Tuesday, October 06, 2009

F = 2

Whenever I find myself on a new committee or on a committee whose membership changes from year to year, it is a reflex for me to scan the list of committee members to see if there are other women on the committee. My heart sinks if I am the only woman (F = 1), and I feel immense relief if there is at least one other woman (F >= 2).

When I am the only female member of a committee, I may or may not have the same status as the other committee members, depending on how obvious it is that I am the token female. There have been many instances in my career in which I have been added to a committee because the committee had to have a woman member. In some of these cases, my opinions have counted for less and I have been criticized by other committee members for being "biased" in favor of women or women's issues. I hate being on these committees, although in some cases it has turned out to be important that I was there.

I like being on committees that have at least F = 2. On those committees, we women are treated as equal members of the committee -- as people who were chosen for our expertise, just like the men. It's amazing the difference F = 2 makes compared to F = 1.

I was just thinking about this today because I was scanning the list of a new committee that I joined this year. To my relief I saw that there is one other woman. Now I don't even have to think about it any more. We will just be a group of scientists and engineers getting together to discuss things and do a task.

The day seems far off when such committees of scientists and engineers will have equal numbers of men and women or random gender ratios that arise when people are selected out of a gender-balanced pool, but for now, I am grateful when F = 2.

22 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I always find it irritating when simply bringing up the subject of women opens you up to accusations of "gender bias." Puh-leeze. Unexamined male privilege, anyone?

Candid Engineer said...

What is the typical total # of people on a committee? 6? 16? Just wondering, because 2/6 isn't so bad, but 2/16 is pretty ridiculous.

rachel said...

that definitely makes sense to me that 2 >> 1 in this case. it's interesting that the number of women in a situation is always something you take note of immediately. i'm a first-year grad student in a physical science and i didn't even notice until a couple weeks ago that the attendees of the weekly colloquium for my subdiscipline, and the lab i teach, both groups of about 30 people, are only ~10% women. it never feels weird though and i have yet to run into any weird sexist behavior... not sure if this has something to do with women being better represented in other subdisciplines within the department, or i just got lucky in terms of good department culture, or maybe i just haven't been in science long enough... ;)

plam said...

I'm on the Women in Engineering committee, where M = 1 or 2, depending on the day.

Helen said...

It's always been interesting to me as a grad student and postdoc that whenever there was an e-mail asking for people to sit on a committee or get involved in an activity that would benefit everyone, the people who turned up would invariably be 90% female, even when females made up only 10% of the department. I don't know how committee members are chosen when you get higher up the ladder but having F=1 is a pretty dramatic turnaround in only a few years from postdoc to tenure-track. Is this the difference between volunteering and being picked? Can you shed any light on this?

Anonymous said...

At my department women are 20% of faculty. This is actually more than the percentage of women PhDs in my discipline. Most committees are composed of five or six people so the expected number of women, with all other things being equal, is one.

So in theory we should have a few committees with zero women and some with two. In practice, any committee with more than one woman losses her to a committee with no women.

Is this good? I don't know.

female Science Professor said...

The committees to which I am referring in this case are typically ones in which members are selected by higher beings -- Deans, presidents of societies etc. -- from a pool in which women are underrepresented (female full professors in science and engineering).

Ms.PhD said...

higher beings! buahahaha! that's a good one!

The F=2 phenomenon also works for thesis committees. When I had only 1 woman, it was still a locker room. When I added a second one (and she isn't very girly, ironically enough), it converted to "we're all scientists here".

Interestingly, I've tried to get current grad students to understand that these kinds of choices will matter for them later. It might not be obvious when you start out, but by the time you defend, you'll be glad you did it.

They don't listen to me and then they end up regretting it. I don't know how to get this message across in a way they'll understand without making the same mistakes over and over again.

I had a conversation recently with someone in a more "traditional" (read: >80% male) department where committees are set by the "higher beings".

They said they thought this was "better" than having students and their advisers choose the appropriate composition based on the approaches used in the thesis project.

I said, "Really? Better?" Because to me, that just smacks of "It never occurred to us that this is a contributing factor in why women drop out of science in disproportionate numbers after getting a PhD."

Most of my female friends had such a miserable time trying to graduate, they said "the hell with this" after fighting to get permission from their locker room committee.

And yet, in a way it's partly their own fault- if they could have, but chose not to, adhere to the simple rule of F=2.

Anonymous said...

After 7 years I find that I cringe whenever I hear the words "we need a woman on that committee"...since they seem to want a woman who will be seen and not heard to give cover to the decisions perhaps we could all start sending blow up dolls or fake boobs and go back to our labs to work....

ME said...

It always does help to have another woman. Sometimes I wonder, is it just my perception that what so-and-so said was really sexist. Having someone to bounce that thought off of is great. I do find that I'm often the token woman on committees and it can be a little discouraging or I get the "we need a woman from engineering" which narrows it down to a select list (especially if you try to target tenured women). F=2 .... happy days....

amy said...

Okay, but what if the other woman is an anti-feminist who makes things worse? The other woman in my dept. is always pointing out things about my appearance in front of our male colleagues ("Why, Amy, you've lost *a lot* of weight - you look so much better!"), flirting with various men in the dept., interrupting me much more than the men do, and basically acting as though she's in competition with me for something. Meetings go better for me when she's not there. And I would never be able to use her to check on whether a comment was really sexist, because she doesn't believe in feminism and thinks it's all a bunch of oversensitive man-hating. Do I sound bitter? Yeah, a little. :)

Janice said...

I accepted a position as alternate on committee (nominated by, as you put it, a higher being). At the first meeting, the chair noticed that I was the only woman in the room.

Rules require that there be at least one woman on every committee (isn't that a strange rule? We could have an all-female committee and that would be just fine, apparently) so I had to take on full-time committee obligations when I hadn't planned to do so.

F=2 is always better. Except when they can't tell you apart from each other. But that's a rant for another day!

Anonymous said...

I've actually never worked with any female faculty, ever. (I'm a female postdoc). My field is very male dominated, and in my departments there were always no more than 2 female faculty and they were never in my specialty or even close. So I never had any women on my committees or as advisors or even as collaborators, nor have I even been to a group meeting with any female faculty present. Fellow female postdocs, yes occasionally, but I guess I've never "seen" female faculty in action in my discipline. That's pretty pathetic. Maybe for me it will always be F=1

Anonymous said...

@Amy - I had a co-worker who was sort of like that. We were the only women in our department. I thought we would have something in common. Instead she wanted to be the ONLY "token female". And yup it did include flirting with the men (the higher-up ones that is, not the ones at our level). well, she got promoted, I remained pretty much invisible. But the promotion wasn't good enough for her so she left for another job. Now I'm the only woman and I'm still invisible and not taken seriously.

quasihumanist said...

A related problem is that of departments trying to hire their first female faculty member. Sometimes of course the old boys club effectively blocks or makes difficult such hires. But even when they want to hire a woman, it must be very hard to convince someone with any other options to be the only woman in a department.

quasarpulse said...

I've never particularly been a fan of F=2, unless the group is of size 4 or smaller. I (personally) do well in the 'locker room' type environment - I'm reasonably good at getting treated like 'one of the guys' to the extent that I get listened to and respected. I'm also perfectly happy in a balanced mixed-gender environment where women make up about half of the participants.

The grey area, where I'm in a distinct and obvious minority but not the only woman, is really awkward because the tendency is still toward the locker-room-style behaviour, checked only by a a very awkward (and obvious) conscious effort to behave like men think they're supposed to behave around women. There's also usually a palpable resentment in the air.

And what's odd is that it's not the objectionable sexist behaviour that gets checked when F=2. Not at all. It's the completely ordinary, non-objectionable behaviour like cursing, as well as some of the activities that women can and want to be included in like drinking and discussion of politics. I'd argue that this change is in and of itself an expression of sexism.

ExpatGrad said...

@quasarpulse: I also sometimes find the situation of being in a small minority > 1 more difficult than being alone, something I only became aware of recently. For me, the problem is that if one-two other members my minority group are present in a larger majority group, I feel as if I have to choose between essentially ignoring them (which the majority group often does), and interacting preferentially with them (thereby isolating myself from the majority group). This goes not only for gender, but also (perhaps even more so) for nationality. I do very well being accepted by the locals in the country I live in, and I do well in groups that have a good mix of locals and foreigners. But when the foreigners are >=2 but <<40%, I often feel ghettoized. The main mechanism is language: I speak the local language fluently but since it is not my native language, I am far more sensitive than the locals to the fact that many of the foreign scientists (who they have invited to work) here don't speak it. So in a group of N=10 and foreigners=2, the majority often slips into the local language, while I find myself speaking English with a new foreign grad student.

Anonymous said...

MsPhD, you are so lucky that you can complain that graduate students are shooting themselves in the foot by not having women on the thesis committee, with the knowledge that they *could* follow your advice. In my department of 50+ faculty members, there are only two women and neither of them is in an area even remotely related to thesis work. It would be impossible for me to have a woman on my thesis committee. Never thought of that...

ExpatGrad, you bring up an interesting point. There has been at least one instance in which F=2 has caused real conflict for me in a similar way: the other F wanted to talk about holiday traditions and family and I really wanted to talk with the M=3 about my current area of research and a book one of the guys was considering writing on a similar topic. That was extremely awkward and difficult. This was at lunch, rather than a committee meeting... but those situations always make me feel bad. Can't we ladies talk about work, too?

Anonymous said...

I totally understand. I am serving on a major science review panel soon and, not only am I the only female panelist (of 12), I also noted that all of the proposals to be reviewed that have female PIs are assigned to me. Hmmm. makes me wonder about the conversations that occurred before I was asked to be on this panel.......

Anonymous said...

So it seems that where F=1 can lead to gender stereotyping, F > or =2 can increase it proportionally.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how in "social" situations with groups of men, I actually have found that it was better to be F=1. For example, there was a little bit of status attached to being the only female member of a sports team, but once F=2, all bets were off and we were just weak links on the team...

Hilary said...

Hi. I used your post as the basis for my own (http://thecenter.chemheritage.org/?p=1623) on the Center for Contemporary History and Policy's blog.