Friday, July 09, 2010

In Which I am Thanked for not Being Biased Against Men

An alternative title for this post is:

Now I've Seen Everything (in a review)

To explain:

One possible example of a broader impact that can be mentioned in an NSF proposal is the extent to which the proposed research activities broaden the participation of underrepresented groups.

A topic of past discussion in this blog is whether to list yourself as a broader impact, if you are the PI or co-PI and are a member of an underrepresented group.

I don't mention myself as a broader impact in proposals anymore. At an earlier stage of my career, on at least one occasion I included myself, as one item in a list of BIs, and I got slammed in review for it by someone who took it as evidence that I was using my gender as an unfair tactic to get a grant. Never mind that I wasn't telling anyone anything they didn't already know (i.e., that I am female) and that it was therefore not a particularly clever tactic; including this factoid as an item in a list enraged at least one reviewer.

I stopped listing myself, not because I was afraid of getting such a negative reaction again, but because I changed my approach to the BI section. I used to adopt a comprehensive approach of noting all BIs relevant to my proposal. Now I just focus on what I think are the most important BI activities or elements of my proposed research.

Also, I got older, and it's not clear whether a tenured female professor fits the BI goal of broadening participation etc. anyway, except in a rather indirect way.

That brings us up to the present situation:

In one review of one of my recent proposals, I was thanked by one reviewer for not mentioning myself or other women involved in the project as a broader impact. The reviewer was very happy to see that my proposal was therefore not obviously biased against men.

OK... you're welcome.. but you know what? Even if I wrote in the BI section that the proposed research involved female investigators and therefore in some way helped broaden the participation of an underrepresented group, this does not demonstrate bias against men. It would be stating something that is part fact (I am the female PI whether I mention it in the proposal text or not) and part opinion (my involvement in research broadens the participation etc.); no men were excluded or oppressed to produce this proposal.

I think the reviewer was mostly expressing relief at not having to read what is apparently an annoying/enraging statement about the underrepresentation of women in Science; clearly the reviewer has seen such statements in other proposals. The reviewer comment was meant as a compliment, but I think the comment was inappropriate in a review and makes me wonder at the reviewer's comments in proposals by women who do mention that they are a broader impact. If I had mentioned in the proposal that women investigators were involved in the research, would the reviewer have rated this proposal lower, just because this obvious fact was explicitly stated?

I don't know, but, at the very least, thanking a woman PI in a proposal review for not mentioning that she is female is kind of weird.

22 comments:

FleaTamer said...

Maybe it was it the same reviewer on both occasions?

Historiann said...

This sounds like a compliment for not making them think about gender, although they're obviously thinking about your sex and that affects your proposals god-knows-how. So, it's a thank-you for not "using" your sex, so that the reviewers can continue using your sex however they like without being called to think about it.

Awesome!

Alyssa said...

...no men were excluded or oppressed to produce this proposal.

Ha! That made my day, and it's only 9:30am!

I'm surprised that one would get chastised for talking about women in the BI section of a grant application - after all, isn't that what that section is for?

Anonymous said...

I recently had a conversation with my PI (a female) about female representation in academia. Our shared opinion is that (a) the new batch of grad students - those in their 1st or 2nd year of grad school - are proportionally much more equal in gender than previous generations and (b) there are very valid (personal) reasons for females to not pursue a career upon graduation.

When I talk to my fellow grad students about where they want to be in 10 years, there is a stark difference between the males and females. The females entertain the possibility that, once they have children, they may choose an abbreviated schedule. At the very least they consider the impact that taking maternity leave and dealing with the physiological aspect of childbirth. I have yet to hear my male peers worry about the impact of pregnancy and child care on their career.

Gender equality in the workplace is more than being equally willing to hire/promote individuals based on merit and accomplishments. It involves understanding and accommodating the differences in how pregnancy and childcare affect the genders.

Anonymous said...

"at the very least, thanking a woman PI in a proposal review for not mentioning that she is female is kind of weird."

Yes, weird.

Anonymous said...

For some reason that comment reminds me of the "you're not like other black people" compliment.

It's a backhanded way for them to thank you for not making them uncomfortable.

Yet, at least.

Anonymous said...

thanking a woman PI in a proposal review for not mentioning that she is female is kind of weird.


You don't say. What an odd comment.

I do look forward to a future in which keeping track of people's race and gender is no longer necessary. Sadly we are not there yet, and depending on your field/social group/geographic location in many cases not even close.

Anonymous said...

I had a little bit of the opposite experience in some NSF panels. Somehow some people (including women) assume that if you are a young female it is your duty to address gender issues in your BI section and talk about how you will be a wonderful role model, etc. I have to confess that I was disappointed in two different occasions with proposals by early career female PIs that had very weak BI sections, and I found myself thinking 'why didn't she talk about being a female in her male-dominated field'? I reviewed a CAREER by a female from an extremely under-represented ethnic minority in a physics department (probably one of a kind), and I couldn't believe how she didn't even touch the issue of mentoring or doing anything regarding broadening the representation of minorities. Two minutes later, as I was writing my review, I starting debating with myself, and later with other female colleagues . The question is: you broke all the glass ceilings in the world to get to a position where the chances of finding somebody of your gender are less than 5% and the chances of finding somebody of your ethnicity. Does this imply that it is your duty to address these issues in your broader impacts activities?
I am also an ethnic minority (although not one of a kind), and I take it as a moral duty to help minority students overcome biases. However, why putting the burden of fixing these issues on minorities themselves? Is it fair to expect minority PIs to always be involved in activities designed to broaden the participation of minorities?
anyway, just a thought. I'm interested in hearing opinions.

unlikelygrad said...

@Anon 11:49:

Is it fair to expect minority PIs to always be involved in activities designed to broaden the participation of minorities?

I actually think it would be more useful to have the minority PIs taking on all the non-minority students, so they get accustomed to having minorities around and in charge.

As a non-unique-ethnic-minority woman, I have to say that I have always felt most comfortable with the mentoring provided by white males. I don't know why this is; perhaps it's because I subconsciously feel like they've let down the ladder and allowed me into their formerly all-white-guy domain.

Anonymous said...

this sounds like a something one of my undergrad lecturers said to us when we were choosing what chemistry factoid to use for an impromptu website...he told us very strongly not to do anything related to explosive, fireworks and weapons as, after however long the course had been running, he got tired/depressed at the thought of yet another 30 or so pages on the topic. I thought it was funny that he had a little spark in his eyes when I told him that I was going to do something complete different. I guess your reviewer was just feeling that...finally, something different to read about.

Anonymous said...

::alerting you to impending snark::

Don't you know how hard it is being a male, and constantly reminded of your privileged status? It can really wear on a person...

Sorry, I couldn't resist. I'm done being snarky for now.

Anonymous said...

To echo anonymous@11:49, I have also seen a *female* physical scientist working at a *women's* college criticized for not having sufficient broader impact as part of an NSF proposal. Along the lines of "I'm disappointed that they didn't capitalized on their site and gender" -- rather than recognizing that this particular broader impact would (a) happen automatically due to the student population at the institution and (b) impact a larger number of undergraduate women than any of the co-ed-institution proposals would. So, yes, the obvious does need to be stated.

ChrisF said...

I think a perhaps more useful way of addressing the broader impact issue would be to stress the type of training environment you'd hope to create. That would capture the benefits of more female role models in science, which are significant, without the awkward construction of claiming one's gender as an automatic "broader impact."

Alex said...

I have also seen a *female* physical scientist working at a *women's* college criticized for not having sufficient broader impact as part of an NSF proposal. Along the lines of "I'm disappointed that they didn't capitalized on their site and gender" -- rather than recognizing that this particular broader impact would (a) happen automatically due to the student population at the institution and (b) impact a larger number of undergraduate women than any of the co-ed-institution proposals would.

And since most (all?) women's colleges are primarily (though not always exclusively) undergraduate institutions, I'm guessing that this person already spends a lot of her time having an impact on people at an early stage of their scientific training.

To the extent that a broader impact is often about just being a good citizen, scientist, and teacher (i.e. mentoring students, sharing knowledge of your field with the public) rather than something very specific to the project (e.g. increasing the public's knowledge of electronic properties of material X in situation Y when interacting with biomolecule Z), I sometimes wonder if we could do comparisons of very candid descriptions of how people spend their time:

Scientist A (private research university): "When I am not doing this research project, I will be spending 3 hours/week lecturing to undergrads who could afford the tuition here, and 1 hour/week in an elementary school classroom talking about science."

Scientist B (primarily undergraduate institution, all-female, or large minority population, or large economically disadvantaged population): "When I am not doing this research project, I will be spending 12 hours/week teaching students from [insert applicable populations here]."

Both of them also say something about mentoring a handful of students in the lab.

Scientist A would be applauded for devotion to outreach. Scientist B would be described as simply doing his/her job. Scientist B is probably impacting more people at an early stage of their training. This is not to say that I don't respect the work of scientist A, since mentoring grad students is very, very intensive, but if you want to look at the breadth of impact rather than the intensity of impact, and look at the person's total work as a scientist, then scientist B deserves some major kudos as well.

But scientist B cannot put that into a broader impact statement. Scientist B can mention working with undergrads from [insert population here], but had better have something else as well. In fact, since scientist B probably has less time for research and hence might have a somewhat weaker Intellectual Merit statement, the Broader Impact has to be even bigger and bolder to be convincing. Which means scientist B must spend even more time on outreach or curriculum development or whatever in order to get the grant to do the research.

EliRabett said...

The post raises two issues for Eli, the first is that when reviewing he would rather see one outreach activity, well described and focused rather than a scattergun approach.

The second is that since everyone spends time in their proposal describing previous work, the same approach should be taken to outreach activities and mentoring. In particular, if you have mentored many students (esp. under represented folk) be sure to put it in your proposal and your bio sketch. If nothing else it establishes that your broader impacts component is not 100% smoke.

Micro Dr. O said...

Unbelievable - that's all I've got.

AnonProfessor said...

... I'm surprised that one would get chastised for talking about women in the BI section of a grant application - after all, isn't that what that section is for?...

Well, no, it's not -- not as I understand the official languages on broader impacts. Read the NSF guidance on broader impacts. For instance, the official description of the broader impacts can be found here:

http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappguide/nsf08_1/gpg_3.jsp

You will note that those criteria relate to the impact of the proposed activity upon society, the community, the field, etc. None of those criteria relate to the gender of the proposer; they are about the impact of the activity upon the broader community.

That's not to say that the gender of the proposer is necessarily 100% irrelevant -- but it's ridiculous to suggest that the gender of the proposer is "what the broader impacts section is for".

Alex said...

but it's ridiculous to suggest that the gender of the proposer is "what the broader impacts section is for".

Actually, given all of the conflicting things I've heard from program officers and reviewers, and the wide range of things that I've seen in Broader Impact statements, I don't know that anybody really has a definitive answer on "what the broader impacts section is for." Yeah, yeah, there's a publication explaining it, but what is written on paper and what is done in practice are often two different things.

engineering girl said...

Although we do need to create more awareness of inequality, I guess there is something to be admired about the minority who never mentions his/her status and just plows forward and climbs to the top.

I once knew an African American who refused to put his race on his college applications, and still got into quite a few good places. Now, I see nothing with putting down your race (or gender) on college applications (or broader impacts section). I also think it is very valid for something like a broader impacts section. I also think there are quite a few people who just don't understand what minorities go through. Even so, that African American guy deserves some props for doing that.

Anonymous said...

I am a male faculty member and I have to say, it continually surprises me how ignorant people are. (not the posters here, the reviewer). I love reading your blog, FSP, even though its often depressing and sad :)

Trabor said...

The broader impacts criterion is written so broadly that it is a mistake to assume it is about any one thing. As far as I'm concerned, the shortage of senior women in the physical sciences means that, yes, FSP's femaleness alone counts as "broadening the participation of underrepresented groups." But it is obviously perilous to put it down.

FSP, I also love your blog, but I find it depressing that so many commenters find it depressing (I don't think it is depressing at all!). I appreciate how you handle these kinds of (not uncommon) incidents with grace and humor.

Brandi Badass said...

Tenured women faculty were represented by about 29% in the life sciences in 2003 (7% in engineering).

"Broader impact" is an understatement. If those numbers were released using any other under-represented group- the cavalry would have rolled in by now.

It's an issue and we need to start using our smack-hands to address it.