Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Racism’

Getting Past Sexist Evaluations

WomanChemBlackBoardToday, I would like to comment on student evaluations. I have talked about them before here. There has been a lot of information about how sexist student evaluations are. Truly. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this study where the professor’s genders were switched in an online course where the students and professors never even meet. Male names get higher scores than female names – always. Other analysis of the words used to describe men and women on show there are gendered words for women vs. men. How many times do we have to show it before you just believe us? It is true – ask any woman. Another study shows that gender bias can actually cause women scores to be lower even if they are more effective instructors. These studies and tons of anecdata come to one fact: the teaching evaluations of a woman WILL be lower than if she were a man.

The point of this blog is to help people, not to complain. So, I aim to help both the women and under-represented minorities, who will need to figure out how to combat clearly sexist/racist reviews and the senior colleagues (probably mostly white men, let’s face it) who will be evaluating them and seeing clearly sexist/racist reviews, or at least gendered reviews. For fun, I will start by quoting some anonymous and real statements made in the evaluations of women (also this video is hilariously funny on the same topic), as an example to show you the types of things that are clearly sexist that you should look out for:

“She wears very bright lipstick that was distracting.” (This professor reports that she doesn’t typically wear ANY lipstick.)

“Prof. WOS shows too much of her body.”

“Her clothing is distracting to the male students.” (This professor reports that she wore pants, boots, and t-shirts through the entire course.)

“She would be better off teaching kindergarten.”

“Really sweet but her laugh is annoying and she touches her hair too much.”

“Seems like a b*tch but really nice and friendly if you go see her in her office.”

“Nothing more than a glorified Vanna White, without the looks. Her lack of self-respect was evident in the way she dressed, with her frumpy attire.”

“She has a very loud voice for a woman.”

“Pregnant.” (Yes, that was literally the critique.)

FOR THE WOMEN: So, what can you do to protect yourself if you are a woman/minority at the receiving end of these disgusting, sexist/racist comments?

Talk about it with your colleagues. Honestly, people are way too quiet about their evaluations. When they are bad, we are scared to share them because we are embarrassed. When they are good, we are scared to share them because it is bragging, and you might make someone else feel badly about their scores. I am going to encourage you to get over your self-consciousness and show your evaluations to your colleagues and ask for help. Yes, this means showing them the sexist ones where they call you a fat pig, mock your clothes, or say you don’t know anything about your subject. In order to make progress and defend ourselves, we sometimes lose privacy. You must decide what you value more. I personally value the academic freedom of tenure more than privacy, but that is me.

Don’t Assume Others Understand or Know This Happens. Honestly, most of my male colleagues HAVE NEVER READ EVALUATIONS LIKE THESE. They have no idea the kind of cruel and frankly disgusting things students will write to women/minorities. This is because we live in a society that is inherently respectful to older, white, males (OWM). Yes, OWMs get criticism, I am not disputing that (“I would rather chew a mouthful of glass shards than take another class with Prof. OWM.”), but the criticism given to OWMs is not so debasing as the comments women get (“Prof. WoS dresses like a whore.”) Can you see the difference? You will likely, in addition to discussing your evaluations, bring some data and literature (references above, linked) to support your case.

Choose Your Allies. No, I am not advocating showing them to everyone. Pick the people you are sharing them with carefully. They should be people who will evaluate you who you trust. They should also preferably be people who are trusted within the department (see this post). Talking about this with another marginalized woman in your department IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU. I am sorry, but I am being frank. You need to get the powerful, heavy hitting men on your side. (Having a powerful woman would help, but I don’t see as many of those in departments in the sciences.)

Make Sure They are Educated. When being evaluated (annually or at promotion), make sure someone on the committee not only knows about these comments, but can also point out that they are sexist and should be discounted. No one should bring up sexist comments in a case – they should be disregarded – but if they do, your ally can remind people about unconscious bias. Educate your allies about implicit bias with the references above and the implicit bias test. Arm your allies with the facts and data.

An example. A couple years ago, I co-taught with a white male ally in a class. We literally were in class AT THE SAME TIME. On the first day, we both spoke and went through the syllabus. He had spent an extra long time introducing me and giving my credentials. I, in turn, introduced him and gave his credentials. It was a pretty even split. At the end of class, he noticed that none of the students would come to ask me questions, but there was a line to talk to him. He pointed to me and said, “She is the instructor, too.” Afterwards, he said he was SHOCKED that the students did this. I wasn’t. It really opened his eyes to the bias of the students. At the end of the semester, my scores were significantly lower than his – despite the fact that we literally co-taught the course. I was there at the SAME TIME as him. In the SAME ROOM with him, talking to students, discussing the answers, etc… I talked to him about it, and it was clearly not fair. Luckily, he was on the annual faculty review committee (for yearly merit) that year. When my case came up, he described the sexism he saw and the fact that we co-taught the course – literally simultaneously. It was great to have someone to defend me in the meeting and set the record straight.

FOR THE REVIEWERS: If you are a more senior, more powerful, or more male faculty member, and want to help women, here is what I recommend:

Ask to Talk About the Evaluations. If you consider yourself a mentor or even a human being, it is not enough to just try to justify things after they come to a head, I recommend that you actually talk, discuss, and strategize with younger faculty about how they can combat the negative effects of sexist/racist evaluations. You will have to read the evaluations. If you think it is difficult to read these comments, just think about how the person being evaluated feels. Suck it up, and read them, so you know. Then, talk to the person. Try to cut through the bullshit to make the class better (take the criticism) and make some lemonade from those lemons. There are probably correctable actions in the comments. Fairness (or perceived fairness) in grading, being prepared, being on time, and returning assignments are all common complaints that are correctable. Other critiques, such as “Do more examples,” or “The exam wasn’t like the home work,” can be discussed. Basically every lazy student makes these same complaints. You can discuss how many examples are done and the exams, but probably the amount is just fine.

Evaluate the Person’s Teaching Yourself. You could sit in on a few classes and evaluate the teaching yourself. Many schools/departments already do this because they realize that evaluations are problematic. Many schools still don’t. There are some issues with this. If the person or students know there is an outside observer, it could skew the results – like a wave function collapse. What if the professor is rude, snappish, or otherwise terrible? You might not see it when you evaluate in person. Another issue is time. I understand it takes time to mentor someone and do these things. If it means someone’s career (tenure decision), isn’t it important that you do what you can – especially if the person is under-represented in your ranks?

Be an Ally. When evaluating the person for merit, promotion, or tenure, be an ally. Don’t let other colleagues gang up or misuse information that you know is biased. Remind your colleagues about unconscious bias. You can even go so far as to send out an implicit bias test, and challenge people to take it. Hopefully, you will have other allies. If not, you might have to discuss some things in private and let some other people know the types of terrible things students have written about the person.

These are my suggestions, but I am sure the readers have others. Post and comment here to continue the mentoring. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.


Importance of Minority-Only Awards


THE OSCARS(r) – THEATRE – The 88th Oscars, held on Sunday, February 28, at the Dolby Theatre(r) at Hollywood & Highland Center(r) in Hollywood, are televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST. (ABC/Image Group LA) CHRIS ROCK

Did you see Chris Rock’s monologue at the Oscars? At the end, he mentioned that there should be black-only award categories. He said there are already arbitrary men/women categories that didn’t need to be there, so why not arbitrary white/black categories? In science, we do have awards that are specifically for women or minorities. I have heard both men and women say that they are dumb to have for various reasons, but I would like to cast some light onto why they are crucially important with a some examples.

Example 1: When I applied and was admitted to graduate school, two different programs offered me little fellowships. One was not specifically for women and was a few bucks to help with cost of living or moving. The other was specifically for women and minority students. The point of offering me these minor pittances was to recruit me to the school that offered the fellowship over other schools. I am not sure if they realized it, but it had a secondary effect. I felt more welcomed at the school.Whether it was real or all in my head, I felt a little special that they had actively recruited me to the school. It helped mollify the imposter syndrome that plagues us all and the stereotype threat that only plagues minorities.

A few years later, I was in a lab and being productive. I was riding to an event with a new male graduate student who was trying out the lab and my female advisor. The male graduate student was complaining that he didn’t get a fellowship or enticement to go to graduate school, and he should have. It “wasn’t fair” that women and minorities get these things when he, a white male, did not. I probed a little further and realized that this guy wasn’t a stellar student. He had As and Bs, but I had a 4.0 GPA. I also asked him if he expected to get into graduate school, and he of course did. I explained that, this was a big difference between the two of us. Despite my 4.0 GPA and my extensive self-driven research experiences as an undergraduate, I did NOT expect to get into graduate school anywhere. When the first school accepted me, it was all I could do to not accept back right away. I had to actively be patient to wait for the others. I got into 6/8 school, but not the two most prestigious/highest ranked schools. My subject GRE was low – average for a woman from a liberal arts school – and many schools look at that exclusively (for a nice article on why that is a terrible idea if you want women and minorities in your programs, click here). I explained to the other graduate student that the purpose of the very tiny award was not to actually reward me, but was to say, “we want you, you’re ok,” when all other cultural signals were pointing to this being the wrong way to take my career. The purpose was to help my self-esteem and make it clear that I belonged in science.

Example 2: Recently, one of my awesome postdocs, who happens to be a black woman in science (sorry to my postdoc, I know you are probably reading this) was informed that she is being selected for a postdoctoral fellowship. This fellowship is specifically for minorities and had other stipulations. First, my postdoc would not read the email. I grabbed her phone from her hand and read it. I handed it back with a casual, “You got it. Why wouldn’t you read it earlier?” I told her to read the email that validated her excellence. And she began to tear up. And I totally got it. I knew why she wouldn’t read it. She was worried about not getting it, and what the blow would do to her self-esteem, which is already (unreasonably, considering how amazing she is) low. She started crying because she did not consider herself good enough or worthy enough for this prize. This award is only for minorities in life science. There aren’t that many. Further restrictions mean that there are very few applicants. That sounds like I am trying to diminish her award, but I am not. What I am trying to say is that, in my mind, there was no way should wouldn’t get this award. But, in her mind, there was no way she would. This award is doing for my postdoc what the tiny graduate award did for me. It is pointing toward the signs that “You belong here.”

And that is why we still, to this day, need minority only and women only awards. Because, despite all the grit and all the challenges, it is still not obvious to the excellent that they belong here. They constantly feel like they are doing the wrong thing because of their gender, their skin color, their weight, their country of origin, their health, etc…

Example 3: Finally, while I was at a meeting recently, my roommate and I were talking about the Society’s fellowships. My roomie successfully nominated some women in her field, and she was aiming to nominate more this year. A couple women protested saying, “I’m not old enough, I haven’t done enough, etc, etc…” These all basically translated into “I’m not good enough,” which is complete BS. If these women were not good enough, no one would think to nominate them. My roomie correctly pointed out that these women needed to win in order to “get out of the way.” What that means is that no other women who is younger will ever be able to win the award or fellowship unless these more senior, more established women get it. When put that way, many of the protesting women caved and agreed to be nominated. Interestingly, these women felt so self-negative that, despite their excellence and despite the call from others to be nominated for that excellence, they didn’t think they were good enough. It was only when the argument was framed as helping others (getting out of the way, so others can have a chance) that they agreed to be honored. Again, women/under-represented groups do not feel they are good enough or will ever be good enough. Society tells us we are not good enough because this is not what women do. I have advocated again and again in this blog to self-nominate and to try to win awards (here, here, here). It is hard to put yourself forward when society’s bar and your own bar are so damn high.

Example 4: I wrote most of this a week ago, but another thing happened just yesterday that also reminded me of this issue in the opposite way. As you know, I am on sabbatical. I have a desk in an office suite for three on a hallway of similar offices. These offices are filled with graduate students, postdocs, and some undergrads. It is close quarters, and I can often overhear the students’ conversations (including one where they were discussing golf and the penalty reward for scoring a hole-in-one, which was to have breakfast at a strip club {I can’t believe that is something anyone would want}). Anyway, yesterday a postdoc in some lab was discussing with a relatively new grad student about his job search. He was so, so confident that he was going to have an offer. He had about 6 interviews, and had heard back early from AnIvyLeague that he was not the top choice. He was confident that he would be hearing from the others soon. They all said the decision would come in 4-6 weeks, and this was week 6. Any second, he would get that call from PrivateSchool or BigMidWestU saying that he was the one. I was pretty blown away by his confidence. Despite having as many interviews and 3 solid offers from pretty good schools, I was never confident that I would get an offer from any of them. I was happy to have been given an interview. I think I performed pretty damned well at most of the interviews, but I never thought they would call me up for sure.

Further, if I am being honest, I didn’t even apply to the top schools. I had the excuse that I had a two-body issue, and I was pretty confident that the spousal accommodation policies were non-existent at these schools. But, mostly, I didn’t apply because I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell at getting an interview or offer. I may have been wrong about that. In fact, the one IvyLeagueU where I did apply, I got the interview and the offer. I’m not sure if other women held themselves back as I did, but looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I know now that the rejection is minor and hiring has many whims and issues (there are words like “fit” thrown around that are subjective), so I wouldn’t and don’t take the rejection so personally now. I do feel like I have more confidence now, but I don’t think I will personally ever have the level of ballsy self-confidence that I overheard from my office. I’m not sure many other women/minorities would either. How about you?

So, what do you think? Are minority-only awards good? Do we still need them? I don’t personally think we are post-sexism or post-racism yet in science. As Chris Rock says, “Is Hollywood racist? Yes. Hollywood is sorority racist. They’re like, We like you Rhonda, but you’re not Kappa material.” Replace Hollywood with Science, and I think the same sentiment is true. Scientists are nice, liberal people, but they want to hire, work with people who look like themselves. “We want opportunities!” (-Chris Rock). Since the bar is so high for us, winning awards (even ones where no one else is qualified) is important to helping us overcome the self-doubt and the unnaturally high bar of being an under-represented person in academic science.

Bravery is…

Being a WomanOfScience often involves being brave. Last week, we had a seminar from a big fancy, OWM, Nobel Laureate. The OMayerWM-NL was to be giving an inspirational talk about basic science and all the wonderful things that can come from the basic science. During the talk, his slides looked like a cut and pasted wikipedia page of other Nobel winners. Oddly, he didn’t mention a single woman. Not even Marie Curie. He was obsessed with only his subfield. The OWM from this field were geniuses. He barely talked about other fields of science, and when he did, other fields were all about luck – not genius.

He did actually mention (briefly in passing) two women. One was the girlfriend of another NL who he hooked up with at a conference while the other NL was organizing the conference. The other was a joke about serendipity, “sometimes when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, you find the farmer’s wife.” So, basically, the only two women mentioned in the entire talk were sluts.

Many of the women of the department walked out the talk. It was in an auditorium that sat 350, so we felt pretty self-conscience about telling him off at the talk. Walking out was a silent protest. After the talk and the next day, the women discussed and decided to feel out the department. Did the men sense the same thing we women felt? HusbandOfScience did. He was texting me during the talk about all the BS that was streaming at us. Did others?

At lunch with our normal crew the next day, the dudes were totally backing up old OWM-NL. They pulled out the old chestnut, “It’s just a joke,” and “You are being too sensitive.” That was annoying, but the decision to take action was made by my colleague when her grad students and undergrads said that they felt the sexist comments and jokes were very hurtful. One of the undergrads was actually asked by the OWM-NL to pour him coffee. (No, sir, it is not 1950.)

For me, I talked to some senior WomenOfScience, and they all said it was par for the course – they barely noticed because it was tame by the standards of their generation. Not-uh. Not on my watch.

We decided to write a letter to the chair and send it to the faculty. This takes bravery. We had no idea what the aggregate reaction of our colleagues would be. Would they call us crazy? Would they all say they were “just jokes”?

I paste the letter in here (redacted/edited), to serve as an example for you to use:

Dear DepartmentChair,

After the lecture on Day, and conversations with students and colleagues, we (names), consider it is a responsibility to communicate to you and the whole faculty that we were very disturbed by OWM-NL’s lecture.
We will not dwell on the content or quality of the talk, but there are two aspects that we must comment on:

1. The sexist jokes were beyond inappropriate.

We counted at least three, and those were three too many, especially since the jokes were the only references to women in a lecture entitled “Basic Science is Awesome” (not real title). Women were only referred to as literal sexual objects throughout the talk – prizes of fights or findings – while seemingly actively written out of the history of the sciences (see point 2).

We were appalled to learn the speaker asked a female undergraduate to pour coffee for him.
The next day one of us witnessed male undergraduates repeating one of the jokes; clearly, it made an impression.
What example is this setting for our students?

When we mentioned this to some of our colleagues, we had responses along the lines of “those were just jokes”. If you wonder what poisons the climate for women in STEM, this is an answer. It is important you are all aware the female constituency of the department, faculty and students, did not find those to be “just jokes”. None of us was amused, and the chuckling by the audience was not comforting.

2. This was an egregious example of old-boy-network talk, potentially damaging to the retention of underrepresented groups in our department.

One of our graduate students defined it “oppressively exclusive: he went out of his way to avoid mentioning any woman and we got the message that science is done only by privileged white men who went to the same high school”.
No Marie Curie, no Maria Goeppert Mayer, no Rosalind Franklin.
We agree with the student. OWM-NL mentioned the most impactful discoveries were made by white European men; he also said that now people of all ethnicity and genders can do science too, “well, sort of”.
We found this parenthetic remark dismissive and offensive.

We are worried that this lecture has sent a bad message to our graduate students, our undergraduate students, and our colleagues in other departments.

While we recognize it is hard to predict these aspects about a speaker in advance, we should all make an effort to be aware of such pitfalls.

We are grateful to KnownDonors for endowing this lecture series, it is an important medium to increase the visibility of TheDepartment and Science on our campus and in our town, and acknowledge the significant effort that went in organizing this event.
But we also do hope and expect the Department will make all efforts to identify an outstanding woman and minority to invite for future lectures in this series. We will be happy to assist with suggestions.

Best wishes,
WomenOfScience, HusbandOfScience

What was the outcome? The outcome of this was actually really good. The chair who said he had no idea and was truly just in awe of OWM-NL, said that he believed that the lecturer was offensive after reading our letter. We asked him to offer a statement to the entire physics community, and he did this week. Other male colleagues who were not there said that they would have also walked out, but better yet they claimed that they would have spoken out at the lecture. This was a happy surprise.

I think the problem with these situations is that they can catch you off guard and you may not even realize what is happening or how bad it is at the time.  One of the problems with not addressing it, as outlined in our letter, is that the students will either (1) be angry and feel like the department doesn’t support them, especially if they felt the talk was sexist, (2) feel uncomfortable about the talk, but not really know why it bothered them, (3) think that type of talk and behavior are OK. The last one is the worst outcome because it propagates to the next generation the idea that only white, European-decent males can do science, and that women and minorities are outcasts. We didn’t mention that he also said a few racist things in the talk, but our colleague, who is a person of color, noticed. At a time when women are getting a backlash of negative sentiment after many years of progress: Yes, this still happens. Yes, we need to point it out. And yes, the fight is still going strong.

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