. On the other hand, if there are some minor modifications one can make (such as posing statements rather than questions), then go for it! As you so beautifully described, it is indeed like your experience in debating and finding the intersect in the venn diagram between the effect that the speaker wants to convey and the effect that the audience receives.

    The most important thing is to still be yourself – it is too exhausting to do otherwise – and to keep learning and growing. After 20+ years, I am finally “comfortable in my own skin” and the situations that I found so difficult and frustrating back then are ones I feel I could easily handle now. So, if there is a way to conjure up one’s older self when confronted with today’s scenarios… Also, I always found it helpful to think about how someone I admire would handle the situation. And, of course, humor always helps to break the mood — but maybe one has to be more earnest in science than in business?

    Best wishes and just keep going!

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