it doesn’t hurt to ask, unless it does.

Today has been a farcical mess of politicking, which I somewhat brought upon myself.

I am going to discuss it here because I think it speaks to so many of the things I worry or wonder about when navigating scientific politics, both just in general, and as the stigma-filled “woman in science”.

Backdrop: I’m going to a science meeting in my backyard (essentially) next week, one I have attended before, and one which I enjoy.  It’s local, which is wonderful, and the science is high caliber.  I gave a talk last year, so this year I was going to just attend and soak in the science, and dispense with throwing in a bid to present a poster or a talk.  I was excited about this low-key conferencing opportunity.  Two weeks ago my boss got an email from the organization running the conference wondering why we didn’t have an update on tap to present for the project they fund/support.  My boss wasn’t planning on going to this conference, and was delighted that I am going and can present the update.  We wrote an abstract.  The update work is not directly in line with my project, but some of my work is relevant, and I’m certainly familiar enough with it all to present it.  I was doing a good turn!  Being a useful lab member!

I made the poster this week, and we went over it last night.  This morning I woke up and thought “now wait a darn minute.  I wrote this abstract.  I made this poster.  My work fills ~1/4 of the space on the poster (1/3 of the research data).  I’m presenting it.  And I am FIFTH author out of seven?  This seems… inadequate.  Not to mention if I keep presenting things that aren’t mine (this is the 2nd time I’ve presented this project), my CV is going to start looking weird.”

So I emailed my boss, asking if we could adjust my authorship level.  This felt gross and pushy and weird, as most authorship conversations are, but I genuinely believed I deserved to be higher in the ranks.  She agreed, and offered me third author, behind the two people who have developed the tool that is highlighted most strongly on the poster.  I debated, wondered, discussed with a close colleague-friend, cringed, and asked to be considered for first author.  She pushed back, saying I could redo the entire poster to more strongly highlight my own work and take first author, or I could leave it as-is and stick with third.  The current first author weighed in in support of me redoing the poster, and that prompted my boss to stop vacillating and state clearly that she wanted the poster to continue to highlight exactly what it was highlighting.

Here’s where I am on this.  I didn’t want to redo the poster, I don’t have time.  I didn’t, frankly, have time to put it together in the first place, and it has been a source of significant stress this week.  So I’m fine with keeping it as is, and I’m fine with third author given what the poster content is.  I subscribe to a different metric of deeming authorships (you make it/present it, you are lead author) than my boss (area size on poster of your work = importance of authors), but I do appreciate her point of view, and am willing to accept it here.  I am really glad I asked, and I think I am glad I pushed a little harder than just the initial request for the author order to be reconsidered.  I had a chance to talk to the first author, and I know he now understands my motivations, and there isn’t any tension there.

I am worried, both from experience and from the conversation with the first author, that my boss thinks I was being pushy, or attempting to take more credit than was due, and that this will hurt me in the long run more than the bump in authorship will help.

I don’t know if any of this worry comes from me being a girl.  I can’t tell.  If I were a boy, would I have agreed to present a poster for the good of the team?  I think I would have.  Would I have incorporated tons of other people’s work to fit the perceived requirement, or would I have played up my own work?  Is that aggression, or just assertive science?  There have been some articles lately about how women tend to take on more of the service roles in academia, and in work scenarios tend to play to the team better than assert for their own benefit.  Am I falling into that stereotype?  Or am I just the right person at the right time, regardless of gender: someone already attending who is efficient and good at presentations, to make something last-minute and explain it on demand.

I felt gross even asking for the little bit more credit that I’ve gotten, despite feeling 100% sure that I deserved it.  I felt it was 50:50 as to the final bump to first author, and so really am ok with how things stand now.  Why did I feel so awkward asking for what I had earned?  And why is it possible that asking for it will have damaged my boss’s perception of me? Will this make her more or less likely to offer me the next opportunity?  Time will tell, but I wish it were more straightforward.

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