Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science


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.



Comments on: "Survival" (1)

  1. Male librarian here, enjoying your posts. Did you see this story about what happened to Veronika Hubeny recently? Depressing.

    Unhidden agenda: I have a book coming out this month called When Women Didn’t Count, about how women have appeared and disappeared in federal statistics. If you are interested I will send you a free pdf.

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