Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More Diverse Award Issues

When confronted with a male-dominated list of nominees for an award for research excellence, I am troubled if the imbalance is significantly greater than the male : female ratio of faculty in the relevant academic disciplines. For example, if the % of female nominees is less than half the % of female faculty who are eligible for the award, I would like to know why.

Are more male faculty meeting the criteria for eligibility, and if so, why? Or are more male faculty being nominated for other reasons; and if so, what are these reasons?

And in the nominating letters for the few female candidates, why do some nominators (typically a department chair or other senior faculty colleague) mention all the mentoring a female professor has received, but this is never mentioned for male faculty? If an award is for research excellence, why is it even relevant to mention extensive mentoring?

Perhaps the departments that provide extensive mentoring of assistant professors are proud of this, but mentioning mentoring for female nominees but not for male ones undermines the nominations of female faculty. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being mentored, but if it is only described in the nomination letters of women faculty, this implies that the women needed mentoring but the men didn't or that the women attained research excellence with lots of help but the men didn't need help.

And then, in the midst of my being troubled by some of these issues, a different diversity issue arose: An extraordinarily talented male science professor (MSP) was passed over for an award because his letter writers were not diverse. That is, the 10-12 letters saying that this guy was the most awesome scientist in his field were all from men. I think it is sad that there aren't (m)any senior women of sufficient stature (i.e. National Academy members) who could comment on the excellence of this MSP, but should he be denied a significant award because of this?

These two cases are related. The first case -- the lack of women nominees -- indicates a systemic problem in recognizing the research excellence of women faculty, and the second -- the lack of women letter writers -- is a side effect of the lack of women at senior levels. The first is a serious problem because it directly impacts the career advancement of many women faculty. The second is unfair to the MSP involved, but he is already a successful and highly respected scientist, so the serious problem isn't so much that he is at a disadvantage because of a situation for which he is not individually responsible, but that the situation exists at all.

Perhaps if we can solve the first problem, the second one will not arise and a random collection of reference letters from the top researchers in any particular field will consist of some men and some women. I think the MSP in question deserves to get an excellent award even if there are no women peer scientists who can support the nomination, but, in the hopes that something good could come of this situation, perhaps the first problem will be more likely to be solved if more men feel that they personally are being harmed by a lack of women at all levels of seniority in the sciences.


Anonymous said...

If women are creating better research than the men, can you please give concrete examples and use this evidence to back up your claims. You don't win awards for doing good research, you win awards for doing the best research. Also suggesting that people are voting on gender lines and the solution to this is more women so they can vote of gendered lines is simply ridiculous.What sort of pointless sexist competition are you suggesting?

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

You might find this paper interesting apropos recommendation letters: Trix, Frances, and Carolyn Psenka. 2003. “Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of Recommendation for Female and Male Medical Faculty.” Discourse and Society 14/2: 191-220. (539-568).

It shows some interesting things along the lines you mention re: mentioning mentoring for female but not male faculty.

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous - I did not suggest or say any of those things.

Wanna Be Mother said...

Nice blog post today

Drugmonkey said...

Anonymous, if you don't realize by now that awards have a significant political dimension, from the Nobel right on down to your small academic society "Best Scientist Under 40" award, well....

You win awards for having great research and for having the right people attest to this fact. Both are required elements.

Not Just Academic said...

As every good statistician knows, taking a tiny sample from a tiny population is likely to lead to unrepresentative data. There are so few female senior academics that it may be too much to hope for that a comparable male:female ratio will emerge in awards nominations as in the overall field.

That aside, what you say about mentoring female faculty strikes a chord. I encountered similar views when colleagues were being considered for promotion: an unmentored male academic was "independent" while an unmentored female academic was a "loner". For some unvoiced and rather unpleasant reason, there seemed to be an expectation that female academics need mentoring more than their male counterparts.


Anonymous said...


In defense of Anonymous, lots of studies show that men have more trouble with reading than women. :)

Seriously, though, that is pretty messed up that people would mention mentoring in letters for women. When I write letters for students, I make a point of emphasizing the ways in which a student was able to work WITHOUT much guidance. I assumed that everybody else did the same. I know that there's a lot of discussion of the importance of mentoring, especially for women and minorities, but do these letter writers think they're going to get a mentoring award or something?

I'm early enough in my career that I've received a lot of recommendations and written a few, but I haven't read many yet. Do people try to plug themselves in letters? Are they imagining that if they use recommendation letters to talk about how well they mentored a woman they'll be perceived as this great and progressive department? Do they use letters for men to talk about how great the research facilities are in their department? "As a student in my lab, Dr. So-and-so got to use all the finest facilities that we have to offer in this excellent department. We have a state-of-the-art blah blah machine, and the nation's best facility for XYZ studies...."

Anonymous said...

why is this happening? SEXISM.
Now do I get an A?

Anonymous said...

When confronted with a male-dominated list of nominees for an award for research excellence, I am troubled if the imbalance is significantly greater than the male : female ratio of faculty in the relevant academic disciplines.

Wouldn't the former just be a consequence of the latter? I've been part of several award committees, and believe me, in male dominated disciplines it is often very hard to find good female candidates let alone awardees.

This is to say, the system selects so extensively against women that by the time we reach the upper echelons of the pyramid there are nearly no candidates left: 30% of students are female, of which only 30% become grad students, of which only 30% become professors, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 5:34 -- you didn't read the post carefully at all. The point is: if excellence is randomly distributed, then women should be as likely to be producing excellent work as men, unless there are external factors influencing this. Thus, if 30% of the Level I professors are female, roughly 30% of the nominees for awards open to Level I profs should be female (obviously, small sample sizes will influence the reliability of this inference). When the proportion of female nominees is 15%, but the proportion of qualified female faculty is 30%, something funny is going on. Noting this in no way implies one believes women are producing better research than men. It's simple statistics.

But some people seem to get hysterical whenever anyone mentions the mere possibility of sexism, and then they aren't able to read and reason correctly about the simplest things. I think such people need to rest their poor little heads and turn their thoughts to simpler subjects.

Anonymous said...

In my experience in the mathematics community I have found that the average women is far better than the average man and so the ratio of men to women prize nominees is typically 1:5 epsilon where the ratio of male to female researchers is 1:epsilon. There seems to be little sexism in the nomination process. The ratio of winners however is more like 1:epsilon^2.

So, there is clearly a problem here.

I have no idea how to deal with that. What bothers me the most though is that more than 50% of our graduate students are female, they are (on average) better than their male colleagues but hardly any go on faculty positions. Bah!

Anonymous said...

When women do better than men (more graduates) its a good thing. And when men do better than women (awards) its sexism. Is this the formula you are using to determine sexism?

Anonymous said...

Oh anonymous, your glasses really _are_ fogged up!

The claim was that there is more excellence among women in mathematics, both at the student and faculty levels, and that this excellence is not recognized by awards (although the implication was that it was measurable by other means).

Perhaps you didn't realize that mathematicians use epsilon to denote very small quantities: the implication is that in this case, epsilon is less than one. A quick google would have led you to see that it's a lot less than one. So there's a problem.

Take a deep breath, and read what the poster wrote. If you can handle that, you should go back to Amy's post.

Anonymous said...

I work as a computational scientist at a prestigious university. Recently I attended a conference and noted that, while one senior level attendee was female, overall only about 10% of attendees were women and zero of the intermediate leadership/speaker positions were filled by women. Of the 10% women roughly half came from a single male faculty member's group. Just today, I mentioned this in passing to a male colleague and speculated that maybe the difference in success at higher levels had to do with the fact that most male faculty were not actively promoting their women students as they might the men. My male colleague responded, "Oh, well, that male faculty person with all the women students and postdocs was obviously MENTORING and no one is mentored where I come from!" What utter b***sh*t! How can one even rationally discuss this issue when there is such obvious prejudice at work?

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note the differences in recommendation letters at all levels. Ever since I read an interesting article that said letters for women often mention their "hard work and conscientiousness" versus letters for men often mention their "skills and abilities," I've actively tried to mention skills and abilities for my female students and hard work/conscientiousness for male students. I find the whole mentoring thing interesting and the double standards on a whole frustrating.

Ms.PhD said...

Ack, how bizarre. I guess the repercussions of the lack of senior women are broader than some of us might assume.

I guess the only way I can see this making any sense is if this guy is, while a respected scientist, also a sexual harassing pig that no woman would ever recommend for anything because he's such a vile human being.

Somehow I doubt that is the case since it sounds like you know him (and might have mentioned something like this if you knew)?

I'm particularly struck by this comment from Not Just Academic: I encountered similar views when colleagues were being considered for promotion: an unmentored male academic was "independent" while an unmentored female academic was a "loner".

I think I've been the victim of this kind of criticism. What's ironic is, I have tons of collaborators. And yet, if I'm not enough of a stereotypically female joiner or follower, I must be some kind of unbearable wacko (bitch)?

I also think the point about hard work/conscientiousness for women vs. skills/abilities for men is VERY interesting. I see this all the time from both male and female PIs, they talk about their male students and postdocs as if they are inherently gifted (not matter how lazy they are), while the women need to demonstrate how hard they can work before anyone thinks they have a chance at success.