Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Not To Say

If you are a program officer for a major funding organization (example: NSF), here's what not to say to a young female scientist who asks you for advice about a particular funding opportunity for which she is considering applying:

I'm not supposed to say this, but.. you're female, you're young.. [smirk/wink].

I wasn't there, but my young colleague told me about this conversation, which offended her. The program officer is inexperienced and (fortunately) in a non-permanent position, but that is little comfort to my young colleague.

Here's what I want to say to the new guy at NSF:

Please leave your paranoid sexism at home when you go to work.

Please start from the assumption that a female scientist might get funding based entirely on intellectual merit. Yes, I know that one aspect of the NSF broader impacts criterion is to "broaden participation of under-represented groups", and to some that statement is synonymous with "unqualified women will get funded at the expense of more deserving men" and "women think they should get funding just for being women", but look at what that particular young female scientist with whom you were conversing has already accomplished. She has done some extraordinary work and published a lot. Don't patronize her.

And please look at the data showing the distribution of NSF funding with respect to PI gender for your program. I've seen it and know that it clearly demonstrates that women do not have a special advantage over men for funding.

And while you're at it, look at the data on proposal success rate as a function of geography. Then ask yourself whether you would ever say to a white male scientist from, say, North Dakota or Idaho:

I'm not supposed to say this, but .. you're from an EPSCoR state.. [smirk/wink].

Well, maybe this particular person would say that, come to think of it.

44 comments:

Becky said...

Uggg, you wouldn't believe how many times I've heard that. I've been told that at every level of my academic career. When I got into my undergrad institution, when I won a scholarship to my undergrad institution, when I got into grad school, when I won fellowships for grad school.

In fact, I've pretty much never accomplished anything without hearing about how it's because I'm female.

Alyssa said...

Seriously? Actually, I can believe it. I was just at a conference for Women in Astronomy, and the number of stories like that is disturbing.

EliRabett said...

No, they will say or at least think that. The reason is not necessarily what you are writing.

Each program officer has a pot of funding to distribute. In cases where someone is young, from an EPSCOR state, a woman, or an under-represented minority or working at a minority serving institution, the program officer can, and will go to the Human Resources division or other places and ask for partial funding, which, if it comes through, allows funding of additional highly ranked programs. This makes it not a zero sum game because the pool of money can be expanded.

It's not that your friend's proposal is worse or better than the others that the PO would want to fund, it's that it can bring in additional $ to the program because of her status.

YMMV on whether he should have said that, but that's what happens at NSF, DOE and various DOD places. NIH is a world to itself.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, some of my peer professors say comments like that...

Anonymous said...

Except the specific NSF panels I served on did indeed suggest giving special treatment to the applicants because they *were* female.

Can't have it both ways...

female Science Professor said...

Actually, you can have it both ways. You can start from the assumption that a female scientist is fully deserving of funding, you can treat her with respect, and you can avoid implying that the only way she will get funding is from some special program. Women do get funding based on scientific merit.

Anonymous said...

"broaden participation of under-represented groups"

Let us examine which of the following behaviours is compatible with the motto above. Please note that only 1 of the following 3 scenarios is possible.

1. Deserving women passed over for undeserving men.

Not compatible with the motto.

2. Men and Women given projects purely on merit with gender having 0 weight in the process.

Makes it redundant to state the motto.

3. Deserving men passed over for undeserving women.

Could it be...could it just be... that this is exactly what this motto is saying (in the context of the gender)

FSP... this is not fair. You have to accept it that sometimes... sometimes... women are handed things just for being women. The sentence "Deserving men passed over for undeserving women" is just a blunt way of expressing the truth. Sorry if you don't like it.

Have you heard of a certain Mrs. Palin? That's a spectacular example of how women do get handed things just for being women.

I am not saying that the majority of women have achieved what they have because of such "affirmative action". There is no credible methodology to test that hypothesis (as far as I know). But please remember, EVEN IF 1 in 1000 NSF grants is awarded to a woman just for being a woman, its still a bias. You should warm to this reasoning; remember the theory of MICRO-INEQUITIES?

Who, me? said...

Grr. If anyone said that to me, I'd tear them a new one. Any HINT that I might have EVER received a job/grant/award etc. based on my gender and not my merit/ability would infuriate me to no end. Affirmative action drives me bonkers.

Anonymous said...

It's well known that funding rates are at an all-time low ... single digits in most cases. There are legions of highly, highly qualified projects that go un-funded, from both male and female applicants.

I am thus completely befuddled as to why or how ANYONE would turn this around to say that a female applicant was only funded because she was female, implying that her science was unworthy.

Anyone who comes anywhere NEAR the funding line is already immensely qualified.

The problem here is that, as someone said above, the same 'wink wink' wouldn't have been given to a man from North Dakota; one assumes that his science is already supreme.

Anonymous said...

3. Deserving men passed over for undeserving women.

Could it be...could it just be... that this is exactly what this motto is saying (in the context of the gender)

No, I don't think this is what the motto means at all. You neglected an important instance... equally deserving men and women, who both merit funding and/or recognition, however given limited funds only one can be funded. In that instance the female researcher may be funded to "broaden participation of under-represented groups."

Affirmative action does not mean hiring or funding people who are not qualified. It means picking from the pool of qualified individuals to boost underrepresented groups. There is a very important distinction there.

SBF said...

Anonymous of 8:29AM -- Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. You are taking the premise that without these initiatives, deserving women and deserving men will be awarded grants on the basis of merit. It doesn't happen. The current default is that less deserving men are frequently funded over deserving women. The initiatives are an attempt to redress that balance. Let's not pretend that the world is a fair place. The legacies of history and cultural norms still mean that deserving minorities and women are passed over regularly due to a variety of conscious and subconscious biases. You have them. I have them. We are none of us fully objective beings.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, honestly I don't quite get this one. I think most people (men and women) agree that some amount of affirmative action is good and benefits us all by way of correcting entrenched imbalances and increasing diversity. Given that, don't we all understand that affirmative action means giving small advantages to underrepresented minorities (women in physics, for example)? That is not to say that a particular woman is not extremely meritorious and 110% deserving of certain opportunities. But it is also unfair to deny the fact that women are specifically (and explicitly) given advantages for certain funding and hiring opportunities.

That's the whole point. And OF COURSE it means that in certain situations (I don't know if these are 1% or 5% or 20% of cases) minorities that would otherwise be undeserving if they weren't minorities are given funding. Again: that's the whole point.

The PO sounds like a jerk, but it's also unfair to deny reality. If people are uncomfortable with affirmative action they should change it, but as Anon@7:56 said, you can't have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

Dammit, where's my affirmative action job?! I'd take it! People keep telling me I'll certainly get one!

...

Until the percentage of tenured women faculty in math at R1s goes from 9% to 25%, surpassing the percentage of qualified women PhDs those same R1s put out, I'm not going to believe this bullshit. Someone can call my NSF officer and tell him I need my money, though, if they really believe it will help.

Anonymous said...

A real life experiment:

"Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister's work."

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/47186.php

Need more proof?

Helen Huntingdon said...

I've heard that so many times I've lost track.

Yeah, whatever, someone somewhere may have heard a friend tell a story of a cousin three times removed who is sure he got passed over only because the other candidate was a woman. It doesn't change the fact that for nearly all women in STEM fields we see men treated with favoritism, not once in our lives, not applying for one grant, but dozens of times a year, year in and year out.

If I'm in competition for a job with a man with research skills and experience equivalent to mine, and he's an asshole at work, I will probably get the job. He will spend the rest of his life saying it's because I'm a woman. The reality is that I'm not an asshole at work unless the ethical performance of my job requires it in a specific instance.

I do laugh when some bitter dude complains that so-and-so is more willing to talk to me than to him because I'm a woman. Uh, no, it's because I'm pleasant and respectful along with being brilliant. I'm always amazed at the neverending supply of men in STEM fields who think they deserve to be nasty to their coworkers and not have it held against them. Wake up cranky guys, professional conduct is part of the job.

Helen Huntingdon said...

Given that, don't we all understand that affirmative action means giving small advantages to underrepresented minorities (women in physics, for example)?

I've never seen that happen. What I have seen happen is that it takes some hardcore browbeating to tone down the various methods and excuses used to select against women without admitting that's what's happening.

Helen Huntingdon said...

And OF COURSE it means that in certain situations (I don't know if these are 1% or 5% or 20% of cases) minorities that would otherwise be undeserving if they weren't minorities are given funding.

Nope. What is means is that when you stop artificially protecting white men from competition and let everybody compete, the bar for "deserving" gets raised. That's the whole point of discriminating in the first place -- those doing it don't want to deal with competition, so they look for ways to exclude some of it so they can slack off a bit.

Anonymous said...

We have to work with what's dealt to us in life including the chromosomes we acquire.

I like to think that being an academic underdog (aka female professor) gives me an advantage. I get to work on ideas when no one else is willing to even notice them and by the time they jump on them I have already established dominance.

At that time 'the red queen' kicks in and I have to work harder to stay in the lead, luckly females are far superior at hard work and ability to multitask.

As an eternal optimist (the only way to survive in academia as a female) I think it's a win\win, every day kind of a day for me.

STP said...

Here's pretty good evidence that being female is more likely to hinder your grant application than help it.

www.advancingwomen.org/files/7/127.pdf

Sure, it's not from the US, but Scandinavian countries are generally thought to be fairly egalitarian.

Helen Huntingdon said...

This makes it not a zero sum game because the pool of money can be expanded.

It's not that your friend's proposal is worse or better than the others that the PO would want to fund, it's that it can bring in additional $ to the program because of her status.


And the reason these funds get set up in the first place is because protecting the few from competition is so entrenched that you have to bribe people out of it to make any progress at all.

Anonymous said...

You neglected an important instance... equally deserving men and women, who both merit funding and/or recognition, however given limited funds only one can be funded. In that instance the female researcher may be funded to "broaden participation of under-represented groups."

Fair point... but please note that this is almost a recipe for disaster! The woman who gets a leg up for being a woman will then get an extra opportunity... initial funding will lead to more funding. By the rich getting richer rule in science, the woman with the same merit as the men 10 yrs ago will now be far ahead...all for being a woman.

You know...feminists are usually counted as liberals...and I always thought that liberals did not subscribe to the idea of collective guilt. That is what explains their generous attitude to the Moslem nations. To hold young male scientists of today responsible for what was done 50 years ago and to punish them for that doesn't sound so...er...liberal.

Anonymous said...

I don't get this. What happened to the brutal directness in science? Just walk up and say : I am a woman; women have been denied a fair chance for centuries and therefore we believe that we are entitled to some special treatment as a reparation.

Do not demand special treatment as well as sugarcoated platitudes.

But it remains to be seen what the culture of reparations will do to science. In short, is it really a good idea to run science on the same lines as politics?

another junior FSP said...

I have heard that over, and over, and over again. Every time I've gotten any kind of award. I hate it. There is no better way to killjoy my graduate fellowship, or my faculty position, or my early career grant award, than to say "So, did you get that because you're female?"

And of course, when confronted, the person who asks that question immediately backtracks that because they couldn't possibly mean such a thing.

It fills me with rage. And happens EVERY SINGLE TIME I get any kind of honor or award that isn't completely based on quantitative numerical comparisons.

Katie said...

Why do you refuse to understand? This isn't about punishment. This is about trying to counter the conscious and unconscious biases that constantly work against females and minorities in science. Because, in your little scenario, the reviewers' biases would favor the man. Affirmative action works to counter this bias by providing a push to choose the woman, at least some of the time. She is not getting a leg up because she is a woman. She is getting an even playing field, despite the fact that she is a woman.

random comment said...

There are many many many random factors in getting jobs and grants that have nothing to do with merit. I'm glad that some of these random factors are biased in favor of women ... because as so many comments have pointed out, there are so many more random factors biased against women. (And then lots of factors that are gender-neutral, but still quite random.)

About the comment from the program officer: I look at this partly as "rejoice that in this rare case, a random factor is in your favor, and take advantage of it."

About comments implying that someone ONLY got a job or grant or award because of gender, I agree those are extremely offensive comments.

Drugmonkey said...

I am a bit slow today but what was the PO trying to communicate? That she was out of luck or that she would have an advantage due to some sort of affirmative action?

Anonymous said...

Last NSF panel I was on, when we reviewed our net ranking it was quickly noted that the female applicants were systematically ranked lower and much smaller percentage made the cutoff for funding.
When we dug into the rankings, it was clear that a couple of senior reviewers were systematically pushing down the rank of female applicants.

Both these reviewers were senior Female Professors in the field.
When asked, both said they did not want to give any appearance of special treatment for women applicants and had chosen to rank on an "objective" measure - which happened to push female applicants down those rankings.
The rest of the panel, both males and junior Female Scientists, were using a broader weighted combination of metrics, which systematically ranked female applicants more neutrally.

After some discussion we persuaded our colleagues to not use just one metric for ranking and the final ranks were statistically unbiased by gender.
That still left many high ranked proposals unfunded.

mareserinitatis said...

Of course women get special treatment and special funding. That's why there's so many women running around in science.

/sarcasm

Anonymous said...

"Fair point... but please note that this is almost a recipe for disaster! The woman who gets a leg up for being a woman will then get an extra opportunity... initial funding will lead to more funding. By the rich getting richer rule in science, the woman with the same merit as the men 10 yrs ago will now be far ahead...all for being a woman."

Except that, currently, males benefit regularly from all these tiny little bonuses where they get ranked ahead of equally deserving (if not more deserving) females. In fact, they've been benefitting from those microinequities since they were in elementary school. So, when a male and female candidate appear equally qualified, it means that SHE'S BETTER. She has had fewer leg-ups than he has.

And, yes, I'm still a bit bitter about being given a temporary job while a less qualified male got the permanent job, putting me a year behind him on the career path for the rest of our lives.

Anonymous said...

a male colleague of mine likes to say of a successful, female, minority colleague that "she has two things going for her- her first name, and her last name". ughhh!!!!

Anonymous said...

I figure if I get "chick points" once in a while its a drop in the bucket against all the daily crap I put up (and yes I have tenure and grants)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Anon. 11:37:

"Oh dear God, won't somebody please think about the men?!?"

::sigh::

EliRabett said...

"That still left many high ranked proposals unfunded."

which is the entire problem. You sit on a panel and are told you can only fund 2 of thirty and 5-8 REALLY need to be funded, and you can't choose between them, but the PO forces you, so you look for any way to differentiate them.

That, my friends, is arbitrary.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon at 8.29,
Are you one of the many students in my class who refuse to call me Prof. xyz, even though they call all my male colleague Prof.

Are you one of my students' parents who call me and asks me if there is a more qualified male professor they could speak to?

Are you one of my staff who asks me to move my meeting from a conference room that I reserved well in advance so a male faculty can have his meeting that he just scheduled?

Oh my life and the lives of all other women faculty is so much better than the life of male faculty!(sarcasm)

-another junior FSP (who got this job because of being a woman!)

Anonymous said...

"Except that, currently, males benefit regularly from all these tiny little bonuses where they get ranked ahead of equally deserving (if not more deserving) females. In fact, they've been benefitting from those microinequities since they were in elementary school. So, when a male and female candidate appear equally qualified, it means that SHE'S BETTER. She has had fewer leg-ups than he has."

I'm just a grad student with little real experience in the world of applying for and managing grants (I've helped write some of the ones in my group, but the politics of the process are foreign to me), but I'm guessing that when you look at young faculty applying for early career grants the way you compare candidates is through work they did in their grad school and postdoc years. I really doubt that most young women of them, much less all of them experienced so much sexism or microinequities during these years that it would have any kind of an impact on their CV or standing relative to their fellow male peers in their field. I'm certainly not saying it doesn't happen, but to say that all female candidates at the same level as a certain male candidate are better than him is taking it a bit too far.

Anonymous said...

we should all go by our initials, or better yet assign anonymous numbers to everyone that way it will be impossible for grant reviewers to know the applicant's gender or ethnicity.

Anonymous said...

"I'm certainly not saying it doesn't happen, but to say that all female candidates at the same level as a certain male candidate are better than him is taking it a bit too far."

I'm not saying that all female candidates at the same level as male candidates are better. That would be silly. I'm saying that if they appear identical on paper, she's had to do more to get to that point. Presumably, both candidates got into grad school based on their undergrad record. And they got into undergrad based on their high school record. So, while it may not be looked at directly, their whole history comes into play.

Then there's the reference letter factor. It has been demonstrated over and over that, of truly equally qualified candidates, the male will have better reference letters written for him. So, logically, if the reference letters are equally good, the female candidate is better.

Again, I'm referring to the on-paper appearance of the two candidates. If the male candidate truly is better, he will appear better on paper and he will get the grant/award/position. The problem is that we can't yet repeat that sentence replacing hte word "male" with "female".

Kevin said...

"we should all go by our initials, or better yet assign anonymous numbers to everyone that way it will be impossible for grant reviewers to know the applicant's gender or ethnicity."

This is a nice theory, but it does not work well in practice. Many people applying for grants already have a track record in the field, and their work should already be known to a peer review panel. Anonymity may work for brand-new people in the field, or for review panels which are completely clueless about the proposals they are reviewing, but the citations and research methods generally pin down who is proposing a project to a small number of individuals or groups. Descriptions of available research equipment (a necessary part of most grants) generally narrows the possible locations down to a handful also.

It is better to be honest about knowing who is applying for a grant than to pretend to do blind reviewing where most of the applicants are easily guessed.

Anonymous said...

Fair point... but please note that this is almost a recipe for disaster! The woman who gets a leg up for being a woman will then get an extra opportunity... initial funding will lead to more funding. By the rich getting richer rule in science, the woman with the same merit as the men 10 yrs ago will now be far ahead...all for being a woman.

But by far this happens the other way around - men and women both equally deserving but with limited funding in the end it's the men who get funded because of their old boys' networks and the still-prevalent cultural bias of men being more competent. And then like you said, initial funding leads to more funding, the rich get richer and so on....

Anonymous said...

And, yes, I'm still a bit bitter about being given a temporary job while a less qualified male got the permanent job, putting me a year behind him on the career path for the rest of our lives.

Anon, I'm bitter about being SEVERAL YEARS behind my male peers because of this. Not only am I still a temp worker, he was long ago made permanent and is now my boss!! and I know for a fact that I'm more qualified than he is, not to mention I've had more years of experience AND have a longer list of achievements, in fact I've achieved things he has never even had the guts to try. But I will be lucky to ever be made permanent meanwhile he is being fast-tracked up the ladder. How is that for bitter?

T.S. said...

"Many people applying for grants already have a track record in the field, and their work should already be known to a peer review panel. Anonymity may work for brand-new people in the field, or for review panels which are completely clueless about the proposals they are reviewing, but the citations and research methods generally pin down who is proposing a project to a small number of individuals or groups. Descriptions of available research equipment (a necessary part of most grants) generally narrows the possible locations down to a handful also."

While I can't dispute any of this, at the same time this just points again to why the institution of science is so messed up. Those who won a lucky break early on will now have a leg up to continue winning more and more, while those who did not win anything early on, will rapidly get pushed out without second or third chances. And just who will win the lucky break early on depends on so many biases like the people you associate with and your 'name brand.'

Kevin said...

"Those who won a lucky break early on will now have a leg up to continue winning more and more, while those who did not win anything early on, will rapidly get pushed out without second or third chances."

There is some truth to that, but it works the other way also. I've been denied grants because the NSF panelists thought I had lots of money, when in fact I had no funding at all (as now). If you continue to produce without funding, they assume that you're just lying about "current and pending grants".

Anonymous said...

Before my first meeting ever with an NSF PM (after I've already applied for an early career award), I prepared to talk about my work and pitch ideas to him. But when we met, he seemed completely uninterested in any technical work, and instead told me 'Good news. There is a good chance you will get the award, because you are a woman. But this is not 100% for sure yet -- you are not an American citizen, so that is working against you". Yes, he said that! I was shocked. Then he continued to ask me for gossip about the professors in the school I graduated from, asking about the ethnicity of a couple of famous professors from that institution.

I got the award. I guess being a woman helped me so much that they were willing to overlook my citizenship..... grrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I could have accepted the award if I knew so blatantly that I was receiving it only because of my gender, it would feel too much like a pity thing (or an insincere gesture meant as a political move) and I would get angry and insulted. But I guess if my ethnicity was going to work against me, and in the end I still did get the award then I would feel that the positive and negative biases canceled each other out and that would make me feel better about accepting the award in the end! (two wrongs making a right!)