Thursday, July 20, 2006

How Nice Should We Be?

I like hearing about all the various responses to some of the more annoying questions one gets as a Female Science Professor or as a woman scientist in general. This is how we vent, bond, and have some fun with the situation even though in some cases the situation and its implications are rather serious. I must admit that I have trouble mustering a feeling of concern for young-looking male professors who are mistaken for students, but I suppose I could try harder..

Despite my propensity to be Nice when confronted with a clueless (or rude) question, there are some times when I've been pushed too far and have responded in anger and what I fervently hope was biting sarcasm. However, these instance are rare and my personal preference for responses in real life range from Quite Nice (polite responses that let the guy off the hook, but still correct the misperception) to Gently Sarcastic (but not to the point of humiliating anyone). In the short term, these might not be as satisfying as a really pointed remark, but I have seen this type of response pay off in the longer term. Also, I'm not a confrontational person, so it works for my own comfort-level in personal interactions as well. I've described before how some very decent colleagues just don't 'get it' about some issues, but gentle prods can really have a major positive impact and ultimately serve the purpose of inching us all towards the goal of just letting us all be scientists together. That said, I think everyone should respond in their own style. I have a woman colleague who is absolutely incapable of responding to a rude question with a polite response, and that's just the way it is. We have great fun trading stories about our different experiences and debating whether she should be nicer and I should be less nice.

One thing I've struggled with is whether it is OK to be silent in the face of some amazingly blatant discriminatory remarks or situations. My first reaction would be to say No! but then there's real life. Example: I was a participant in a federal panel involving the sciences, and, on the first day, a senior male scientist expressed his opinion that we women were just there to fill a quota for diversity and this was too bad because it deprived the committee of people with 'expertise'. There were some extremely accomplished women on that panel, but no one responded to this statement. I thought "We'll show you..", and we did. I don't know how deeply held his opinion was or if we changed it permanently, but after 3 intense and long days of all working together in a small conference room, we produced what we thought was an outstanding document that addressed the issues that we had been charged to consider. Everyone had something important to contribute, and we worked as an effective team. At the end, without specific reference to his earlier remarks, the senior male scientist shook everyone's hand and effused about how much he'd enjoyed all the stimulating discussion and debate. Happy ending, I guess.


Anonymous said...

Well, everybody, men and women, suffers from implicit gender bias. Go here to take the Implicit Bias test and see for yourself. It doesn't mean you are bad; it just means we all have to try hard to be conscious of our unconscious tendency to undervalue women and overvalue men (same for racism, ageism, classism, etc). We ALL have biases we are not aware of. That's why bias is so pernicious. The really blatant stuff is actually easier to deal with in some ways. So, how to respond when someone's been a pinhead? This is a false dilemma. Women can respond any damn way they want. If someone has been a pinhead, and you are able to be gracious and polite, AND do a little educating at the same time, why great. Or, if you are able to be witty or lightly sarcastic, and possibly do a little educating at the same time, also great. In either case, if they learn nothing - it's not your fault. Because how in the world they reached adulthood without taking responsibility for learning how to be decent humans in the company of women is or should be the problem of men as much as the problem of women. So - if you choose to say nothing or can think of nothing to say - not your fault. You aren't responsible for educating the pinheads of the world one at a time. If you blow your stack and call the pinhead a stupid pinhead to his face, well, again, not your fault. Maybe you later regret your lack of control but not necessarily for the pinhead's hurt feelings, more so because you want to be known as a woman who cannot be driven to distraction by mere pinheads, even as you seethe internally. Or, hey, maybe you want to be known as the woman pinheads should tiptoe around because you'll slice their heads off without thinking twice. And all the junior women will love you. All of these are valid ways to deal with a situation that SHOULD NEVER EVER EVER HAVE TO SUCK UP ANY OF THE PRECIOUS TIME AND ENERGY YOU NEED TO SPEND ON YOUR RESEARCH AND TEACHING AND LIFE OUTSIDE WORK.

Gambler1650, I'm not saying you are a pinhead. But you are verging towards pinhead-hood. Your opinion is not as valid as my knowledge which is based on (1) 25 years as a female scientist and engineer, PhD, (2) graduate certification in feminist theory, specializing in feminist science theory, (3) launching and running a nationally prominent women in engineering and science program. Listen and learn. You are obviously sympathetic, but you are still in some denial about the existence of male privilege, and how it operates to disadvantage women in small ways that accrue to large differences over time. I'm a white person. I can't imagine going onto a forum where black people are discussing racism and trying to convince them that, while it is true that 99,999 of the incidents they've described are indeed racist, there is one that seems like it really was not, and I would like to explain to them in detail exactly why I think it was not and why I think they should not be concerned about it.

Anonymous said...

I had an incident a while ago where I was unintentionally rude to a visiting speaker. I'm a phd student at a medium-size technical research institute, and we've got a few female phd students and interns but no senior female researchers (although a female postdoc has since arrived), so I was one of only a few women in the audience. Anyway, the speaker made a throw-away remark about "token" women in the audience, and I was so taken aback I incredulously repeated "token?" to my friends sitting next to me. I said it a bit louder than I meant to and the whole room heard, and the director of the institute stepped in and explained to the speaker how the institute values its female members or something like that. A bit emabarrasing for me, but in retrospect I'm glad he was pulled up on it and maybe in future he'll think twice about that kind of comment.

I guess this incident sticks in my mind though because I can't think of any other times when bias has been so explicit, despite having been in a heavily male-dominated field for years. I'm sure the subtle biases exist, though its hard to tease out what's due to individiual personalities rather than an overall trend. I know I've had to become more agressive about putting my view forward in group meetings, even to the point of having to talk over people so they don't ignore me.

Anonymous said...

Gambler1650, writing things out often helps me understand them in different ways as well. I applaud you for sticking with this discussion after my full-blast replies and for checking out the Implicit Bias site. Definitely not the behavior of a pinhead! It's not always easy to conduct a conversation like this over time when you don't have conversational cues (tone of voice, facial expression) and can't respond right away.

Thanks to Female Science Professor for hosting this conversation!

mythago said...

I've found that one strategy that avoids the 'niceness' trap is to repeat the other person's words back to them, active-listening fashion. "Let me make sure I understood you. You're saying that the women here lack the expertise to be on this panel because they are women?"

Often, people don't listen to what's coming out of their mouths, much less think about how it sounds to others.

Anonymous said...

Your experiences on grant review panels have been similar to mine. I've been on several federal reviews where I was the only female - in fact, when the Program Officer called me regarding one of them, he apologized in advance for always asking me to serve on the panel - and he said that he had few women that he could call upon. I feel the need to be there - often I've seen proposals by females reviewed well but not taken as seriously as they should be by the panel (this was not the case with NSF however, who I feel handles these issues extremely well) - so if there had not been a woman on the panel saying "Wait!", let's not forget about proposal by this person (a woman) that was reviewed by favorably. In each case I spoke up - but also allowed the proposal to stand on it's own (excellent) merits. But I feel that if I hadn't been present to bring that proposal back into the discussion, it would have been overlooked.

I really waffle on when to respond and when not to. I've gotten better at picking my battles - and I've gotten better at responding in a much less emotional way - and just bringing attention to a certain issue. For example, I feel that female junior faculty are often left out of the mentoring process - so I (1) try to keep tabs on them myself - just to touch base and be a sounding board, and (2) if I feel like my Director/Chairman has not included them in something that they should be included in - I email and mention the oversight, by saying "so and so would probably benefit from attending the meeting." What frustrates me is how often I feel that I have to do this - and how they never catch up that they were overlooking/minimizing this person to begin with.

My situation is different though. At one point I had an internal gender complaint filed against a chairman - and the investigation of the complaint showed that my chairman was discriminatory at all levels - faculty, students, staff - and he was forced into extra training (but still retained his chairmanship). But this history (and it's backlash) has influenced my effectiveness - in someways it's much stronger, but in others they assume "oh, it's just "her"...but I think that women need to speak up - it doesn't have to be confrontationally - but just acknowledge that a certain behavior is potentially biased and needs to be re-evaluated.