Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pulling Up The Ladder

In July 2006, I commented on the concept/myth of successful women who 'pull up the ladder' after themselves -- that is, women who are unhelpful (actively or passively) towards younger women trying to progress in their own careers. I wrote that I had not experienced this when I was younger, did not know any women in my field of academia who behaved this way, and didn't believe that it was as common a phenomenon as some had proposed.

There surely exist some women somewhere who behave this way, but I was (and still am) skeptical that this is a characteristic of women who succeed in male-dominated fields.

Nevertheless, in the past year I have seen some disturbing examples of women thwarting, or at least hindering, the careers of other women. This type of behavior always raises the general question of whether we should somehow expect more of women in positions of power, in academia or otherwise. That is, given the precarious position of women in science, do successful women have a responsibility to help other women succeed? (Successful is a vague term, but for the purposes of this discussion about academia, it could mean women who have tenured positions, or, to some extent, even women who have tenure-track positions).

All academics -- women and men -- have a responsibility for fostering the careers of students, postdocs, and younger colleagues, but each person will have a different capacity to be helpful depending on circumstances, personality, and so on. Do women have a responsibility above and beyond this?

I suppose it depends on what responsibility means and entails. For example, I think a woman can be an excellent role model just by being very good at research and all the other things that professors do, without any additional mentoring or other activities. A simple statement, then, of the responsibility of successful women towards women progressing through earlier career stages might be: At least do no harm (and if you can help more, that's great).

A related question is: If a successful woman actively thwarts the career of a younger woman, is that somehow worse than if a man does it? This question makes me queasy, but is one that I have been contemplating in recent months as I became aware of a few examples of women-thwarting-women at various US universities.

In one case, a female professor objected to an outstanding woman's being interviewed because the candidate had an infant and therefore couldn't possibly be serious about her career. Eventually, reason prevailed, the outstanding woman was interviewed, but she accepted another offer.

In another case, a woman on a hiring committee had a difficult time supporting female candidates who seemed a bit too uppity/aggressive, but had no problem with this characteristic in male candidates. Some of the men had the same reaction to the uppity women candidates, but reason also eventually prevailed in this situation.

It is depressing that these situations occur (and occur and occur), but at least this type of behavior is seen by many as unacceptable. I believe that as more women scientists succeed in academia (and I have to keep believing that that will occur), the culture will change for the better to be more accepting of women with a wide range of personalities and family situations.

Some professors don't intentionally pull up the ladder or thwart the careers of younger scientists, but their actions have that effect, and, as a result, their students, postdocs, and younger colleagues may give up trying to succeed in an academic career. This is the advice I give to women students who are having a hard time with advisors (male or female) who seem aggressive, mean, and unfair to them: If you love what you are doing but just hate the environment, don't give up. The academic culture has long selected for the personality type of your advisor, but it need not always be this way. Graduate and get a job and be part of the positive change.

If things do change for the better for women in science, it won't be possible for anyone to pull up the ladder because the ladder will not be some temporary movable thing, it will be firmly in place.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm a (female) first year grad student. As an undergrad, I definitely thought that I would learn less from women scientists than from men scientists. I have now recognized the folly of my former thoughts, thanks to the research group I'm in now, but I think my idea that women are as a whole less scientifically adept than men is not unique to me. I was much more insecure about my own abilities than I am now, which may have had something to do with it, but I imagine that women who thought like I did a few years ago and never reconsider their views might grow end up acting the way you describe.

Chic Scientist said...

There's one other woman in my department who is quite senior to me, and she definitely has "only woman in the room syndrome". Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Pulling up the ladder happens not just in the female population. Minorities also make it really difficult for the next one coming up. I think the reason is that we are afraid that the next person is going to be better than us, and what if they only want one woman, african-american, hispanic?

I think FSP only sees what affects her section of the minority population: (probably white) women. Other minorities suffer from even more, imagine a hispanic or asian person. Can the person speak english? What about writing good papers and proposals? Now, add being female to that, probably even more.

How's the distribution of male and female applicants for one position? Are there more males in general? Maybe it is just harder to see this in men because there are more applicants.

How fare are you when faced with situations like this? Do you support the female, even if she is not the best one?

PhysioProf said...

I think we men actually owe a greater special duty to our female trainees than do women, as we are the ones who have benefited from unearned privilege.

female candidate on the market said...

I am a female PHD candidate who is on the academic job market for the first time in political science. I usually don't believe in all this feminist mumbo jumbo, but I am starting to believe. I have had 5 campus interviews and 2 additional phone interviews. 2 of the campus interviews were at large research institutions. I have not been offered a job yet.

As I was sharing with all of my male colleagues how many interviews I was getting, they were all jealous and we agreed that I was getting interviews because I was a woman and schools were trying to diversify. Well, that was fine by me. HOWEVER, now all those males who only got one or two interviews all have tenure-track positions and I don't even have a visiting position. So was I brought in as the token woman who was never going to be hired regardless of my qualifications?

Academic said...

I think some women get caught in the mold of thinking "If you want to succeed here, then you need to be like me." It narrows the field consistently.

Mad Hatter said...

Do you think that women who deliberate thwart other women might do so out of a "I had to fight and claw my own way up, so why should you have it any easier" mentality?

Anonymous said...

I love this statement from your piece, because it says it all:

Graduate and get a job and be part of the positive change.

It's the best "revenge".


Mark P

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

There's some analogy with immigration. If you survey Americans, some of the people most vociferous about closing the gates are the most recent arrivals. (Which is not to say they're the only people saying that, or that all recent immigrants say that.) Fear of a backlash?

There's also a study out there, but I'm too lazy to find it, suggesting that 3 is the magic number of women on executive boards. One doesn't want to always be the token female voice; two don't want to look like the female cohort; but three can comfortably speak up. Fear of being ostracized by one's male colleagues for being soft on "women's" issues? Another reason to get more women on the search committees, although it sounds like you're doing the job of 3 already.

Susan B. Anthony said...

Well, we can all rest assured that there is no problem with women in science, because the reason there are so few is that they just don't like it as much as men do. And changing the culture of science to make it "nicer" would only mean giving up our competitive research edge. For more depressing opinions along these lines, read this (written by a woman): Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, biases are cultural, and shared by males and females alike. As far as I can tell, the only way around them is to be aware of them, and then make a conscious effort to put them aside as decisions are being made. The dangerous biases are the unexamined ones. I worry when one of my senior (female) colleagues claims "there is no sexism here".

Note to anonymous, 7:31 am: I have also noticed racist bias in decision making processes. In one of the cases I observed, it was worse than the gender bias, because people on the committee were going out of their way to make sure to include qualified women in their consideration.

Here's my Question: how can we help make the unexamined (mostly subconscious) biases conscious so that they can be examined and counteracted? Without shame or embarrassment?

Anonymous said...

quick anecdotal summary of my recent experiences:
exhibit a: chatting at a conference with a male senior colleague about my newborn, and whether I was missing the baby while away for the first time. I said not too much, basically, I was happy to have some me time for my science. We were interrupted by a senior female prof, who quipped on really missing her newborn pet. Sigh.
b: working on a competitive project; talking with a senior woman in the field, who's very nice and gives me a lot of advice, like wait to publish until you've done A B and C. Sounds great, but as she gave me the advice, she had just submitted a similar paper. Without telling me. It was OK in the end, but still, left me with a bitter taste.
c: semisenior f. colleague, on coffee break; I'm venting on life as a semisingle, untenured mother. She says that one can't have everything, and maybe I should choose (? what, give up the offspring for adoption?)

Bottomline: I didn't believe the "pulling up the ladder" stereotype, but I'm changing my mind. I think the problem is that successful women have an even harder time accepting that other women might make different choices than themselves, and still be successful.

Anonymous said...

An aside on immigration from a recent immigrant:
The reason most recent immigrant are against illegal immigrant is simple: we went through hell to do it by the rules. I've been in this country, legally, for 12 years. I've paid taxes for things I am not eligible for. I cannot sponsor my own spouse, even if I have a green card (technically I can but it takes 6 yrs, during which the spouse cannot work), I still do not have citizenship. The visa process has cost me several thousands of dollars over the years, a lot of headache and heartache to figure out how to travel between visas and stuff. The process is complex and sometimes unintelligible, even by very educated people. I cannot imagine how the average babysitter/landscaper/farm worker would do it without mistakes.
I consider myself a liberal, yet I have to remind myself that most illegal immigrants don't have the means/education/skills to do things legally.

Kim said...

I think that the senior women should be criticized for their biases in the same way that the senior men are. I don't think they should be held to a higher standard, but I think that women as well as men can hold the biases common in a society, and having a senior woman on a committee doesn't solve problems with sexism. Unfortunately.

The biases need to be examined, constantly, by everyone, if we want to be fair.

Male Humanist said...

Here's my Question: how can we help make the unexamined (mostly subconscious) biases conscious so that they can be examined and counteracted? Without shame or embarrassment?

As a first step, try this:

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

I was pretty shocked by my own results.

Anonymous said...

" I think the problem is that successful women have an even harder time accepting that other women might make different choices than themselves, and still be successful."


I'm starting to think this too. As someone who chose to reproduce multiple times before tenure, I've been shocked by the things people read into that. That has got to be one of the hardest things to deal with in academia for me -- this sense of being the golden chosen ones, bearers of the flame of intellectual inquiry, giants upon whose shoulders rest humanity's destiny, and so on and so forth. blah. I love the job, but it *is* a job.

I should say, though, that this has not been my experience with most senior FSPs. On the contrary, I have received much more positive "don't let them tell you what you can and can't do. You do things you way!" encouragement from senior FSPs than from any other group.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

It definitely seems to be a cyclical phenomenon. Female PIs who exhibit this behavior often breed (so to speak) students (both male and female). There is a prof here at LargeU who is especially guilty of this.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous with immigration comment: Illegal immigrants pay taxes for things they will NEVER be eligible for. They will NEVER be able to legally bring their spouses and family. They CANNOT go out of the country without risking the ability to come back. On top of that, they do some of the toughest jobs and receive very little for their work.

I think in immigration, the "hate" against illegal immigration by new legal immigrants has, in many cases, to do with a feeling of superiority after gaining green card status. If you think about it, illegal immigrants do not pose any problem a legal one doesn't.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 11.30, I'm the previous anonymous on immigration. Perhaps I didn't explain myself very well. What I was trying to say is that 1- the process of immigrating legally is daunting 2- I'm not surprised people can't/can't afford to do it . I was just trying to convey what sorts of emotions are stirred by immigration. Most Americans are quite surprised when I tell them about my experiences dealing with immigration-legally- or how expensive it is (1k/person for naturalization: think of family of 5 on a factory worker's salary).
I am all for a reform of the immigration system in more realistic terms- clearly the current system does not work.

Believe me, there's no feel of superiority for getting a green card. I am well aware of my privileged condition, which derives from middle class background and great education (all in my home country, at the taxpayers' expense).
The hypocrisy is when people like my dear neighbor go on and on about putting a fence on the border, then turn around and hire illegal maids/landscapers/painters. At my workplace, we had some clearly illegal and untrained workers brought in by subcontractors deal with dangerous chemicals and asbestos, without protection. Talk about exploitation.... (yes, I brought it to the chair's attention. It went nowhere)

chemcat said...

Reading the comments it seems that many strong reactions from established FSPs surround motherhood. In the previous generation many women did not have children, or had to start their careers later (my next door colleague is an incredibly productive emeritus research prof - she's 75 and still publishing in Science. I asked her how come she did not have a tenured position, and she answered: "I have 4 kids"). Our generation is lucky in that sense, for a number of reasons.

I certainly have higher expectations of niceness and fairness and support from senior women, and that might be unfair. It has caused me to be less guarded than I should have been sometimes. I guess I'm so hungry for mentorship, or just curious to see how other women "do it". FSP gets a lot of questions like that (some from me :-) )

Kitty said...

You know, I have a friend who is very passionate about women in science. She's a fantastic mentor, and she does a lot of substantial outreach providing real opportunites to girls in traditionally underserved communities. The flip side is, she absolutely will not accept careless or sloppy work from her female students, while she tolerates more from her male students. I know she was accused of "pulling up the ladder" after spending a lot of time and energy resuscitating a female student's poorly designed research project, because her comments were perceived as needlessly harsh.

Not to say that the pulling-up-the-ladder phenomenon isn't real and very troubling, but I think this is another situation where it is difficult for women to win. If you spend the time and effort to hold your female students to a high standard and give them a competitive edge, you run the risk of seeming overcritical and out to thwart the next generation.

Anonymous said...

"I think in immigration, the "hate" against illegal immigration by new legal immigrants has, in many cases, to do with a feeling of superiority after gaining green card status. If you think about it, illegal immigrants do not pose any problem a legal one doesn't."

So you like illegal immigrants because they are hard workers who have to through untold hardship, and there should be no complaining about them or improving the situation, including their circumstances? And you think highly educated legal immigrants are whiny elitists and the harshest immigration requirements (hardest legal residency requirements, most years to citizenship, most expensive, most arbitrary, most cruel) and the biggest ridiculous hoops in the entire Anglo-Saxon world (Canada, Australia, England, New Zealand, USA) are no big deal for these whiners?

Methinks you are the one who is pulling up the ladder for ALL by arguing for the status quo.

If you want potential future problems presented by a large contingent of uneducated, non-assimilating immigrants, look to Germany today and the fallout from the policies of the 1970s. Though, I'll give you, low educated Mexicans are not low educated Turks so who knows what will happen. But USA also isn't the country it was 100 years ago.

-former legal (and illegal) immigrant

Anonymous said...

I am the (female) student of a young, newly tenured female professor. She does not mentor me the same way that she does my male counterparts. She is grooming one of them to be a professor and discouraging me ('my job is not for everyone'). I have really had it.

acmegirl said...

Some people are better mentors than others, so it's actually pretty silly to expect that a woman will be a good mentor to another woman just because they have the same set of chromosomes. As a Black woman, I realized a long time ago that I wasn't going to find a mentor who was "like me". Women (and minorities) need to find mentors they can be open with and who they feel will support them as people. This could be a woman or a man, though more likely it will be a man, since they are the majority. Mentors should not hold mentees to unrealistic standards - even if they think it's to prepeare them for other people's unrealistic expectations. Why reinforce the status quo? Nor should they sap their enthusiasm by constantly pointing out how much less tough (ie: un-masculine) they are. Again, why reinforce the status quo. Women are not immune from either mistake, as the comments above attest.

Lab Rat said...

Perhaps it's simply that successful women see others coming up as a threat to themselves - basically, if you're the only senior woman scientist around, you're something special, but when there's two senior women scientists around, suddenly you've become only half as special.

ecoeclipse said...

As a grad student planning to go into academia, the studies on double standards in how women and men (and people of different ethnicities) are perceived are really scary, because it often seems that women can't win.

As to "female candidate on the market"'s comment ... in my life sci. field I have seen search committees repeatedly aim for diversifying the dept. faculty, interview women and minority candidates, once even feeling truly split and trying to find a way to hire two candidates ... only to, over and over again, hire the white male.

I worry about my chances. But I also worry about making myself a victim, in my eyes or others' eyes.

Ms.PhD said...

I guess I missed this post when it went up- I found it via On Hiring at The Chronicle.

Some of these responses are terrifying, like the first two anonymous commenters, and the female candidate from poli sci. Feminist mumbo jumbo?? Wake UP, sister!

I'm glad the first one says she grew out of it- but in cases like hers, we have to wonder where did it come from? We have to root out the source of these biases and stop this cycle. There shouldn't be new ones born every day.

I agree with the person who described a senior female colleague who said 'we have no sexism here'. This is really dangerous and wrong, but we have women like that where I work, too.

However, I think the whole motherhood issue is a red herring. There are many more problems facing women in science than the family one, although it is admittedly one that should have been solved by now. I still argue that it's not a women's issue, it's an everybody issue. And it obscures the issues that are really women-specific.

My impression is that the senior FSPs around here are not "threatened" by younger women coming up, they're "baffled" by us.

They got where they are by cultivating denial, so when we ask them for advice, they don't know what to tell us.

In general my impression is that they worked hard AND were lucky. Luck is hard to teach, especially if you're unaware of which factors brought it to you. I think we make our own luck, but if you're not aware of what helped, how can you advise?

The strangest psychology I've noticed is the "Nobody helped me, I got where I got on my own merit" type of denial.

I think it's because these women all had male mentors whom they resented, but who helped them - consciously or unconsciously.

So they don't want to credit these guys for helping them get where they are, since in some cases the only help they gave was their pedigreed name.

But pedigree is an important factor. And since these influential men tend not to mentor women all that well or all that often, it's hard for us to get the pedigree.

In theory these senior women professors should be the pedigree conduit. In practice, it's hard not to wonder if some of them do deserve more blame.

I wish I could refer all the senior FSPs at my school to read this blog. The other psychology I see a lot with senior FSPs is the tendency to think they're battling the whole world alone.

I know because I felt that way a lot until I started blogging and reading this blog.

Anonymous said...

"However, I think the whole motherhood issue is a red herring. There are many more problems facing women in science than the family one, although it is admittedly one that should have been solved by now. I still argue that it's not a women's issue, it's an everybody issue. And it obscures the issues that are really women-specific. "

so you don't have kids, so it is not a problem, right?
How myopic.

The woman-specific issues that come with parenting are many, starting from the perception of pregnant women as less professional (I guess that would be a problem for any pregnant male too), to the perception of men-with-children as stable and women-with-children as unprofessional. This is all backed by research, by the way, and very much woman-specific.

You are right that it shouldn't *be* woman-specific (life balance is an everybody issue), but much like any aspect of sexism (e.g., women are bad at math) the stereotypes and perceptions held about mothers (and *not* about fathers) are woman-specific.