Luck or Skills? Probably both…

I almost finished reading Katrine Marcal’s book “Att uppfinna världen: hur historiens största feltänk satte käppar i hjulet” (the English title is: Mother of invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men), and page after page I was amazed by the sharpness of her writing. Essentially, the book is a feminist critique of society’s ideas of what counts as technology, invention, innovation and what among those ideas are perceived as legitimate and valuable. Marcal problematises our preconception of what things are masculine and feminine, and shows how ideas of masculinity and femininity limit us to “access the full spectrum of what it means to be human”. I find this quote very sentimental and powerful. If we are aware that we are limited by norms, imaginations, ideas, and opinions of others, we will be better placed at making informed choices. I think we need to remind ourselves that we are not only a biological gender, we are so much more. We need to ask: Who do we want to be as human beings, irrespective of our biological gender? And what can we do to fight this idea that men and women are essentially different? How can we be more aware of the ways we value typically masculine and feminine ways of being and doing?

Katrine Marcal has a blog, which I have subscribed to. In one of her blog posts she writes that women tend to attribute their success to luck and men tend to attribute their success to their own skills. I find this interesting, and started to reflect on this aspect in my own life. Ever since I started my Ph.D. studies I have been interviewed by other researchers twice about my knowledge/experience as a woman in the field of computer science. One of the questions that I got from both these interviews was how I ended up studying a Ph.D. in computing education. And just like the research shows I attributed my success to luck (the way I see it, being accepted to study a Ph.D. is a success). I was lucky to have had a good supervisor. I was lucky that my supervisor saw something in me, and helped me get good recommendations. I was simply lucky. Never once did it occur to me to say that it was my research skills that got me to where I am today. That it was my research skills that contributed to me being lucky. I know that I would not have gotten here without those skills but why was I so focused on attributing luck to my success? This is a complex question to answer but it matters. As Katrine Marcal writes: “Because if you are putting your success down to “luck” (like many women do) you are also saying that you can’t replicate it. If it was all down to “luck” why would people invest in your next business? Why would they listen to your advice?” 

She also points out that attributing your success ONLY to your own skills is not problem-free either: “there’s also a VERY DARK side of attributing your success to merit (as men tend to do more than women). It means it was all YOU (my emphasis). You “earned” these billions, so why should you pay tax? Why should you give back? Why should you not think that you are invincible and faultless and unable to fail?”

Something to think about, and to be more aware about as we continue our lives.

Gifts in Academia

A few days ago I listened to a seminar on how to “decode” the Swedish labour market. The seminar was for PhD students at Uppsala University. Although I was (almost) born and raised in Sweden I thought it was an interesting topic and wanted to hear what the experts had to say. Unfortunately, I missed the first half of the seminar but I was lucky enough to enter the seminar right before Brian Palmer starts talking about the concept of immaterial gifts. Brian Palmer is “a social anthropologist and public speaker. He wrote a PhD dissertation based on ethnographic research in Sweden “Wolves at the Door: Existential Solidarity in a Globalizing Sweden”.

Palmer explained that there are four types of gifts that are highly valued in the academia.

  1. Taking time to read your colleague’s manuscript and to give constructive feedback.
  2. Sending articles to your colleague that are relevant for their research or that you think they will appreciate. Palmer says he particularly likes receiving paper articles instead of digital articles, preferably with a small note attached to it.
  3. At conferences, introduce your colleague to other people. Help them expand their contact network.
  4. Refer journalists, researchers and other investigators to your colleague’s work, alternatively provide your colleague’s contact details to the investigator. This does not mean that you have to contact different people to promote your colleague’s work, but to think about them if you ever are in a situation where investigators are looking for experts to interview. This could, for example, be that they are looking for experts to include in a panel.

What these gifts have in common is that no money in the world can buy you these gifts, only the goodwill of your colleagues and friends will do. I thought these four gifts make a perfect illustration of how dependent we are of each other to thrive and succeed in the academia. People with a lot of contacts (usually senior researchers) have an incredible amount of power to influence the destiny of newcomers such as PhD students. I think this is an important aspect to keep in mind and to discuss continuously with people around you, particularly your supervisors. Also, we need to reflect on what we do with our position of power. Who we choose to give these gifts to can have an immense impact on that person’s career. I hope that, by thinking about these four ways of interacting with colleagues as gift-giving moments, we can be more generous to each other 🙂 I wonder, is there anything else that is not on the list that you would like to add? Something to think about…