The Smart Girl’s Guide to Getting Noticed in Your New Job

By Karoline Pershell

My career path has spanned academia, government, nonprofits and industry, and in early December 2017 I was coming full circle: I was preparing to start with the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) where I would be working with women across professions in a position to drive institutional change at the policy level, and support an army of volunteers to find meaningful routes for their own career advancement and improvement of our profession.

That is, I had arrived.

I have a nontraditional career path, which meant I had an uncommon skill set for mathematicians and I was going to use that to drive change! Watch out, math world. Good things are coming!

I gave myself the face slaps (“Let’s do this!”), and did the Rocky-style victory run up the stairs out of the DuPont Metro Station in downtown D.C. on Dec 7, 2017, on my way to represent AWM at the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences meeting, where Presidents and Executive Directors of 17 major math societies meet to share needs and find paths for collaboration. (Even though I wasn’t slated to start my job until January 15, since I lived in DC I would represent the AWM to quickly get up to speed
meeting my colleagues-to-be.)

Oh, and I only ran up the metro Rocky-style, metaphorically speaking: I was 8 months pregnant and doing a solid 28-minute mile at a duck’s pace.

Imposter syndrome has been real and present at each career change for me. I was aware that I possessed the knowledge, skills and abilities to strengthen the AWM, but I was certain no one else believed it. I waddled into the MAA Carriage House that morning with specific self-appointed tasks: be poised, positive, professional; introduce myself to heads of other major societies and listen to them; establish the foundations for future collaboration; make sure people know me.

(I should have been more specific.)

I got to introduce myself as we went around the room: “Hello, I am Karoline Pershell, I will be the incoming Executive Director for the Association for Women in Mathematics.” Yeah. #LifeGoals #MadeIt

The day was a success. I met several people whom I intended to follow up with and I also saw several familiar faces. Poised, Positive, Professional. I made it through the full day without saying something completely ridiculous (#RealFears), and the last part of the day was the AMS Christmas Party at another nearby venue, which my husband would join me for. My better half is a dynamic, intelligent, clever extrovert, and as my energy was waning, he would be the perfect wingman for me to finalize my coming-out into the AWM role.

I was having some closing conversation with the current AWM ED and AWM Treasurer, when I think I may have peed myself. Just a little. Um, this happens as you get so pregnant. Uh…I glance down. I am wearing polyester black dress pants (yes, with the elastic tummy belt, because no, I was not one of those tiny, cute pregnant people who looks like they swallowed a basketball, but otherwise are the same size), and at least polyester means it doesn’t show that my pants are wet.

I am mortified: wet pants in public doesn’t exactly fit my “Poised, Positive, Professional” mantra. I check the floor: I am not in fact standing in a puddle that other people would be able to see. Oh holy gods, just excuse yourself. The women I had been chatting with asked if I was walking to the reception now. I responded with something glib like, “no, I am waiting for my husband. I will make him carry my bag. Haha…uggghhhhh.” SERIOUSLY?!?!?! You are taking over at the helm of a women’s organization and you make comments like you are a damsel in distress and need your husband to tote your things?!? Pull it together, Pershell.

I make my way towards the bathroom, and each step swishes a little more liquid out of me. I keep checking the floor. God bless absorbent socks. Ugh! The elevator has light colored carpet, which would definitely show I was peeing myself…aghhhhhh…take the stairs, TAKE THE STAIRS!!!

I waddle up the stairs to the second floor and go into the single-room bathroom. I call my husband. I was not feeling good. He asks if I want to take the metro home and not go to the reception. I can’t think straight. He suggests an Uber. I can’t sit in an Uber with urine-soaked pants! That would RUIN my Uber rating, and I would have to create a new fake account to ever take a cab around this city again. Husband, please think of only GOOD ideas for pete’s sake. My back hurts, I can’t think. Maybe this is labor starting,
but it just is weird and not like the books. I say I don’t think I am coming home and that we may need to go to the hospital. I can’t believe I said it, and he can’t believe I said it. There was a (wait for it…) pregnant pause on the phone. He says he will drive over now.

I open the door to leave the bathroom and there is then MAA President, Deanna Haunsperger, waiting to use the bathroom. I was making her wait the whole time, while I am talking in the bathroom. For like 10 minutes. I apologize profusely, trying to convey that I am not a weirdo. (I assume I was unsuccessful.)

My confidences from earlier in the day are gone. I really don’t believe I belong here, in this role, in this historic place and this driven town. My entire carefully planned day of arriving on time, seeking out conversations, even the hours the night before where you try to find professional pregnant clothes….it was all a sham! I am leaking all over my own shoes. GET ME OUT OF HERE SO I DON’T HAVE TO TALK TO ONE MORE FUTURE WORK PERSON WHILE I AM NOT COMPETENT TO DO SO.

It was not that simple.

I wander outside and walk around the parking lot. It started snowing and I am outside in just a suitcoat, because it was not that cold when I left this morning. And I would not be so cold if I wasn’t wearing pee pee pants. I didn’t think my water had broken because it wasn’t the volume they described. Rather, I just kept leaking a little. Because…you know…poised, positive, professional…

I teared up. I just felt so stupid.

I am too cold to stay outside, but can’t sit down in an upholstered chair. In the warm entryway, I leaned against a table as Deanna comes back through, and asks how she can help. She is supposed to be at the AMS Christmas Party, and is waiting for her ride (good, please go…let me struggle without also needing to be respectable), but has reached out to the deputy director’s spouse (Amy Ensley), who was in the building, and is herself a mom (NOOOOOOOOO!!!! Don’t tell MORE people).

My normal instinct in conversation is to learn about the other person and make sure that SHE feels at ease by making small talk and inevitably saying things that I think are funny, regardless of whether the other person has an appropriately developed sense of humor. Amy is calm but concerned, and I do not want her to feel uncomfortable, so I worked very hard to make sentences with words in the right order that seemed applicable to the moment. Doug Ensley (then MAA Deputy Executive Director) and Michael
Pearson (MAA Executive Director) then joined us, saying they would wait this out with me, and I think they started telling stories of the births of their own kids.

Or maybe they talked about MAA’s budget.

Or maybe they discussed the proper techniques for germinating an avocado in the winter.

I really was not paying attention.

Karoline Pershell and Michael Pearson.

I needed to throw up, but I couldn’t go back outside. I gave Amy a signal, pulling my forefinger across my throat. I assumed this meant, “get them out of here,” but I think this may have had more sinister connotations because she quickly and unceremoniously dismissed the MAA Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director. I apologized again because I did in fact want the job I assumed I was now losing.

Amy said I was gray and didn’t look good and did I want her to call an ambulance. I couldn’t stand anymore. I got down on all fours on the industrial entry-way carpet to the Carriage House (because I didn’t want to make a mess on any other surface). Amy asked again about the ambulance. As the woman in labor, I was kind of the center of attention, and you would think that my word carried weight. But why?!? I was incapable of making rational decisions or speaking on my own behalf. I was intensely mortified at the situation and was holding it together to power through exceptionally uncomfortable circumstances. Amy said this was not normal and called an ambulance. My convulsions were strong and the nausea overpowered me. I re-swallowed the vomit in my mouth: I was NOT throwing up in the Carriage House (because that would have failed the “Poised. Positive. Professional.”-test).

The ambulance arrived about the same time as my husband. We were supposed to be delivering at Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia for a multitude of reasons (our cousin was a nurse there, we liked all of the services they had on site, it was a CALM place with a dedicated maternity building, it was close to Greg’s family and had full pull out beds for dads to sleep in). We told the ambulance drivers that is where we were going.

As though they were Uber.

They informed us they do not drive us to our selected destination, but only to DC hospitals, and by the way: were we ridiculous??? Did we realize we were trying to leave downtown DC at 6pm now? Rush hour traffic means this would have been easily double the time or longer.

We had been told that labor takes forever, and that newbie parents always overreact and run to the hospital and that we should prepare to chillax. So it was still in our mind that we had like 8 hours until baby made his appearance, and that I should get something to eat and go for a walk (seriously, baby books say this sort of thing, right?). There was a debate of what do we do, and I felt like a pushy, needy, whiner since I can’t hold my baby (like “I can’t hold my liquor”). I don’t know if Amy insisted that we go with the ambulance instead of driving, but Greg made the call to go to the nearest hospital and away we went.

I remembered why I didn’t want to deliver here: George Washington University Hospital is a teaching hospital, so there are consistently too many people in the room. And very young people. They look like undergrads. Exactly what I want right now: to be a teachable moment. I swore–a lot. They got me naked and on the table. They tell me I am 5cm, less than 90 minutes after my water broke.

Then they say, “I feel a foot.”

We just had a doctor’s appointment 3 days earlier and the doctor specifically showed us how to feel the baby’s back end up in the air and head down.

3 days earlier = correct position.
Today = baby has a foot where his head is supposed to be.

This is really bad, because either (1) he is turned upside down or (2) he has grown a foot off of his head. I feel like the ultrasounds should have picked up if it was (2).

One terrifying emergency C-section later, they show us Kepler and he is just fine. (Apgar score of all 9’s, because he already excels at test taking.)

Oh, and I learned later that me going into labor was thoroughly discussed at the AMS Christmas party, so it turns out that in my first day representing AWM, I did make sure that everyone knew me.

The author and her son, Kepler.

Karoline Pershell is a Sagittarius, a Gryffindor, and the Executive Director of the Association for Women in Mathematics, where she is privileged to work on programs to implement institutional change in the mathematics community. She tolerates her husband’s Star Wars infatuation and is constantly confounded by her toddler son, Kepler. She expects parenting to just get easier as Kepler approaches his second birthday. Please feel free to burst her bubble by writing to her at karoline@awm-math.org.

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2 Responses to The Smart Girl’s Guide to Getting Noticed in Your New Job

  1. Stewart J Church says:

    This is all a very typical Karoline episode. I lived through several of these 20+ years ago, and still married her mother. I still remember helping Karoline with her math homework, while her right arm was in a cast. Even though I’m I have a bachelor’s in EE, I didn’t understand a formula I was writing, but Karoline assured me I had copied it correctly. Must be – she graduated! We love her dearly, are extremely glad she and Greg found each other, and we always look forward to visits from Kepler!
    Step-Dad Stew

  2. Barbara says:

    Karoline is such a good writer and nothing she does surprises
    me. She is an awesome young lady and we love her and miss her a lot. Never a dull moment with her around. We love you
    Dave and Barbara

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