Thursday, August 31, 2006

So Many Ceilings

In just the past week or so, there have been front page articles in the New York Times about the general lack of women ministers of large churches and the decrease this year in the number of women Supreme Court clerks. In the first article, the scariest part was when parishioners were quoted as saying they just didn't like to see a woman up there preaching. In the second article, the scariest part was when one Supreme Court Justice (Souter) said that, alas, none of the top applicants for his clerk positions were women this year. I believe (though of course disagree with) the first sexist statement -- it's the same with other professions, including academia, that many people prefer to get information from deep-voiced, authoritative-sounding men -- but I don't believe the second statement. How lame. I've heard the same excuse for why 0.014% of the math faculty at my university are women. The 'top' candidates are always men. Amazing! If a Supreme Court Justice hired only women clerks, would people assume that the 'top' candidates just happened to be all women? Unfortunately, I cannot set aside my deep cynicism for even a second to believe that would be the case.

When I was in grad school, one of the few other female grad students in my department failed her prelims because her committee just didn't think she was "ready" to complete her degree. Her committee told her that they just couldn't "see" her as a professor yet, but because she'd done so well with the exam, they were willing to give her another try later. (happy ending: she did try again, passed, got a tenure-track position at a large university, and became a prominent researcher in her field). Her research contributions have far surpassed those of contemporaneous male grad students who easily passed their prelims. Why should women continue to be held back because men lack imagination? Why are we hearing the same thing today that men have been saying for centuries?

The article about women ministers had many parallels with the situation of women in academia, including perhaps the implicit equating of 'success' with being hired by a large church (= large research university?). Of course bigger isn't really better for either churches or universities, but in both cases, bigger place = more people, more money, and more prestige, and that's where women leak, fall, or are forcibly ejected from the so-called pipeline.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Shopping/Alienation and Wedding Ring/Lack Thereof

My daughter and I went back-to-school shopping today. We are both very fond of acquiring school supplies, and less fond of shopping for clothes, but it was a fun day anyway. It is always a bit weird to venture out into the real world on a weekday. I felt like I was visiting an unfamiliar culture, with rituals and customs I don't really understand. Mostly that is because I lack a Shopping Gene, and feel acutely alienated from the rest of humanity when I am in a Mall, which is exactly where we went today.

We were very entertained by some of the bizarre fashions, including what I will call "mature" styles for pre-teens. Fortunately my daughter isn't interested in wearing something that looks like adult women's lingerie to school.

I was also entertained by the saleswomen who glanced in an obvious way at my ringless ring finger (I am married but don't wear a wedding ring) and then called me "Miss", as in "Can I help you, miss?". The beringed woman near me got a "Can I help you, ma'am?". Perhaps that's part of the sales job, to identify people by their situation and customize the greetings? I don't care what they call me, but it briefly interested me to be categorized like that. I know it is odd to be married and ringless, but I've never worn jewelry (I seldom even wear a watch), and the ring symbolism doesn't mean anything to me or my husband, so neither of us wears a wedding ring. My ringlessness has resulted in some strange encounters over the years, and some people are quite disapproving of my lack of a wedding ring, as if I'm less committed to my husband, trying to look single and available, or somehow violating a law of nature. I keep thinking that eventually some of my relatives might change their mind about the significance of a wedding ring, as my husband and I remain happily married and my ring-wearing siblings/cousins and others divorce, but it hasn't happened yet. I have never met another married woman who doesn't wear a wedding ring, but I think there must be others out there somewhere. (?)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Women & Girls

I recently asked some of my female students, including 23-30+ year old grad students, why they referred to themselves and their friends as girls instead of women. I feared that their answer would involve the explanation that they didn't consider themselves feminists, but no, they just shrugged and said that the words "woman" and "women" sounded "old" to them. Their mothers are women, they are girls.

I told them that my college and grad school friends were quite insistent on being called women and not girls, in part because the male students were referred to as Men, and it was annoying to be considered a girl when our peers were considered Men. My students said they didn't think of their male peers as men, just as guys, dudes, boys, whatever. My most talented, independent, smart, energetic female students call themselves girls, and I know they see themselves as the equal (or better) than their male peers, so the girl/woman thing clearly doesn't have the baggage that it used to.

My generation drew the line at age 18 or so, but now I wonder where the boundary is for my grad students -- when they get their degrees? get married? get a job? have children? get some wrinkles? Or never? My aged aunt still refers to herself and her friends as "the girls", as did my grandmother. Perhaps there were a few decades in the late 20th century when "woman" was considered a positive term that was worth insisting on, but now that's over.

Even if the women/girl terminology is no longer an issue for some, I still correct my senior male colleagues when they refer to the women grad students (or undergrads, for that matter) as "girls", "gals", or even "ladies", since they do not refer to the male students as boys or guys or gentlemen. And I can't help it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Vital Information or Boring Old War Stories?

I always wonder how much to tell my own graduates students and postdocs, particularly the women, about 'the bad old days' of being harassed and patronized. I must admit that if I have to hear the same old stories from some of my senior women colleagues yet again, I will run screaming from the room, but that is only because I've heard some of their tales 5 or 6 or 10 times. I am glad I heard the stories at least once though. It gives me some perspective about what has changed and what has not, and I respect these women very much for having prevailed against the odds.

But what do I want and need to tell my own students about my history? And how much do I tell them about things that happen to me today? I keep things pretty informal in my research group, and the research activities sometimes require my spending lots of time with my students and research associates (traveling or in the lab), and we have lots of opportunities for chatting about things other than the tasks at hand. Sometimes I tell stories about my grad school days, presenting a mix of generic tales of science and personalities, and a few times I've mentioned The Dark Side of being a woman in these settings. I've never told them about the really bad episodes though, and I doubt I ever will.

Most of my group are, to varying extents, aware of what life is like today for a woman science professor, but are they getting a balanced view? Are they learning what they need to know to succeed, not just as talented researchers, but as women who will have to navigate some difficult situations? Is it enough just for me to be a quasi-passive role model?

My most typical way of discussing these topics with students or postdocs is to make a joke of some annoying episodes (the old professor who patronizes me, the jerk on a committee who called me a 'feminist' to discredit my support for a female candidate, etc. etc.), as in - aren't these guys amazing? and then I discuss how I handled the situation, for better or worse, and we talk about it and laugh. This sometimes seems a bit feeble to me as an approach to being an Inspiring Role Model, but I'm not sure I'd succeed at anything more direct.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Credit Check

Lately I have observed some excellent examples of a phenomenon that has intrigued and disgusted me over the years. The phenomenon involves how students and others decide to acknowledge help from advisors, committee members, and assorted persons. It will shock no one that most people have a tendency to profusely thank famous people who said hi to them in the hall, giving less credit and thanks to lower ranked people who helped them with actual research activities, not to mention slaving away at editing their convoluted prose. Even though it is a cliche and perhaps just human nature, the phenomenon is still semi-interesting to think about. What is actually going on in people's brains when they make these Credit decisions?

I first encountered this years ago as an Assistant Professor, when I spent vast amounts of time I didn't really have to help a student whose committee I wasn't even on, but who needed my expertise for one part of a research project. I didn't even merit a thank you in the thesis defense or thesis, although the student used my interpretations and results I helped obtain. Another example years later as an Associate Professor: I routinely spent many days with various students in an analytical lab helping them get data they couldn't get themselves, showed them how to reduce the data, and gave them advice on interpretation and illustration. No mention of my help in their defenses or theses or papers using the data. Meanwhile, some of my senior colleagues were mentioned as inspirations and mentors even though all they did was suggest a paper to read.

A very recent example: I helped a student (whose committee I am on) with something he was incapable of doing himself. He had proved himself incapable again and again and was in a dire situation. Once I helped him, he said "Yeah, that's pretty much what I would have done myself." What was I expecting? I would not enjoy grovelling gratitude, but a sincere "Thanks, I couldn't have done that without your help and your time" would be quite nice. Maybe they think of me as a mom-type person -- like when you're a kid and you don't thank your mom every time she does your laundry? I guess the difference is that I feel I am giving them something valuable (my ideas, for example) that they don't have and, in some cases, will never have, themselves.

For years I thought it was an age-related issue, but it's still happening. My help is routinely requested, but then the results of my help just become part of the student's own work, not to be credited in any particular way, whereas the 'micro-help' some of my colleagues provide is treasured. I keep providing help because I get interested in a problem and want to investigate and I like working with and helping students, so I typically get something out of the activity.

I think this no-credit situation might be related to the phenomenon (mentioned in an earlier post) of my seeming to have *more time* than some other faculty just because I'm good at getting lots of things done. I really think I'm going to have to lose my nice, cheerful, and helpful persona.

This is just something to muse about. I am not sitting here bitterly counting up all the times I am overlooked and uncredited, and I do not want to turn into one of those people who constantly point out exactly where and when they should be cited and credited -- I've known a few of them and I think they are absurd. I am not oblivious either, though, and when I sit there in the auditorium watching my ideas and data incorporated without attribution into a presentation by a graduating student, I start to wonder: did they simply forget? not think my help was important? or what?

Monday, August 21, 2006


I'm a little behind in the news, so I just recently read "The mismeasure of woman" in the Economist
It's interesting to read about research into gender differences in terms of brain function and other 'objective' measures of male vs. female abilities in terms of spatial reasoning, vocabulary, and things like that. The rather detailed article has a rather disturbing ending though. The article concludes that the difference between male and female brains isn't so great, and therefore that female brains could be *educated* in a different way to acquire better skills for succeeding in math, science, engineering. OK.. The article was focused on brain research and not the culture of science, but even so, anyone who has survived the current system of discrimination and harassment knows that it's going to take more than spatial reasoning exercises in elementary school to help females succeed in math/science/engineering. I think it would be great if more people had skills for succeeding in science etc., but can't help but think that the most dramatic changes need to occur in the system rather than in female brains.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

August Does Not Really Exist

It's deep August -- the one month during which I am paid neither by my university or by my grants (max = 2 months in summer), and therefore the month in which I am particularly reminded of several things: (1) I (and, I think, most professors) don't do this for the money, and (2) That doesn't mean I want to do any department committee work, field emails from students about next term's classes, or do other things that could be dealt with in September when the term starts and when my daughter is back in school and when I am supposed to deal with things like that. Yet the latter activities are more than looming. They are here.

Last week I was very pleased to learn that a male colleague of mine at another university feels similarly oppressed about being asked to do lots of departmental tasks just because he's organized and efficient. He is often told that his other colleagues are 'too busy', as if he isn't. In fact, his other colleagues are just less able to balance everything. I think it might not be a coincidence that this colleague is a single dad and has probably had to learn to balance everything, and he got so extremely good at it that he always seems to have time for just one more task.

Meanwhile, I am doing the final checking and rechecking of a manuscript that came back from review and is ready for final submission. One of my students is first author, but his idea of finishing a manuscript clearly doesn't involve running a spellchecker, making sure all the references, figures, and tables are in order, and so on. This is one of those times that makes me feel old because I can't help thinking "When I was a graduate student...". [I would sooner have stuck thumbtacks in my eyes than have my advisor do this much editing work on a manuscript.] But I'd rather just get it done and do it well than hand it back to my student yet again for another stab at punctuation, verbs, and logical ordering of text and figures. It's a good thing it's still August and I have lots of time for this.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

All Guys

Every summer, undergrads from other colleges work with my research group. This summer, I have 3 in my group and all 3 are from small liberal arts colleges. They wanted to get some experience doing research at a large university because they are thinking about applying to grad schools in the fall. So, in addition to doing some interesting work this summer, they are testing the waters to see if grad school is in fact what they really want to do, and, if it is, if this is the right field for them. And of course the research experience helps if they do apply to graduate programs.

I have been talking to them about where they might apply, how to go about applying, and things like that. A century ago when I was applying to graduate programs, my main concern was finding an advisor and program that best fit my research interests. In recent conversations with the female students, however, I have found that they are very aware of gender ratios in the departments they are considering for graduate school. I mentioned one excellent school to one of my interns, and she said "I would never want to go there. I looked at their website and it's all guys." True, though "the guys" there are excellent researchers and some of them are even nice people/advisors. I don't think she cares if she has a male or female advisor; she's just checking to make sure that the department as a whole has a good climate for women students, and is using the number of women faculty as an indicator of this. I think this is fine, and I wonder if these departments know that they are missing out on some top applicants because of their lack of women faculty.

Fortunately for my intern, these days it is unusual for a department to be so extremely male dominated, so if she's going to use that criterion, she still has lots of excellent options. Even so, what if The Best Place for her research interests was at a bastion of maleness? Unless I knew that there was a serious problem with how women were treated there, I would encourage her to apply/attend.

Even if a department has women faculty, this is of course no guarantee that faculty (male or female) are sensitive and caring individuals and good advisors. I have a few colleagues who could definitely treat their students (again, male and female) better, but the women students generally have more trouble dealing with obnoxious advisors. When women graduate students talk to me because they are in despair about how their obnoxious male advisors treat them, I always say that I understand it is difficult (and we talk about whether there is anything constructive that can be done), but the most important advice I give them is to stick with it. I say "If you quit, then academia will continue to be populated by people like your advisor. If you stay, then YOU will be a professor and you can make a difference in changing the academic culture". I know that I'm advising them to suffer in the hopes that it might eventually be worth it, but the alternative seems even more bleak.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Distinguished Women

My department is in the throes of making invitations to outside speakers for our weekly seminar series in the coming academic year, and the Chair has asked in particular that we suggest women speakers as part of a Distinguished Women in Science effort promoted by the Dean's office. I always have mixed feelings about this type of thing.

Mixed Feeling #1/Pro: There have been many years when there were no women speakers for the entire year. It always amazes me that this is possible, given that there are excellent women scientists who could be invited, but the general philosophy of the seminar organizers has typically been to invite their friends or to invite Really Big Names in the field, and both of these categories are rather male. So, for this reason, I support the effort to bring in distinguished women speakers. An added benefit is that grad students and postdocs can see that there are in fact women with successful careers and interesting things to say.

Mixed Feeling #2/Con: Why do we have to make a special effort and designate these speakers in a particular way, so that it is clear that a major reason they are being invited is because they are women? It's true they wouldn't be invited if they didn't also have interesting research ideas and results to discuss, but even so. It's sort of like how some scientific organizations have designated 'special' awards that only go to women, to try to mitigate the problem of gender bias for the major awards. Does this solve anything? I hate it when people say or write things like "She's one of the best female _________s" (fill in the blank with a scientific field). I've seen that in letters of recommendation for faculty positions. When can we remove the adjective? When can we just be chemists or oceanographers or astronomers, for example, and not female chemists, female oceanographers, female astronomers?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Whose Wife Are You?

The only time I've been asked "Whose wife are you?" at a professional conference was in Europe, so it is sad that some European scientists have had the opposite experience in the U.S. In my field, it is possible for me to attend a conference session in Europe and be the only female professor in the room, but this hasn't happened to me in over a decade in the U.S., so I think that different fields must vary a lot on the different continents re. gender balance. Why are things so slow to change?

I was once at a conference in Europe and started talking to a senior (northern European) professor in a related field to my own. I wanted to talk to him about some research questions, and he kept turning the conversation to other topics, such as asking me if I was enjoying the shopping and the gardens at the conference site. When I turned the conversation back to Science, he said something like "How nice for your husband that you take an interest in his work." And then I clued in. It is sad that so many of us have had similar experiences in so many places.

In any case, I have lots of excellent colleagues in Europe, including my closest colleague. He used to think I was being too sensitive to care so much about the position of women in our field, but now he says that his eyes have been opened and he is shocked that he didn't even see what was going on around him for so long. His department has no women faculty, and was not even interviewing women. He was amazed to see a search in which 6 male candidates were selected from a very large international pool, and then another search in which the same thing was going to happen until he spoke up. His colleagues humored him and invited one woman candidate, but she did not get the job. Several of his colleagues have a wife or partner with a Ph.D., but these women are all out of academia or doing low-level technical work in the university. He says there is no hope that any of them will improve their positions.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Frau Professor

However difficult it is to be a non-professorial looking professor and scientist in North America, the situation here for women in science is much better than in other places where I've lived or spent a substantial amount of time. For example, I spent a recent sabbatical in Europe. I had a really great time living in Europe and traveling and meeting new people and getting recharged by all the new experiences. Even so, it quickly became clear that it was absolutely pointless even to try to be taken seriously as a scientist or professor. I was only there for a year, so it didn't really matter, but I had numerous experiences that reminded me of stories my senior female colleagues have told me about what it was like for women in the U.S. a few decades ago.

There were lots of women students and postdocs in my host institution during my sabbatical, but there were no women professors in my research field in the entire country. The society was set up for a situation of working men and stay-at-home moms, so I wonder what will happen to all those smart young women. I think the pipeline over there does more than just leak (like it does here) -- I fear that it gushes, but I would like to be wrong about that.

In our sabbatical city, which was a major business and cultural center, we got some strange looks at the bank when we first requested an account that had my name on it as well as my husband's; we had to explain why we needed this (I was getting a salary from the local university) and fill out special forms and wait a surprising amount of time to get full use of the account. And then there was the school system, in which kids have somewhat random schedules and go home for lunch after being at school for only a couple of hours. My husband and I spent a large part of our sabbatical walking back and forth between our apartment, our daughter's school, and the university, sometimes 6 times per day. In addition, my department at the university had its weekly department seminars on the one afternoon of the week when the local schools were not in session, making it impossible for people without child care to attend. My husband and I took turns attending the seminars, though sometimes we brought our daughter to the ones that we both wanted to attend. After the first month or so, the people in my research group at the university didn't even bother to tell me about informal meetings, visitors, etc. because they assumed I wouldn't be able to participate - most such events involved activities in the late afternoon or evening.

When asked what my position was back in the U.S., I would reply that I was a professor. Sometimes I would be corrected, as if I were confused, and I was told that I may have a Ph.D., but in Europe that didn't mean I was a professor. * NOTE: I am deep into my 40's and had 'Professor X' on the nameplate on my office door *

Another typical response to the news that I was a professor was the statement "There must be a lot of professors in the U.S. It is not such an important position as it is here." No of course not -- how could it be if they let women be professors? There is an element of truth to the statement that professors are less 'important' in the U.S. than in Europe in terms of the academic culture, but no one ever told my husband that professors must be less important in the U.S. upon hearing that he's a professor, and it happened to me a number of times.

And then there were the endless official government and university forms to fill out. These all assumed that my husband was filling them out, and there was always a space labeled "wife" just for me. Even checking into some hotels, there would be a line for "Name" and a line for "Wife's Name". I talked to a lot of women (and men) who said that the society was changing, but very slowly, and most of these official things were behind the times in terms of the way people actually lived their lives.

Sabbaticals are still a very great thing, even if one has to live in a gender time warp for a while, and I am already looking forward to my next one.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Science and Creativity and Relativity

One of the reasons I love research is that it involves discovery and creativity. The scientific process of investigating and testing and interpreting and synthesizing and writing and drawing and speaking requires the use of many different parts of your brain, and this is very stimulating. However, a lot of people seem to think that creativity = the arts, and that science is a dry, linear activity involving sitting at a computer and staring at numbers and coming up with An Answer to a question, sort of like doing advanced homework problems. I have been spending time with my relatives, who live elsewhere, this summer, hence this semi-random topic for today.

I am the only scientist, only professor, only Ph.D. in my family, and this is viewed as eccentric. Everyone was relieved and surprised when I got married and, even more shocking, had a baby. One relative said to me "We never thought you'd have a normal life, what with all that science you do."

Every once in a while a relative will ask me what I do when I'm not teaching, and it's fun to talk about my research in a very general, non-jargony way, though I've yet to find the perfect way to describe it to my family. Once, a long time ago, my mother asked if she could read one of my papers. I was thrilled. She said that she would skip the title and just start reading, and she would stop when she got to a word or concept that she didn't understand. I picked my most general and accessible paper ever, and gave it to her. After 1, maybe 2, seconds, she put the paper aside and asked "What's an Abstract?". And that was that.

So they think I'm strange, but that's OK. When I am at a family gathering, as I was recently, we seldom talk about anything anyway. We mostly just drift around each other in a silent northern New Englandy kind of way, and that's considered enough interaction.

The part that does get to me is when my relatives talk about how "creative" some of my cousins and other relations are. A cousin who likes to go to concerts is Creative. A cousin who likes to sew is Creative. A cousin who likes to draw is Creative. And so on. Years ago, a relative said to me "You're a scientist, so you're not as creative as your cousins are." Ack. I don't want to impress them, I just want them to understand more about what science and scientific research is. This is a major goal I have when I teach my students, so it's disconcerting to have failed so spectacularly with my own family. My husband has the same situation with his family, though they are more aggressive about telling him how obscure and strange they think his career choice is. Maybe it would be easier if we were trying to cure diseases or invent a new kind of wheel instead of working to figure out how the physical world works, but maybe not.