Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Poor Reflection

Several times in the past month I have been told anecdotes about women academics who made carer decisions that annoyed other people. In some cases the annoyance was justified (e.g., women who reneged on a commitment in an unprofessional way), in other cases not (e.g. women who left one university for a better offer at another).

I suppose it is because there are still so few female science professors that each woman's controversial decision is seen as a Poor Reflection on All Women. It would of course be absurd to extrapolate one man's decision to move to another university as somehow indicating anything about the reliability or loyalty of men in general, but somehow a similar move for a woman is seen by some in a different way.

For men, the response might be "He must be really good if that other university hired him away." For women, the responses I heard recently about one woman who changed jobs were: "She really left her (first) university in the lurch", "She's so selfish, all she cares about is making more money", and "That's what happens when you hire women. They leave."

And if a woman makes an apparently 'unprofessional' decision, such as backing out of a commitment at the last minute because she doesn't want to move so far away from her boyfriend, this is seen as a setback for all women, eliciting responses such as "That's the last time that department/unit/professor will try to hire a woman."

This is another reason why we need more women in science -- so that some women can screw up and it isn't seen as a Poor Reflection on All Women. And other women can make career decisions to change universities and have those decisions seen as reflecting excellence, not selfishness.


Anonymous said...

It would of course be absurd to extrapolate one man's decision to move to another university as somehow indicating anything about the reliability or loyalty of men in general, but somehow a similar move for a woman is seen by some in a different way.

I agree completely...

Also, perhaps this is a silly thing to say, but I can't help but see something in common between those who unjustifiably condemn all women on the basis of one person's bad choice, and those who unjustifiably condemn the misogyny of the system on the basis of bad events befalling one individual*. In both cases it seems some people are just fixated on gender as an issue. Usually, when a professor leaves to go to another school, or when your advisor never responds to your email, it has nothing to do with gender.

*I'm not saying that the "system" is never misogynist, and I have certainly encountered people who were wronged, in my view on account of their gender, and weren't afraid to speak up about it. But, here I'm referring only to another types of people that I have met, who when bad things happen to them, inexplicably decide that the bad things happened to them because their boss had a problem with women.

Anonymous said...

One of your all time best posts. I am speechless.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this just like xkcd 385 (sorry no link on iPhone)

dot said...

> This is another reason why
> we need more women in
> science

While I agree that we need more women in science, I think we have better reasons for that, and that your argument is not very logical.
Take the following story: there is one blind guy in our department of mathematics. He is very good and I heard some people draw the conclusion that blind guys are "naturally" good in mathematics. Your argument could be used to claim that we need more blind people in mathematics.
I think you should rather say "This will be a nice consequence of getting more women in Science, and I wish people were not generalizing from a few cases to many". There are already many good reasons for gender equality (in Science as elsewhere), we need acting on those reasons much more than additional reasons.

I wanted to ask: what do you think of "StoryTelling Alice" (http://www.alice.org/kelleher/storytelling/index.html), the approach taken by some computer scientist to encourage young girls to learn computer science? Did your daughter use it (or Alice)?

Alyssa said...

Grrr - those comments make me so mad. I've also heard the "This is why we shouldn't hire women" comment when a woman took her maternity leave (which was in her contract!). So frustrating.

Meadow said...

So true. Add to this that women also find themselves in situations where they have to make the best of difficult situations (part of a 2-body deal etc., pregnancy difficulties etc.) where the chance of 'screwing up' is very high in the first place.

There are many female grad students and early career women, but mid to senior women are few.

Anonymous said...

People who have an anti-female agenda will always find a reason to offended by this and that. I would just shrug it off. I don't think prejudiced people will become less prejudiced just by individuals trying to offend them less.

John Vidale said...

Those seem to me two endmembers - no examples of women leaving a university "in a lurch" come to mind, perhaps because it is hard to think of that as a crime if a better job appeared, for a man or a woman.

Turning down a better job, or moving to accept a less good position, on the other, is something women are criticized for being prone to do, although I don't know whether they in fact do it more than men.

Anonymous said...

This seems ridiculous and sexist to me. I can't imagine not calling someone out if I heard a remark like that.

Ms.PhD said...

In my experience, these stories are always one-sided, and it's usually the speaker who is being selfish.

My favorite one in recent years was the PI who tried to recruit me to join his lab, but neglected to mention that he'd be moving, and then went radio-silent for over a month while I was trying to make my decision (and had lots of questions, none of which got answers).

When I finally heard back, it was in the form of an ultimatum about joining his lab at the new location. So yes, I used my personal life as an excuse, but it wasn't the only reason. This person didn't seem to see how incredibly selfish it was not to mention a change of venue halfway across the country.

It's really a double-bind for women. You don't want to set a bad precedent for yourself, or a bad example for others, by blaming your personal life, but what if it actually is true that you can't expect your husband to move with no warning (and he wouldn't expect you to do that for him, either)?

Anyway, you're absolutely right that this is yet another thing where having more women would help fix the sexist perceptions - by swamping them with examples that don't fit the assumptions.

Too bad that's not suddenly going to happen anytime soon.

amy said...

The "critical mass" literature says women need to be about 30-35% of the population in question before they stop standing out as tokens or representatives of women in general. In my field (about 20% women), the sexism seems to affect the mid-range women the most. A superstar woman will be taken about as seriously and receive about the same benefits as a superstar man. (And, of course, everyone will point out that the discipline isn't sexist, because it's possible for women to rise to such superstar status). But a mediocre woman will be almost completely ignored (or asked, "Why can't you be more like superstar woman?"), while a mediocre man will still be taken seriously as a valued member of the community. But if we reach critical mass, perhaps mediocre women will be more accepted. For my own sake, I hope so!

prof j said...

People with prejudices will always find a reason to denigrate someone. On the one hand it's bad that member of group X leaves for better jobs. On the other, if member of group X stays, it means they have no ambition or are not good enough to get hired at better places.

mixlamalice said...

There is a first year grad student that is leaving soon our group.
I don't know all the details and it seems that she is actually not really into science and she is going to another grad program.

But I've also heard from a close friend of her that she believes my PI is sexist.
Well, he might be but in a way I've never noticed. Nobody in the group, especially the other females have never said that also, at least in front of me (whereas they have pointed out other faults in my PI personality - who is rather a nice guy anyway).

As an exemple, she said that during a meeting, he asked whether she was sure or not if she made the good experiment because the result was opposite of what he would have expected. Actually he was wrong and she was right.
But, if as a first year student you can't accept that your PI sometimes doubt your results and assume that for this reason he is sexist, it won't probably be easy to go through your grad years...

Kevin said...

I tend to agree with the first anonymous poster---most professional behavior has little to do with gender.

I've never seen any tendency to blame bad behavior on gender locally. I've been in departments with < 25% female faculty for over 20 years (including my current one), and have not seen any tendency to attribute good or bad outcomes to gender.

Promotion to tenure and to full professor has been just as likely for women as for men---the bottleneck has mainly been in the pools of available faculty candidates at initial hiring, and in the more generous offers that other universities can make to the few qualified women available.

Historiann said...

Ms. Ph.D. is right--these stories are usually incredibly self-serving. Organizations need narratives to explain to themselves and others why somone might leave a school or work environment, and they generally don't choose narratives that blame them for creating an inhospitable environment.

Blaming women's personal lives--or just their feminine fickleness and indecision (La Donne e Mobile!)--is such a convenient excuse. I once had a colleague explain to me with a perfectly straight face why EACH of the four people who had been my predecessors in a job ALL had personal, individual reasons why the job just didn't work out for her. No reflection required--just make it a personal quirk, or say she's a b!tch, and we don't need to think about the system any more.

Ms. Ph.D. was in a bind. She could either conform to stereotype and blame her husband for dragging her down, or she could have been honest and said "I can't work in an environment where my e-mails and questions aren't answered promptly. You have handled my recruitment in a shockingly unprofessional manner." She--and other women--will pay the price either way. Either you're patsy homemaker who isn't serious about science/academia, or you're a b!tch.

Isn't it awesome that it's always our fault!

Anonymous said...

I left my first academic position for another position in a different department in my hometown. Although my colleagues were understanding and nice about it, I worried that my move would be construed as disloyal to my department and a personal rather than professional decision (although it was both, it's great to be near family AND my new department is a better fit for my research interests).

Which is worse, the thought that some people would condemn all women for a decision made by one, or the thought that concern about rocking the boat might cause some women to forgo opportunities (hopefully not big ones!)?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure more women in science will help...

Einstein once remarked that 'if relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.'

Anonymous said...

your post is so true. When a male professor announces that he has to leave a faculty meeting early to attend his kids' baseball games, everyone pats him on the back for being such a good husband and being able to juggle work/life priorities. But when a female professor does the same, everyone rolls their eyes and says she's "not serious" about her job.

Kea said...

In my field the percentage of women is roughly 3%. I don't mind being told I'm giving women a bad name, because it always reminds me that I am NOT SUPPOSED TO complain about anything, and thereby makes me more determined to continue being naughty.