Thursday, June 03, 2010

Too Many Women?

A strange question from a reader, with some background information:

I'm a nearly-done PhD student in engineering. I am a woman. My Master's thesis advisor was a man. My PhD thesis advisor is a woman... I did a research abroad program last summer .. and my advisor was a woman. I will do another research abroad program this summer, this time in [another country], and my advisor will be a woman.

So here is the question: as I look for a postdoc and I think about my recommendation letters, I will probably have 3 out of 4 letters be from women. In my field (engineering/physics) women are still very rare. Will there be a tendency for people on my reviewing committee to see this as a warning sign? (i.e., that I work better with women?) Also, I am starting to make connections for my postdoc, and one of the faculty who is doing the most interesting research in the area is a woman at an Extremely Excellent University. If I happen to get an offer and happily work with her for a few years, will having my last 4 academic advisors being women be seen as a bad sign?


On one hand, I think this is all stupid and people should judge me based on my research and the research of my advisors (which is high-quality), but at the same time I am concerned with the prejudice that I still see in academia that I might be setting myself up for an uphill climb when looking for a tenure-track position.

Thoughts? It frustrates me that this would never be an issue if the gender issue was reversed (a male student with almost all male advisors), but based on research about the impact of having female names on a paper submission, etc, I don't want anyone to get any negative impressions from my recommenders' names/genders.



Do we really have to go straight from being concerned about the lack of women faculty in STEM fields to being worried that someone with female advisers will be viewed as unable to work with men? Perhaps we do (the cynical side of me says, understanding where the e-mail writer is coming from), but I hope we don't (the optimistic/delusional side of me argues).

My take on this:

If you do the usual things -- publish, publish, publish; have excellent letters; be visible at conferences at which you have interesting conversations with a wide range of people -- then your applications for jobs should be competitive. And if you get an interview, you should be able to dispel any concerns about your ability to work with a diverse group of faculty, students, and others by having successful, friendly, constructive interactions during the interview.

I have been on hiring committees that had some members who routinely devalued the opinions of female letter writers and the qualifications of female applicants, but committees today also typically include others who notice such behavior and don't let it pass unmentioned.

In theory, another fairness filter occurs at a higher level, in which an "equal opportunity" office is supposed to gaze at the demographics or other data related to an applicant pool relative to the interview pool (and possibly also the make-up of the hiring committee) and see if there is a problem. In reality, I have found this stage to be completely gutless; at no point have I seen an EO office complain that an all-male hiring committee only came up with an all-male short list; these things can be explained away too easily.

So, you can't completely avoid unfair and irrational behavior by hiring committees and you can't count on other aspects of the system to catch any problems, but I think the plethora-of-women situation will likely not be a problem. It might be a curiosity, but not a problem.

Others may disagree..

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think it will be a problem. I am fairly cynical on the subject. People routinely de-value training and letters from women. I think this person is absolutely right to be worried. Unless every single one of her female letter writers is an extremely well known person, she might want to obtain at least one letter from a male scientist.

Anonymous said...

Find out what previous post-docs of woman at Extremely Excellent University are doing now. You should be doing this anyway and really, that is all you really need to know.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Does that mean that if the majority of supervisors that you've had are men, even though you're a women, you are classed as good or even great? How peculiar...

(Word verification was equallc!)

biochem belle said...

In my current institution/field, there are a number of incredibly fierce female PIs. I cannot imagine that having 'too many women' would reflect negatively on an applicant. Then again I am still relatively young and hold out a little hope for science.

That being said, in a seminar about negotiations, the speaker (a woman, by the way) highlighted the importance of having both female and male mentors (either formal or informal). The reason is the differences in the ways men and women approach negotiations (which I discuss in this post).

So my view: Having all female advisers shouldn't hurt in the application phase (with the occasional outlier, of course), but it will be important to establish even informal mentoring ties with some men in the field.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

If you have a strong record with these advisors, then you have made the right career choices and that's all anyone should look for in an ideal world, right?

I don't think the composition of letters will have a completely negligible effect on your job search. But it will be a small rather than an in surmountable obstacle. I think some places may take majority-female letters (presumably from well-known but female advisors) against you, but I think these places will be a minority and you probably don't want to work there anyway.

Chris said...

In addition to the points you make, I think there is something to be said for not wanting to work with people who consider the sex of recommenders to be a legitimate decision criterion.

FrauTech said...

As someone in engineering, I think this may actually impress future hypothetical male bosses. I'm frequently hearing guys say things like "oh right, you women don't get along with each other do you" or "i guess i better not put two women on this project or you won't get along." Remember working with men is the default, so I think proving you can work with women will just be points in your favor. I think there are some other negative impressions that might go along with having several women advisors but your ability to work with men just as easily is probably not one of them.

ratimpe said...

Even though most of your mentors have been female, what about the rest of the people you've worked with? Labmates, classmates, colleagues, collaborators, etc., surely they can't ALL be female. Anyone who looks at your CV and decides that you can't work with males has got a screw (or a few screws) loose.

Anonymous said...

I think there is good reason for the student to expect that faculty and departments exist that will discriminate based on the gender of the references.

However, this serves to create no quandary. Rather, this will serve as the canary in the coal mine indicating that the student would not be happy working with those faculty or in that department. Be happy the bias revealed itself early.

I can honestly say I never experienced anything I would describe as discrimination until I became faculty. My best advice is listen to your gut instincts, don't waste your time with the notion that your competence will change someone’s mind... the tenure clock is too short.

Go for the postdoc with the awesome female professor, make your own path, and go AROUND the obstacles (do not engage them as they are not worth your valuable time).

Trabor said...

Perhaps search committees will be less likely to assume that her work is not her own, and was in fact done by her smarter (male) advisor.

Taking the postdoc with the most interesting research at the Extremely Excellent U sounds reasonable to me.

prodigal academic said...

I agree with FSP. In my (limited) experience, your CV is the most important part of your application. Your letters are secondary to that. It is helpful to have at least one letter writer who is known to someone on the committee (as kind of a calibration), but no one would bat an eyelash that you worked with so many women, other than maybe to note that it is a bit unusual. Hopefully this will be a "problem" that more people have in the future!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your take on this, FSP. Reader, I would suggest that you work with your first choice for a postdoc advisor, and not worry about whether you will be perceived as someone who can only work with women. I am a female associate prof in engineering, and I've been on search committees in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, and physics departments. I have never heard a comment like this when discussing a female candidate who has worked with a female advisor. It sounds like all of your letter-writers will be fabulous people who are well-known in your field -- search committees are more likely to look at this and say, "Wow, great letters for this canddiate from X, Y, and Z!" You'll also have the advantage of working with a postdoc advisor who really can provide some mentoring and inspiration on navigating the system as a female faculty member.

The only thing I have heard that has come close to this was a comment made in regards to an NSF proposal, and then it was as more of a curiosity ("Oh, look, the PI and all the co-PIs on this proposal are women, interesting.").

Anonymous said...

Since this situation is so unusual for the reason the candidate says, probably there is no one with much experience seeing how committees in this field will deal with it. Indeed it should't be a problem, and probably won't, but there is no way to guarantee some committee somewhere wouldn't have the reaction she's concerned about. I don't think she should choose a different advisor just to get a male, but if she's really concerned about it, she could cultivate a collaboration or other professional relationship with some friendly male senior scientist, at the same institution or elsewhere, to get one more letter. It wouldn't be a totally crass thing to do, as a wide range of relationships with senior scientists is not a bad thing for anyone regardless of the gender of either party.

chall said...

One would hope that the advisors who she have had are all well published scientists (on top of being women I mean) and that would be a better indication if the LoR are well recieved.

I do understand thugh, that it may be a bias against "female scientist in general and therefore her advisors might not be recognized as as good as they are" but I am hoping this is not true and we are over this.

If they aren't well published though, my guess is that is might be more obvious since they are female (all in the lines of "a woman needs to be twice as good to be recognized as half as good")

Anonymous said...

I don't know how having mostly female advisers would affect you, and suspect it would depend on a lot of other factors (including your CV, the field, and the specific women). But, I think it's possible that the discrimination against your advisers could affect you.

So, what do you do? You could, as FSP suggests, make sure you address any reasonable issues that might arise fro you choices (i.e. are you unwilling to work with men). But, if you're raising the issue of whether you should make different choices because others might discriminate, well, then, you're suggesting that you discriminate yourself. I've said this before, in other contexts, and I think doing so, would make you guilty, and wrong. Yeah, if you have the choice, you could choose self interest over avoiding the guilt, but making decisions based on the fact that others will discriminate is wrong.

Anne said...

Thank you for this post (and thank you to the original email writer!) - I've wondered about the exact same question. My undergrad research advisor and now my PhD advisor are both female. The professor I'm most strongly considering post-doc-ing for is also female. While all three of these women are well-known, excellent researchers, if anybody were to raise the question, I suppose I could point out that most of my collaborators and co-authors are men...

Anonymous said...

I have this kind of CV - female advisers in undergrad, grad school, and postdoc (and I went to a women's college for undergrad!). My field is chemistry, which I imagine is less male-dominated than engineering, but it is still unusual to have all female advisers. When deciding on my postdoc position, I had the same concerns as email writer. There were definitely faculty who noticed and commented upon this (simply as a curiosity, I think, although there were a few snarky comments from male PhD students), but I think I picked the right *person* for my postdoc adviser and my subsequent job search was quite successful.

Anonymous said...

All other things being equal, I definitely think this is a problem. I found myself having inadvertently requested letters from 3F and 1M in a recent job foray, and instantly being dismayed at the discovery. The 3F were excellent, solid choices, but the combination was far weaker than if I had chosen an equivalent M that I could have asked instead. I base this assessment on how I would have perceived it myself, having been on selection committees. Even though I'm female too, regrettably I found myself just as susceptible to these biases.

Anonymous said...

the letters are virtually meaningless, it's moot point because all applicants will have good recommendation letters (from males and females). The final decision will not be based or come down to the reference letters; trust me. What the search committee will be looking at is your productivity, publications and if you have generated any of your funding or awards. A good advisor is going to help you with the prior mentioned things so pick a good one regardless of their sex. The choice of an advisor is very personal, but also critical to your career, pick someone you will work well with (not necessarily like), also make sure they are recognized in their discipline, even assistant profs display this quality early on in their career so no need to avoid those.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Frau Tech, I agree with your point that female students having female supervisors are a plus in the engineering/physical sciences. However, I don't agree that our male counterparts' assumptions are ill-founded. I know this looks weird but consider the fact that most of them were for short-term projects, I've worked in four male-dominated labs and three female-dominated labs (that's acutally quite weird now to come to think about it...no equal-weighted?) Just for the sake of clarity one of the female-dominated labs was lead by a man (I do wonder whether he enjoys it or it's just something that he had to put up with...) Anyway, up to this point my experience is, the girls in girls-in-minority labs hates each other and if one of them in Girls-in-majority labs is slighty better than the rest she gets hated/bitched about, though it's more contained if man was leading (it feels kind of primeaval to me...) Hence my preference to male-dominated labs...not that I like to be part of the boys and diss the girls, but because there's a better chance of me hearing about science than more casual bitching.

I do sometimes wonder if it was just my luck...

Kea said...

I can only dream of having female collaborators, colleagues or students.

Anonymous said...

I disagree completely with anonymous at 1257 about the relevance of letters. I have been involved in a number of searches from postdoc to senior faculty and in most cases the letters are a significant factor in the decision, at least in making the initial short list. This is more so the more junior is the candidate, and also more so the better the committee members know the letter writers (and thus are better able to calibrate them). It is also especially true when the candidate's field is not the expertise of many on the committee - but that is often the case.

Kevin said...

"the letters are virtually meaningless, "

I disagree. The information in the letters is used heavily in deciding who to interview. Of course, no letter can compensate for a weak CV, but a strong letter from a trusted source can move someone up enough in the ranking to substantially improve their chance of being interviewed.
Weak letters from people who barely know the applicant or have only generic things to say can move a person way down.

The fame of the letter writer is not that important---someone that the committees knows and trusts is what matters.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience but with ethnicity rather than gender. I did my Ph.D. in a Spanish-speaking country, and a postdoc in a top research university in the US with a Hispanic advisor. When considering what to do next, I decided to change fields slightly and applied to a second postdoc position in a very well known university with a professor that is the absolute leader in the field. This scientist happens to be Hispanic, and to my surprise, I had a few people advising me against taking the position because in their words, it would look very bad to have only Hispanic advisors. These people were professors, so it is clear that my CV would have bothered them regardless of the fact that Hispanic advisor #2 walks on water and has received every possible award except the Nobel (yet).

I of course took the position, and although I have no way of knowing what people thought of my resume when applying to faculty positions, I strongly suspect his name helped enormously.

There's only one successful woman in my field, and I know for a fact that her letters mean a lot to everybody reading them.

Observant Academic said...

Interesting.

My first adviser was male, too, but all subsequent undergrad & grad advisers (n=5) were female. In fact, on all my publications (and conference presentations) so far, all my co-authors are female, meaning that all my reference letters (for grants/postdocs) have been and will be written by female scientists (while the majority is male).

I haven't experienced any problems yet... That being said, two of my former advisers have non-English names, so perhaps that people assume they are male?

Anonymous said...

I would agree heartily with the "canary in the gold mine" aspect. I interviewed for my postdoc at about 7 months pregnant. I was told by my (male) PhD mentor that this was a very bad idea and that I should at least warn the prospective postdoc mentors ahead of time (I guess so they could reject me earlier??). In the end it was a great barometer of where I would have a mentor supportive of women in science with families. And by the way, that fantastically supportive postdoc mentor turned out to be a 70 year-old male nobel prize winner!