Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Stereotype Threat’

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.

Importance of Minority-Only Awards

CHRIS ROCK

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.

Response to Why Still So Few Women in Science

physicalscienceimageThis was not my planned post, which is some fantastic advise from an awesome minority woman graduate student. I will post that tomorrow. Instead I am going to do something I don’t usually do on this blog. I am going to rant a little. Usually I try to stay super positive, but today’s news on Women In Science needs a little response.

THE NEWS: If you are a woman in science, you were probably inundated with emails, Facebook posts, and tweets about today’s NYTs Magazine article “Why are There Still So Few Women in Science?”. I echo the sentiments I heard from other women that I am happy to see this is being tackled by the NYTs Magazine instead of only being discussed in women’s groups or women’s blogs. Don’t get me wrong, the blogs and groups are so important. As a blogger of one, I hope that the 12 people following are getting something from my posts, if not all of them (BTW, you can Follow this blog by clicking the +FOLLOW button). Another good one I found recently is TenureSheWrote which covers a lot of what we do here, and has better publicity. I have to figure out how to get this blog out to more people 🙂

Anyway, I had some comments about today’s article, and I would be interested to see what you say, too.

First, this whole thing just goes over the same old stuff in science. Was there anything new? Those of us who live this everyday don’t need to read this story, yet I was sent it many many times. Please stop sending it to me. Please find the most sexist jerk in your department and send it to them. Send it to your male chair, your dean, your colleague who thinks women have it easy because they get to organize more conferences when they are pre-tenure than post-tenure men. That was sarcastic.

Second, the story starts off with anecdotal story about a woman who left physics after being super awesome. (Women Rock!) She decides to go back to her undergraduate institution to see how things have gotten better. She assumes no women will show up for a women’s group, but the room is packed. They all sit around and share stories of sexism and negative attitudes towards women in science. The author and the chair of physics, also a woman, are stunned that things have not improved! What? Seriously? Did they really think everything was honky-dorey just because they have a female chair and a women’s conference each year? I was shocked that they would be shocked. Just a quick poll, comment to this post: Post if you have or have not experienced blatant discrimination about their desire to do science? (I have multiple times.)

Third, they reference the Big Bang Theory and discuss the women on the show. Yes, they are caricatures. Yes, they are funny. Yes, one woman is very stereotypically nerdy. Another one is cute, blonde, and wears dresses. Another character they seem to have forgotten is Leslie Winkle played by Sarah Gilbert. She was strong, smart, and could stand up to Sheldon or any of the other men of the show. I really loved her character. She kicked butt and totally rocked! Yet, they didn’t mention that she existed. They do say that women would rather be Penny, theactress, than the science women, but I don’t know if that is true. The blonde Bernadette is pulling in 6 figures out of her Ph.D. as an industrial scientist. I would want to be her or Leslie Winkle, myself. What do you think about BBT? Does it disuade women from going into science? Does it affect men at all? A little? Comment to this post.

On page 4 of 10 there was a discussion of the effects of Stereotype Threat without ever discussing the term “Stereotype Threat.” That is a disservice to people trying to find information about it. Also no mention of Imposture Syndrome. Interestingly, one of my best science women friends just mentioned today that even after getting tenure in HighPowerDepartment, she still suffers from this. She posted about it just today on Facebook.

There were some things I liked. I really liked this sentiment, buried on page 9 of 10:

The key to reform is persuading educators, researchers and administrators that broadening the pool of female scientists and making the culture more livable for them doesn’t lower standards. If society needs a certain number of scientists, Urry said, and you can look for those scientists only among the males of the population, you are going to have to go much farther toward the bottom of the barrel than if you also can search among the females in the population, especially the females who are at the top of their barrel.

Finally, the very end of the very last page 10/10 is the best. She talks to 4 current graduate students, and they have great advise for women young and old. You rock, women. (Plus, another good example that mentoring goes both ways.)

Four young women — one black, two white, one Asian by way of Australia — explained to me how they had made it so far when so many other women had given up.

“Oh, that’s easy,” one of them said. “We’re the women who don’t give a crap.”
Don’t give a crap about — ?

“What people expect us to do.”

“Or not do.”

“Or about men not taking you seriously because you dress like a girl. I figure if you’re not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that’s your problem.”

“Face it,” one of the women said, “grad school is a hazing for anyone, male or female. But if there are enough women in your class, you can help each other get through.”

“As my mother always taught me,” she said, “success is the best revenge.”

These were just a few of the thoughts I had as I read the very long article. I hope it wasn’t so long that people couldn’t get through it. That’s another issue. It has sparked some nice, interesting conversations, and I hope this blog is no different. Hope to read this and post comments. What do you have to say??

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