Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dealing With Your Alpha-Male Boss

Dave Jensen's latest "Tooling Up" column career development section of the latest issue of Science is provocatively headlined "Dealing With Men Who Have a Problem With Women." It turns out that that is a bit misleading, since the men in question aren't necessarily consciously sexist. What the column is really about is dealing with male bosses who "engage in moderate alpha-male behavior." And his advice isn't really that heartening:

Even if you're dealing with the world's biggest jerk, he's likely to be the jerk in charge. Of course, you need to weigh the advantages of working things out with this alpha against your own dignity and self-respect. But unless his behaviors are extreme, it's you, not him, who's likely to make adjustments.
Jensen does suggest that an alpha-male boss's behavior can be modified by clearly and professionally communicating when you feel you are being overlooked.

Despite your best efforts, you may still come face to face with the fact that you are not in the club--but it's possible to solve that problem. Here's how "Ale" described it on the Science Careers Forum:

"I presented my science at the big annual meeting of my discipline and my adviser was in the audience. It went well, and when I got back to my seat the other speakers and my adviser congratulated me. Other PI's thought that I did a good job as well, but the males decided to approach my adviser during and after the session and congratulate him for my talk. They never came to me, even though I was sitting a few feet away in the next row! Those big shot male PI's didn't bother to approach the female young trainee. ... I had never felt such status and gender bias before," she says.

"Ale" approached her adviser directly shortly afterward, not with hurt feelings but with a genuine interest in why they would have avoided her with their congratulations. At that evening's social activities, her adviser introduced her to every big shot in the room. "I ended up meeting all these well-known people, men and women, which would have never happened if I hadn't had that conversation with my boss after the big-guys incident," she says.

"Ale's" story had a happy ending, but not every adviser will necessarily "see the light". The important thing is to weigh the value of the alpha-male advisor's prestige and contacts with the possible lack of personal mentoring and almost certain lack of sympathy for any personal issues* that interfere with your research. Fortunately, not every successful laboratory head is that type of boss.

* For example, wanting to spend time on the weekend with your significant other or spouse.

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