Friday, May 29, 2009

World of Difference

Not long ago, another FSP and I were chatting by email and I told her about a recent incident in which a male scientist had doubted whether I came up with a particular idea all by myself. She thought I was joking. When she expressed her doubt, I thought she was being sarcastic. Eventually we sorted it out. She had never experienced anything like that, but to me the only unusual thing about the incident was that it happens much less now that I am at mid-career.

Why have we had such different experiences? There are many possible explanations, not all of them flattering to me, but I will ignore those for now. Here are my top candidates:

  • Although we are close to each other in age, my friend got her PhD a few years ago; I got mine in the 20th century.
  • Her small institution is dominated by the liberal arts and has few scientists; there are more women faculty than men, and many more female students than male; I am at a large research university with lots of science and engineering and few women in those fields.
  • Her job mostly involves teaching (few/no grants); mine involves a lot of research (lots of grant proposals).

We are both FSPs, but our experiences are very different because of these major differences in our academic environment. I find that cheering, in a way. Maybe the positive aspects of gender-neutral academic cultures will trickle up to the places where FSPs are still a bit exotic and not quite so well respected as one might wish? Or are the Big Research Universities impervious to such influences because the distance between the Big Research University continent and the Other Universities continent is too great and therefore the life forms at the BRUs will evolve in isolation and develop unusual and extreme characteristics that allow us to survive the harsh climate? (my apologies to non-academic marsupials for that bizarre analogy)

My friend marveled that today, in 2009, there are still men who make a distinction between science professors and female science professors, as if it matters. This is where at least some of you will say: But you make that distinction yourself. You call yourself FSP and go on and on about it all the time, so it matters to you too.

And this is where I say (again): Yes it does matter to me, but note that my url is In my professional life, I would love to be an SP just like the vast majority of my colleagues and an immensely vast majority of my fellow full professors, but I am constantly reminded that I am an FSP. And as long as that is the case, it will matter to me. Hence the name.

In fact, when I use the term FSP to describe myself, I am using the term in a potentially informative way that encompasses the full range of experiences in my professional and personal life. That doesn't mean, however, that it should be used as the major defining characteristic of me as a science professor. In my professional life, I am first and foremost a scientist and a teacher. [note: In fact, when I first came up with the name 3 years ago, I was being sarcastic, but that was then. I have evolved.]

I like to think that someday calling someone an FSP just adds a bit of identifying detail that might be relevant in some ways but that doesn't imply anything about intellectual skills, professional qualifications, seriousness, or ability to have one's own ideas. I also like to think that this change will happen in part because of the everyday work of female scientists doing Science, but it's going to take a lot more of us to make a detectable change in all types of academic environments, even the Big Research Universities.


MaleStudent said...

So you would feel more comfortable (your life change for the better) if you were at a female dominated science department at a large research University? Does it even exist??

How about a MEST (male elementary school teacher)?

You happen to bash this male elementary school teacher (he is outnumbered by female teachers at the school).

Make no mistake: Enjoy reading your blog and agree with you most of the time...

I would never know because I am not a female...

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Anonymous said...

it's often subtle but this attitude of women not being 'as good' persists. and has now pervaded over to some of my age-matched male colleagues who feel that they are in some way being 'held back' because of their Y chromosome and white-ness.

worst moment of this for me - a male post-doc in my lab introducing me to the chair at top Research university in the field at a conference during my job search. He chose to comment on how I should be able to find a job because 'people are always looking to hire women'. not sure how I was supposed to react, but I just stared at him and said I wasn't stupid enough to think that any hiring committee would select anyone but the candidate they wanted, regardless of gender. Which was my subtle way of saying - you got a job at a white-male-dominated research university, you smug prick - they certainly picked one of their own.

another junior FSP said...

I'm an early-career FSP. Up until a year or two ago, I would have been on your friend's side. I sympathized with stories I heard, but I had never experienced it myself, so a small part of me always wondered if "they" were just being oversensitive.

Once you do have a colleague who has a pattern of referring to you by firstname while referring to all your colleagues as "Dr. MSP", who has a habit of addressing all questions to the MSP sitting next to you even if the questions are about your research... once you realize they don't even know they are doing it, when you see how it influences a group dynamic so that others in the group start talking around you when they don't in the same group without him there... then you really understand that it's real, and that it's overtly harmful.

It's not that MSPs are consciously saying "Oh, that FSP is just no good." In fact, with the colleague in question, I've overheard him saying very nice things about me and my research group when asked, and I'm sure that if I confronted him with the pattern he'd be horrified and apologetic. It's just that his default instinct is that physically, in person, his instinct is that the short chick isn't the one to listen to.

Anonymous said...

As a new PhD who received a BS at the kind of institution you're describing for your friend, I have to say that I don't think the change is going to trickle up to the BRUs. I'm a huge supporter of LA colleges, and feel that I received a great education, but I also felt completely unprepared for the life that I would encounter at BRU where I did my PhD. I had no idea that life was hard for women in the sciences becuase I was in the majority as an undergrad. My FSPs were in the majority as well. I really think that this added to my stress as a graduate student and is a huge reason why I have decided to leave academia. It would be interesting to see the statistics on female PhDs from LA colleges who went on to careers at BRU vs careers at LA colleges the same for female PhDs who received undergraduate degrees from BRUs.

Anonymous said...

There are vast differences between universities and they are not necessarily related to size or focus. My department at a Research Intensive U. is fairly enlightened when it comes to treating women more fairly, so I am always shocked at the horror stories one hears from other institutions. In fact even within our university there seems to be a large disparity between departments.

Anonymous said...

I find the F in FSP informative and interesting - not because it says anything about intellectual ability, but because I think (and feel) it does provide a context for your posts. Most economics departments are also predominately male; while many of my colleagues are great, every now and then I run up against a wall. I often wonder how many of my male colleagues are addressed as "Mr" rather than Dr or Professor? How many times should/can I explain the many ways in which "Mrs" is an incorrect label for me? (I'm a female associate professor.)

I thoroughly enjoy your posts.

Sam -Male Grad Sci Grad Student said...

Male Student said: You happen to bash this male elementary school teacher (he is outnumbered by female teachers at the school). How is she bashing a male elementary school teacher?

I don't see the connection you are making - did I miss something?

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I have the misfortune (or great fortune depending on your perspective) of being dumped in the extreme situation of sexism, during my internship, in which if you don't sell your feminity you get nothing, even if you are capable of outshining the rest of the male-dominated research team. So, from what I've read that is only the tip of the iceberg and is actually a very fortunate encounter. However, there will always be inequality between women and men, as a fair majority of women prefer the easy way hence the amount of dumb women jokes out there in the world. It's something we've got to live with and defend against otherwise things will never change...for those of us who want our minds acknowledged in the world.

From my experience, the only way to change the situation is not by forming your own little community of safe haven but directly challenging the way scientific societies view women in their field. Running away is not an option but just an indirect way of admitting defeat.

Men and women can be different in personal situations, but in the workplace, academia or industry, they should be equal.

Global Girl said...

FSP: The F in FSP told me I wanted to read your blog, because it was a chance to read a viewpoint from a gender-aware professor to supplement my own viewpoint as a student. As a feminist, knowing how FSPs experience gender is important.

Anonymous at 5/29/2009 10:11:00 AM:

I had nearly the exact same experience. And I'm dying to leave academia too. I knew it wasn't just a personal perspective! I love my alma mater about as much as I hate my BRU. I wear my college ring religiously. Sometimes I want to spraypaint "SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM" on my building.

Anonymous said...

This post brought to mind so many things I've felt or heard over time. To me, it just appears that we are inescapably hierarchical in our thinking. Status seeking is hard wired and stereotyping is natural. Don't most "educated" people have at least a tinge of superiority about them...and between this group, isn't there at least a bit of jealousy when it comes to perceptions of status. I was a hair away from a PhD in organic chemistry at a BRU when I decided to go to medical school. I can still remember cringing at comments of the sort, "well, now you'll be a real doctor." (Parents included...what were they thinking before?) Seven years of training later, and it was hard to miss the condescension of "specialists" when I went into Family Medicine. Hurtful arrogance that we all have to live with in some form, no matter what we are doing, I suppose. Point so far? You don't know whether I am a woman or not. Any percieved slight can take the joy out of a morning.

Well, I am male, and I remember thinking that the male predominance in the sciences back in the seventies was probably due to some imbalance in interest due to gender. The exact opposite student representation in the sciences is now present. I long ago gave up that lazy interpretation of gender bias as far as scientific interest goes, but I would be interested in your thoughts on the declining male percentages of science students. If this keeps up, at least a FSP at the BRU will not be a minority much longer.

Chris said...

For the new female PhD who decided to leave academia:

Why not try to get a job at LA in the future (as your ultimate goal, if you hate BRU so much)?

Not sure if sexism was the primary reason or 1 of 3 major reasons??

Kevin said...

I concur entirely with the sentiment expressed by "anonymous":

There are vast differences between universities and they are not necessarily related to size or focus. My department at a Research Intensive U. is fairly enlightened when it comes to treating women more fairly, so I am always shocked at the horror stories one hears from other institutions. In fact even within our university there seems to be a large disparity between departments.

Ms.PhD said...

Male Student- if you were at a female dominated science department at a large research University? Does it even exist??I don't think it does...?

FSP- history shows that this "trickle-up" model doesn't really work. It was tried. It's essentially why we have women with PhDs at all- because of women-only schools, which were all small and poor and liberal compared to the BRUs. But getting women into positions at BRUs didn't last, and the most of the women who made it initially were not replaced by women when they retired or were forced out. And we haven't really gained that much momentum since then (see the book I reference in my last 2 posts).

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Regarding Anon 8:47's comment... although the postdoc phrased his statement in a distasteful way, the sentiment holds true: there are initiatives to hire women into science departments. These initiatives (at least at my current school) are intended, for when there are two equal candidates, to ensure that the woman gets the interview. There is a nearby school that actually has written into its hiring manual that if a female candidate meets the *minimum* job requirements, she must be brought in for an interview. Insulting? Some may think so.

Gingerale said...

I heart this blog.

zoelouise said...

Another FSP here.

Ran a committee last year. Senior male on committee and I had disagreement about procedures. I had just done the procedure, so I was quite sure I knew how. He leaves the room, after 10 minutes is still not back. I ask other committee members where he went. They didn't know- then I realized (and said out loud)- I'll bet he went back to his office to look it up.

He came back after 20 minutes or so. I asked if he had gone to look it up. He said "yes", and nothing more. The younger guys all did some combo of laughing/rolling eyes.

It was a little annoying, but the old guy is, well, old. The young ones got it. I hope times are changing! I tell myself they are...I wonder if the old guy learned anything? I doubt it.

Not sure what my point is. I know there are young guys coming up who feel the same, but I hope change is occuring, just too slowly to sense it yet...

Anonymous said...

To Unbalanced Reaction:

Insulting? Maybe. But possibly also necessary. The department in which I work emphasized to me at my interview that the lack of women in the department was due to women not wanting to move to City X and not due to lack of trying on the department's part. They then offered me a temporary position and a less qualified male candidate a permanent position. I have since been made permanent and seen repeated instances of favouring males over females and males whose spouse would not need to job hunt over males bringing a "two body problem". Of the two other female faculty in our department, one was hired in large part because she was the partner of an existing faculty member and it would "help keep him here". (He does not know this, and she was a good enough candidate that she should have got the job anyway.) And this is a department that thinks they're gender blind!

Also, it has been documented that an equally good male will tend to get better reference letters than an equally good female. This would be one way to help alleviate that. Do I think it's going too far? Yes. But I suspect that there were instances that made that particular rule necessary at that institution.

DrDoyenne said...

Oh, the many ways in which female scientists are undermined…

I was just asking my Professor Husband the other day what he would think if the administrative and other non-science staff in his university department persisted in referring to him as “Mr. Bob”? He was very confused—did not at all understand what I was getting at. I explained that several of the female admin. staff and all of the janitorial staff at my workplace (government lab) consistently call me “Miss (my first name)”, but refer to male scientists as Dr. so-and-so or just by their first names. They are well aware that I have a Ph.D., am married, and in some cases am older than they are. So the title “Miss” is inappropriately applied on at least three counts. One might argue that this is a “Southernism” (I’m in the Deep South of the US), but then if true, male scientists would be referred to as “Mr. Bob”.

I hesitate to call them on it because I know that their reaction would be to say that I’m being overly sensitive, that I misunderstand their intent, etc. This was my husband’s response to my tale. I’ve tried to explain to him the insidious effect that such behaviors have on one’s psyche, but he says I should not worry about small slights.

But when do we start to worry about it?

Co-workers fail to use our proper professional title and claim that the substitute title (Miss, Missy, Young Lady, Sis, Lass, Lassie) is simply an expression of affection. In fact, it is a subtle (but safe) way to put down a female scientist to her face. Even if not deliberate, this behavior reflects a certain mindset and workplace culture. I find it hard to imagine the staff calling male scientists or professors comparable names (Mr., Master, Boy, Little Guy, Lad, Laddie).

If staff can treat you with disrespect, deliberately or not, what does this say about how female scientists are currently viewed in the workplace? If a male scientist speaks only to other males in a meeting and excludes you from the discussion (which is then picked up and propagated by other group members), then you’ve effectively been demoted/excluded from your peer group.

Taken individually, each instance is a minor slight, but they add up, eating away at your confidence. You, being a caring and polite person, hesitate to embarrass and alienate otherwise supportive colleagues who occasionally slip up.

But how long should we wait for supportive males (including my husband) to get it?

Anonymous said...

Well I guess I'm glad I don't live in the South then. I'm on the west coast in CA, and nobody uses titles of any kind in my field (unless a formal letter is being written). This puts us all on an even playing level, at least with names. Then again, I work at a government institute, not a university.

During my time as a grad student, there were 3 hires in my little department. All were white men. Now, all are great scientists and I love that these were the people chosen. So I won't fault them. But... I spoke with one prof about it at length at one point, and he told me that the selection committee was actively trying to find a woman but they just couldn't find one who was "sparkly enough". How much of that is that women don't promote themselves enough? How much of that is that the profs just can't get past their own biases? How do you tease out these two things?

To date (and it's been 6 years since I left) there have been no permanent female profs hired, ever, in this little department (out of about a dozen profs).