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.

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