Thursday, January 19, 2012

Because I'm a Woman

A reader writes:

Dear Female Science Professor,

Maybe you had this topic before on your Blog but I was wondering if you do also frequently receive offers to occupy leading positions "because you are a woman". I am a female science professor at an institution with few female professors - in fact I think we are far less than 10%. This is a big political issue, because our institute may get a cut in the annual budget if the situation is not improving soon. I received already several offers to become a committee leader, a department head etc.. I was always asked by males and they were not hiding the fact that they asked me, because "we" need more women in leading positions. I really wished one day I would be asked, because someone thinks I am the best match for this job... I also wonder if it is sometimes a satisfaction for the males to let us women know that we were chosen just to balance the genders. Honestly, sometimes I start taking it as a discrimination to be asked for these jobs, because it means extra time that I have to spend with these duties and sometimes it is impossible to step out, because I would risk to imbalance the male-female ratio, which would fall back negatively on our institution. I am not at all a feminist - never was. I was always the girl who preferred to play with boys as a child and I always saw myself simply for what I am - free of gender thoughts. I was never feeling treated diffently, because I am a women. But this new situation is really starting to annoy me. Don't get me wrong, its better to get these jobs offered than to be left out, but I just wished I could think I "earned" them....



Answers/comments:

You very likely have earned these opportunities, but it is common to feel otherwise. I have discussed this topic before in the blog, but it's one of those topics that never goes away because many of us experience this situation throughout our careers* and have mixed feelings about it, as expressed well in the e-mail above. This is a situation that would presumably go away if there were more women in our fields.

One reason the 'we need a woman' situation makes some of us uncomfortable is that we want to be given opportunities based on our expertise and talents, but sometimes this isn't going to happen unless there is a concerted effort to try to include women in certain administrative positions, committees and so on. I have served on many committees that needed a woman (and there weren't many women to ask), resented those cases in which it was made clear to me that my token status made my participation less valuable than those of the men, and been convinced many a time that my presence was important, even if I had to put up with some unpleasant behavior on the part of my so-called peers. It bothers me less in cases in which I am aware that the committee (or whatever) 'needed' a woman, but once there, I am treated with respect, just like everyone else.

Our mixed-feelings can result in the unfair accusation that 'we don't know what we want'; that is, we think women should be represented but we don't want it to be overt that we are asked because we are women. We resent having to do more service than our male peers (and not get credit for it, or even get criticized for it), but we are disturbed when important committees (etc.) are composed entirely of men. What do we want? It's simple: We want to be treated with respect.

Note that being "free of gender thoughts" does not disqualify you from being a feminist. The fact that you think women should be treated in a fair way, based on our qualifications, does in fact make you a feminist. This is a compliment. A feminist is a person who thinks that women should have fair and equal rights and opportunities. If you think that your male peers should be paid more than you for the same job, then OK, you are not a feminist.

* In fact, just a few weeks ago, I received an invitation to serve on the board of the Zombie Research Society. The invitation explained "We are actively looking for qualified women to join the Board." Despite my intense fascination with all things zombie (= sarcasm/lie), I was struck by the 'we are only asking you because you are a woman' line. I was not offended at all, but I noted the up-front statement. Alas, only qualified women are being considered, and I am definitely not qualified for this role because I am more interested in dryer lint than I am in zombies.

26 comments:

rosa said...

When I am invited onto committees because I am a woman (or sometimes because I am a token scientist!!) I take it as an opportunity to represent the diverse people who share my values and opinions and I try to speak up whether I will be heard or not. At the same time, I pick my opportunities and thus my battles. They asked for it when they asked for me. If I am disrespected I try not to take offence because then everybody loses. I said try...

Anonymous said...

Although I am only a postdoc, I've been asked already a couple of times to be part of a committee, only because they needed a woman. But what really pissed me off was that in both cases they told me so only after I accepted. I think it would have been fair to tell me that I was needed because of my gender (besides the position was related to my topic anyway and I was qualified for that job). I noticed some colleagues (especially the young one) are ashamed sometimes to make this clear because they started to realize that this is a sensitive topic.

Anonymous said...

I am not at all a feminist - never was.

To quote Cheris Kramarae "feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

Sadly the radicalization of academic feminism has lead to the unfortunate situation where a woman feels unrepresented by a movement which, at heart, has a basic human right as its goal. Because of this some people nowadays prefer the term "gender equality".

Anonymous said...

This is one of the great dichotomies in gender and ethnic balance. On the one hand we (females) don't want to be asked to serve just because we are females. On the other hand, diversity committees often work to ensure, for example, that search committees contain at least one woman or one underrepresented minority. We ask because but don't want to be asked because. I think we need to make the assumption that we are qualified; we are not being asked because we are women or minorities, we are being asked because we are qualified and there is increasing recognition that diversity is valuable. Never had a woman on a committee before and are asking me? Great! Let me show you what a wise decision that was!

Optixmom said...

I was asked to be the Chair of a high profile committee (that I had just joined as a member for two weeks prior) and the individual asking (male) wanted to be clear on the reasons that I was being asked. He stated that there were three main reasons and he gave them to me in order of importance: I was a woman, I was a young woman, and I had great enthusiasm that led the group in a positive direction. I was flabbergasted that this individual would place my gender and then my age above my character, but I did accept the position. I knew that I could do great things for this committee if given the opportunity, which I did.

Opportunity comes in many forms and as much as this "guy" was pretty clueless on why a woman would make a great leader or addition to a committee I was happy to have that opportunity. It is not my problem if there were others who thought I got the job just to make some sort of quota, it is theirs.

Anonymous said...

Dear Reader,
Although women have been in the workforce for some time now, your letter demonstrates that women still haven’t achieved equality, especially in regard to higher positions. While I appreciate your reaction to being asked to occupy leading positions “because you are a woman” as being disrespectful, do consider the fact that you have been asked to occupy the leading position (full stop). Does this position interest you? Is this an opportunity for you to enact change? More importantly, do you think you can do a good job? If you answer yes to those questions, then take the position regardless of the clause “because you are a woman”. Your desire to be offered a position based on your excellent candidacy is a goal shared by many and, as your letter demonstrates, society isn’t there just yet (and we are in 2012...sigh). A word of caution: be aware that it may take many rounds of having women in these leading positions before the person occupying the position will be judged for what they do on their merit rather than having their actions interpreted based on gender. This is an unfortunate reality.

Anonymous said...

I can't help guessing from the particular grammar errors and non-idiomatic use of English in this email that the writer likely comes from a German-speaking country...

Anonymous said...

I have a similar concern. I'm graduating in a few months and applying for postdocs, and many of my peers have told me straight out that I will have an easier time on the job market because of my gender.

I don't believe this will be the case... I've seen the statistics, and if anything, it seems that women are underrepresented in academic jobs proportional to the number of female graduate students. But I can't argue against the existence of affirmative action policies, job listings which encourage women to apply, anecdotal evidence of a supposedly underqualified woman getting a job, etc.

I suppose this is premature, since I don't have an offer yet, only some interviews, but if I get a job, I'm wondering if I can convince the people I'm close to, like my boyfriend and advisors -- and myself! -- that I wasn't given an advantage due to my gender. My boyfriend, especially, is convinced he was passed over for a much less qualified woman during his job search, and keeps telling me that from my point of view, it's a good thing, since there's clearly industry-wide discrimination in my favor.

I do consider myself a feminist, and it's for that reason that I am insulted that the world thinks I need to be given a leg up just because I happen to be a woman. Let's say I start a postdoc somewhere -- is there any way to find out at that time whether I was unfairly hired?

John Vidale said...

The only clear feedback I can give is that this

I was always asked by males and they were not hiding the fact that they asked me, because "we" need more women in leading positions.

is wrong. These guys have not joined the modern era. You were asked to join the committee because you're qualified. AND the committee needs women. You were not asked to join the committee solely because you're a woman. It undermines the reason to have women represented on committees if they are given the message that they are otherwise unqualified.

While considerable nuance is involved, I don't think my department often gives the wrong message like this.

Kea said...

She is a success precisely because she is ignorant about feminism. That's a prerequisite.

Anonymous said...

I was once told point blank my a professor in a major conference that as a graduating female phd I should not worry about getting a job as I am a woman. Even if there are more qualified men, they will give me a job. I was really wide-eyed and this demoralized me towards academia so much I left academia for a well-paid non-research job, and then a year down the line, sheer love of research brought me back again. I still routinely see senior male professors say horrible discriminatory things to young female graduate students, and being a postdoc, I am caught in the difficult place of speaking out and falling out of grace when I am so vulnerable, or watching another young woman getting demoralized and leaving. My compromise typically is to take the woman aside and tell her that the senior male colleague was full of @#$% and she should not take it to heart.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with the 'because you're a woman' plight. However, at the risk of getting yelled at, let me try (speaking as a male) from the other side.

We are both members of a university that has a problem: Women are drastically, hopelessly under represented on the faculty, high level committees and in the university's leadership. As part of the effort to fix that we find a woman who is eminently qualified from the faculty and invite her to join such a committee.

In such a situation, I feel it is important to be frank. Yes, you are qualified and we really do want you because we feel you can make a valuable contribution. But don't you think its also part of my burden, based on how we selected you as a committee member, to alert you that we were specifically looking for a female candidate because of the horrible under-representation problem?

Its not a statement of "You're not good enough." Maybe I just don't want you to not know something that everyone else on the committee knows. Would you rather spend your time wondering if you were only picked because you were a woman and wondering if the rest of the members are secretly looking down on you?

Anonymous said...

OK, confession from a guy who once said that:

I was involved in a major project. I needed a co-chair. I talked to some people about a few possibilities, and I was deciding between a very good woman I know and a very good man I know. My colleagues said that for the sake of balance we should have a woman. So I asked her to be the co-chair and she accepted.

I did NOT start off telling her that I picked her because she's a woman.

As she and I began making our plans, we had to identify a list of people to involve in something. I suggested that the list should include more women. And then, to indicate that we take gender equity seriously, I said that one of the reasons why I invited her was because my colleagues and I felt we should have gender balance.

I felt rather awkward saying it, and I probably said it wrong, but she seemed to not mind. Or maybe she minded a great deal but kept it to herself. Anyway, we never discussed it again, we got a reasonably diverse group of people (at least by the standards of our field), the project was a success, and I heard through a third party that she was satisfied with the way I paid attention to her input.

For whatever it's worth.

GMP said...

Maybe I just don't want you to not know something that everyone else on the committee knows. Would you rather spend your time wondering if you were only picked because you were a woman and wondering if the rest of the members are secretly looking down on you?

Any type of leg up that a woman gets -- a job, tenure, grant money, anything of value -- there will be someone who will make sure she knows that others think she got it because she's a woman.No, it's not about wanting to inform a woman about something everyone else thinks but of which she is blissfully oblivious. Most women are always painfully, acutely aware that people all around consider them unworthy of anything worth getting. It would be kind to for once stop doing women "favors" by enlightening them of what everyone else thinks and thus reminding them that they are in fact unwelcome and alien and unworthy; for once, just let women be and do the work they are supposed to do.

Anonymous said...

"But I can't argue against the existence of affirmative action policies, job listings which encourage women to apply, anecdotal evidence of a supposedly underqualified woman getting a job, etc. "

Job listings that "encourage women to apply" are for legal reasons. They mean absolutely nothing. If they said something specific such as "we accept late applications from women applicants" or "we interview women with fewer publications", etc. then that would be affirmative action. Not saying that they should do this--just saying that the lack of pointing out specific practices that favor women does not give any evidence that affirmative action exists.

Actually, I think these statements put women at a disadvantage: the hiring organization (university, institute, etc) does not actually have to do anything that favors women, but by putting these statements everywhere, they convince everyone that they are doing something to favor women. Thus, women are not favored but everyone believes that they are.

In terms of affirmative action, if you are a huge star, you may get more interviews/job offers than a man who is an equally huge star. But if you are not of the highest caliber, you will get fewer job offers/interviews as a woman than a man of the same caliber.

As for hiring "underqualified women", sure it happens. Underqualified men are also sometimes hired. Sometimes the committee wants a very specific area or someone has a good letter from someone who has connections to the hiring committee. There are many times when I don't think the best person was hired, but this happens for both genders. The difference is that if it happens to a women, everyone will talk about it. If it happens to a man, everyone will say that the committee must have had good reasons for making the decision.

Anonymous said...

(0) Three things:

(1) I've also been told I'll be handed jobs and opportunities because I'm a woman. Some things I will get simply because I'm a woman, and some things I won't get simply because I'm a woman. Some things guys will get simply because they are men. Men have gotten all sorts of positions for ridiculous reasons having to do with their sexual organs, fathers-in-law, family ties, wonderful wise-looking head of grey hair, presence in the loo at a crucial moment, or other assets that have nothing to do with their talent or intelligence. Fine. The people (male and female) who make a difference in the world are the people who take advantage of whatever opportunities they encounter, deserved or not.

(2) This is what I tell myself when I get an opportunity that is suspect, or that I can't quite believe, or that is just miraculously perfect, or is a real shitstorm. And I look at the statistics to remind myself that even if I take advantage of every just and unjust opportunity I encounter I will still be solidly in the minority in terms of gender. At the top R1 universities a whopping 9% or so of faculty are female, while Princeton and Berkeley and MIT have been graduating substantial percentages of female PhDs for several decades now. Sexism exists. We need not doubt it. We can shine some light on it and see if it will scuttle away like a cockroach, and if not, we can just keep crunching down our paths, aiming in the right direction. (Wear shoes, not sandals. That's my cockroach lesson.)

Anonymous said...

"Most women are always painfully, acutely aware that people all around consider them unworthy of anything worth getting."

How true this is.

B-Rate Prof said...

Unfortunately, a lot of people equate "feminist" with "someone who complains about sexism." I like your definition better.

Anonymous said...

"Actually, I think these statements put women at a disadvantage: the hiring organization (university, institute, etc) does not actually have to do anything that favors women, but by putting these statements everywhere, they convince everyone that they are doing something to favor women. Thus, women are not favored but everyone believes that they are."

Amen to that. This is increased by confirmation bias: someone who believes women are unfairly favored is more likely to store and easily access memories that seem to confirm this point, like anecdotal evidence of supposedly under-qualified women being hired.

Anonymous said...

I find this topic fascinating...

I'm a female grad student in physics. I was recently asked to join a committee (a committee that included both professors and grad students). I asked the two female professors I knew--one in astronomy, one in math...there aren't any women in physics in my department--their opinions on the matter.

Both of them told me the same thing: don't serve now; you need to focus on research. "When you become a professor, you will serve on all sorts of committees, more than your male peers, simply because you're a woman." (Paraphrased, of course.) Their unchoreographed responses surprised me, mostly because they were both so matter-of-fact about it.

Kevin said...

I wish to disagree mildly with the advice given to Anonymous @ 1/25/2012 01:09:00 AM.

Grad students should not be scattered, but should not focus solely on research either. Spending some time on teaching (and learning to teach) and on service (like serving on committees or doing outreach activities) is good preparation for many careers and looks particularly good if applying to faculty positions. For a grad student, the learning/research/teaching/service mixture should be strongly weighted toward learning and research, but teaching and service being zero is not optimal.

Alex said...

I'll sort of agree with Kevin and sort of disagree:

1) A grad student should not put any significant amount of work into service, unless it involves networking opportunities. Examples include seminar committee, or helping with a student-organized session at a conference, or any professional society involvement that brings the student into contact with people who are outside their home institution and at more advanced career stages.

2) However, if a grad student can get a low-workload assignment on an interesting committee, where "interesting" is in the eye of the beholder and has something or other to do with future career interests, then sure, join for the sake of learning. This should be something where the primary task of the student is to provide input in meetings, but the student is not expected to author documents, collect data, or (most especially) get involved in politics. Such opportunities are probably quite rare. They should only be taken for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of trying to accomplish anything on the committee.

3) If a student wants to teach in the future, and has the opportunity to do teaching-related service, e.g. Head TA, or provide a TA's perspective to the people re-writing the lab manual, do it, but only do it once. For a teaching-oriented career, that sort of thing is tremendously valuable on the CV. However, do it once and only once, saving the rest of the time for research, learning, and actual classroom teaching.

4) If a student wants to get heavily involved an extracurricular activity as a sanity-preserving outlet, go for it. Don't do anything that sabotages your research, but sanity-preserving outlets are important things, and there's a time and place for investing heavily in them.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

The Dryer Lint Research Society is gratified to hear of your statement of interest and invites you to become its founding member.

Best,

Etc.

Samia said...

I have made my peace with being selected "because I am a woman" the day I realized that men never seem to mind being selected because they are men...

Anonymous said...

I hope there are some qualified men who can serve on the Dryer Lint Research Society board.

Ab said...

I don't understand how someone can not be a feminist, the radical notion that women are (equal) people. Pretty disturbing. I really think such women need an education or something as apparently, they can rise quite high without getting it. It's quite ironic that the person writing this letter, noticing gender inequality, says she is not feminist. Clearly a European FSP but that does not really excuse the cluelessness. Of course fortunately FSP has more patience and tact than I do. :-(