Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gender matters

I recently read the commentary in Nature titled "Does gender matter?" (B. Barres, v. 442, 133-136, 13 July 2006), as well as an interview with the author (New York Times, Tuesday 18 July 2006). The commentary is very satisfying to read, in that it articulately addresses the issues, integrates facts and anecdotes, and makes constructive suggestions.

Many parts of the article resonated with me. In particular:

- Success in science is driven by "powerful curiosity and the drive to create" rather than competiveness. Being aggressive and competitive may give some an advantage in the current system -- so, let's change the system. Let's take a close look at people's abilities and creativity and productivity and not apply unscientific filters. We all lose if we exclude qualified scientists because of irrational biases.
Anecdote: Years ago, a search committee I was on was considering various interesting and well-qualified candidates. Every time a woman candidate was discussed, one of the old guys on the committee would say "How do we know her research represents her own ideas and not her advisor's?". When a male candidate came up for discussion, the same old guys would say "This research is really impressive. Candidate X is very creative." I pointed out that in both cases the candidates had published, as first authors, papers with their advisors and I didn't see why the issue was being raised for women and not for men. The committee members were aghast at their unconscious biases, and agreed that this was not fair. Morals of the story: (1) Men who think they support the notion of women scientists/colleagues may not put this notion into practice owing to ingrained habits of mind, and (2) This is why women need to be on committees and speak out.

- There need to be more women in leadership positions.
At my university, there has never been a woman department chair in science, engineering, or math in the entire history of the university. A dean recently told me that it will probably be another decade or so before this even has a chance of happening. I have female colleagues with outstanding organizational and leadership skills, but when it comes right down to it, the men can't see having a woman for a boss. During a recent conversation about this topic, one (male) professor here told me that he thinks successful women science professors are 'scary'. My unspoken response was BOO! My actual response was to stare at him incredulously.

- Confidence deficit
On a confidence scale, with 0 = total lack of confidence and 10 = God's gift to science and the world, I'm probably a solid 5. However, the norm for my female students and postdocs is closer to 0-2. Some of my male students and postdocs rank fairly low in confidence as well, but they seem to have the ability to gain confidence through experience, whereas the women can be just as productive and successful and not change their low opinion of themselves. This lack of confidence must develop very early in life for it to be so profound and difficult to dispel.

One statement that surprised me in the commentary was that successful female academics 'pull up the ladder behind them', presumably to enhance their own feelings of success. I certainly don't feel this way, and I don't know any women in my field who do. In my field, the senior women I've met have a sincere interest in helping younger women progress through the academic hoops. We want more company! In fact, even if one were a pull-up-the-ladder kind of person, this would be counterproductive. It's in our own interest to have more women colleagues so that we don't have to be on so many committees.


SciMom said...

I too have read Dr. Barres' commentary but in my field, and in my experience, I have seen many women "pull the ladder up behind them". This is one of my pet peeves. I spend an enormous amount of time "mentoring" both scientifically and personally, those individuals in my lab. It doesn't always produce another paper, but it produces a more confident and happy scientist. For me, this is just as important as another paper. I won't gain from this academically but personally it's gratifying.

Anonymous said...

I found the 'pull up the ladder' comment interesting as well - and I can't help but feel that it misplaces blame (I'm not sure if blame is the correct word here). I make an effort to talk with junior female faculty (actually - both junior male and female faculty) - often junior female faculty are more I just keep tabs on them, go to lunch, sit after work and have a drink and lament challenges. Sure, I've seen a female or two climb the ladder without looking back - but she generally doesn't look back for anyone - it isn't about women. But I think by saying this 'oh, women don't help their own kind' - it's moves the discussion once again into the court of females, and ignores the much needed discussion on the numerous men and their role in mentoring faculty - either male OR female.

I've had to deal with the "is it really her work" even with manuscripts accepted with just my name on it, plus those of my students. I've had to get alot of them before they finally acknowledge that the research actually originates out of my lab. In contrast, I see groups of men publish with numerous names on their manuscripts - I'm speaking out of my own personal experience where my lab currently resides - and it would never be assumed that any of the co-authors are anything less than fully independent.

We have our first female department chair. She's been in the position for 3-yrs, and isn't liked (surprise, surprise).

I've been enjoying your site for awhile, but haven't had an opportunity to respond fully. Everything you've written about mirrors my opinions and experiences almost exactly.

Anonymous said...

Unusually, we have quite a few women in your lab. They vary widely. Some are very "reinforce the ladder", some don't pay any attention to the ladder they just climbed up, and some do actively pull up the ladder, probably without meaning to. The boss' wife would be an example of the latter.

Me, I would theoretically like to spend more time on that kind of thing but the chronic work overload makes it difficult. As a woman I've
actively sought (and got) mentoring from higher-ranked and more experienced colleagues, both male and female (guess which were high-ranked and which were more experienced), and also tried to help out a little bit with newer less experienced colleagues, also both male and female.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Pam said. While I have seen women who mentor and women who don't, I have seen lots lots more men who don't mentor women. Number-wise and percentage-wise. And the women who don't mentor women, are not mentoring for different reasons than the men who don't mentor women. I think the women who pull the ladder up behind them are buying their success at a huge psychic cost. There's a cognitive dissonance, a split in their identity; women don't make good scientists: I am a good scientist: I am a woman: Maybe I'm not a good scientist: NO NO go away bad thought! I'll just stay away from those other women and not get contaminated! This all happens on a sort of semi-conscious level. I once saw one of these women gently confronted by another, equally great scientist woman, who did mentor other women, about the cognitive dissonance. There was a huge terrifying moment of silence when she was asked to contemplate the fact that she was actually a top-notch chemist and was recognized as such by her peers AND a woman.

Anonymous said...

Do male academics really gain confidence as they progress? IME, what they most often gain is outward bluster and arrogance, something which hides an inner feeling of inferiority. I have worked in government, in industry and in academia, and only in academia have I met so many people in high positions who, deep-down, really doubt they should have got as far as they have, and who then compensate for this feeling by bullying behaviors and imperiousness. All of these people are male, by the way, as am I.

Maxine Clarke said...

At the Nature website we have a commenting option for the Barres Commentary at:

Please do go over there and upload your comments on this article.

Many thanks, Maxine.

Anonymous said...

Please forgive me for joining the conversation so late in the game. In reference to the comment on the "Confidence deficit" I thought you might find the following story interesting. My sister and I both chose to stay at home during the years that our children were young. My sister sent her youngest off to grade school and immediately enrolled in university courses. I have less than a year left until my two youngest enter grade school and have begun to look at the programs offered in my area. I have always known that when I returned to school I would study the physical sciences, but I have never shared this with anyone but my husband. One day, while visiting with my sister, I discovered that she had chosen the same field. We were excited to find that we had this in common and very embarrassed to find that neither of us had told anyone else. We were both afraid that we would be told we were not smart enough to study the sciences. How sad is that?

La mei said...


I have also just recently uncovered your blog and it immediately piqued my interest since i, too, am a female science professor (biological sciences at a medical school) about ten to fifteen years your junior. I cannot begin to tell you how well i can relate to some of your stories; while others i find so insightful for what is to come in my career. Thank you so much for sharing!

My points regarding this posting are two-fold:
1) My former mentor is also the female chair of the department. She is amidst a powerful (and voiciferous) "old boys' club". Regardless of the fact that she is a leader in her field of study backed by over 30+ years of continuous funding, and recently asked to become vice-president of research for the entire univerisity, she will never meet the expectations of these men. And through it all, she possess tact and diplomacy unlike nothing i've seen before. Kudos to women like her, who keep fighting because she knows that the science is what is really important in the end.

2) I wonder if these women who "pull up the ladder" have an agenda any different than the men who do the same thing. Whether male or female, i believe these people will always only think of themselves.