Thursday, May 06, 2010

Prize Women

Some organizations, such as professional societies and universities, sponsor awards for scholarly achievements by women. I suppose that these awards, which are restricted to women, are motivated by the fact that women have traditionally been at a disadvantage relative to men in terms of awards for intellectual achievements and therefore such awards are necessary to help right this wrong.

This spring I went to an awards ceremony and felt my usual discomfort when a female student was given an award that is designated specifically for female students. The award always goes to a female student who is talented enough to get an award for which all students are eligible, so why should these women have to settle for what is in all ways (monetary, prestige) a lesser award?

In regard to this particular award, I have trouble separating my dislike of the general concept from the fact that the retired (male) professor who established the award was not a friend of women in the department. Or, I should say, he was a particular friend of certain women, but not in an appropriate way. To other women, including me, he was very un-nice. In days of yore, a favorite pastime of his was to mention his very close friends in high administrative places at the university and to inform me that if I disagreed with him about a certain issue, he could get me fired (I did not have tenure at the time; this is one of the reasons why tenure exists). I suppose he established this award for female students so that he could be seen as progressive and enlightened, but I think of him as patronizing and cruel.

These awards involve different issues from those raised by the existence of women-only social events that are sponsored by societies for the support of women in science, engineering, or other fields in which we are underrepresented. There are some similarities in motivation, but the differences are significant.

Women-only awards are perhaps well intentioned, but I greatly dislike them because they imply that the only way that women will get awards for intellectual achievements is if the pool of candidates is considerably narrowed. The specific women-only awards with which I am most familiar are low in prestige, low in reward ($), and in some cases (e.g., scholarships for students) the existence of these awards may result in better awards being preferentially given to male students because there is another option for female students. Women-only awards have negative unintended consequences and may defeat the purpose for which they were created.

I think that women can be overlooked by awards committees when it comes to recognizing scholarly achievements, but the solution is not to create special awards only for women; the solution is to start noticing women and not expecting us to do more than men to get the same level of recognition for our work.

A few years ago, my department chair explored the possibility of nominating me for an award given to women who have succeeded in Science. Fortunately he first explored this possibility with my closest colleague and with my husband, both of whom let him know that I would hate being nominated for this award. In fact, although I appreciated his considering me for an award, I would have found this particular one humiliating. To me it would be like saying "You're a pretty good scientist, for a woman."

I do not feel the same (negative) way about awards that recognize the achievements of women (or men) who have made contributions to improving the educational and career opportunities of women and girls. That's different from awards focused on scholarly achievements, even if being a successful scholar helps someone be more effective in other efforts.

I also do not feel the same (negative) way about efforts by organizations, including grants agencies and universities, to make a sincere effort to support the research of women scholars by making sure that women are not at a systematic disadvantage when it comes to funding or job opportunities. Ensuring that women are fairly represented in these ways should be part of ongoing, systematic efforts to eliminate overt discrimination and to ensure that more subtle forms of discrimination do not occur. These are essential efforts.

Organizations should examine the mechanisms by which awards for scholarly achievement are made. For example, who nominates candidates: a specific committee, or any individual working in the scholarly field relevant to the award? Are self-nominations accepted? Are there efforts to look broadly at the full range of possible candidates for the award or is there an unspoken assumption that only the most obvious best candidates will be considered? How are decisions made when considering nominees with similar records?

I think that if some pretty basic efforts are made to look carefully at nominees or applicants for awards and scholarships, women will naturally receive recognition for their scholarly achievements at a rate that is in line with the representation of women in their academic disciplines.


aluchko said...

A somewhat relevant anecdote.

My x-country ski coach told me a story about a certain race some years back.

Normally races have a prize for the top male and the female finisher. This race however had no prize specifically for males, instead it simple had a prize for the top overall finisher, and a second prize for the top female. As it turned out one of the female athletes my coach brought was an Olympic level skier...

Needless to say the following year they had a prize for top female, and a separate prize for top male.

Anonymous said...

The issue I take with such awards (whether for women or other underrepresented groups) is in their purpose. If it were a scholarship given to an incoming freshman to encourage that person to follow a certain academic path, or to allow them the financial flexibility to do so, then I think it's a good thing.

But awards given to older students or to researchers don't necessarily fit this model. They seem more like awards for good work, which should be judged fairly across these boundaries, as you say.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

So what's your stand on AAUW fellowships? These seem like they have been a good way to promote the research of women in fields in which they are underrepresented by giving researchers what they need: money and time.

D said...

Not sure if I agree with you here.

As an undergrad student, I was part of a fairly prestigious group that was comprised of minorities and other lower socio-economic group. When receiving awards or something similar, I would sometimes share the embarrassment of being identified as a disenfranchised group, but I would never feel above it. Instead, I always saw it as an opportunity. I may be just as qualified as the next person, but I'm thankful for the opportunities that pushing programs provide.

m @ random musings said...

I think that the special interest groups would better serve the interests of advancing women in science by using their influence to ensure that more women get nominated. For example, a WISE group can nominate exemplary female scientists for awards that have historically been male dominated.

To have a "women only" award defeats the growth that comes from evaluating why women are receiving the award in the first place. Only then can meaningful change occur.

Anonymous said...

My department has several small research awards that were started by and named after past faculty members, including some who by all accounts were dreadful, divisive, mean, horrible people. They all predate me, but I wonder if some of my older colleagues hate the thought of their students receiving an award (and a line on their CVs!) with one of these jerk's' name on it!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'll tell you what I thought was fucking cool. When Eve Marder was the president of the Society for Neuroscience (~30,000 members), she invited women to speak as all four of her "Special Presidential Lecturers" during the Annual Meeting (attended by ~40,000 scientists from all over the world). These lectureships are a big fucking deal, and it was great that she exercised her discretion in this way.

Minos said...

I guess I'm having trouble seeing the argument here. This strikes me as the logical equivalent to arguments that are nearly always given in opposition to, for example, affirmative action in hiring or college admission (at least in the ways that these are traditionally carried out), and it wasn't clear where you stood on these (though I presume you favor them based on your writings--I'm guessing here). I think one can certainly argue, for example, "we need to make sure we have good parental leave policies, because this reduces systematic discrimination" while being opposed to giving "points" to an applicant for being a woman or reserving some awards for women. But I can't see the logical thread that could support the first two but not the third.

I guess in practice I'd be opposed to that award at your institution because it seems like a consolation prize, while I would still be in favor of granting more NSF graduate fellowships to women. But I don't see a principled difference between the two, just a practical one. Of course, the Category I policies (such as generous parental leave policies) are best of all.

Female Science Professor said...

I should have made a more clear distinction between awards or other honors given by organizations that are specifically focused on supporting women (education, careers) etc. and organizations that are focused on some general aspect of education or science etc. In the latter case, these organizations may have prestigious awards or other positions, and then they may also have some other award etc. set aside for women. It is those cases that bother me. Organizations that support women (or other underrepresented groups in particular contexts) in education and careers do important work, including highlighting the achievements of those who might otherwise be overlooked. But that doesn't take the place of the need for professional societies to take a close look at how they make decisions about awards and whether special awards for underrepresented groups are serving the intended purpose.

Anonymous said...

My PhD department had similar awards for students. A retired professor had established two awards - one for general excellence and one for excellence by a woman (both designated for the same specific subdiscipline). Over the years, I won each of these, but never both in the same year. I appreciate the awards and support but remember feeling a little strange about the distinction between the two, especially since the monetary value of the award was different.

Anonymous said...

On a slightly tangential note... The discrepancy between the support of women and the attitudes of the people creating the award to support them reminds me of a story from my undergrad.

There was a dorm that built, originally for all women. Rumor had it that the University decided to name it for the person who was against admitting women to the university in the first place, just to spite him and show their support for women in a roundabout way.

Anonymous said...

It was interesting to see your point of view on this. The professional society with which I am most involved, the American Society for Cell Biology, has what I view as an excellent record of encouraging gender equity through its programs. The Women in Cell Biology (WICB) committee does a superb job of addressing issues like work/family balance and other professional development issues, though things like a mentoring lunch and a skit illustrating these issues at the Annual Meeting, and a column in the Newsletter. They also give out two awards, one of which matches those you approve and the other those you dislike:

"The WICB Committee recognizes outstanding achievements in cell biology by presenting two Career Recognition Awards at the ASCB Annual Meeting. The Junior Award is given to a woman in an early stage of her career (generally less than five years in an independent position at the time of nomination) who is making exceptional scientific contributions to cell biology and exhibits the potential for continuing a high level of scientific endeavor and leadership . The Senior Award is given to a woman or man in a later career stage (generally full professor or equivalent) whose outstanding scientific achievements are coupled with a long-standing record of support for women in science and by mentorship of both men and women in scientific careers."

ACSB also gives out gender-non-specific Awards, including one that matches the one above in the category you do not like--its called the "Early Career Life Scientist Award". This latter award has been given to five women and six men since its inception. I will have to give some thought to how I view this issue in light of your comments.

Mark P

Phoebe Leboy said...

The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) shares your view that "Organizations should examine the mechanisms by which awards for scholarly achievement are made." Last year we applied for and received a 3-year NSF ADVANCE grant to work with 7 disciplinary societies on ways to increase the proportion of women receiving scholarly awards. We hope to start seeing results by next year. Keep an eye on us at!

John Vidale said...

To oversimplify, the situation seems similar to me whether the reward is funding, jobs, or awards. And whether the means are quotas or incentives. Here an award reserved for women would be a quota of one per year, and NSF efforts to drive women and minorities and young people more funding generally incentives.

One either considers the situation as unbalanced and unfair, and so should use quotas and incentives. Or that the situation is fair or on an acceptable trajectory, and quotas and incentives are unfair and should not be used.

Any use of quotas or incentives means those that benefit gain an edge in the competition over the non-women or non-minorities, and the competition was not strictly head-to-head.

Whether the edge is commensurate to the existing discrimination is a different topic, important but very difficult to quantify.

John Vidale said...

to extend my simple-minded view, organizations

1. "specifically focused on supporting women (education, careers)" FSP @ 7:33

2. "[finding] ways to increase the proportion of women receiving scholarly awards." Phoebe @ 8:20

are not focused on increasing the objectivity of various processes, but rather measure their success by the change in outcomes.

I think most can easily be justified.

However, to argue that they are substantially different in philosophy than other more proscriptive and heavy-handed ways to redress discrimination seems like obscuring why they have been implemented.

Anonymous said...

This makes me think about hiring practices. My university was a party in a lawsuit brought in the 1970s charging discrimination against women in hiring. The woman who brought the suit had a strong case -- she'd been working as a lecturer or research scientist or something for years and was refused promotion again and again while male counterparts climbed the ladder. The parties settled, and the result was that for a long time the university departments had to demonstrate that they'd considered an appropriate percentage of women for a job (the percentage graduating from top school in that subject). Hiring rates for women started climbing, simply because women were being considered.

We all know that this doesn't work all the time, but it does demonstrate that simply making sure women are considered for jobs and awards can increase the number that they get. Is this a quota or not? I think it's only fair -- to consciously check that you're not ignoring a segment of the population because of unconscious bias.

So for all the men out there who ask how they can help, the next time they're in that committee meeting with a list of people to consider for that job/grant/award -- look at the board! Is it all male? All white and Asian? Is it really true that there's no one else who can be considered? Add some names!

amy said...

A sort-of related anecdote: when I was in grad school I served as grad rep on our admissions committee. When figuring out how to fund incoming students, there were TAships, fellowships, and one or two minority fellowships. Our committee chair put all the minority applicants in the pile for consideration for the minority fellowships, awarded them to the top one or two people, and then did *not* put the minorities back into the general pile for general fellowship consideration, even though several of them were very competitive. I think it was an innocent mistake, but it's a good example of how designated awards can end up hurting the groups who are supposed to be helped.

Anonymous said...

FSP writes:

"The award always goes to a female student who is talented enough to get an award for which all students are eligible, so why should these women have to settle for what is in all ways (monetary, prestige) a lesser award?"

So that's what is wrong about the "female only" award? Have you ever wondered about the male student who might have done just as well or even way better, but has to hang his head in shame and sit down there applauding and saying to himself: "My hard work is worth less in the world because I am a man". I guess males don't count as people in the feminazi universe.

This has to be the most bigoted, shameful idea FSP has posted on her blog ever. You have to give the Nazis credit for at least coming out and saying what they thought about the Jews. At least the Nazis didn't disguise their agenda as a struggle for "equality". They had the honesty to put their racism out there. FSP claims to be "non sexist".

Male students are people too! It's nice to know that the insult they must suffer for being born as males means absolutely nothing to FSP.

Anonymous said... sorry FSP...looks like some females got their feelings hurt again, this time by female only awards.

When...when ...when will we as a society learn to have pity and compassion for the poor, tortured, less fortunate people (like all women) among us?

Once again, you poor tortured female scientists have my pity. You see, from this high tower of male privilege in which I sit, you folks just appear so small and negligible that we forget about little weaklings like you. Is there anything we male scientists can do to help you poor, defenseless beings in this jungle of academia?

Alex said...

I said it before and I'll say it again: The anonymous troll needs to buy some carbon offsets for all the straw he's burning.

Anonymous said...

I agree with FSP and also feel uncomfortable about achievement award categories where only women can be eligible. This gives the impression that women aren't able to compete with men on intellectual merit and thus need to compete only amongst themselves.

Awards that recognize women in science is different IMO. Those tend to acknowledge the cultural and societal barriers women face in entering and moving up in science and thus celebrate the achievements of women in overcoming those cultural barriers. For these types of awards, gender is a relevant context.

But a strictly achievement-based award but where only women are eligible - that is a totally different context.

Anonymous said...

I believe that in my field of science women have to be better than men to get the same amount of credit/ the desired job offer. Part of this is having a CV with more papers,and more awards or recognition. And of course more money to carry out research never hurt either. Although I understand your reservations, especially when the award is seen as "lesser" than a mainstream award for which the candidate should also be eligible, I think the more positive attention we draw to successful women in science the better. And the more money attached, the better.

Unknown said...

It should also be pointed out that many grants targeted for women turn out to be more competitive, in terms of number given/number of applicants, than most general grants. However, they're often discounted in tenure evaluations because men perceive them to be less competitive "set asides."

Anonymous said...

Sorry Alex,

You liberal loons have been trying to impose your carbon policy on everyone, but the bluff is not going to work.

Anonymous said...

so the question remains of WHY are women-only awards less $$ than the "regular" awards open to everyone? Does this not send a very clear signal that women-only awards are second-class awards? It would thus be better for promoting gender equality to not have the women-only awards.

Ms.PhD said...

Actually I think the larger question here is whether there's any point in giving out "lesser" awards of any kind.

Why would you have your minority/female student apply for a smaller minority/female-only scholarship? Only if you thought they weren't competitive for a larger "everybody" scholarship. Basically, to play the statistics in your favor. If fewer people fit the qualifications, it's a smaller pool, you'd be more likely to get something than nothing.

I'd be curious to know if anyone has ever done a comprehensive study on these kinds of low-level affirmative action efforts. Do smaller awards help at all, or only if you get many of them in a row and eventually gain enough momentum to win a larger award?

Or are we just keeping people in the system who have no chance in the long run?

I'm asking because I think I'm one of those people who probably should have been kicked out a long time ago, because I never won any fancy awards of any kind, and now I'm being told I can't compete with those who did.

Would small women-only awards have made any difference in my career? It's probably too late now to find out even small amounts of extra funding here and there would have allowed me to do a few more experiments to get my papers accepted?

Yeah, I would take the money, wherever it came from. I could have used it.

I think anyone who turns her nose up at a women-only award should be doing more to help others and spending less time patting herself on the back.

AnonMaleProf said...

I understand the concern about female-only awards that provide much less $$ than everyone awards.

I was more surprised to see the opposition to female-only awards, so I'm glad you wrote this blog post. Is it your sense that most female scientists feel this way? Are there divisions among female scientists on this issue?

Do folks feel the same way about both awards and fellowships, or is this concern primarily related to awards where the main benefit is prestige rather than $$? (as opposed to fellowships where the main benefit is $$)

My general thought has been that we don't give out enough awards, and doing more to recognize great research is a good thing: external recognition in the form of awards seems to make a difference in academic hiring and promotion cases.

Also, my thought is that our process of identifying exceptional scientists is biased in ways that may leave women at a disadvantage, so finding a way to make up for that disadvantage might make sense. I've seen cases where, when we go to the effort of doing a special search for outstanding women, we find exceptional female scientists who might not have come to our attention in a general gender-neutral search (e.g., because those women are not as aggressive about self-promotion, or are more modest, or don't think to nominate themselves).

So that's why I wasn't expecting to hear this kind of opposition. It's helpful to hear these views -- they are not what I would have predicted. Thanks.

(I'm a male in a field that has vastly more males than females, seeking to learn more about the best ways to promote better diversity.)

Thinkerbell said...

As long as great care is taken that decisions by any fellowship/award committee are made on merit/achievements alone, I think female only awards should go. If I'm not good enough to get a general award,so be it. But don't get me an extra one just because I am a woman. If I am good enought to get the general award but I end up not getting it? I'll hang my head in sadness together with all other great men and women who didn't get it. Such is life.

I agree with the commenter who stated that early career awards/fellowships might benefit some minorities who might be less inclined to go into academia. But those support efforts should stop by the time people have made it into grad school, i.e. academic mainstream. From then on, it should all be the same for everyone.

Kevin said...

"This year I considered nominating one of my grad students for a scholarship for minority students, but when I looked into it I was shocked to find that this scholarship was for a lot less $$ and of a shorter maximum duration than the scholarships for "everyone". "

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I encourage grad students in my department to apply for every fellowship they are eligible for. If their gender, race, nationality, or prior employment makes them eligible for some fellowship that others are not, ok. Every dollar that any student brings in frees up our tiny discretionary fund to allow more students to be educated---we have far more highly qualified applicants to our department than we can fund.

The biggest fellowship any of our students gets is one that campus has set aside for minorities. Actually, that's illegal with state funds in California, so it is set aside for students who have had unusual difficulty in attending college (first-generation in family to attend college, disability, economic hardship, ...). It usually, but not always, ends up going to minority students.

There are also some NIH-funded fellowships that go only to students designated as under-represented minorities by NIH (a rather strange list, if you examine it closely).

From the other side, if I were designing awards or fellowships, I would not label an award as specifically for women or for minorities, as there is a tendency for such awards to become seen as consolation prizes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It's been quite a few years now, but I had the same reaction to awards in high school. I was easily the top chemistry student in my grade (state olympiad winner and highest gpa which probably the teacher should not have pointed out but she did). But I was given the Marie Curie award for women, and, to spread the awards out I suppose, the next best student won the overall chemistry award. This happened to a student the year before me as well. A minor incident in my life (though one I still recall), but an early lesson in the fact that as a scientist I will always be treated as "other" for being female.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post.

I am a female, recently tenured prof in one of the STEM desciplines at a large research university. When I was hired, I have no idea if my gender made a difference. If it did, it was a positive one, so I say great.

All of the STEM fields are extremely competitive, so whatever gives you an edge you should embrace. I think a lot of women fear that behind almost every action there is a person trying to put you down. It may well often be so, but also sometimes the intention is not malicious, and people are sloppy, insensitive, trying to be practical (such as spread award money), or a combination of the above.

There are plenty of openly hostile people that one really has to deal with, so wasting energy on the activities that in the long run do not hurt is probably not in one's best interest.

I'm saying use the gender and ethnicity in a positive way whenever possible: if it gives you any kind of edge, such as a scholarship -- free money!, or an award, or consideration for a job, I'd say embrace it.