Fine Tuning: Beyond Stereotypes

Men brag. They are dismissive and don't listen. They don't analyze their own actions. They talk only of their own research. They criticize others rudely, with no regard for feelings. Always trying to one-up each other, they are too competitive. Women qualify everything they say. They appear hesitant. They don't speak up, especially at meetings. They try to empathize with everyone. They can't take a joke. They aren't critical enough. They are indirect in giving opinions or giving orders. They do

May 13, 2002
Kathy Barker
Men brag. They are dismissive and don't listen. They don't analyze their own actions. They talk only of their own research. They criticize others rudely, with no regard for feelings. Always trying to one-up each other, they are too competitive.

Women qualify everything they say. They appear hesitant. They don't speak up, especially at meetings. They try to empathize with everyone. They can't take a joke. They aren't critical enough. They are indirect in giving opinions or giving orders. They don't know how to take credit for their own work. They take things too personally.

These are some of the communication stereotypes principal investigators relate when interviewed about lab management. But despite supporting evidence, many scientists still doubt that differences in male and female communication merit serious consideration. Labs are generally accommodating places, with people of many cultures working productively and cooperatively together, and the burden of gender differences seems insignificant. If more scientists realized that communication habits are not related to intelligence or ability, they could better understand the conflicts that do arise.

The commonplace presence of women in the laboratory and the occasional inclusion of women in management positions mask one residual problem: scientific competence is still judged by male communication styles. Objective, unemotional, assertive. This stereotypic male style seems to be the very essence of research. Who could complain that this apparent straightforwardness is the standard of communication?

Well, we all should. For one thing, as pointed out by linguist Deborah Tannen, many people do not accept female use of communication characteristics considered to be male.1 For example, an assertive woman is still often labeled as "aggressive." Furthermore, one gender style or the other doesn't represent the truth, it is just part of our language and cultural trappings. People who sound confident may not feel confident; they may not be correct.

PIs can affect the communication standards in their own labs by seeking for and encouraging traits—whether associated with males or females—that promote good science and effective communication. Push younger scientists to listen, really listen, by questioning subtle points in lab meetings or conversations. Point out exaggerations and under- statements in student's written as well as oral presentations, to teach them how to promote themselves and their data. Step in and mediate male-female and other cultural misunderstandings among lab members. Look for creativity, honesty, kindness, and perseverance under all communication styles, and reward it.

While you are busy interpreting the actions of others in your lab, don't forget to listen to yourself and to try to understand your own communication baggage. Do you make orders sound like requests, and then grow angry when no one does what you "asked"? If necessary, explain that you expect the request to be filled. Have you noticed that some people avoid you when the data is bad? Maybe you need to be more helpful, and less relentless with your criticism when a person is down. Avoid assumptions, evaluate, and clarify: look always for content and character, beyond style.

Kathy Barker (kbarker@systemsbiology.org) is an author from Seattle. Her most recent book At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator, published in October 2001 by Cold Spring Harbor Press.

1.D. Tannen, Talking from 9 to 5, New York:Avon Books, 1995.