Like many research centers, my center offers travel awards to graduate students and postdocs to help cover their expenses when presenting at conferences. The typical award is $500, which is often enough to cover travel to conferences in the region. Because my center is very well-funded, we don’t really have an official limit to how much someone can request or be awarded. I do have an unofficial limit, but it is rather high. I decided not to advertise what the limit was, because I didn’t want to be suddenly flooded with large requests and have to fund fewer students. Instead, I would simply evaluate the applications on a case-by-case basis. If someone needed more than $500 and asked for it, then they would likely get it.
This has played out in a rather interesting, yet sadly predictable, way. I did not notice the pattern until I received an application last week from a female graduate student who was presenting at a far-away conference, and would incur nearly $2000 in travel expenses. She only requested $500. Right at that moment I realized: the only people who had requested the full amount to cover their expensive trips were male graduate students. I went through my records to make sure: sure enough, there were multiple women grad students who had made very modest requests that did not cover their full travel expenses.
This was an important opportunity for me to mentor this student. I emailed her and asked if she perhaps had other funding sources, and did she know that she could request more than $500? Her response: it never even occurred to her to ask for more than the usual amount, and that she did not have other funding sources.
This theme of women not promoting themselves and not asking for what they need has popped up over and over again in academia and the professional world, and those of us in a position to mentor women need to start noticing – and doing something about it. There is an excellent book by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever called “Women Don’t Ask,” which is about how women don’t negotiate for better pay, better positions, etc. For example, when offered a job, women are more likely to take the offered salary, whereas men are more likely to negotiate for higher pay. Because raises are usually a percentage of your salary, this translates into massive pay disparities over a lifetime. They also wrote a follow-up book called “Ask For It” with great advice on how to start negotiating for yourself. As role models for other women, we need to be aware of when we ourselves are failing at this important professional skill, and try to fix it. As mentors, we need to notice when women grad students and postdocs have an opportunity to ask for more and yet don’t – and encourage them to do so.
I made sure that graduate student got enough money to cover her trip. And I told her my reason for contacting her – that I have noticed that male graduate students almost always ask for more money than female graduate students. I hope that she learned something useful, and that she’ll apply it in her future career.