Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Survival

1600px-Solvay_conference_1927I am a woman in a male-dominated field. In my department, being cis-white male is being apart of a 67% majority when you include all lecturers. If you reduce your scope to tenure-track faculty (the upper class), cis-white male is 74% of that group. So, although I am a white woman and in the privileged class in the country. My intersectionality comes through fighting every day for women and under-represented groups’ equality within my field and department.

I was recently talking to my unicorn friend (she is a black woman in my cis-white male field), and she said something extremely important that I hadn’t thought of before: When you are a minority in a field, it is hard to tell if the problems you face are normal or due to your minority status. Because it is difficult to tell, and because it can be embarrassing or difficult to ask majority-members about your problems, it is easy to conclude that your troubles all spurn from being a minority. If you chalk every problem you have up to being a woman, you quickly become labeled as a whiney minority who wants special treatment. This is a common complaint which is spurned from both your unicorn status – the fact that there is legit racism and sexism against you – and your not knowing what is “normal” for majority-people.

Another issue that minorities face is that we can become isolated. Once you are labeled a whiney minority, it can be difficult to make friends and get to know people. That can be isolating. Isolation results in marginalization. Marginalization results in more whining, and it is a vicious cycle. I have noticed that this often happens to senior women in cis-white male dominated fields, and they are written off as “crazy” (see this blog post). Further, despite the marginalized person being about as productive, funded, etc as other majority-persons in the department, their contributions don’t seem to count as much and they cannot maintain respect from their colleagues. I have noticed that the senior women who are marginalized are not asked to lead important committees in the department. Younger women are not yet qualified and that keeps the leadership within the majority group’s leadership.

When a junior woman/minority breaks through the glass ceiling, typically by being an absolute superstar who must win more awards and have more papers and grants than others, they get singled out as the unicorn who is acceptable to the majority. The majority wants diversity, so they will then overburden that “acceptable minority” with more work, service, and leadership. Simultaneously, the “regular” egalitarian-shared work load is not removed – because it wouldn’t be fair for you to do less – what you think you are so special you don’t have to pull your weight in the department? If you complain about the service load, you are risking being a whiney minority.

So, women/minority superstars end up doing a lot more work and it goes unnoticed. Further, the minority superstar must keep up their superstar research status, as they are constantly at risk of slipping into whiney minority-marginalized status if there is a dip in paper production or funding. Yet, majority-member colleagues with a dip in funding or paper output are still allowed to serve as leaders, and they are allowed to ask to be taken out of service roles that are overly burdensome without consequence. Thus, women/minorities must do more to earn the respect of their colleagues and they must do more to maintain the respect of their majority counterparts.

An additional burden of being a minority-status person in a department is the constant fight just to maintain normalcy. I have written about this previously here. Because, frankly, shit does happen and it does happen more to minority-status people. Add on top of that the fact that we can’t always tell if stuff is real or we are being too sensitive, but erring on the side of doing nothing can have serious negative impacts.

Now, these are not the only issues under-represented groups face, but these are the ones I that are often hidden or difficult to understand by majority-persons. Ultimately it comes down to cultivating the opinions of others about you. It is a PR issue. I spend a lot of energy on these PR issues. Brainpower I could be using to be smarter in my science. But, it is worth it to me to stay in the non-marginalized demographic.

The spirit of this blog is not just to explain and complain, but to come up with solutions that all parties can take back to change the situation.

Hire more minorities. OK, this is perhaps obvious. If you just hire more minority faculty, it is harder for them to be singled out in a variety of ways. They don’t feel as isolated and walking on a knife-edge. They can ask each other for advice. The majority people are also more comfortable with minority-status peers when there are more of them. Because we are not all the same (shocker!). If there is only one woman, you might be confused about how she responds to things and why she is getting upset. (I am assuming you are a nice person who wants your minority-status peer to succeed.) If there are 8 women, probably one of them can help you understand what’s going on.

Make friends. Many minority faculty feel isolated because they don’t make friends at work. Not having friends at work sucks. Even if you are a total introvert and are rejuvenated by being alone, I still advocate making friends. If you are a majority-status person, make friends with minority-status people. If you are a minority, make friends with your majority-status colleagues. It is vitally important that you have a diversity of friends (we all value diversity, right?).

You also need to have friends who have the same or similar minority-status as you, because there might be things you can’t talk about with majority people. We all need to have people we can whine and bitch to. You also need friends who are majority-status. Why? Because you need people you trust who can tell you if what you are seeing and feeling is racism/sexism or just regular old periodic suckiness of this job? You need to know how a cis-white male would deal with the same situations you are dealing with.

How do you make friends? Ask people to go to lunch. Invite them to your house for dinner. Invited them out for drinks after work. Assemble a group to see a campy movie. I know it feels weird to make friends as an adult, but you need to do it. Also, people are busy, just as you are busy as a faculty member. If you don’t get a response or get a no, you have to try again. Spending time with friends outside of work helps you realize your shared values as scientists, researchers, teachers, and even parents or members of the town. Having shared values builds trust. Trust is essential for sharing difficult or embarrassing situations where you might need help.

Have mentors. Some departments have assigned mentors and you might hit it off – that is great. Much like you should not have one set of friends, you should also not have one set of mentors. You also need to make sure your mentors are many different types of people (diversity!). You need to trust them, and that might mean being friends with them (see above). The principles of cultivating mentors is similar to friendships. The main difference is that you should come with questions and ask for help sometimes.

Ask for help. I have said this before when talking about sexist evaluations, but you will have to swallow your pride and ask for help about embarrassing situations. As I said, if you are too embarrassed to do what you have to do in order to be successful at this job, you are at risk of losing this job. You are also at risk of becoming marginalized.

Let me give you an example from a recent experience of my own. My first few students weren’t working out in the lab. The first, I fired because he wasn’t working or showing up, and I couldn’t really tolerate such work ethic in a lab at such an early stage. The second student quit because the work was much harder than anticipated. This was followed by another and another. Luckily, I recruited a good postdoc and a student from a different graduate program who could handle the work. I could have just kept quiet and hoped that my colleagues didn’t notice the number of students running through my lab. Instead, I went to my mentors to tell them what was happening and get advice on what to do. I also asked if my having no graduate students from my home department would hurt me at tenure time. By asking for help and being frank and honest, I was letting my mentors (and colleagues) know that I know my situation was not ideal, but that there were good reasons for what was happening. I also told them my solution and tried to gauge how much it would matter for my career.

Also, this is not just for women or minorities. Men who have bad teaching evaluations, overloaded service, difficulties managing your students, or other issues should also speak up and talk to your mentors. I know it is scary, but not getting tenure is scarier to me.

Identify bullish*t. When you are a woman or minority in a majority white-male-cis world,  you will get treated differently because of your status. It will happen, so how do you identify it, so that you are not complaining about something that is normal? If you are a majority-member wanting to be an ally, how can you tell if the situation you are being told about is sexism/racism? Well, you can always try to picture a majority-status person in the same situation and try to decide if it seems “weird.”

For instance, when a woman tells you that she was told she cannot go to full early because, “Why should she go before her male colleagues?” that might not seem weird because she may in fact be the only woman at the associate professor level. But, if you change that scenario, and think of the personnel committee chair asking a male associate professor, “Why should you go up for full before your female colleagues?” you realize that it is weird.

What do you think? Have you ever had a situation where you thought, “Does this happen to everyone? Or is this because I am a woman/minority?” I have. It is hard to determine if things that happen are because of your status or because it is normal, everyday assholery of academia. Are there other ways to figure this out? If you have other ideas, please share! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

 

 

Plan B

fightpowerI never thought I would have to write a blog entry like this one… Not in this country. But, here I sit. This article is about how to help your student escape from the USA if the Muslim bans become worse.

As I write this, there are still people in limbo about their status to enter the USA. These people have visas. The executive order restricting travel by persons from 7 countries was made on January 28th. That morning, I read the New York Times and asked myself, how does this affect my student who is from one of these countries?

Immediate concerns: My student is supposed to present our work at an international conference in March. BTW, my student won a travel award to present at this conference! My first worry was that my student would be detained and not allowed to get on the airplane. After reviewing the executive order, I realize that *technically* my student should be allowed to travel within the country without barrier. That being said, I also do not trust TSA agents. Here is what we are doing to facilitate the travel:

  • We are all traveling together. We will be getting our tickets together. I will use my priveledge as a white, American citizen, and professor to make sure my student is not harassed at the security and makes it onto the plane. This is crazy! I should not have to F-ing chaperone adult graduate students… but, now I do.
  • My student will not use a passport as an ID. My student has a drivers’ license, which is valid at the airport, and will use that as identification so that the TSA agents will not know the country of origin. It isn’t their business anyway.

Future concerns: Given that my student is from a listed country, and that this might not be the last action, what should we do so that my student can (1) survive and (2) finish the work we are doing? Here is our plan:

  • I contacted a colleague in my field in Canada. I know this lab’s work, which is excellent, and I know they have the equipment needed to complete this work. We will meet at a conference to discuss the student’s work, the student’s progress, and make a plan for how the work would proceed.
  • We will figure out how to get a visa for my student to be an academic visitor at my colleague’s institution. We will get the paperwork ready in advance, and get some vague approval.
  • We will have a housing plan made up, so someone can house my student in an emergency.
  • If something comes down that means my student cannot be in the USA, we will work quickly to get travel arrangements made, get the visas finalized, and get my student to the lab in Canada.
  • Worst case scenario, and we do not have time to make changes (we just saw that this can happen), I will personally drive my student over the border. I am relatively close to the border, and I picked a colleague on my side of the USA in Canada. I will declare my student a refugee of the USA, and get my student to Canada where we will have time to finish the paperwork. In Canada, where they have worked on immigrant reform, it is difficult to be an illegal immigrant, but they have rules that allow reasonable times of stay to help people become legal. Since we will have the backing for two professors (one in the USA and one in Canada), I have more faith in the Canadian government to be able to help and do things in a civilized and rational manner.
  • Once in Canada, my student will continue to work as a visiting scientist. I will use funds from foundations to fund the work, if there is some edict against funding foreigners with federal grants (I know, I am not trying to give them ideas, but they could totally do this to punish and push back against scientist protests, so we need to be aware). If I don’t have funds, my colleague has said we could discuss some way to get my student paid another way (of course this might mean my student working for my colleague and not me…, but that is a more minor concern. As I said, my colleague is excellent!). Remember that survival is # 1, science is # 2, and ego and credit should always be # 3 on the list of priorities.

So, what are you doing? If you have a student who is from one of these countries, I encourage you to have a Plan B ready. We have already seen that we will not have much time to think after the fact. Get your ducks in a row now. Our vulnerable students should not be the fodder in our fight with fascism.

Comment of post your ideas here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

dumbledores_armyI’m back. Did you miss me?

Honestly, although I had been giving good advice to people one-on-one, I couldn’t put idea to computer for a few months there. You know what helped me? Teaching. The idea that I was now about to teach and, yes, influence young minds. I am excited because I am teaching a cool course that I invented that has a lot of hands-on work, tinkering, and active learning.

I was also assigned an extra course: Freshman seminar. You might have one of these courses in your department. It is the class where the faculty are paraded through to give undergraduate level talks about their research. The goal is to get the students acquainted with the department and oriented somewhat. Honestly, it was always a good opportunity for students to take a nap. Being the sort of person who can never leave well-enough alone and wants to destroy terrible and boring, I am revamping the ENTIRE CLASS. I will NOT have a parade of faculty lulling the students to sleep. Instead, I decided to actually orient and prepare these students for the next 3 years of college, science in general, research, careers, and ADVOCACY. Think of it as Dumbledore’s Army for science (I have been re-reading the Harry Potter series – seriously important reading for these dark times). I want these kids to understand how the scientific process works – including failure, uncertainty, and funding – so they can be voices for change when they go back home.

Will this land me on the Professor Watchlist? God, I hope so! Let’s fill up that list with scientists and engineers.

OK, let’s talk about the class. This is what I am planning (list of topics). I have 12 more weeks. I would love your ideas and suggestions on this list.

  1. What is science? It is a method to find the truth. It is not a bunch of facts we make you memorize.
  2. Who are scientists and how do they think? Why diversity of opinions and ideas is important in science. Scientists are not smart because they *know* a lot of stuff – they are smart because they know *how to find out* a lot of stuff.
  3. Why are scientists never 100% certain? Measurement certainty and precision. How well *can* we measure something? What does that mean about truth and facts?
  4. What is an expert? What is the difference between and “expert’s opinion” and a regular person’s opinion?
  5. The importance of failure in science. Why we try to *disprove* models and theories – not *prove* them. Ethics of reporting true results – even if they are “null” results.
  6. Careers for Scientists outside of the academy. Why a science training is the best training for ANY career.
  7. Where does the money come from for science? Federal funding agencies, Congressional discretionary spending, corporations, foundations. How we write proposals.
  8. Dissemination of scientific results. Why do we need to tell people our results? Different forms of dissemination.
  9. Peer review for journal articles. The mechanics of peer review. Peer review of grant proposals. What does it mean to have expert reviews?
  10. How to discover the truth behind something you read or hear online. Reading a science article. Reading a political article.
  11. How to describe something complicated to someone who doesn’t do science. Dissemination of results to the public. Why does the public need to know about science?
  12. Advocacy and being a spokesperson for science. Talking to everyone about science, what it is good for, and why they should care about it.

So, this is getting me through the day (and night, since I am spending so much time working these days!). How do you feel about this? For me, this is grassroots action. They gave me the perfect class to do this. The course is pass/fail and filled with freshmen. I can’t pass up the opportunity to shape these young minds. I love being a professor sometimes.

What do you think? Comment or write a post yourself. I would love to hear from you! To get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button and sign-up.

PS. In case you didn’t see it anywhere else: http://www.scientistsmarchonwashington.com

How to Deal

Nagasakibomb-colorOMG. My worst nightmare is a reality. Our next President is a confirmed woman assaulting, hate mongering, xenophobic, narcissist. Or at least he plays one on TV.

In the spirit of this blog, we all know what happened, and we know it sucks, but the question is: how do we deal with it? I have to say that I have become quite an expert at having difficult conversations with my students – and not just the shit sandwich kind. Here is what I did today (perhaps others can share what they did in the comments).

  1. If you are teaching, there are already a couple of resources online. One from the University of Michigan and a good article What Should We Tell The Children? You should decide for yourself if you want to bring it up or not. You should probably have a plan of what to say if a student brings it up. If you are a woman or person of color, students will likely come to you to talk, if they feel badly.
  2. If you have students who are at risk or feeling vulnerable, here is what I did.
    • We had a casual group conversation in the hallway with students who were supportive and positive about supporting these students. Much of it was the commiseration, but some of it was expressions of fears of people saying or doing something and stories of having people yell, “Go back from where you came!” at students in various places. As most college towns, the students feel, and probably are, safer here than in other rural places in the US, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t the target of bigoted, xenophobic slurs.
    • I already had a meeting with my middle eastern student, a wonderful scientist who works in a hijab. We discussed her abstract to be submitted Friday to a national conference. After the editing was done, I turned to her and asked if she was OK and if I could do anything to help her feel better. I told her that I wanted to have a diverse lab, and that she should always feel safe in the lab. That was the most important. If she ever didn’t feel safe, or was scared from people who might yell or harm her, that she should call or text me. And if something did happen, she should report it to me immediately. She was very grateful for my offer and appeared visibly relieved.
  3. Because I didn’t get to talk to everyone, and one student sent out an announcement about an on campus vigil that she was attending, I decided to officially condone the activity (despite missing it because I needed to get home to my kids). I also used the opportunity to send a message to my students. Here is what I wrote:
Dear Labbies,
I encourage anyone who needs help or support to consider going to the vigil tonight.
I am happy to talk with anyone personally about my views on these subjects, but I won’t put them in this email.
Also, I would like to say that it is important to me that my lab be inclusive and diverse. I strive to make it that way purposely. You should feel safe within the lab. Feeling safe is not the same thing as feeling comfortable. Being in a diverse environment can be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable can be an important place for learning and growing. Part of being in college is being pushed to think about and discuss uncomfortable things in a controlled, respectful, and civilized manner using FACTS and not just opinions. I encourage conversations about our differences in experience in a calm, respectful manner. You may use humor, but not as a weapon.
Further, I want you to know that if you do not feel safe because of your faith, skin tone, or heritage, please come to talk to me immediately. You may call or text me (XXX-XXX-XXXX) if you are concerned for yourself outside the lab and you need help immediately, please call.
Finally, please watch out for each other. Many of you already text and chat to each other. Please do exchange numbers and call or text if you are in an unsafe or hostile situation and need help. I do not expect that to occur in SmallUniversityTown, but it can happen, as I am most worried that a Trump administration has emboldened hate groups with racist, misogynist, and violent intentions in our country. We can help each other. The best way to defeat a bully is by having friends nearby to help.
Please be safe and help each other,
WomanOfScience

Honestly, having all these conversations was as really good for me. It felt good to be in action and to feel like I could help in this terrible situation. But, my students helped me, as well. My middle eastern student told me about a time in her country’s history when they elected someone very similar to Trump and then had to live through it. For 8 years of his rule, student activists were jailed, killed, or forced to leave their country forever. If they could live through that, we would make it through Trump.

I told her I hoped that the Founding Fathers’ system of checks and balances and our active civil rights organizations hold better than that.Then she gave me some excellent advise: Don’t spend too much energy on this. Save your energy because it will be many years to fight. She told me that I am needed here to give energy to our work, including science and educating and helping my students. This is what she learned from watching others who lost their freedom, their lives, their families, and/or their countries during those 8 years (he was re-elected, and his second term was far worse than his first, apparently).

So, what do you think? Do you have a story to share? What did you say to your students today? Do you have better words of wisdom? Please share in a comment. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

What the Hell?

I need a laugh. Don’t you? I am super stressed about the election. I am working on my third of five federal proposals due this fall. Why are all the deadlines in Fall semester? Today, we had an awesome woman seminar speaker for one of the interdisciplinary programs I am in. I met with her, and we discussed politics and science. I probably should have worked harder to impress her, but she was too cool, and I was just happy to talk.

I had my normal back-to-back meetings, but I did get to go into the lab this afternoon and work with my students. It was fun, even if nothing works when I go in to work with them (somehow it works when either they or I am doing it, but not together – no idea why).

After that, I went to the late afternoon seminar. I set my stuff down and went into the women’s room. There was a few privacy switchbacks and then three stalls. I opened the first one and saw this:

2016-10-18-15-55-27

I wasn’t exactly surprised to see this. My building and several others that were built at the same time all have these in the women’s rooms (same wall tiles, stalls, and floor tiles, too). I made an out-loud comment, “Ugh, stupid weird potty,” or something like that.

I didn’t realize that there was anyone in the far stall. It was the speaker, and she had heard my muffled complaint. She commented, “I noticed that, but what is it? I have never seen anything like that in all my life.”

And honestly folks, I have no Earthly idea what this is. Here are our best guesses and the rationale for each.

  1. It is a men’s urinal. But, if so, why is it sideways and filled with water? Why not a urinal on the wall? Let’s assume there was a time when the women’s room was a men’s room. That makes sense in some buildings – the graduate tower, for instance that only has one bathroom on each floor. If, when built in the 1960’s people did not expect ANY women (not even secretaries?) to use the bathrooms, then all the floors would only have men’s rooms. In the tower, the bathrooms alternate if they are for men or women, but I think they have the same type of toilets in the stalls. Here is another weird thing about this. In my building and the building where I took this picture, on the other side of the wall is a men’s room. I can only assume it is a mirror image of the women’s room. So, does that mean it was a double-sized men’s room they split in half? If so, why were the stalls back-to-back? How could they have been adjoined? I find this very weird.
  2. It is a women’s urinal. Is it possible that this is a urinal for women? If so, how are you supposed to use it? Are you supposed to face it? Sit on it like a regular toilet? In all honesty, I have used it. I literally just sit on it. It really just needs a 3D printed seat to sit on top, and it would be perfectly fine. Since no one uses it, this urinal/toilet is very clean in the women’s room.

Other questions come to mind, like:

  • Why have them at all? Even if all the bathrooms were for men originally, why have urinals? Why not have stalls only?
  • Which company made these? When and where? Are there instructions?
  • Finally, in a business setting, why do we even have men’s and women’s rooms? I know everyone says men’s rooms are gross, but seriously, if all the toilets are in stalls – even the urinals – what is the difference? I know I might be in the minority about this, but it would make things easier for our transgender students, if they didn’t have to choose – and give women more stalls.

The point of this post was to entertain and talk about something that wasn’t the election. I hope it made you smile. Comment or post, if you feel like. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Guest Post: Raise Your Voices

GuestPostThis post comes from an awesome WomanOfScience friend of mine. I hope you enjoy!

This post is about one of my first real experiences with gender bias, as a new PI in {life} science.

During my first year of being a new PI, I was invited to participate in a small workshop in my field.  There were only about 80 of us, with most of us being PIs.  It was an intense 4 day meeting alternating between talks and long, open-ended discussions about important issues in our research area.  In many ways, it was fantastic.

However, I quickly noticed something that I found to be a bit concerning.  While the organizers commended themselves for ensuring that almost half of the participants were women, I noticed that women almost never spoke during the extensive questions-and-answers sessions after each talk, nor did they ever participate in the lengthy “open” discussion periods.  As a new PI in my field, still trying to get the lay of the land, I was hyper-aware of what my female role models were doing.  And I was a bit dismayed that even the full professors who were women were not speaking up.

At first, I wondered, “Am I right about this?  Am I just not noticing when women speak?  Is my own unconscious bias coming through by dismissing their contributions?  Or, are women really not speaking?”  So, during the second day, I began to keep count.  I made a tally every time someone spoke up, whether it was a male or female.

By the end of that second day, it was clear.  Less than 10% of the questions or comments were from women, despite the fact that over 40% of the attendees were women.  And several of the few questions from women were from me, the most junior female PI in the room.  (I have always been pushed to ask questions of speakers, by my graduate and post-doctoral mentors, so I try to speak up as much as possible.)

But I was disturbed that women were not being equally represented in the discussions.  One thing that I noticed was that, oftentimes, the men in the room seemed completely unfazed to spout some random off-the-wall idea that potentially made no sense at all, just to get conversation started.  They weren’t concerned that their idea might sound idiotic.  They weren’t concerned that their words might mean that they were incompetent.

In my (limited) experience, WOMEN DO NOT DO THIS.  Women are careful to only state ideas that they perceive to be “important”.  And since women appear to be uncertain whether their ideas actually are important, they rarely speak up at all.  Why is this?

One answer comes from a really interesting article that I read just before I went to this conference.It discussed how transgendered people who have transitioned can provide interesting insights into how men and women are perceived differently.  My favorite quote in the article comes from Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who used to be male until late in her career.  She says “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case.  I will admit, I was not nearly as aware of this bias when I was a graduate student at a top tier research university.  In my class of around 30 students, 75% of us were women.  I was not even aware of gender bias when I was a postdoc.  Of course, I had heard of and read about unconscious bias.  But I had not seemed to experience it myself or noticed any impact on my own career.  It was only once I became a PI that I began to notice gender bias in my workplace in any real way.

I have long heard that one way to combat gender bias is to make sure that more people are aware of it, when it occurs, so we can at least pay attention to our unconscious bias and figure out ways to deal with it.  Thus, at the bar at the conference that second evening, after I had discovered that only 10% of the questions were from women, I decided to bring it up among a small circle of friendly colleagues.  It seemed natural to do so.  It was a group of just a few of us, people in my sub-field who have known each other for years, a mix of 1 man and 3 women.  Someone else had brought up the fact that women and men were almost equally represented at the meeting, and “Wasn’t that so great?”  So I then replied, “Yeah, it’s great that the organizers did such a wonderful job.  But you know what’s a little funny?  Women are only asking about 10% of the questions, and they aren’t participating at all in the open discussions.”  The women in my group made no reply.  But the man said, “Are you sure?  That can’t be right.”  And I answered, “No, I am right.  I actually counted today.”  The guy was silent for a moment, looked at me right in the eyes, and said, “Well, then I think that you should spend more time thinking about science and less time counting how many questions are being asked by women.”

I was dumbstruck.  I had asked more questions in that group than any other woman in the room, and his response is that I should be asking even more?  And that it wasn’t possible for me to think about science and tally male/female counts at the same time?  And that he didn’t see that it was an issue that women weren’t speaking up?  And that he didn’t respect the fact that I might see it as an issue, as a new woman to the field?  Two years later, this guy is still a close friend and colleague, a true supporter of me and my career.  But he appears to be clearly unaware of gender bias in the scientific world, and how its insidious nature can undermine the confidence of women scientists.

My own response to my observation has been to continue to do what I can – to speak up when I can – to try to be a role model for other, younger women scientists to speak up and not be afraid.  My students are REQUIRED to ask questions at seminars and meetings.  And I teach them to not be concerned about sounding stupid.  That I prefer them to be perceived as engaged and perhaps naive, rather than silent.  Because if you are silent, you aren’t bringing anything at all to the table.

So, my call to other women scientists is to speak up.  Speak your mind.  Even when you are unsure of your ideas.  Share your questions with others.  Isn’t that what science is about?  Asking questions that we don’t know the answers to?

More recently, now that I’ve been a PI for longer, I’ve become even more comfortable asking questions and speaking up.  At the last meeting that I went to (about 300 attendees), I was again the most visible woman.  I probably asked 2-3 questions each day of the 3 day meeting.  I thought that most of my questions were pretty stupid.  But I asked them anyway, especially when no one else seemed to be interested in doing so.  At the end of the meeting, a huge leader in my field came up to me and told me that he had to meet me and share with me that he was so impressed with my “wonderful questions” and that I had been “more impressive than any junior female PI he has ever seen at a conference before in his 30+ years” of being a PI.

While I was glad that he noticed me and complimented my participation, and I am hopeful that my visibility might be a good model for the many, many young women in the audience that asked no questions at all, I do still find it a rather sad state of affairs that this guy had never seen a junior woman ask multiple questions at conferences before (or, at least, not recall seeing it).  I will note that he (and everyone else that I spoke with) was also incredibly impressed by my grad student who accompanied me, as she asked several questions, as well.  She was the only female graduate student to ask any questions during this meeting.

And while I’m hopeful that other women saw our examples, I also am concerned that most women are still too insecure and uncertain to ask questions themselves.  Or, they simply do not realize just how valuable it can be to be visible.  But one thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in academia (and life, really) requires me to confront my fears head on – to run into them.  I used to be terrified – terrified – of public speaking.  My fight or flight response was on full blast when I asked questions, when I spoke in front of people.  But I forced myself to do it anyway.  When I commended my student after she asked questions by telling her how brave she was, she replied that she was not brave, that rather, she “was terrified.”  I explained that being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave means you do something EVEN THOUGH you are afraid.

So, I now make it one of my main goals to talk about my own insecurities, my own fears, and the importance of speaking up and being visible, whenever I have the opportunity to speak with students and postdocs. I am hopeful that the more times women hear it, the more likely there will be change.  And that someday, when I go to a meeting, there will be just as many women asking questions as men.

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