Home > musing, women in math > On being an alpha female, part 2

On being an alpha female, part 2

April 19, 2013

Almost a year ago now I wrote this post on being an alpha female. I had only recently understood that I was an alpha female, when I wrote it, and it was still kind of new and weird.

For whatever reason it’s been coming up a lot recently and I wanted to update that post with my observations.

Who’s burning which bridges?

Last week I wrote an outraged post about seeing Ina Drew at Barnard.

Mind you, I had anticipated I’d find the event objectionable. I had even polled my Occupy friends for prepared questions for her. But when I got there I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to ask her anything. I was just too disgusted with the tone and conceit of the event to participate in it reasonably. Instead I live tweeted the event and seethed.

I lost sleep that night fuming about Drew-as-role-model, and I was grateful to be able to get some of my frustration out on my blog.

One of the first comments I received was this one,  which said:

Boy Cathy, you sure do know how to burn bridges.

This was, for me, kind of a perfect alpha female moment. My immediate reaction was to think to myself,

They burned bridges with me, you mean.

Since that sounded too arrogant, at the moment anyway, I said something else just slightly less obnoxious. Three points to make here:

  1. Anyone who doesn’t agree with me about whether Ina Drew should be celebrated can go suck it.
  2. That post got linked to from Reuters, FT.com, and Naked Capitalism. Which doesn’t happen when you’re worrying about burning bridges.
  3. When I’m in a certain kind of mood, I’m simply not concerned with other people’s judgments. I think that’s just part of being an alpha female, and I’m grateful for it.

Why grateful? Because lots of shitty things happen when people go around worrying about “burning their bridges” instead of speaking up about bullshit or evil-doing. Or, as Felix Salmon tweeted recently:

Taking notes from an uber alpha female

A few months ago I got an email inviting me to speak in a Python in Finance conference. The email was somewhat weird and kind of just came out and said they need women speakers. I was put in a position of being asked to be a token woman, which is a mindset I don’t enjoy.

I thought about it though, and although I use python, and I used to work in finance, I don’t work in finance any more, and I don’t really think about python too much, I just use it. So I said to the organizer, no thanks, I don’t have anything to say at that conference.

Fast forward to the week before the conference, when I got wind of the agenda. It turned out my friend Claudia Perlich, Chief Data Scientist at m6d and one of the contributors to my upcoming book with Rachel Schutt, was the keynote speaker. I decided to go to the conference essentially because I wanted to see her.

Well, it turned out Claudia had gotten a similar email, and she had accepted the invitation, even though she doesn’t work in finance and doesn’t even use python (she uses perl).

She gave a great talk about modeling blind spots, which everyone enjoyed. It was quite possibly the best talk of the day, in fact. Plus, she wasn’t at all token – having her on the schedule was what made me come to the conference, and I probably wasn’t the only one. And judging by the crowd at the Meetup I gave last night, I would have drawn my own crowd too, if I had been speaking.

I made an alpha female note to myself that day to accept any invitation to a conference that I’d enjoy, even if my expertise isn’t completely within the realm of the conference. I’m learning from Claudia, a master alpha female. Or is it mistress?

Alpha females and self-image

Chris Wiggins recently sent me this essay entitled “A Rant on Women” by Clay Shirky, a writer and professor who studies the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. Here’s the first paragraph:

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

Guess what? That student is male.

Shirky goes on to vent about how women don’t oversell themselves enough compared to men and how it’s a problem. An excerpt:

There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks.

This made me think about my experience. First, as a Barnard professor, I certainly saw this effect. I’d have men and women come talk to me about letters of recommendations, and not only would I prepare myself for the difference in posture, I’d try to address it directly, by encouraging women to learn how to brag about their accomplishments. I might have tried to convince men a couple of times to stop bragging quite so much, but quickly found that to be a huge waste of time.

But beyond corroborating that this is typical behavior, the essay made me remember myself as a college student.

When I met my thesis advisor, Barry Mazur, who was on sabbatical at UC Berkeley, I remember telling him a math problem I had worked on and solved. He expressed something about liking the problem and being impressed that I’d explained it so well, and I said back,

“Yeah, I’m awesome”

I remember this because of his reaction. At the time, the word “awesome” was widely used among teenagers, but evidently he hadn’t gotten the teenager memo, and he was taken aback by the way I used it. At least that’s what he said. But now that I think about it, maybe he was taken aback that I’d said it at all.

Alpha females and body image

My friend and guest poster Becky recently sent me this video:

It’s about how women have a biased view on their looks, or at least describe their looks to other people in a consistently negatively biased way.

There’s a great critique of this video here (hat tip Avani Patel), wherein fashion and style guru Jennifer Choy complains that the underlying message to the above video is that, in any case, beauty is about all women have going for them, so they should not underestimate their beauty. Plus that all the women in the video were skinny, young, and white.

Great points, but my take was somewhat different.

My immediate reaction to the video was to say, these women need to spend less time thinking about being fat or ugly, and more time thinking about what they think is sexy and attractive. Why is it always about finding flaws in ourselves? Why don’t we spend more time thinking about what turns us on or what we think is beautiful?

I’ll be honest: I think if I had been interviewed in that setting, I would have said something like, “Gorgeous and sexy as hell” and gone on to list my best features. I am not sure I’d have even been able to describe what I look like in any detail, with any accuracy. Most likely I would have just started bragging about my sexy grey streaks. Even more likely: I wouldn’t have had the time to sit down for this interview at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dabbled in being insecure in my looks: puberty sucked, as did all three post-natal periods until the baby was weaned*, in addition to any time I was ever on the pill**. I’ve concluded that my inherent arrogance is directly related to my hormones, which in turn makes it undeniably tied to my alpha femaleness.

Suffice it to say, when my hormones are not messed up I have “body eumorphia,” where I ignore or downplay any non-perfect parts of my body. It’s a nice feeling.

It kind of makes me want to develop an alpha female hormone treatment. Business model?

UPDATE: Please watch this new spoof video, it’s perfect (except it should be alpha females and men, not just men):

* It gets better when you know it’s going to go away. By the third kid I was like, “gonna cry every day at 3:00pm for the next six weeks. Must schedule that into my calendar.”

** Note to doctors: you need to tell women that the real reason birth control pills work so well is that you lose interest in sex when you’re on them!

Categories: musing, women in math
  1. suevanhattum
    April 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

    I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, Cathy, and I wouldn’t worry about burning bridges between me and someone obviously out to do harm. But there is a lot of middle ground, and I would prefer to work at understanding across differences when it’s possible.

    I think a stance of non-violent communication can be very powerful.

    But I do think I back down sometimes out of a suppressed fear. Hmm…


  2. April 19, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Before: the “In Drew at Barnard” typo left me wondering “huh? what was that?” for a few seconds.

    After: it reminded me of the title of Amy Schumer’s new series “Inside Amy Schumer” premiering April 30 on Comedy Central.


  3. Leila Schneps
    April 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Cathy, your post on Ina Drew was so great. You’re a star!

    About this:

    ** Note to doctors: you need to tell women that the real reason birth control pills work so well is that you lose interest in sex when you’re on them!

    Did you have that too? I was only on the pill for 9 months when I was a student…I had to stop, forever. Too depressing for the boyfriend, and no fun for me. As in “let’s get into bed and curl up nicely back to back and get to sleep now.” Urgh!

    I thought I was the only person who reacted to the pill that way. I’ve known loads of women who’ve taken it happily for years.


    • April 19, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you were my very _first_ alpha female role model. I wonder if this reaction to the pill is a litmus test for the alpha female hormone environment.


  4. April 19, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    “Note to doctors: you need to tell women that the real reason birth control pills work so well is that you lose interest in sex when you’re on them!”

    Just because this is your experience, doesn’t mean it’s universal. In particular, that’s never happened to me on birth control and if a doctor had ever said that to me, it would’ve made me hesitant to use it.


    • April 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      What’s worse, you possibly not going on birth control because you’re aware of the potential downside, or me going on it and being depressed and unsexual for years with no idea why?

      I’d say the latter. I think doctors should inform patients of the risks, especially when it’s not a matter of medical necessity. I should have been aware of the risk, so when it happened I could know how to solve it.

      Same thing happened with the Mirena, by the way. Don’t believe you when they say it’s a “local” thing.


      • April 24, 2013 at 9:48 pm

        Of course I agree that doctors should inform patients of risks and possible side effects, and tell patients to return if their mental and physical health appears to change after going on a drug. And they are /failing in their duty/ if they don’t (or if they brush you off). But there is a big difference between saying “this drug works because women stop wanting sex” and saying “some women feel side effects of depression and lack of libido when on it; let’s take you off immediately if you start feeling these”.

        Your statement in the blog above said “this is why birth control works”, implying that this is an experience that happens to all or most women. You are of course free to say anything you want about your experience (and those who share it), and say it loudly, but please do not imply that you are speaking for mine.


    • Irene
      May 3, 2013 at 5:42 am

      I’ve worked in clinical research for over 30 years as a statistician. In one of the largest studies conducted in Type 2 diabetes we had a question for men about sexual dysfunction and there were 4 possible answers. There was no equivalent question for women. There are now questionnaires that have been vallidated for women and those of us involved in trials and research need to ensure that they get included in the case report forms. Without the data no one will know what’s going on.


  5. Leila Schneps
    April 19, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you were my very _first_ alpha female role model. I wonder if this reaction to the pill is a litmus test for the alpha female hormone environment.”

    Ha ha ha!! I’ll bet you’re right!

    I remember now that I had no clue at the time it was the pill, and thought I was maybe depressed. But then I dropped one down the sink drain so I thought what the heck, it’s wrecked for the rest of the month now, so I stopped taking them – and bang! Joy.


  6. c.gutierrez
    April 20, 2013 at 12:14 am

    Cathy, I think you are the cat’s pijamas! And by far and away one of my favorite powerful women. (I’ve gotta fit Rachel in there, hey.) Where we may differ is on the implicit idea that being alpha — which I translate to “assertive” or even “dominant” — is purely innate and not learned at all. I’ve had about a year to think about it since our first conversation on the subject (and a blog post our encounter may have inspired …?), and I’ve come to the conclusion through my own experience that it’s possible to train yourself to be more alpha. At the same time, I own my more collaborative, stereotypically feminine approach. Maybe hormones have something or a lot to do with it, maybe they don’t. Personally, I think there’s at least as much nurture as there is nature in the equation. Either way, I’ll lay my figurative brass balls down on the table while wearing a big, fat pink bow — or using Mr. Mittens as my WordPress avatar — just to make the point that female or feminine does not translate to weak. Cheers!


    • April 20, 2013 at 1:54 am

      Another brainstorm. Word on the street is that you, in conjunction with your talented co-author, Rachel Schutt, are going to hold a couple of data science-oriented bootcamps this summer. What about a ladies-in-tech bootcamp, too? I’d go to that.


  7. cawley
    April 20, 2013 at 3:46 am

    How ironic that it is the alpha-ness and arrogance you boast about that many wall street execs possess, and this mentality is what is largely behind the financial fiasco. Those people are too much like you, Cathy, that’s why the economy has the problems it has today. Their ‘alpha-ness’ is exactly what caused them to take huge, risky bets that ended up costing all of us. All the traits associated with alpha-ness (overblown confidence in your abilities, the “anyone who doesn’t agree with me can go suck it” mentality, etc.) are the traits found in those people you’re “commemorating” in those “52 shades of greed” cards. They are exactly like you: alpha-males and alpha-females.
    Oh, and by the way, if you constantly have to boast about how you’re an alpha, you probably deep-down aren’t really one.


    • April 20, 2013 at 6:34 am

      I’ll ignore that last line because it’s silly. But otherwise you have really good points.

      I think there is a lot in common with me and with those guys in finance – at least in terms of impulse, that is. That’s one of the reasons I feel like I have every right to condemn what they’ve actually decided to do with their lives. If they were nothing like me at all and I didn’t even understand their motivation then it would be like condemning an alien race.

      And I’m talking about the 52 Shades of Greed folk. There are plenty of people working in finance I also feel affiliation with but I don’t condemn. I relate to them. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t think so. Mostly I blame the system for being inherently corrupt, whilst knowing that the system is made by people of course.

      One last thing: there’s a difference between being an alpha male/female and being a psychopath. I’m not a psychopath.


      • April 21, 2013 at 11:14 am

        You might actually be talking about sociopathy rather than psychopathy. Although in common parlance I think it’s just a matter of degree.


  8. April 26, 2013 at 1:17 am

    Allow me to disagree. Either you are good at what you do or you are not. Overselling will only make you look needy, desperate, and obnoxious. And as long as women think they have to emulate men in order to be succesful and focus on what men do and women don’t they will only be second rate knock-offs.

    In other words, please just be your self and be confident in what you are doing and who you are and try not to become a female version of an overconfident jock, nobody needs or wants that.


    • April 26, 2013 at 6:13 am

      It’s not overselling, it’s just my natural tendency. I don’t do it because men do it, and I don’t not do it because women don’t usually do it.


    • April 26, 2013 at 10:02 am

      Overselling is not the same as appearing confident, and the latter is often a must if you want people to believe you’re as good as you are. In a lot of industries, even if you are very good, there is a limit to how far you can rise if you don’t sell yourself a reasonable amount.

      You’re right that there is a delicate balance, but “be yourself and be confident” feels like an oxymoron to some people. Part of what made the Part I of this post so great is that she gave concrete steps someone who feels that way can take to appear confident. Did you consider the women who are NOT second-rate knock-offs but don’t rise as far because they don’t feel confident to do things like ask for a promotion, raise, etc? These are the people who will most benefit from that advice.


      • April 26, 2013 at 10:08 am

        I can see your point, but it’s also overly simplistic to give advice to appear confident and expect people to be able to do it just because they think it’ll help. What if they try it out and it doesn’t work? Is it their fault? I don’t think so.

        I’m not actually trying to create a mini army of alpha females. I don’t think it’s possible or desirable. I’d rather people realize that a lot of this is hormonally determined and beyond one’s control. It’s not an indictment of the alphas or the non-alphas.


  1. April 26, 2013 at 7:38 am
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