Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

2475011402_bf70c92575_oOver the past year, I have had to have a similar conversation with two different MenOfScience. These MenOfScience are relatively young. Both of these men are in tenure-track jobs at decent places. Both of these men are in male dominated fields of science. Further, both of these men are not overtly sexist, but both men had the same very strange notion which I tried to disabuse them of.

See, it turned out that when these guys were up for tenure track jobs, in the same year there was a super-star candidate. This super-star candidate got many, many interviews and several offers. In fact, this super-star person got almost all the offers in the field. And guess, what? This superstar person just happened to be a woman.

So what conclusion did these guys draw? Just guess…

Did they conclude that this woman had worked her ass off? Did they conclude that this woman was clearly the smartest, best, cleverest scientist of the field on the market that year? Did they conclude that because the bar was so much higher for the women of their field that this woman was truly the most excellent? Did they conclude that not only was this woman so amazing as to surpass all other candidates that year (men and women), but probably also ended up as the only woman on the market in that field in the entire year?

No, of course, they concluded that, this woman (each was a different woman in each of their different fields in different years) only got all those offers because she was a woman. And, of course, they felt slighted. They felt that this woman did not deserve the accolades and offers that she received. If not her, than who? Should they have been given all those offers? Would they have been so resentful if there was a man receiving many interviews and offers? Surely that must happen often in these male-dominated fields. Yet, somehow I doubt that anyone would say, “He only got those offers because he was a man.”

During these conversations, I strove to set their attitudes correct. I made it clear that the outstanding woman must have been truly outstanding because the bar is much higher for women than men. I do not think they bought that. I let them know that there is still a lot of bias against women, notice how few their are in their own departments and in their own fields, so that if this woman was getting so many offers, she must have been truly amazing. I do not think they bought that. They were still very focused on the fact that a woman had somehow beaten them. Like it was a personal offense.

And here is the kicker – these dudes have jobs! Because at the end of the day – no matter how many offers that one outstanding woman got, she is still only one person who will only be able to take one offer. So, it doesn’t really matter how many offers she got, because it did not inhibit them from getting jobs. So, why are they so resentful? It must be that they really feel that they are as good as this woman. Maybe they are, maybe they are not, either way, they still got jobs! They are still around, doing science, getting tenure.

So, what is the best way to convince them? I do not think my method of trying to offer facts and statistics about women in science worked. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, they will never be convinced because the true answer was that this woman was probably better than them. And no one likes to hear that someone else is better than they are. They do not want to hear the truth: “they’re just not that into you.” Nobody wants to hear that.

It is especially important to get these young men who will we need as our advocates and cooperative partners in change to understand women’s issues and help to support us. Do you have any idea how to help these guys to see that just because a woman was successful does not detract from them and ultimately did not do them any harm? We need them on our side, and if they continue to hold a grudge about one amazing woman that got lots of offers 4 years ago, we could lose them to the dark side of sexism.

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Comments on: "They’re Just Not That Into You" (3)

  1. I agree with all of your points, but your question to us stumps me! What line of discourse could be used to convince these two guys that they have a biased (sexist) take on their experiences? The key thing is that they’ve latched on to the gender of the superstar in interpreting what happened as opposed to considering the large number of other, more logical hypotheses. The scientist in them should recoil at such an approach!

    The second part of your question touches on the outsized and misplaced resentment that some people feel, in general, in a competitive situation. Did these two guys ever consider that they, themselves, no doubt had any number of “unfair advantages” over others in the applicant pool? Maybe they have Princeton degrees in their pocket, or better access to an insider network, or cuter faces, or deeper, more commanding voices, or…God only knows what doors might have opened for them throughout their careers for relatively superficial reasons. Do they really want to go there?

    • Thanks for the comment! One thing I tried to remind them of is that, even if it was some form of positive discrimination toward women (which probably only helped getting the interview) that there is so much sexism against women in all other arenas that it is still a net negative for women.

      In one case, I personally knew the woman, and she is not a token woman by any means. She is truly an amazing scientist and super-star – truly exceptionally bright with many opportunities that she did not waste and took full advantage of.

      I tried to get on his side about it. Frankly, she is better than me, too. I just wasn’t on the market in the same year, but if I had been, she would have kicked my butt, too. But, why take it personally? It isn’t her fault or yours that she is so awesome!

  2. aureliaomega said:

    I do not know how one can reach guys like this, but do I think it’s important to have these conversations anyway, particularly if it’s in the presence of other, possibly more reasonable dudes. It is especially annoying that people whose job is doing science become suddenly unwilling to prioritise data over their personal anecdote about perceived pro-women discrimination. I don’t think I ever convinced the one I worked with recently of anything, but I at least hope that hearing someone push back against this view kept other people from just assuming that everyone was in agreement with him. He would say insidious things like “She got the position because of her looks,” in front of women graduate students. Not cool! It was like being in some kind of hostile workplace training video.

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