What are you good at? (Part II)

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgWow. You all rock. You are good at so many wonderful things – I am impressed.

Yesterday’s question
was prompted by the introductory activity at a COACh workshop that I had the privilege of attending. The workshop focused on developing the negotiating skills of women in STEM, and I highly recommend it and the other workshops they offer.

After coffee and bagels, our facilitators asked us to stand up and introduce ourselves to the group by saying what we were good at professionally. And then they showed us how our answers were weak and could be improved.

Here’s my response: “I think I’m good at holding lots of pieces of projects in my head, keeping them straight, and being able to recall the details, but I’m not so good at actually making things happen.”

Like me, other people qualified their statements with phrases like “I think I’m good at” or “I used to think I was good at” or “I’m good at X, but not at Y.” Those sorts of responses (especially when coupled with defensive postures, lack of eye contact, and filler words) put us in weak negotiating positions that make it harder for us to get what we want and need. (More on that in a few days)

But what struck me most, was not the way our answers were phrased, but the content of the answers we provided. Or rather, what we didn’t answer.

A few women couldn’t resist mentioning the personal (e.g., “I make a mean apple pie.”), but I’ll chalk that up to the feeling of a safe space provided by the workshop. But more than 80% of us said something about how we do our job. For me, it was a good memory for detail. For others, it was being good at troubleshooting, good follow-through, good listen, good identification of the heart of the issue, etc. One or two people mentioned good time management, though more freely contributed that time management was not a strong point. One woman said she was good at her field of science.

What’s missing from these responses? They’re all about process and not about product. No one said “I’m good at teaching.” Only one person said “I’m good at my science.” No one said that she was good at getting papers published or securing funding. No one clearly said “I’m good at mentoring grad students.”

Yet our group was composed of faculty from new assistant professors to award-winning full professors. At least one of us had recently won a university-wide teaching award.

Yes, the process skills that we all mentioned are important contributors to good teaching, good science, good publishing, good granting, good mentoring, but why couldn’t we mention those products by name?

As someone who’s been struggling with feelings of inadequacy on both the teaching and research fronts, this is what struck me: None of us actually feels like we are good at our jobs. We feel like we are just getting by – using our process skills and talents to produce acceptable products. We are all facing impostor syndrome in our own ways. But clearly we are good at teaching and research or we wouldn’t have made it to where we are now.

That’s why I’m ridiculously pleased with the great answers you all provided to yesterday’s question. Some of you mentioned teaching, some of you mentioned research (or other important components of your jobs), and all of you had wonderful things to say about yourselves. We are good at what we do, we just need to remind ourselves (and each other) of that more often.


  1. #1 Female Engineering Professor
    February 26, 2009

    Very cool post, ScienceWoman.
    I spent random moments yesterday and today thinking of other things I’m really good at that I wished I’d added to the list.

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    February 26, 2009

    Excellent. That’s what I want to hear!

  3. #3 SW's friend
    February 26, 2009

    Happy 30th birthday Science Woman!

  4. #4 Carrie
    February 26, 2009

    It sounds like your seminar is hitting upon some points in the “Women Don’t Ask” book. I read that book about 5 years ago and it really changed how I present myself to the world and how I state, upfront, what I’m good at and what I contribute to the professional world. Anyway, with practice, I’ve even gotten comfortable standing up and saying “I’m good at THAT”.

    What has also helped is training for and completing more than one half-marathon. If I can do that (with the time and commitment required), I can certainly do my job well!

  5. #5 ScienceWoman
    February 26, 2009

    Carrie – In fact, they recommended that very book. For those unfamiliar, here’s a link.

  6. #6 Mrs. CH
    February 26, 2009

    Great post – thanks for sharing! I agree that it’s a common problem to toot our own horn, especially with women. I’ll have to check that book out as well.

  7. #7 Girl Technologist
    February 27, 2009

    This makes me ask a couple questions:

    1. Are we secretly afraid that admitting to being good at our work, science or otherwise, it may go to our head and somehow negatively affect our good work?

    2. As women, are we somehow socialized to be more humble about these things, and how does that affect career women in general?

    I guess I just get frustrated for being quietly and/or openly ostracized by my (all male) colleagues for speaking up and actually acting like I know what I’m talking about, even when I quite obviously do.

  8. #8 Lab Lemming
    February 27, 2009

    SW, you’re also good at blogging, FWIW.
    You also write very good papers.

  9. #9 Propter doc
    February 27, 2009

    Happy Birthday SW!

    Girl Technologist – are we more humble about things or are we less likely to brag about things? I’m not sure which side of the issue it is, but I personally find bragging about one’s own greatness is irritating, so err on the side of understatement.

    This whole thing is rather timely – I’m pretty sure its coming up for annual review time here and I’ll have to fill in forms of my achievement over the year.

  10. #10 biology student
    February 27, 2009

    Hopefully, as women mentors learn these skills of self-promotion, then they will model & encourage the behavior for the women students. So that eventually women & girls learn this naturally.

  11. #11 biology student
    February 27, 2009

    Hey girl technologist & proper doc,
    I also find bragging irritating. There is a difference between bragging and selling yourself, and I did neither. I felt if I deserved an award, my performance would sell itself. My husband is a few years older & moves up a different, but similar, ladder before I do. He sells himself and he moves up. He began basically coaching me. He instructed me to go in & say I deserved to be put up for this or that award and here are the reasons, etc. I received the award. I would say the coaching will double my success in science, because even science is a political game when it comes to moving up. If you do not sell yourself, no one will do it for you.

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