Stand Up to Authority with These 3 Steps

How often does someone have one opinion in front of you, but a different one in front of someone with authority?  Are they justified?

I worked retail for 10 years and saw this happen a lot.  We were kept in our place in retail, stuck between “We appreciate your work” and “We need you to do more”.  But retail has a hierarchy.  There are the lowly regulars, the managers, and the bigwigs.  On a day to day basis, the regulars job is to keep the managers happy (not to do your job, as you might think).  And when the bigwigs visit, it’s about making the managers look good in front of the bigwigs.

Many things improved in my life when I seriously thought about scientific research for a career.  But this hasn’t.

This week I was having a conversation with fellow students and the chair of a department.  There was a disagreement, and suddenly words came out of a fellow student’s mouth that I knew they didn’t believe.  When I confronted them later about it, they said something I couldn’t believe.

“I can’t afford to lose my fellowship.”

My jaw dropped, my eyes probably bugged out, and I’m surprised I didn’t faint.  I couldn’t help but think back to the pregnant cashier who lifted things heavier than she was supposed to because “I can’t afford to lose my job”, the friend who stayed in an abusive relationship because “I can’t afford to live alone”, and the coworker who refused to report harassment because somehow the outcome would be more trouble than being harassed every day.

In retail, keeping our job was a legitimate concern.  I learned the hard way that a manager can “let you go” for any reason (yes, any reason including things they aren’t “allowed to” fire you for: race, religion, sexuality, disagreeing with them) at any time and no amount of fighting (unless maybe you’re already rich) can help you.  But in graduate school?  I’ve never heard of a graduate student being taken off their fellowship for disagreeing with authority.

This all comes back to one important word:


What is empowerment?

Empowerment is a rather simple concept.  It is a feeling of legitimacy, but one that manifests by allowing us to advocate for ourselves.  Empowerment is something that is systematically beaten out of us all our lives.  This is especially prevalent in people from minority populations.

Here’s an example:

Fatima is a fictitious undergraduate student, a female person of color, and is taking a class where participation is part of her grade.  Her grade is suffering because, though she raises her hand to ask a question, the professor – an older white man who genuinely doesn’t see her hand at the side of the classroom – never acknowledges her.  So she lowers her hand and waits for her next opportunity.  Other students – perhaps white male graduate students who society has taught to seize opportunities as they arise –  blurt out questions when they have them without waiting for permission.  They do this not because they are rude but because they understand that this classroom and professor are open to it.  Fatima could blurt out, but would never think to do so because she wasn’t taught that it’s an option.

This is a fictitious student in a fictitious situation, but I’ve mentored several female students in situations similar to this.  I always bring up my PI, an older white man who is very deep in his career.  During lab meetings and chalk talks, he doesn’t wait for someone to acknowledge him.  Instead, he waits for a moment when no one else is speaking and asks his question.  I ask the students I mentor if they ever felt he was being rude.  They never do.  And when I ask them why they don’t do what he does, they have no answer.

A society of hierarchy

We live in a society of hierarchy, where we are not as much equals as we are “over” or “under” someone.  How often do I hear graduate students refer to their mentor as their “boss” or an undergraduate student as “my undergrad”?  In doing so, we reenforce that we are not equals, and stifle each other’s empowerment.  And next thing you know, a successful and talented graduate student is saying they can’t speak up about something that is wrong because they are afraid doing so will lead to them losing their funding.

If you see something, say something

As a queer, trans*, weird person who was bullied for my religion growing up, I understand that speaking up can be difficult.  It is far easier to “get through it” than it is to fight for things to be better for those who come after you.  But, especially as a scientist, I feel that it is my duty to do what I can to improve the world…..or at least make small changes in my local bubble.

If you see something wrong, you should say something.  Say it respectfully, but say it loudly.  Be heard.  Because the person who comes after you is going to have the same problem, and if today’s society shows us anything, it’s that we can’t stay silent and just hope things will get better.

I personally have a hard time understanding why people only care about getting through a hard time (“getting the grade”, “getting the degree”, “getting through the situation”) and not about improving the process so that things are better for those who come after (“improve the teaching technique”, “improve the curriculum”, “remove the problem”).  It frustrates me to no end, which is why I’m writing this post.  I truly believe that by speaking up when we see things are wrong, we can improve the lives of those who come after us AS WELL AS our own lives.

But how?

How do I empower myself?

This is easy to say, but let’s talk about how to get to this point.  It isn’t easy.  Again, we’ve been taught all our lives to “respect” those in authority.  But what does that mean?

1. Remind yourself there is no authority.

The first thing that ever helped me to empower myself was realizing that those that were rich, powerful, influential, or otherwise authority figures were just people.  They may have more experience, but they are no less human than I am.  They make mistakes, lots of them, just like me.  They are sometimes wrong.  Except, when they make a wrong choice, it can affect a LOT more people than when I make a mistake.

2. Remind yourself that your opinion and/or expertise matters.

Whatever position you have (graduate student, employee, citizen), you have an expertise that is important and a unique perspective of the situation that can only be seen through your experience.  And you earned your position through hard work.  Citizens deserve respect because we all give back to our society, whether through purchasing items or by working within that community.  Don’t forget that.  Be reasonable when thinking about the possible backlash.  Is it reasonable to believe that all your work will be negated because you disagreed?  And do you deserve to be in a position that puts a chain of command and lack of respect before all else?

3. Focus on a solution, not the problem.

It was especially difficult for me at first to take that first step.  When I decided I would stop silencing myself and stop letting myself get run over by others, I knew something was wrong, but how do I articulate it?  I’m still working on this, but one thing that really helps is writing it down.  Work through the situation and identify the problem.  Make sure you understand not the symptoms of the problem, but the cause.  Then try to think of possible solutions.

Action items can be extremely helpful.  Sometimes you have to take on items yourself, but change is far more effective if those in authority have a small hand in it.  It allows them to feel as if they are making a difference as well.  It also is a good start for negotiation and brainstorming.

Do things ever actually get fixed?  Yes.  Does it always work?  No.  But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.  We can only create change through perseverance.  And complaining about problems to your peers without ever trying to fix it is not perseverance to me.

Want to see this as a plea for activism?  Sure!

What would you change if you felt you could?  How do you overcome a feeling of helplessness?  What do you do to empower others?  Let me know in the comments!


If you like these posts, please consider signing up for my mailing list below.  I will only e-mail you to let you know of new posts. Otherwise, you can follow my crazy life journey on Twitter, where I also post when I update.