Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The More Things Change

Recently I was talking with a friend/colleague from the university where I was a professor before I was a professor at my current university. He said "Do you remember how in hiring committee and faculty meetings the old guys used to question whether female candidates had done their own work and had their own ideas, but they never brought this up for male candidates?" I said YES, startling him and all people and animals within a 1.5 km radius.

Yes, I most certainly remember that. I told him that I use those experiences in my discussions with early career women scientists when we talk about publications, authorship, applications, and interviews. How could I forget?

The first time I heard one of the old guys say something like that in a meeting, I was so stunned, I slammed my pen down on the table and shouted No, startling him and everyone else within a 1.5 km radius. I don't think anyone there had heard me even raise my voice before, so it got people's attention. I pointed out how unfair it was to raise this issue for female candidates - on the basis of nothing -- and not for male candidates. The old guys seemed surprised. They were not evil -- in fact, they were unfailingly supportive of me when I was an assistant professor -- but they were sexist to the core in other ways, and nothing I said really had much effect on their opinions about candidates. That place had and has a problem hiring and retaining women faculty.

So I wondered why my former colleague was bringing this up. Surely it was ancient history? The old guys had all retired, and I only knew of one, maybe two, remaining faculty who still needed ethics transplants -- like the one who had asked me about my husband during my interview lo these many years ago -- but they haven't been allowed on hiring committees for a long time.

My colleague sighed and said that now some of the younger generation do the same thing. He sits in hiring committees and hears young male faculty question whether female applicants are capable of having their own ideas and working independently, but these issues are not raised for male applicants. He has been fighting this attitude for so long, he was discouraged that it wasn't something that went away as younger faculty were hired.

I told him that it isn't so much of a problem at my current department. There are other problems, but I have not seen anything like what I experienced on hiring committees at his university. Why is it still a problem there? Were the young guys so influenced by the older faculty that they came to believe that women's qualifications were to be doubted more than those of their male peers, or did they arrive with that belief? Did the old guys somehow select new colleagues who shared their views on academic culture? Is the lack of women self-perpetuating in perpetuity?

I don't know, but, depressing though this conversation was, my colleague thinks there is still hope for change. A new, more enlightened dean and chair are finally taking a look at some of the problems in this department re. hiring, and might be willing to make some dramatic changes in how the department conducts its hiring, promoting, and retaining of faculty. It would clearly take some top-down action, as it doesn't seem likely that the department will change on its own.


Anonymous said...

"Is the lack of women self-perpetuating in perpetuity?"


and, the one other potential inducement, for those sexist young men, is that they have, in their life, encountered a woman who they did not believe did her own work. That doesn't justify raising the issue (since generalizing from an n of one to the population is the definition of prejudice).

Anonymous said...

wow. I just realized I've seen this before. I didn't even notice it since we've had a 1:8 female:male ratio since I've been here. The issue, however, was raised for 2 out of the 3 women, and none of the men.

I'll be sure to slam something onto the table next time it comes up, though.

Anonymous said...

In my dept, the problem is compounded by so-called trailing spouses, often (but not always) female. Recently the wife of a faculty member has been given a tenure-track position, after years as research professor in her hubby's group: everybody agrees that she has been instrumental to his success, and a nice external offer for the couple generated the necessary action from our side. Great.
She is awesome,and on paper better than her husband (better pedigree); she switched fields when they came here. ANyhow, I heard several senior colleagues make nasty comments, mainly they are mad "at the way she was brought in" (sic).
As much as I disagree with them, the fact that quite a few women scientists have spouses in the profession, often senior to them, is not helping.
Personally, I think the problem should be avoided by offering two separate positions from the beginning. It is unfair to the couple, and also to the rest of us with non-scientist spouses: I would love to have a committed senior person, paid by the university, in my lab!
It's scary: all successful senior colleagues in my division have had their wife work for them as research professor supported by university lines. That's nice for them, not so nice for the wives, and very discouraging for everybody else-- it appears that a devoted and competent spouse is a necessary accessory for success.

Global Girl said...

"Is the lack of women self-perpetuating in perpetuity?"

Yes, unless there's some more old-fashioned feminist consciousness among scientists.

Many areas of science and engineering need a culture change. This has been documented in science and technology studies, in the writings of scientists like Evelyn Fox Keller, and in places like the one you describe. "Soft" issues like culture have "hard" consequences - like leaky pipeline statistics.

Anonymous said...

Maybe young male faculty feels so threatened by bright young women coming in that their last line of defense is to question the women's abilities, trying to get rid of the competition?

Anonymous said...

Sexist Bastards!
I interviewed for a science faculty job, and was questioned about a single author paper that I wrote. The interogrator asked me if I got along with my advisor, and I said "yes", it was just that I did all the work myself and my advisor thought I should get all the credit.
So no matter what you do, they will get the gates closed.
Thanks for the pen slamming idea. I will try it out.

Anonymous said...

I had a lot to say about your post FSP. So much that I wrote one of my own. Thanks for bringing this up.

Anonymous said...

I can barely even respond to this post because it hits me so close to home. Things like this don't just happen in search committees they happen at every level where women are considered in a competition in academia. I have heard not only men make these remarks but also senior women faculty (?), and its just so depressing.

And, to make it all even better- when you make a remark about it or have a strong argument against this kind of nonsense, you can many times be met with:

1. This isn't the right forum for this kind of discussion. (to which I say- what IS the right forum)

2. We treat everyone equally and hey- we've got a woman in our department (of 15)...

3. It's not going to be easy to fix this. (well, duh).

Anonymous said...

"Is the lack of women self-perpetuating in perpetuity?"

Yes. Yes it is. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the massive display of group cognitive dissonance that I saw at a conference last week. The group consensus, though unspoken, was deafening; the answer to unexamined sexism or survival, if we have to pick one, what'll it be, was "Sexism!" ringing loud and clear.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Depressing though it is to hear that the young faculty are beginning to mimic their elders, do you (or does your colleague) have any sense about whether they are more amenable to feedback? That is, the graybeards probably weren't inclined to change their way of thought even when it was pointed out to them; might the cleanshaven be more tractable?

If ever there was an opportunity for good department leadership, this is it.

Anonymous said...

One of the most frustrating things I have encountered in my short career is young male scientists who are convinced that the best way to improve the situation for women is to hire lots of younger people who are assumed to be, by virtue of their age, not like those fundamentally sexist old guys. I have experienced far more overt and subtle discrimination from my peers and people just above me in the hierarchy than from the Old Men's Club. In my experience, the best men to work with have been just past tenure and have seen a woman they cared about get hurt by gender discrimination somehow. The old guys have mostly been overtly supportive and subtly sexist.

sandy shoes said...


That's depressing.

Anonymous said...

And one more thing... the new guys learned everything they know from the old guys (because there aren't a lot of old girls in this game, this just seems obvious).

Why is anyone surprised by this- the young guys learned from the example that they had available.

These things don't change themselves because people SHOULD be enlightened,but rather must be actively changed ... like with a mandatory course part of professionalism & ethics courses everywhere...that NIH training grant funded programs are required to have.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen it against FSP's but similar comments were expressed directly to my husband when he applied for his current science fac position. He was an internal candidate though which carries its own sort of bias.


Kim said...

*bangs head on desk*


Ms.PhD said...

Thank you for writing this.

Two young profs (at different schools) told me recently that they've had a hard time telling whether their potential faculty hires were "independent enough".

I was surprised by the question and didn't think to ask if this question came up more often with women candidates.

It was clear that they were obliquely trying to put the question to me about my own work vs. my advisor so I made a point of emphasizing just how independent I am (perhaps too much so).

It's something I need to bring up with my advisor, I guess, when I do applications. At the very least, it can be addressed in recommendation letters.

Anonymous said...

I agree with one of the previous anonymous posters. I think this has a lot to do with fear and competition. Making subtle yet snide inquiries into someone's qualifications may have just enough of a whiff of legitimacy to avoid being called out as sexist.
After all, these guys are just trying to recruit the best, right?

Anonymous said...

what fpp said. I get this a lot more from guys my age (the lovely "oh, it was easier for you to get in/get an adviser/etc. because you're a girl" statements). Older men, in general, treat me fine on a day-to-day basis (not saying that they're not sexist, just that they're smart enough to not show it blatantly like the cocky young fellow-grad-student males.

I'm looking forward to applying for faculty jobs someday and seeing how willing these sorts of guys are to pin my research accomplishments on my adviser instead of me. My adviser is also female and about eight years older than me. I imagine them sitting there vibrating with confusion going "Who can we pin this great research on? The young female...or the young female??...GAH!"

chemcat said...

Yep. A junior colleague recently remarked that it had been easier to get tenure for the most recently promoted associate prof, as she's a woman. I am friends with her and I know exactly what sort of hell the dean and the department put her through, for no reason, so I was rather snappy in my reply.
With women, the attitude is to look for what is wrong. Not being independent is always framed as being a good team player for guys....

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the written comment the TA put on my project for my first ever engineering class. "Nice Job, [name of my boyfriend]"


Anonymous said...

"Soft" issues like culture have "hard" consequences - like leaky pipeline statistics.

This reminds me of a incredibly telling study that I encountered while researching a sociology paper.

A large collection of minority STEM undergraduates were assembled and split into two groups. One group was asked to generate a list of characteristics describing engineers and one describing non-engineers. The other group was asked to perform the same task but for men and women.

The lists for women and non-engineers were nearly identical.

It is just mind-blowing to me to consider that even the language of STEM is stacked against women. No wonder the number of female graduates is stagnating at 20%

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this "structural misogyny" (nice one) seems pretty pervasive. It's a point I use often when family/friends outside the field tell me how nice I have it being in a field (Biology) where women are more well-represented. I hope that the more people who are aware of (and willing to slam their pens at) this issue, the less it will be perpetuated.

Even in our overall friendly, supportive department, the independent thinking of young female researchers has been questioned by 'distinguished' male faculty (e.g. 'she must have gotten lucky' about an asst. prof who's received 2 NSF grants plus other good funding since her hiring). jeez!

Speculation/generalization- that a female tendency to duly acknowledge team members and credit others' contributions contributes to the "is she independent" question? (as has already sort of been mentioned :) ) Some people only need to hear a deferential statement once to latch onto it. Tough balance to strike, it seems.

Anonymous said...


One scholar focuses on the scholar's own work, and does engagement work with the local town (as in town-gown) in what time's left over. For this the scholar is considered a team player.

Another scholar looks at the big picture of who's supporting all this and responds as a citizen scientist -- not a departmental citizen mind you but a citizen scientist. This scholar creates scientific questions from changing phenomena in the real world. This scholar advances one's career in time left over.

You know who gets raises. You know which gender's which. And if you know those two things you know how America falls behind other countries.

So thanks, FSP, from the bottom of my heart. You have my respect. I too am slamming my pen on the desk saying NO.

Drugmonkey said...

the new guys learned everything they know from the old guys (because there aren't a lot of old girls in this game, this just seems obvious).

Why is anyone surprised by this- the young guys learned from the example that they had available.

no, no, no drdrA. This lets these chowderheads off the hook. We're talking grown men in their late thirties to mid forties, yah? not teenagers. They adopt the positions that are convenient for their own selfish interests, full stop. They should be held responsible for their "independent" opinions

Anonymous said...

vodalus -- can you post the citation for that study? Sounds really interesting.

This is why it kills me to hear young women in scientific fields say they aren't interested in women's issues or don't think there's a problem any more because they themselves haven't personally experienced overt discrimination. They think if they just work really hard, their merit will be rewarded (and this is what most of their male advisors tell them as well). This story just illustrates how wrong they can be. As physioprof said: heartbreaking.

FSP, at some point would you consider posting about some of the things you discuss with early-career female scientists? I'm sure many of us here would benefit from hearing them.

Anonymous said...

I am a female t-t science faculty member attempting to get a grant, and I just got my first grant reviews back. Reviewers suggested that because I had mostly published with my previous advisor, I didn't have my own ideas - despite the fact that the entire grant proposal dealt with different (and good) ideas!
I didn't even think of the possibility that this could have been gender-based until I read your post. I'm sure the grant does need work - but I wonder if this pattern does turn up in grant reviews as well as hiring committees. Of course you'd have to be on the panel to know ...

Anonymous said...

I don't have a direct citation but I know where I read about it:
Removing Barriers edited by Jill M. Bystydzienski and Sharon R. Bird

This is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in women's issues in STEM. Not necessarily because it's the most authoritative text, but because it's a fascinating collection of papers.

Anonymous said...

If you are prepared for more depression - read this:

A Case Study of Gender Bias at the Postdoctoral Level in Physics, and its Resulting Impact on the Academic Career Advancement of Females:
(it is for particle physics and depresses me tremendously...)

especially when seeing a male fellow grad student saying things about another fellow female grad student like "Oh well, I think she is just very organized and very accurate in what she is doing, but not really having her own ideas". Note that HE even does not buy his car without his supervisors advise/help!!!

Anonymous said...

vodalus -- thanks for that citation, I've just ordered the book! Looks great.

Anonymous said...

I'm a female science undergrad, and one of my professors tells me when I get my feelings hurt by people, basically, not to attribute to malice what could be ignorance.

In response to your post, I don't think the interviewing practice is excusable, but maybe it could be explained in a more constructive way. Men and women are different. They just are. I've noticed that women are more likely to ask for help with something if they think they can get it done more efficiently with someone else's help, whereas men sometimes let pride get in the way of doing the same. Maybe men don't understand this readiness to ask for help and misinterpret it as a sign of dependence on other people for original ideas. This mentality is biased and unfair, but meeting it with so much hostility probably wont change anything.