Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for September, 2016

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.

Thanks so much for this awesome post! What do you think? Comment or write your own post! To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Bias, Bringing it Up (Nicely?)

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

civil_rights_march_on_washington_d-c-_dr-_martin_luther_king_jr-_and_mathew_ahmann_in_a_crowd-_-_nara_-_542015_-_restorationI absolutely agree with this. I have discussed in previous posts how important it is to speak up and speak out (here, here, here) that I think it is important to point out “bad” behavior. There is sometimes evil behavior, such as the string of sexual harassment issues plaguing astronomy lately, but most sexist or racist behavior is subtle and bad, but not outright evil. I advocate for the approach to pointing out the behavior be commensurate with the level of badness of the behavior. For instance, ass grabbing should be immediately shouted about and pointed out strongly. Unconscious bias by a generally nice person who doesn’t really realize doesn’t need to be screamed about – but discussed in a civilized manner. Sometimes that doesn’t work.

In this post, I am going to tell two stories of times I had to point this out. Judge for yourself how it went. Always open to comments and questions.

Story 1: Game Over. Earlier this year, I served again on a panel. I had discussed this panel in a previous post on the blog. If you read this prior story, you might get an idea that I was already a strike down with this panel. This year, the panel was virtual. I have also posted about how I dislike virtual panels (networking panels) – strike two. This panel was made worse this year because one of the men didn’t show up. So it was just me, one other guy, the program director, and the admin for the program on a conference call.

It started off badly on the first proposal. I was set to discuss. My comments were quite long and honestly harsh. I gave a 1/5 because the proposer used a ton of jargon that I didn’t understand, didn’t explain the significance of the work, and instead repeatedly stated, “This work is of great importance to the field,” without actually explaining *why* it was important. My critique was long and detailed to give feedback to the proposer so that they could do better next year. I ended my overview summary by saying, “I feel like this person is trying to pull a fast one on us to trick us into thinking this is great science when nothing was explained.”

The other guy on the panel said, “Huh, well I guess it worked because I gave him a 5/5” Indeed, he did, folks. And you want to know another thing? His only one sentence review said, “This proposal exudes confidence.” What do you think of that? “Exudes confidence.” Honestly, I thought we were reviewing scientific merit, but apparently, we are supposed to be reviewing confidence. Oh no, wait. We aren’t…. And that was the first proposal.

The rest of the panel I was repeatedly ignored by my co-panelist. I would ask him to explain his review, and he would say, “Just read the comments,” instead of answering me. He would be working on something else and then not hear what I said and talk over me and basically repeat exactly what I would say. We went through almost all the proposals like this. The other reviewer? He never logged on.

And then it happened. We had a couple reviews left, and we were discussing a proposal by a woman that I really liked. I was trying to enthusiastically defend this woman and be persuasive about why I liked it. The program officer told me that, despite my enthusiasm and his also, that the woman had mis-proposed and missed the point of the call for proposals. The woman’s cool proposal was outside the scope of the program. I was bummed, but understood.

Co-panelist was supposed to be taking notes and writing a summary, but didn’t seem to be paying attention to our conversation. Of course I don’t know for sure, but I am pretty sure because at about that point, co-panelist said very loudly, “Well this is just very naive! No one does this type of thing anymore! It is just terrible.”

And that is when I did it. I said, “I understand what you are saying, but I would prefer if you didn’t use that word to describe the work. Let’s make sure we aren’t calling it naive in the summary that she gets. She just misproposed and it is outside the scope for this call, but when you say she is naive, it is… I don’t know… it sounds like you are the master and she is the novice. She is a full professor who just mis-proposed.”

He responded, “But it is naive! No one does this type of research anymore. It isn’t novel. It isn’t good.”

I said, “I understand. I just think that naive is one of those words that people use for women and it is code, and I don’t want to use it. Can you use a different word?” And this is bad, folks, because this is where I started tearing up and crying a little. In my defense, I was tired, we just moved across the country for sabbatical, I had to get my kids out the door with neighbors to be on the call on time (and my co-panelist was late, of course), and the stress of having to fend off this jerks’ comments all morning was taking its toll. Oh, and the heat in my apartment was out, and I had not had time to call the landlord.

At this, and his realization that I was crying, co-panelist stated, “You think I’m sexist!”

I say, “No, I didn’t say that. We are all sexist. I am just saying that I don’t want to use that word.”

More denial, “You think I’m sexist! You are just saying this to shut me up. To oppress my opinion. My opinion is reasonable and scientific, and you want to shut me up because you disagree and want to squelch my opinion.”

And this was where I really lost it because I was now being attacked. And honestly, in thinking back, I never called him sexist in that conversation. I never tried to shut down his opinion. I truly just didn’t want to use that word, naive, because it is condescending and it is code for incompetent.

And guess what? It deteriorated so bad that we couldn’t continue the panel. At the end, the program officer called me, and I apologized to the program officer for losing it. I still was upset and crying. He suggested that I call the co-panelist and apologize to him. I never have because honestly, besides getting upset, I do not think I did anything wrong.

You want to know something else? I was removed from the panel. Co-panelist? He is staying. He is an older white, male, well-established, leader in the field. This is how he acts, and I get kicked off. Is that fair?

Story 2: That’a Boy. I have been holding onto the story above for a while because it still hurts to think about, and I wanted time to pass before I communicated it. But this week, I was empowered to tell it because I have another story of doing the same thing that was amazing. And here it is.

 

I am on an international committee to help organize policies for an open access repository of scientific papers. It is the biggest and oldest in the world, so you might have heard of it, and I won’t drop the name here. Anyway, we were discussing a particular woman for a position on a committee. One committee member brought up the fact that she has kids, but they were older, so she might be more available to serve. The committee chair brought up a more relevant point that the woman is doing outsized service (aren’t we all?), and may not have time for this extra service load.

After that discussion, I raised my hand, and said (probably not this well-stated), “In the future, when we are talking about people, can we not bring up their personal lives into the discussion? If she can or cannot serve should be her decision which she can make based on what she knows about her own private life, but we shouldn’t bring it up or speculate.”

The committee chair said, “Yes, I agree. It has no baring. We will ask her, and she will decide. We only need to decide to ask.”

And the first guy said, “Yeah, I only brought it up because another guy is leaving because of having a new baby.”

I said, “Yeah, but he brought that up. We didn’t speculate. He decided and told us. That’s the difference.” and my face must have been beat red by this point, dying of embarrassment, but pushing on because I felt it was important and right.

And the guy responded with, “I’m sorry. You’re probably right.”

And I almost about died of surprise and shock and gratitude for him and the chair of the committee.  I looked at the other women in the room (yes, I wasn’t alone for once), and they smiled at me. And it felt amazing! Such a minor win, but so very important for me.

So, these two stories are reports, examples, of how you can respond to sexism, and how you cannot always control or even expect the response you will get. I think it is getting better. I think we can change. I have hope that my perseverance on this is not for nothing. I do not think I am in the same category at Martin Luther King, but his sentiment was not about special people. His words were about regular people. Regular people need to point things out, or they won’t get better. Protest is not meant to make people comfortable. I suppose what I do is a form of protest. It makes the transgressors more uncomfortable than the innocent. I suppose that is what my stories display more than anything else.

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