Friday, September 21, 2007

Training Wheels and Oracles

One of my more oppressed female colleagues described to me a recent meeting in which she and 4 male faculty met to discuss possible changes to a course that has long been taught in a particular way. She had some new ideas for the course, but all of her ideas were ignored or dismissed except when one senior faculty member stepped in to support her. Then her ideas were taken more seriously.

I and many others have written about this phenomenon at length -- that is, the mysterious power that men have to make a statement seem creative, reasonable, interesting, doable, when the same statement from a woman is ignored or squelched.

This latest example made me wonder whether the senior faculty member who acted as the female professor's advocate was sort of like a gender sensitivity 'training wheel' for the other men or whether they will never really hear what women are saying in meetings or other professional settings. That is, if a female professor has an advocate who supports her ideas again and again during committee meetings, will that committee eventually be able to listen, even when the training wheel is removed and the ideas are expressed by a higher pitched voice? Or will these men always need an oracular senior male to pronounce what is worthy of serious consideration?


Ms.PhD said...

Good question. I could really use a training wheel/oracular senior male supporter! Right now I could care less if it's temporary, that would already be an improvement.

I got to experience the typical dismissive crap yet again today in a meeting. At some point you start wanting to skip meetings altogether, face time be damned, when all your ideas are put down and no one backs you up.

It reminds me of the Tori Amos song, the last line of which is a play on words: "I ordered you a pancake."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Ideally, Senior Male would make sure to say loudly and frequently as the change progresses, how great it was that your colleague suggested it, and how good her ideas are. Training wheels only work as a transition, rather than as a substitute for the actual two-wheeled bike riding.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, how did you decide it was her gender that made her opinions go unheard and not merely an issue of seniority? Not that it's justified in any way - but isn't it possible to set aside the gender lens and assess the situation equally rationally? Perhaps if a junior male colleage had expressed an opinion, it might well have been equally summarily ignored?

Female Science Professor said...

There were junior male faculty at the committee meeting, and they were listened to and their ideas were taken seriously.

meta said...

The Norwegian professor Berit Ås has listed five "master suppression techniques" that are often used by men against women (or other underrepresented groups).

It is a good idea to learn how to identify the techniques and work against them. Most men that use them, does not know they do.

Find out more about Berit Ås and the techniques on Wiki:

Anonymous said...

That situation is exactly why I left my last job to go back to school. Except that I did not have any male support. My ideas were routinely ignored.

In science, I have found (with my limited experience) that the older males are still stuck back in the times when females were not really in science, and now that we are around, the older males have trouble with it. Younger males are influenced by the older men.

I agree with notorious ph.d. We need the men who speak up for women to remind everybody else that the idea originated with the woman. But ... who knows if it will work?

Valentine said...

Hmm, I wonder about this--my PI (who has some truly less than stellar moments in terms of gender sensitivity, particularly regarding our pretty undergrads) has been of the oracular senior male type for me. For a while it drove me crazy that no one listened to what I said unless he seconded it. Now people in my lab tend to seek out my opinion. So they *might* be trained...but that will only be confirmed when another junior woman comes into the group.

Anonymous said...

Important point: most of the time, it's not the message, it's the delivery. A huge portion of the message you communicate is delivered through tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions (the statistics vary, but it's clear that the words you use are certainly more minor that we'd all like.)

Believing that you will be ignored or glossed over can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Presenting your ideas in a quiet, passive way can contribute if not outright cause others to write you off. Yes, it's good that an older/wiser person stepped in to mediate; hopefully everyone involved will learn something. But are we sure this situation is entirely the result of gender disparity?

As a female in an almost entirely-male industry (not higher academics) I find that my forthrightness (some call it bitchiness...not flattering, but I'm mostly okay with it) makes me heard much more often than my softer-spoken colleagues, both male and female. Part of that is, when I feel strongly about something, I fight until I get heard, or until I get a good explanation of why other things take priority (or even --gasp-- that I'm wrong!!)

I just hate to see a very complex situation of inter-personal dynamics (in which you only have one side of the story) written off as "they ignore(d) her because she's female."

Jay said...

Anonymous: you said yourself that your style could be described as "bitchiness". I know woman are trying to reclaim that word, but I bet you're actually seen that way - the old-fashioned way- by some in your workplace. That certainly has happened to me. I also fight to be heard, and I am heard more often than other women, but I'm also targeted and labeled as "difficult" in ways that men in my field are not.

Many young professionals in and out of academia, men and women, would benefit from a workshop on communication skills. But once that's over, the women will still find their ideas dismissed more often than the men. It's still a patriarchy, even if some of us have managed to succeed in it.

Anonymous said...

Recently at a fancy conference, I (female) watched my advisor (female) get ignored by some well-known professors (male, older) when she asked them a question at lunch. She asked repeatedly; they ignored, repeatedly. My advisor is not mega-famous but sufficiently well-respected to get invited to this conference. I don't for a minute think the old male profs would have ignored a man in her shoes.

However, I will say that she timed her questions poorly. She always seemed to be asking right in the middle of one of the other prof's starting a sentence; she did a bad job of waiting for the right moment to break in. That doesn't justify their poor behavior, and again I really don't think they would have ignored a guy. To me, the lesson was that a woman needs to be (surprise, surprise) BETTER than an equivalent man in any given situation. If she had judged, and waited, and timed her questions better, I think she would have gotten a response. She shouldn't have had to have done those things--no man would--but again it just seems as though if she had been more socially adept (in this situation; she's usually highly adept) she could have gotten her answer. So: agreed that men will fail to "hear" a woman; it's unfair; think that we have to add "good at picking up on and using social cues" to the many, many, many skills we already needed to get this far.