Thursday, August 03, 2006

Whose Wife Are You?

The only time I've been asked "Whose wife are you?" at a professional conference was in Europe, so it is sad that some European scientists have had the opposite experience in the U.S. In my field, it is possible for me to attend a conference session in Europe and be the only female professor in the room, but this hasn't happened to me in over a decade in the U.S., so I think that different fields must vary a lot on the different continents re. gender balance. Why are things so slow to change?

I was once at a conference in Europe and started talking to a senior (northern European) professor in a related field to my own. I wanted to talk to him about some research questions, and he kept turning the conversation to other topics, such as asking me if I was enjoying the shopping and the gardens at the conference site. When I turned the conversation back to Science, he said something like "How nice for your husband that you take an interest in his work." And then I clued in. It is sad that so many of us have had similar experiences in so many places.

In any case, I have lots of excellent colleagues in Europe, including my closest colleague. He used to think I was being too sensitive to care so much about the position of women in our field, but now he says that his eyes have been opened and he is shocked that he didn't even see what was going on around him for so long. His department has no women faculty, and was not even interviewing women. He was amazed to see a search in which 6 male candidates were selected from a very large international pool, and then another search in which the same thing was going to happen until he spoke up. His colleagues humored him and invited one woman candidate, but she did not get the job. Several of his colleagues have a wife or partner with a Ph.D., but these women are all out of academia or doing low-level technical work in the university. He says there is no hope that any of them will improve their positions.


CMT said...

I read that last paragraph, and the waste of so much talent is just crushing. But I do have to wonder, why aren't the men fighting harder for their wives' work?

Ms.PhD said...

I'm interested in this comment from cmt. I've noticed my boyfriend is reluctant to verbally promote my work in public, though he's very supportive at home and behind the scenes in general. I never hesitate to tell people about what he's doing and try to promote his work. But this has recently come back to bite me.

I may have blogged about this at some point, but the gist of the story goes like this:

For a talk I was giving, I asked my boyfriend to help me make a figure. He's particularly good at making nice figures, while I tend not to have the patience, and this was something related to what he does so it was very appropriate. I gave him due credit in my lab meeting when I presented the work.

Cut to a year later, when a grad student in the lab is doing something similar, and I made some suggestion in lab meeting about what he should do. My advisor said, "Oh, can your boyfriend do it?" and I had to say, "I can do it myself, what makes you think we need him???"

I was incredulous that, because I had MENTIONED that my boyfriend had helped me, my advisor had retained a memory that my boyfriend knew how to do it, and therefore assumed that I did not know how to do it. At all.

I don't know if men are more wary about these kinds of assumptions being made, so they're afraid that promoting us will make them look like they need our help and are therefore weak-? Or what. Maybe this is a question for Deborah Tannen?