Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Get Out – part 2

SHirleyJacksonThis post is part 2 of an N-part (where N is an integer > 1) series of stories of systematic bias I have directly observed over the past year. These stories detail mechanisms in academia to systematically remove women and under-represented minorities from the academy. Women like Dr. Shirley Jackson (pictured here). Do you want to tell Shirley Jackson to get out? No? Well, awesome! Please read on.

Why to read on:

  • If these things have happened to you, know you are not alone. In sharing these stories, I hope people can learn that “it’s not you, it’s them,” and it isn’t fair. Recognizing when bias is happening to you is important to help you fight it for yourself and for others.
  • If you are an ally, learn about these tactics, so you can combat them. I know that these stories are hard to hear. Just think if you had to live them and put up with this every day. If you really want to help under-repressed people, you need to know when bias is happening and speak up when you can do something.

Today’s tale is about how women and minorities are removed at the professor level. I have seen this trick several times; I could literally write a manual for how to do it. It is especially saddening when they complain about the “leaky pipeline” and not having enough women and minorities in the supply line. Sometimes that just isn’t true! Sometimes there are perfectly good women in front of you, and you say no to them. Here are some of the tricks (part of the manual) that keep women and minorities out of the professoriate (I am going to use she, but you can read as any minority you want).

How to keep women and minorities from getting a job in your department:

  1.  During a one-on-one conversation with the minority candidate, ask a very confusing science question. Something like, “The sky is orange, right?” This is a “gotcha” question meant to put the candidate in a very difficult position. How does a minority candidate answer that question? Does she tell the white male, cis professor that he was mistaken? Does she try to convince him that he misspoke? Either way, it is a losing endeavor for her. When the minority candidate doesn’t “answer” this “question” the way expected, make sure to tell the hiring committee that she “Doesn’t know her own science, and couldn’t possibly be hired to the department.” See, in order to be a professor of X science, one needs to be proficient in X science. This is the most common way I have seen people remove women and minorities. It is super easy for other men to believe that a woman or minority doesn’t know whatever science, especially when it is physical science or engineering. I mean, they just don’t “look” like they would know what they are talking about. You might ask, does she have a PHD in X science? The answer is yes. She often also has had a postdoc in X and sometimes she is already a professor of X. Despite all these accreditations, the single, in person assessment of the candidate’s skills becomes more important than all the prior work. This will be a recurring motif (keep reading).
  2. When asking a question, expect an answer to a completely different question. When the minority candidate doesn’t answer the unarticulated question in your head, tell the committee she avoided the question and therefore must not know the answer.
  3. Ask a question in the seminar about the science being shown. Make sure your question appears to be somewhat silly and motivated by not listening to the candidate’s talk. Instead, consider your question is a “qualifier” question – literally the type of question from a qualifying exam. When the candidate doesn’t answer the question as expected, assume she does not know the answer to the qualifying exam question, and therefore “doesn’t know science X.” (See 1 above.)
  4. Ask a real question about science in the candidate’s seminar. Make sure that you once thought about this problem peripherally, but it isn’t your main line of work. Assess that the candidate, who is an expert on the science she is presenting, doesn’t describe the science the way you remember it, or think it should be described. You tell the committee that she couldn’t answer the question properly, and therefore doesn’t know enough about her own science, and shouldn’t be considered further. Or, go one step further, and ask the closest related expert in the audience for his, “expert opinion,” that way, everyone at the seminar will know that you don’t think much of the candidate or her answer.

Notice a theme? It all boils down to questioning the competence of the candidate, and the fact that many scientists rate this as the NUMBER 1 requirement to be a professor. Any misstep, any misspeak, any inability to decipher the question causes the faculty interviewing the candidate to say the minority candidate doesn’t know her stuff, and shouldn’t be hired. Even more frustrating is that the non-minority candidates often make the exact same mistakes, but the missteps are brushed off or glossed over and excused as the misspoken words they are. This is actually fine – I don’t begrudge that the non-minorities have common courtesy. What I mind is when that courtesy isn’t afforded to the minority candidates.

How can we change this? I think the first issue is that it is really hard to combat this type of thing on the fly. It would be much better if the hiring committee and department decided, in advance, how important knowledge of the field is? Is it enough to be able to teach undergraduates? What parts of the field are required to be known and at what level to be a professor? Further, what is the best way to assess this? Is is fair to ask the candidates all random questions and brush off difficulties of non-minority candidates while we focus and inflate those of minority candidates. If you want to ask a qualifier question, at least it should be asked of all candidates, it should be a clear question, and it should be judged equally. Personally, I think asking qualifier questions is dumb and will cause us to lose out on awesome candidates. Many excellent candidates would be offended by getting a PHD-level qualifier question. But at least it would be more fair than what is happening now. Either way, a conversation a priori about the importance and weight of this knowledge should occur.

More important to think about beforehand: is knowledge of all aspects of the field (assuming all candidates have a basic level of knowledge because they do have PHDs) the most important thing? I would argue that the ability to learn more science is a more important thing to assess, and it is the skill a professor actually needs. Further, based on my years and on many of these blog posts, knowledge of your field is not sufficient to be a good professor – let alone a great one. How can we assess the real skills a professor needs? Flexibility? Empathy? Change or growth mindset? Perseverance? Honestly, new faculty are going to get a lot of rejections – will he/she be able to bounce back? I would claim a minority candidate is much more likely to be able to take a hit and keep on going than someone who had very few struggles to make it this far.

Ironically, it is the diversity of thought, which many of these candidates show, that turns off my colleagues. Yet diversity of thought is exactly what we need in the department. Why do we need diversity of thought and people who think differently? Well, first there is the fact that we do science – a creative endeavor – and creative tasks are stymied when everyone thinks the same way. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we are teachers, and teachers need to be flexible and able to explain things in more than one way. To me, the diversity of thought displayed by minority candidates is EXACTLY what we need to be better educators… Sadly, many people don’t see things this way.

Well, there you go. A second story. I am looking for practical methods to combat this in action (in case the a priori decisions about weights don’t happen). Do you have any ideas? If you do have some ideas for how a department can get over themselves to allow some available, awesome minority candidates to actually get a fair shake, please comment here. Or, send me a post. I will happily post anything helpful for this problem. To get an email every time I post, please click the +Follow button.

Keep out! – part 1

keep-out-restricted-area-sign-s-2455Do you find yourself wondering why there aren’t more women, black, Latino, etc… students in science? I don’t wonder. I know why. They are constantly and systematically being removed from science at every level every day. I knew this. I have felt this, but this year it has hit me in the face over and over, and I am really just sick of it. Literally sick to my stomach.

Over the next few posts, I am going to outline some of the behaviors I have observed that keep women and minorities out of STEM fields. My first story just happened this week – yes, it is only Tuesday!

Like many other faculty, I have undergraduate and graduate students in my lab. I love them, as I have posted previously (here). One of the things that often happens is that the undergraduates have fun in the lab, and want to share their experiences with their friends. They invite their friends to the lab to see their experiments and meet their lab-mates. Often they meet me, and I get another undergraduate application (I have an application to work in my lab, detailed here). Many times they are also in science, and they appreciate the lab space and equipment we have.

This week, I was told that I can’t have other students hanging out in my lab. I have been at my institution for 11 years. I have never had an issue with students visiting and hanging out in the lab or nearby offices. I was wondering why all of the sudden I was getting crap for this. Then it hit me, I have a lot of students of color in my lab – black, Latino, African decent, etc… Many of these students also have friends who are black, Latino, African, etc… Now, all of the sudden, these extra students hanging around the lab have become very, very visible.

I guess I can’t say for sure if it is outright racism, but I can’t help but feel that they were “noticed” not just because they were black but because there is an assumption that they “didn’t belong there.” The excuse I was given was that they didn’t have safety training, and it would be a liability to have them in the lab. I asked if they could sit in the office space next to the lab, and was told it would disturb the other students.

Stupidly, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. At lab meeting that afternoon, we talked about it. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I could tell my students were also bummed. As we discussed, I said, “if the problem is that they don’t have safety training, we should just have all our friends get safety training.” But, this solution didn’t sit well with me.

The next day, when the friends came by, my student asked them to leave. Of course, they wanted to know why. Luckily, I was there shortly to discuss. The visiting student came by my office, and we chatted. I knew this student was also a science student. It turns out he already had lab safety training because he had worked in labs before. We also talked about his background. Turns out he is a veteran, at university on the G.I. bill after serving his country for 6 years. I told him he was more than welcome in the lab, and if anyone had a problem, they could talk to me.

That evening, I was still upset. I was upset that I let someone tell me how to run my lab. I was upset that my students of color were being made to feel bad about having their friends around. I was mad that this happened because of systemic racism and the thought that people of color “shouldn’t be in a science lab.” I called my department head to ask what the “official policy” of the department was. He said, that probably we are not allowed to have untrained people in labs, but that he (not speaking as chair, but as a colleague) always allowed and encouraged students to bring their friends into the lab. I said that I felt the same way, but that my students were being unfairly singled out because they were black. I told him that I planned to allow these students to continue to be in the lab, and that if someone from the department reported them or me, that now he had a heads up about what was happening. He agreed but said he would stop by to make sure they were not being too disruptive to others. (This irked me, too, but I didn’t want to push my luck – I had already called his personal line in the evening to discuss this.) I promised him they were not loud or disruptive. In fact, the loudest person in the lab is often ME! (Anyone who knows me will not doubt this.) To the contrary, they are amazing and smart kids. They kinds of students anyone would want dating their own children – not to mention in the lab. Further, I know all of them personally and have had several mentoring conversations with each of them. I consider them my own students, and I don’t appreciate being told that they cannot be in the lab.

During this conversation with my department head, I remembered a story of when I was a graduate student. I was in a university that had an institute that held workshops with visitors from around the world. This was one of the benefits of being a graduate student at this school. There was a policy that graduate students could attend lectures but not meals unless they paid for the meeting. The graduate students argued that we wanted to be apart of meals because that was when a lot of networking and important scientific conversations happened. We promised to bring our own food, and the scientific leadership agreed. The information didn’t make it to the administrative assistants (all women) right away, so the first time we went in, they tried to stop the local graduate students. Well, to be clear – they only tried to stop ME. That was because I was the most conspicuous. All the local graduate student men mixed in and looked like all the visiting scholars and visiting students. Only I was conspicuously “wrong” and looked like I “didn’t belong there,” so I was told to leave while all my male colleagues went in… Of course I complained. I made it clear that I was singled out because I was a woman – a blonde woman – and “didn’t look right.” The science leadership allowed me to pass and made the new policy clear to the staff. I am sad to feel that almost 15 years later the same thing is still happening to students at my current institution. But, I won’t stop fighting. I might not always get it right at first, but I try. I hope my students don’t hold it against me that it took me a day to figure it out.

A lot of times my posts are meant to have some sort of follow-up with ideas for how to solve problems, but this post and the next few posts will be to open people’s eyes about the things that happen to under-represented groups in STEM and why they might not exactly want to stay to work in these environments.

Award Season!

Yellow Ribbon Award isolated on white backgroundDear All,

Just a reminder that it is awards season – time to be nominating your woman and under-representented minority friends, colleagues, peers for awards, fellowship, etc. Please see this recent OpEd in the APS News: Back Page to see some numbers on the problem with the supplement on another blog in case you think that a bunch of women can’t possibly have done the statistics correctly. Please read before you ask. Seriously.

Please do:

  • nominate deserving women and minorities. Do you realize the crap we go through just to get here. We are super qualified. Nominate us.
  • ask people to nominate you and help them put together your nomination.

Please don’t:

  • pre-judge yourself and decide not to do it based on your self-doubt. Let them tell you know, and it is an honor to be nominated at all (link). There is no perfect time when you are “ready” and if the committee things you are not ready, then fine – let them decide for themselves. Yes, they are likely to have biases, but a lot of times they are looking for qualified women to award things to, and there are zero women in the pool. Further, having multiple women in a pool is important for getting any other woman to win (see this cool article). So, consider that your nomination might help yourself, and it might help someone else!!
  • only nominate women and minorities for women and minority awards! This is infuriating. I have been told from my department that I shouldn’t try for a general award, but should wait and only apply for women-only awards. I do think these awards are important (link), but I certainly don’t think it helps to only allow women or minorities to those awards! Duh.
  • pre-judge people who ask to be nominated. If you are an ally who is looking to help women, please don’t discourage. I know it is tempting to think, “why should they get an award, and not me?” or even, “well, they aren’t *that* good,” but don’t. Even if you genuinely think someone asking or someone you are considering is “not ready,” remember it is an honor to be nominated. It will make your friend, colleague, department, field of study, etc look good – just to be nominated (link). One of the biggest issues is that women are not nominated, so obviously cannot win awards, fellowships, etc. Please turn down your criticism knob. Please turn up your optimism knob. And help!

OK, so I hope you get out there, put in some hard work, and help your fellow scientist or engineer to get nominated for any and all awards.

Sequins_macroToday I have a cool post from another WomanOfScience. It is once again on clothing choice, which is difficult to decide for many women, and is becoming more confusing for young men, as well. I have had a number of prior posts about clothes (here, here, herehere, here, here – OMG, that is so many!), but I really love this one!  Thank you for your post!

Our department’s Women’s group has been having a discussion today about femininity in STEM professions. Many women feel they need to masculinize themselves in order to be taken seriously. This seems like a great forum to continue this discussion and hear the perspectives of other brilliant and successful women scientists.
My view is that this presents a three-fold problem in attempts to achieve equality in STEM professions. On one hand, it sends a message to young women that they have to check their femininity at the door — they shouldn’t wear dresses or makeup. This discourages young girls from wanting to be part of this field because a significant part of their identity is manifestly not valued at best and unwanted, or deemed inappropriate, at the worst.
Worse than sending the message to the next generation that they are unwanted is that current students, postdocs and faculty may feel that they have to deny part of themselves for the sake of their careers. That can wreak havoc on the mental state of women and deeply impacts their career satisfaction. Feeling that they are not accepted and have not community, no support system, is one of the leading reasons women leave STEM careers.
At the highest levels, making people feel like outsiders for not being white or male or western reinforces a dangerous stereotype that there is only one “correct” point of view in science. That leaves no room for creativity or thinking outside the box. How many of your biggest breakthroughs have come from tiny iterations on a single project? None of mine have. They all require creativity, ingenuity, hard work and moreover taking many other perspectives into account. When we dictate the singular validity of an established point of view, we negate the insights and perspectives to be had from listening to women and minorities. A broad diversity of backgrounds leads to better critical thinking. Yet, the insular culture of the status quo suppresses the very essence of what makes for good science.
Having role models who feel the need to cloister their femininity, nullify their gender, or conform to other people’s ideals does not bode well for the future of women in STEM.
As some of you know, I am unabashedly, unashamedly feminine. I wear dresses, stilettos, makeup and perfume. I do it because it is who I am and that makes me feel good about myself. I get a secret kick out of being a science version of that famous quote about Ginger Rogers “sure he [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels”.
I know that sometimes people don’t take me seriously. That is sad, but ultimately their loss because they won’t be able to appreciate good work that has been done by someone with a different background. The flip side is that me being me is something that resonates with my female students, particularly in my intro physics for engineers course. They get to see someone who isn’t much older than them and looks like them confidently doing physics and calculus in front of them, and they realize that despite what they’ve been told in high school, perhaps they too can succeed and do well. Female students have come to me in my office hours saying that they had expected they couldn’t do better than a middle B, but we’re thrilled that they had earned an A. The best part is I get to see the confidence they have in themselves growing over the semester.
I am by no means advocating that everyone be ultra feminine. What I am advocating is to inject a bit of your personality into your work uniform — wear a bright color, that funky pair of shoes you only wear on special occasions, some cool science earrings, or any article of clothing or jewelry that you love. The confidence that comes from being happier and more yourself sets a great example for your students and colleagues.
Thanks for that insightful post! I wholeheartedly agree. One idea is that we can stick to discussions of “professional” attire. I think we can all agree that it would be inappropriate to wear a bikini to give a talk at a conference! So, there must be a line somewhere, and that line is different depending on what you are doing that day, who you are talking to, and the venue.
What do you think? Have a good idea for a post or want to make a comment, do it here! Push the +Follow button to get an email overtime I post.

1160px-Eleanor_Roosevelt_receiving_the_Mary_McLeod_Bethune_Human_Rights_Award_from_Dorothy_Height,_president_of_the_National..._-_NARA_-_196283Hey Ya’ll, It’s Awards Season! As I do every year at this time (post, post, post, post), I am going to remind you to nominate women and minorities for awards at your favorite society. This year, I am writing to remind you that

It’s an Honor to be Nominated!

What am I sending you this public service announcement? Because in my discussions with women and awards committees, a number of women who are thinking of nominating other women or being nominated have asked me, “Are others applying? Maybe I shouldn’t…” To that I say, “Pshaw!”

I know what they are thinking. They think, “Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I shouldn’t compete against other women. What if my nomination keeps another awesome woman from winning?” But taking yourself out of the running does not help yourself or the other women. Here is my justification:

  1. Just being nominated is an honor. Whether you ask to be nominated and someone agrees or they decide to nominate you out of the blue, if they are taking the time and energy to get a set of letters together for you, it is an honor.
  2. There is no downside to being nominated. When you are nominated, you get to put together a packet where nice people agree to write nice letters about you. That packet is read by a fancy committee of fancy people. Even if they think you don’t have the strongest packet, just being nominated means they will learn your name, learn what you do, and recognize you later. Sounds like a win-win situation.
  3. Who cares what the odds are? Let’s think about probability. If you don’t apply, your odds of winning are a big fat ZERO. Even if 100 people apply (which isn’t likely for most awards), you still have at least a 1 in 100 chance of winning, which is better than zero. If you have a nice packet written by nice people, maybe the odds are even better. Finally, the odds of your packet being read is 100% (see #2 above).
  4. Women can support other women in a pool. I am a firm believer that when multiple women and minorities are present in a pool of applicants, that can subconsciously make women more appealing. In fact, there was a non-scientific initial study in Harvard Business Review that says just this for hiring. So, don’t worry that you might be competing with other women for an award! In fact, your application might be the tipping point that normalizes women being in the pool. Your contribution may be to enable another women to win… Or, their contribution might be to help you to win.

So, what do you think? Are you convinced? You’ve got 5 days until May 1 (if that is the due date for your awards). Get on it! Nominate someone for an award! Comment or post. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

In Bathroom News!

2016-10-18-15-55-27In bathroom news this week, the crazy potties (see picture) have been replaced by regular potties in my building! See my previous post about these crazy potties.

Actually it happened a few weeks ago, and the women in my lab are overjoyed. I was so excited about the change, I made an announcement in my department faculty meeting. I was actually curious as to how the change came about. My department business manager and space manager knew nothing about the change. My chair had no idea. Was it my dean, who reads this blog? If so, thank you!!

At faculty meeting, many of the men were surprised that there were urinals in the women’s rooms. At which point, I tried to explain that they were urinals for women. We even found an advertisement from the sixties trying to say that they were hygienic and women loved them! so they should be installed in all bathrooms for women. This is a great example of why you need women’s voices at all stages and levels: engineers, architects, administrators who make decisions. No woman would even have bought these for other women!

My colleagues then disclosed that some of the men’s restrooms also have them, and they thought they were weird… It turns out that in the other building (my department is split into two buildings – soon to be three), the men’s rooms and women’s rooms are on every other floor. Sometimes they are flipped due disability accommodations or other issues, and so it seems that many of the men’s rooms also have women’s urinals in them.

As funny, fascinating, and weird as this conversation was, my bringing this up allowed another faculty to broach the subject of gender-neutral bathrooms in our buildings. With the number of openly transgender students who feel comfortable enough to make the transition in college and grad school, having gender-neutral bathrooms is very important for inclusion and diversity that students have a place to go to the bathroom where they feel safe and comfortable. We were asked about where they were in my building. Thank goodness someone (not me, but one of my white-male allies) knew where they were. I was just happy we had them! Thanks to this faculty member, we were all made aware of the location.

Even better, the location is catalogued on the website of one of our diversity websites on campus, so students can look them up in each building and find them. I used one this week, because I teach on the same hall, and they are the only bathrooms in that part of the building. They are nice – one stall, single sink, outer door that locks.

Next steps: putting up signs to let people know where they are. But, where to put them? On the gender separated bathrooms? Around the building? On my office door? Any comments or suggestions will be greatly appreciated! Post here.

And that is all for the Bathroom News this week! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Body Language: Act Big

BodyLanguageAt the recent big physics conference this year, there was a really great pre-conference tutorial on how to give good talks. I have had a couple posts about giving good talks (here, here). One thing that was stressed at the tutorial was body language. One of the presenters (really, I should say workshop-runners) was an actor who thinks a lot about body language. Her advice included things such as keeping your feet firmly planted about shoulder width apart, opening up your shoulders (not hunched), and holding your head up. Also, you should use your hands effectively to help elaborate points, but do not put them behind your back or crossed over your chest.

This is all excellent advice! I definitely do all this stuff when I give a talk or in class. But, this is good advice for all the time – not just when giving a talk. In fact, I walk with such confidence and purpose, that I have been stopped on campus more than once by someone who commented “You look like you are going to kick someone’s ass.” And that is exactly how I want to look. In fact, I am there to kick ass, everyday. Walking and holding myself confidently actually helps give me the confidence to do my job. I started doing this as part of my mantra of “fake it until you make it.” I practiced, and I don’t have to fake it anymore. I especially like walking briskly down the hall with my tall boots under a flowy skirt and making a lot of click-clack noise. People know I am there. I walk with purpose. I feel and look large and in charge.

If you are a woman or under-represented minority, thinking about and using your body language and appearance effectively are essential to your success. I have written about this previously here in the context of the classroom. Your body language can communicate to the class how competent (confident) you are, how serious to take you, and that you care about the students and their learning. When paired with your words, body language can be powerful to help you make your points and connect with them.

When your body language is at odds with your words, people feel uncomfortable. Because people’s perception of body language is subconscious, they may not understand where their discomfort comes from. That discomfort and uncertainty mix to make them even more uncomfortable and distrustful. This is a bad combination, especially because women have a harder time engendering trust, in general due to sexism (see article).

Outside of classes, I also use the same tactics. At the conference, I stood with my feet apart. I noticed other women of approximately my stage and success level were also standing feet apart, heads up, shoulders back, and arms either animated or crossed. I find that, as a woman, crossing your arms doesn’t look closed off if you stand with your head up and expression open. Instead, crossed arms gives you an air of competence and healthy skepticism – a good stance for a scientist. It was cool to notice that we were all standing in basically the same stance. Most importantly, you do not want to shrink back. You want to take up space. If you are thin or short, this is even more important.

In faculty meetings or other committee meetings, I often purposely take up a bit more space than is strictly necessary. I cross my legs with my ankle on my knee. I put my arm on the neighboring chair. I make myself larger because I am often physically smaller than my colleagues (although I am by no means a “small girl”). Whatever I do, I do not shrink in or try to take up less space than I need. Taking up more space sends a sub-conscious notice that I deserve the space, and I deserve to be heard.

Why is body language effective? Most body language and facial expressions are important forms of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication allows you to communicate silently and subconsciously about yourself. Because it is subconscious, you can use it to communicate your assertiveness without actually acting overtly aggressive.  Talking over men, interrupting, or speaking loudly can get you labeled as pushy, bossy, and aggressive. Using body language to communicate your place at the table is physically assertive, but it is not perceived consciously.

So, what do you think? Comment or send your own article to post. As always, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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