Monday, March 26, 2007

Equal Opportunity Invisibility

This morning I was at a meeting with 6 other scientists. None of us had ever met before, and for the first 10 minutes I was the only woman at the meeting. Then, in rushed another FemaleScientist. She went around the table, shaking everyone's hand. Except mine. No eye contact, no recognition that I was sitting at the table. I introduced myself, and noticed her surprise when she realized I was a scientist too. I don't mean knock down the (northern) European science environment yet again, but the other FemaleScientist is from a northern European country. Perhaps she had never encountered a FemaleScienceProfessor before? Once I established myself as a real participant at the meeting (i.e., not the secretary), she was very friendly and the group had no trouble discussing the topics at issue.

Even if I had been attending the meeting as a FemaleSecretary, I still think she should have acknowledged my existence, but, alas, it is not unusual for scientists (male, female) worldwide to lack some pretty basic social skills.

I wonder how many of these petty slights would disappear if scientists mastered some fundamental skills of social interaction. Perhaps someone could make a little laminated card for us to carry around, with useful instructions.

11 comments:

Kristin said...

Oh yes, I did observe how social graces would be quite absent when I was in graduate school in a physics program. But the fact that I treated the staff as human beings and thanked them for their efforts on my behalf meant that when I had to expedite a purchase order for some supplies, mine got put through first. Not everyone got that kind of service! I believe in showing everyone respect out of a basic sense of decency, but graciousness did have its tangible rewards, too.

JaneB said...

Like Kristin, I find that secretarial and technical staff are unused to being treated as human - and that acting towards them with good manners and appreciating their skills leads to many tangible rewards!

I can't believe how RUDE some of my colleagues are to support staff (especially younger male colleagues to older female support staff, but I have one female colleague around my own age who is appalling in this respect) - they treat them as if they have no feelings or skills at all - and as if they have no power (a mislaid purchase order or always being at the back of the queue for routine sample analyses can have a surprisingly large effect on one's work...).

physics*chick said...

A laminated card! Oh yes, this is perfect... much needed for sure!

Hilarious idea, but sadly, would probably help considerably.

PhD Mom said...

Interesting, a very similar thing happened to me a few weeks ago. I was attending a meeting with an establish group for the first time. I began to introduce myself, but one of the participants that I had been emailing jumped up enthusiastically and began to talk to me energetically. The leader of the group never inquired who I was or why I was there. Then, about an hour into the meeting the participant who invited me to join the group arrived and conducted a more formal introduction. The leader of the group had a rather shocked look on her face. I think she thought I was a grad student or something. She called the next day and apologized.

Anonymous said...

And as all academics know, secretaries wield enormous power. Our department secretary is in her 80s and knows just about everything there is to know about what goes on.

How hard is it to treat everyone with the same respect? Are people worried about offending senior faculty by greeting support staff with equal courtesy?

Global Girl said...

It simply seems to be accepted to have severely lacking social skills in STEM. Perhaps the line of reasoning is that it is not important, in view of the Eternal and Important problems at hand... mere people need not be bothered with.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I think deeply ingrained gender discrimination affects even women's views of other women's assumed competence/power/whatever, both in the States and here.

A recent example: I am co-advising a handful of women master's students with another female researcher. We are both about 7 years past our Ph.D., and assumed that all of our students realized we were competent and officially able to advise them on theses and whatnot.

Bad assumption. Two of "our" students have been asking a male professor in the department for advice, but not telling us (nor did they switch to the prof as their formal advisor). We kept wondering what was going on-- we would meet with the students and at the end of the meeting have a plan of what the student would do next. Then several weeks later we would meet again and the students had done something *totally* different. When we finally asked them why, they both said "Oh, Prof. X told me to do this." When asked if he was their advisor, they both said, "No, you are, right?"

Yes, well, we had thought so. I don't think these two women really see us as scientific advisors, but rather we are bureaucratic advisors of some sort... the prof gives the advice and we fill out the paperwork. I don't get it *at all*.

Lisa said...

I wonder if stereotype threat is selecting for the more sexist women in the sciences . . .
Many people have shown that if students are told that students like them (their race, their gender, etc.) are going to do worse on a certain test, those students will do worse than students who were told that the test will test their "natural abilities" or something and that the scores will not be correlated with race, gender, or whatever. Students who don't really think they belong in those categories can get around stereotype threat--"I am black, but I didn't grow up in the projects so I will do just as well as everyone else" or "other girls are stupid, but I'm not really like them".
I am wondering if women who make it this far in the sciences are more often thinking they're different than other women. Then they could be just as sexist as some men. That would help them get higher test scores and maybe help them deal with any sexism they see. I know I have felt this way sometimes, and I am noticing now that I just referred to women in the sciences as "them" instead of "us".
Lisa

Ms.PhD said...

Funny, I seem to get trapped into doing my own support staff work, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm still a postdoc, or if it's because I'm too nice to the support staff, and they just assume I won't say anything?

I got mistaken for a student again yesterday. I am so tired of it. I was dressed like a student because I had been working really late Sunday night, but still. I'm sure if I had been dressed up, I would have been mistaken for a secretary or someone from a company (they are the only ones who dress well around here).

I guess we have to conclude that we're still a rare enough species to be mistaken for other kinds of birds.

Anonymous said...

Never heard of 'queen bee syndrome'?

http://kiriath-arba.blogspot.com/2007/01/more-on-stereotypes-queen-bee-syndrome.html

Reluctant Chemist said...

I can't say if this sort of problem is sexism. I'm inclined to think that there are just a lot of people out there (scientists and non-scientists) who just feel better if they can be "above" someone else. It's like the exercise wherebye the very insecure surround themselves with people who are "less" than them, rather than challenge themselves ("less" being a subjective adjective).