Wednesday, March 14, 2007

100% Men

One of my most excellent male colleagues currently has a research group that consists only of men -- all the research scientists, grad students, undergrad research assistants, and technical people are male, much to my colleague's dismay. It hasn't always been so, but in a male-dominated field, random fluctuations in a lab population can result in this situation. My colleague's fear is that he will be unable to attract women students or postdocs to his group because of it, and the all-male situation will self-perpetuate. He has been unable to recruit any women to his group for the past few years, the same length of time his group has been 100% male, although he has tried hard.

He has advised women students who have gone on to successful careers, but they went into industry rather than academia and so are not widely known in academia. His male graduates are all still in academia, so when academics think of my colleague and his former advisees, they think of these guys.

When recruiting prospective students and postdocs, my colleague highlights the accomplishments of his past students, not only because he is proud of them, but also in part to show that he has successfully advised a diverse group of students. He also doesn't mind being asked by prospective students about his record of advising women.

He is very aware that the dynamics in the lab are different when it's a group of guys, and he wants to change that, but it can be a challenge when he's competing for students and postdocs with some excellent women faculty at other institutions. If everyone felt like my colleague, just think how many great options there would be for women scientists -- and eventually these womenless research groups would no longer exist.

So, for anyone out there who is considering their options regarding potential advisors and research groups, if there are no women in the group currently, it's worth asking about the history of the advisor/group. If you don't feel comfortable asking the faculty member, you can probably get the information some other way -- from the director of admissions/graduate studies, other students, your undergrad advisor, or from some web-searching. You might find that the lack of women is an anomaly that the advisor wishes to fix, or you might find out that there is an insidious reason for it. Both are worth knowing so you can make the best decision.


DancingFish said...

That is really interesting! In all male labs, it sometimes can be hard to figure out if those lab dynamics are keeping females away from the lab or are just due to to there being no females around. Especially in new labs with little history or limited history of high turnover undergrads.

Lisa said...

Our group is experiencing the opposite situation--it is in a similar field to FSP's (the same very general field but different from the specific field that I have come to think that she's in) which has a slightly better percentage of women. However, it's a theoretical group so that lowers the expected number of women further.
But interestingly, we went from having just 1 female to about half females in just a few years. I believe this is random chance, but it seems strange, and I wonder what people outside the group are thinking about us.
Perhaps the fact that our adviser is not an a**hole or that there are other women in the group has helped increase our representation of females, but I didn't really notice when I joined the group and I doubt the others did either.

PonderingFool said...

It is good advice for anyone joining a lab. Dig for information about the lab, the PI, etc. Find out if the lab would be a good learning/work environment for you. Too many grad students I have seen go for the flashy name without digging deeper to see if for example the PI was a sexist jerk. Of course these jerks are good at flashing their brilliance at the right times to lure people in and then they suck them dry. Not to mention the system very much favors those flashy names since they have grant money and nice papers. Advising first years in graduate school could be greatly improved. I have found the sexist pigs are the one's most loudly advising recruits to join the flashy labs (their own) and keeping the system going. They tend to be very dismmisive of those who disagree that other issues should come into play when joining a lab. It is very frustrating to deal with.

EcoGeoFemme said...

The lab I'm in is mostly women with a male PI. That is, 9 out of 12 students/post-docs have been women. I think it's just chance (at the grad level my field is probably almost 50% women and I don't think my advisor has turned away many qualified candidates, male or female). But I think my advisor occasionally worries or gets teased that he is sexist for only selecting women, like it's some kind of harem. How 'about them apples!

Helen said...

"He is very aware that the dynamics in the lab are different when it's a group of guys, and he wants to change that, but it can be a challenge when he's competing for students and postdocs with some excellent women faculty at other institutions."

I'm curious -- what does he do to change the dynamic *now*, before he gets a woman recruit?

There's two reasons for looking at that question:

1. He says he wants a different dynamic, so it would make sense for him to do something to change the dynamic he has

2. If it's so clear to him the dynamic is different, then it may well be clear enough to potential recruits to be effecting their choices.

In short, it may be that he needs to spend some time educating his current people on professional conduct, but since this is all secondhand, it's impossible to say.

Helen said...

Erm, affecting, not effecting. Must find caffeine.

Anonymous said...

I think it's the ebb and flow sometimes. I (PhD candidate-psych) have a lab that is entirely female except a couple undergrad RAs and find myself craving my former lab which was majority male. In this regard, I'd say balance is key. Too many women (even in science) can lead to whining, secrecy, and competition on non-scientific matters (e.g. baking the best muffins for lab meetings), so my personal preference is for the males who lay it all on the table and you know where they stand. Of course, not sexist or mysogynistic males, but reasonable and appropriate ones. So, a nice mix would be preferable, but given the choice I'd want majority male.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

That is very interesting. I hope he has some success with that.

When I was a first-year I went to look at a lab that was 90% male. The dynamic was what I've taken to calling stags-in-mating-season, but the real kicker was when the (male) PI put down a student in front of everyone else and then took the computer out of his hands. Speaking of bad dynamics with no will to change. It was a fascinating experience. I left early, pleading an appointment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts, FSP. I was torn between not wanting to ask, because I don't want to be the candidate with the chip on her shoulder; and wanting to ask. You've made me realize that the PI may well be concerned about it (and if he isn't, well ... ) and may welcome a question about it.

Anonymous said...

I have a slightly different question. Has anyone worked in a lab where the PI only had foreign students and post-docs? While Americans are a 'minority' in science, I wonder if these PI are looking to exploit these workers (by threatening to revoke their visa perhaps?)

Anonymous said...

I'm a female PhD student in biology, and I rotated in a lab that was almost entirely women. I didn't like it because there was too much gossip! It seemed like there was a constant stage whispered conversation going on about so-and-so's weekend exploits or snarky comments about other labs. Male students didn't rotate in that lab very often, so I don't know how the lab could get more balanced. 100% women can be as hard to deal with as 100% men.

Shirley said...

I'm a grad student in a biomolecular lab which is all male with a female PI. We had another female student but she was kicked out. I find that men can be just as petty (about making up buffers etc) and eager to gossip as women. I also feel that my PI tends to have a favorite male grad student at all times. This student and his project receives significantly more mentoring and funding than others. This trend is disturbing to me but I don't know if my PI is even consciously aware of it.