Thursday, May 12, 2016

Rewarding talent and competence more than aggression?

The main message my friends (mostly male) and I get after applying for jobs is that we were not aggressive enough in presenting our achievements. But is this the most desirable quality? It seems to be rewarded across all fields ranging from politicians to professors. If you look at the US elections you get a prime example of the system of values that permeates our society.

As a physicist I often read sexual harassment stories that made it to the news and sometimes hear about those that did not get that far. Is such behavior the fault of our selection process more than of anything else? Do we take other qualities like talent at face value only when they are coupled with an aggressive presenter? Do we often become blind to the lack of content when the presenter is aggressive enough?

Meg Ury has a well written article in Scientific American on how to end sexual harassment in astronomy. She proposes speaking up, taking allegations seriously and dealing with them. I agree that a transparent process that deals with such allegations is necessary in all companies and universities, but I don't think that's enough. I also believe that our selection process has to change its bias.

This is an email I received from one of my friends with a Cornell PhD, who is talented as well as empathic and kind:  "All is well at my end. We recently had a baby girl. She is about 7 and a half months old now.  I have a 3 year research grant from the government, but after that things are again a bit up in the air. The money for this 3 year cycle has also not been sanctioned - so all my work currently is unpaid!  Pay or no pay, academia is pretty ruthless - so one has to keep working." She goes on explaining that she likes the work she does, but that she would still like to be paid. I see the grant application process in science as another form of harassment rather than as a way to promote talent. It's just too complicated to be functional as are many other rules. 

I am not a physicist or astronomer, so why should I care? 
Problems in the world are related. Our indifference to global warming, to the mistreatment of animals and of the humans who manufacture the goods we use is related to how we select our leaders, and to how we educate our children. 
Without the make-up?
Instead of selecting competent leaders, we obey CIA's manuals on how to sabotage the productivity of our companies and universities almost perfectly. We make rules that contradict each other and are too complicated to read in one sitting. We design official channels that cannot be followed without serious threats to one's sanity. We select leaders who are aggressive, but too old and too connected to oil money to change a heavily dysfunctional system for the better because we've heard of them before and because they have been taught to take advantage of our hatred in presenting themselves.

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images in this post. They are randomly picked from the web.

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