Thursday, March 28, 2013

Well this is a bit depressing

From an interview of Rita Colwell (former NSF Director) by National Geographic:

Are you still treated differently as a woman?

Certainly. I still have to tolerate it. It doesn't stop; it never stops. It's just that now it's more covert and not overt.

Can you give an example?

There are too many examples to even begin to enumerate.

I was somewhat surprised by this. Why was I surprised? I don't know.. I can't say I know anything about Rita Colwell's work as a molecular biologist, but it seems to me that she is a rather excellent example of a successful female science professor; that is, successful at a level that most of us will not achieve. It would have been nice if she could have reported to the rest of us that she had to put up with a lot of stupid stuff early in her career but that had faded away as her career progressed.

I suppose I am interpreting the mild question about being "treated differently" to refer to negative experiences. That is how Rita Colwell seems to interpret the question as well.

And I do wish she had given some examples, particularly of the covert situations she still experiences. I believe her 100% that she does experience these things and that it is not pleasant, and I would be interested to know what kinds of things she has to deal with even now, as a senior and very distinguished professor. 

Not long ago, a correspondent wrote to me that a female grad student had said to her that "it's even worse to have role models who are treated horribly than to not have role models".

We could argue about what it means to be treated "horribly", but I think it is too bad to discard some potential role models (whatever that term really means) because they had to struggle -- perhaps quite a lot -- in their careers. Would this grad student not consider Rita Colwell as a good role model because Colwell feels she has had (and continues to have) some (presumably negative) experiences she has to "tolerate" because she is female? Perhaps -- everyone has their own definition of what is a good role model for them) -- but I think that restriction would substantially thin the ranks of potential role models, and that's probably not a good thing.


John Vidale said...

I'm surprised you're surprised. At any level in science, one tends to be working with one's peers. At Colwell's level, many of her peers are probably older and at least as opinionated as our peers down in the universities.

Worse, she has to deal with the people in DC, who tend to have less respect for science than our peers. Most scientists I know who have gone to the Hill are very glad to get back home.

Anonymous said...

The usual feminist tactic of complaining about everything and in particular about males

Phillip Helbig said...

Maybe the difference is that she can show up at a conference in slacks or in a dress, with long or short hair, with or without makeup, in high heels or flat shoes and no-one cares either way. Such freedom does not exist for her male colleagues.

Anonymous said...

I don't know the context of the grad students statement, but I took a completely different interpretation of that statement. I am a female grad student and one of my field-specific mentors is a kick-ass scientist, well respected in the field and generally amazing at what she does. She is often talked over and ignored in department-wide events. Seeing her treated like that, even though she is a scientific rockstar, is at some level more discouraging than if I didn't have a female mentor. Without a mentor you can stick your head in the sand and pretend that you will be the exception to the rule and everything will be sparkling rainbow unicorn land. Seeing someone for whom the world should be closer to sparkling pony land goodness treated like crap makes the dream seem hopeless. I didn't read the grad students comments as discarding of role models (though in context it could have meant that), but more that it is painful.

The world isn't fair, gender/race/fill-in-the-blank/-directed weirdness exists and while it is more uncomfortable to have role models treated horribly, these are the people who actually get it.

Anonymous said...

I interpret the grad student's statement differently- that its frustrating and depressing from the grad student's perspective that senior women still have to deal with crap even though they've "made it". The pestered mentors provide evidence that even if young women persevere to the senior, they will likely have to continue to deal with crap as well. Whereas, if there were no mentors, the grad student could naively (but blissfully in her ignorance) think that once she reaches a senior level she could live crap-free. I interpret it as the grad student wishing she were still naive and blissfully ignorant. Reality isn't always hopeful.

Anonymous said...

We still have a long way to go--another set of quotes from the Interview brought that home by referring to a very important recent study published in PNAS:

"Does this highlight certain hurdles that women still need to overcome?

Yes. There was a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently that showed that when the same application for a job as a laboratory manager was sent out for response with a man's name and with a woman's name, the man got the offer with a higher salary, and the [application with the] female name was ranked lower.

That's disheartening.

It's very disappointing, and even worse that women scientists in the PNAS study also ranked the woman lower: That was the tragic part of it."

However, that doesn't mean we can stop trying, stop encouraging and stop mentoring. Dr. Colwell concluded:

What's your advice to women starting out in science?

My advice is to pursue your dream—a science career is wonderful. If you work hard at your science you'll do OK in the long run. Being a woman in science is not as precluded as it was a hundred or more years ago. But today you still have to be twice as good to get half as far.

I remain hopeful that my daughters will grow up in a world where we're closer to equality and they can truly follow where their passions lead them.

Mark P

PS I am always amazed at the generosity of FSP in including ignorant comments like that of anon at 12:26. I was also puzzled by the Helbig comment--was he being ironical or does he really think people care how male scientists dress--if so, he needed to meet Andrew Murray.

agradstudent said...

I agree with the anonymous unicorn land comment. It's not a knock on the role model, it's a knock on the field. It's a display of the difficulty that does or might lie ahead. Without a role model you could be in blissful ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Wow - you only have to read these comments to realize that there are still a lot of sexist attitudes out there. I am fortunate to be a senior female scientist in a relatively supportive workplace. However, I still experience subtle and not so subtle sexism, particularly in the realm of large-scale high-budget projects, and invited speaker lineups at conferences.

Alex said...

Wow, comments 2 and 3 seem to be some sort of performance art.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 5:21 am, don't let this one example get you down - there are places where scientists are respected no matter their gender. While anyone who differs from the norm is likely to face more obstacles, there are departments who would love to have your mentor. I don't know why she doesn't garner much respect where she is, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't have more respect elsewhere.

Darwin Fish said...

I agree with the interpretation of Anonymous grad @5:21. However, I do think there are possible good outcomes of witnessing that kind of bad behavior - that, as a younger woman scientist, your eyes are opened and you are prepared for what is to come.

As an undergrad, I had a brilliant professor who had trouble controlling her class because happened to contain a couple of male students who liked to pipe-up and second guess her as she taught. I saw a male professor shut-down those same students when the first time they tried this, though more respectfully, in his class. The result for me was: "mental note: be prepared to shut down derailing students in class when teaching." True, if I had not seen how she handled that situation, I would have been more comfortable to have her as a mentor, instead I distanced myself from her because I thought she was a bad role model. However, it was an informative experience.

And to Philip Helbig, please allow me to send you to the Professor or Hobo Quiz:

I do not believe it would be acceptable for a woman to come to work looking in such a way that it would be difficult to distinguish her from a bag lady. I have known several hobo professors in my time (all men), one was even an advisor, and they made Andrey Murray look like she could be on the cover of GQ.

KK PhD said...

I agree it's disheartening to hear that a senior female scientist who's 'made it' still feels she has to deal with sexist BS. I'm also not surprised.

From a young (female) persons perspective, I agree having a mentor who has dealt with (and still deals with) many negative experiences, being a woman might be demotivating.

Still, I think it's way better to have a role model who's dealt with that BS and still kicked ass than no mentor at all. That way if I came across a ridiculous sexist situation, I'd know I wasn't the only one. (And I'd love the opportunity to ask her "has this happened to you?? What did you do??")

Anonymous said...

Sadly, sexism is alive and well. I"m arguably the only "superstar" in my department, and a female Full Professor. Not only did I suffer amazingly awful harassment, discrimination and bullying throughout my career, but it continues even now. It *is* more subtle now as a Full professor as compared to when I was a grad student, or Assistant professor, but that doesn't make it any better.

I too, have had graduate students who, on their own, could see the discriminatory treatment that I receive, and their take on the situation is that seeing their mentor experience this deters them from wanting to go into academia - even when they see (or I argue) the good parts of this career too. And I don't blame them. At least they can, for awhile, have hope that a career in government, consulting, or industry *might* not be as bad as what they've seen me go through.

What types of subtle examples do you want? there are too many to even go into! Unfair distributions of workload, funding, space - these really add up over time. And how to do I know they are 'unfair'? Direct statements to me that I don't need that lab space because [male] professor needs it more with nothing to substantiate that decision even when I can show that my need is clearly greater and my ability to 'pay' for it is greater (e.g. I bring more grant $, I teach more FTEs, I support more grad students, etc.).

...being told that the topic of my research is only a 'niche' and as such shouldn't be fully supported by the department, whereas other [male] faculty receive enormous amount of direct support and increased space for their laboratories

... or that I need to serve on X times more committees than my male counterparts because we need a woman to sit on every committee (note these are not the 'important' committees that really promote one's career either - those for some reason do not need a token woman).

....constantly being asked to teach more than other male faculty, especially non-majors, introductory courses

..... being told by other male faculty that women who want children should not become professors and certainly should not fill up tenure-track positions because that is such a waste

..... constantly being interrupted when speaking in faculty meetings, constantly having the comments I am able to say be blatantly put down in faculty meetings, body gestures that are either harassing or disdainful (e.g. a dean winking at me in a sexual manner during a meeting where I am the only female present, while at the same time ignoring my request or suggesting that even asking for something is not appropriate, while another male faculty is given serious consideration for the same request).

.....The list goes on and on, these are some of the less horrible things I've experienced and continue to face every day. And if you ask why don't I report these things? well, if your administration is as bullying as your department then there is no hope. You are not supported if you report these things, and usually they happen in such a way that there are no other witnesses, or the university does not have procedures in place to protect us. Earlier in my career I thought that some of the things I experienced were so blatant, so horrible that of course I would have to be supported if I reported them. So I did report them, and not only was I not supported but my administration beat me up even more for daring to suggest that something could be wrong. I learned my lesson. I have found success through isolation and extremely hard work, and avoiding the bullies and finding ways around roadblocks put in front of me.

I did not have a female mentor when I was a student to warn me or show me that this is what I could expect in this career. Had I had one, would I have chosen a different career? maybe.

anon female postdoc said...

+1 to the comment at 5:21. In fact, it is my impression that women are *more* likely, not less, to encounter discriminatory behavior when they are especially successful or in positions of authority.

standrewslynx said...

When I (as a prospective grad student) met with a Professor in my field at an elite East Coast university he told me: "I think the reason that there are so few females in [graduate-level discipline] is because they don't like the smell of the lab."

This happened summer 2012. Yes, this sort of crap is still being perpetuated.

It makes me angry that when I start my PhD, at 9am on Day 1 I'm immediately going to be taken less seriously than my male peers, simply because of the widespread perception that I will be more concerned about breaking their nails than performing cutting-edge research.

That's bullshit. Absolute bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Slightly depressing that the prof/hobo quiz is all males, although as someone pointed out, a female prof would be unlikely to show up looking like a bag lady. Will that be the measure of success, when there's a prof/bag lady quiz?

GMP said...

Anon at 10:59:00 PM, why don't you leave? A superstar female faculty would be welcomed in a number of STEM departments. My department is not ideal, but I generally feel respected and supported. What I want to say is that there are good collectives out there, where you would be valued. What you describe seems like pretty blatant discrimination and they would be well served to lose you (and the overhead from your grants).

Shayna said...

I think that having a role model who has suffered or faced discrimination, but is still able to proceed in his or her field of choice, can prove to be a more valuable role model than one who has not faced these challenges. This is especially true for a female scientist or executive. I use this as motivation to try to change the perception within the field I am in, fully aware that I will probably face similar challenges.

Anonymous said...

I am junior faculty so we'll see how this all works out but yes sexism is alive and well. The good news is that it's not evenly distributed. I was faculty at one school that was terrible - women were consistently marginalized, given less support, and treated poorly by departmental and administrative powers that be. It was clear that this was as true for senior women as it was for me. So I left and am now in a department where I feel a tremendous amount of support and have yet to see signs that this will change as I progress. It's not a utopia but it's really, really good. So I my message to women coming up through the field is that yes sexism is still out there - in fact it's common - but it is not evenly distributed and you can find places that will treat you respectfully. I generally dislike the Sheryl Sandberg perspective - I think it puts the blame on women - but I agree with the idea that leaving a field (science, business, etc) because you expect bad outcomes isn't the best way to go. If you love science, do science without deciding before you try that the barriers are too great.

Darwin Fish said...

To those who say: "if the sexism is bad where you are, move!" I don't know if this is fair.

In my experience, often institutions that have a notable amount of trouble promoting the careers of women (directly or indirectly) are often on the list of the "better" places to work -- more money, more prestige (which means even more money in grants to you), better facilities, better connections, etc. I think it might not be as easy as "if they are mean to you, just leave" when, for them, it means sacrificing an aspect of their research for their move. I can see why these women would persevere, in order to battle for the opportunity to do the best science possible at the best institution they can be at.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:28: That's great to hear that there are places where you can feel supported!! This gives me some hope if I do choose to leave.

GMP - yes I have looked at leaving several times as this is a great choice and would serve them well to lose my overhead and other contributions!! But my current research, and personal family issues make that complicated or impossible (for some opportunities) -- or when I have interviewed elsewhere it actually looked *worse* (I even interviewed at a department where a female faculty committed suicide!).

At that time, I decided to stick it out here and the more isolated I become the better it is overall (just leave me alone and let me do what I do well). But I'm still young and I may yet move - if the right opportunity comes up - those are a bit harder to find at my level unless I decide to go into administration. Right now I find that hard to swallow. It is difficult to work so hard for an organization that is so broken and if I go into administration my research will definitely take a big hit - sometimes I think I'll do it and try to fix it, and other times it just seems too overwhelming to attempt and I think that I should look elsewhere in my life to find fulfillment and quit beating my head against this concrete wall. ???
- Anon 10:59

GMP said...

Darwin Fish, you are trivializing the problem. It's not "if they are mean to you, just leave". What Anon at 10:59 wrote sounded quite bad and abusive to me. She also says that she has contemplated leaving.

Some people think that there is no life or research outside of the top few private universities. I work at a large public university where all physical science departments are in the top 20 and many are in top 5 or top 10 in their discipline. It's a great place to live and work. It is not perfect, but I feel supported and there are many brilliant collaborators on campus in many disciplines.

There are many excellent schools in the top 20-30, where nothing significant will stand in the way of you doing good science. Sure, you may sacrifice some prestige, but if you are miserable then I don't think the prestige is worth it. I think people often underestimate how important personal happiness is for doing good research. If you feel content and supported, you will do more with less than if you are miserable at a superb place.

I am not saying people should move at all cost. Anon at 10:59 certainly has to weigh many personal and professional considerations against one another.

The point of my comments is that there are good places to work, where a woman faculty can feel accepted and supported. They may not be the top 5 in your discipline, but I don't think that looking a little down the list will significantly affect your research, especially if it can minimize stress by providing a good work environment.

Darwin Fish said...

GMP, of course what you say makes a lot of sense, and I regret what I said.

Anonymous said...

The narrative of sexism in academia is totally false, like the rest of feminism. The only advantage that men have is that their only option is the hard but honest road of improving until becoming successful. Men cannot play the role of victims, and try to enter using gender quotas or false allegations of sexism.
The reality is that various universities pay for useless departments of "women'studies", while nothing like that exists for men.

Anonymous said...

During my interview (Assistant Professor), I had to excuse myself for lunch because my youngest daughter was still just 4 weeks old and still nursing. As I left, he said "Oh right, time to get back to the dairy farm!" This was an educated and well respected M.D. who was also the department chair. This was after I was 4 weeks post c-section, and drove 10 hours with my husband and two small children. Speechless. While I didn't feel that there was any malice in his comment, it did make me feel very uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

Just to provide a little light at the end of the tunnel, there are some departments out there that are terrific places for both women and men to do science. My department which is highly regarded in our field has ~50% women, distributed among junior and senior faculty and the women are outspoken and respected for their opinions. Although it was some years ago now, when I interviewed here, I was also nursing like Anon 8:54, and I let the staff know that I needed a room to go and pump in between meetings. Although I did not specifically tell him, it was clear that my male host (awesome person and great mentor) had found out about and asked me if the staff were seeing to all my "needs" and to let him know if there was anything else they could do. It is possible if there are enlightened men and strong women....

Anonymous said...

Speaking of women faculty with kids, I've heard that the tenure-clock can be extended 1yr per baby in most depts. But looking at my female postdoc friends who have had babies, the overall loss of productivity could easily go over 1yr, especially if there are any medical complications associated with the pregnancy. Do you think that even with the +1yr/baby extension, female junior profs have a harder time getting through tenure, and that the standard 6-7yr tenure clock that coincides with most female scientist biological clock is inherently biased against female scientists from surviving in academia? Do departments take these things issues into account more than just giving them the tenure-extension?

Anonymous said...

I think a strong point in this case about woman, is that they can find easily positions, expecially after the one at 90 degrees, where you are extremely specialized