Friday, May 04, 2012

Special Treatment

Quite often, I get a comment or e-mail along the lines of "Why do women need special treatment?" (to get a job), "Men have to struggle too" (but no one is helping us), "Why are you so obsessed with gender?" (just do your Science), and/or the tired old question "Why are you Female Science Professor and not just a Science Professor?" (like the men). Some of these questions are politely expressed, and some are not.

The answers to these questions are in the blog archives in various places, so that's not what I am going to write about today.

What I'm wondering about today is whether there is any significance to the fact that some people (men and women) don't see sexism and discrimination in academia or elsewhere, although supposedly objective measures as well as the personal experience of many indicates that these problems persist.

For the sake of this discussion, let's ignore the more extreme, rude, and what-about-me viewpoints (including those held by people who think "feminazi" is a really clever word). Today, in May 2012, let's consider instead whether an apparently neutral, non-hostile lack of awareness is:
  1. overall a good thing, indicating a change for the better (sexism is so rare, some people have no idea it exists because they have never encountered it); or
  2. the same-old bad thing: sexism is as prevalent as ever and the fact that some people don't see it -- in their own lives or in the experiences of others -- is one reason why it persists.
Does anyone believe in the more optimistic of the two possibilities listed above? I think that it might apply locally to some people and environments, and in that sense a 'lack of awareness' (again, of the non-hostile sort) does indicate progress. But I don't think this is the primary explanation, alas.

In coming to that conclusion, I dove into the archives to see what I have written about this topic over the past 6 years, and thought about whether I have -- in my own career and life, keeping in mind the effect of my increasing age and seniority on my experiences -- seen a change just since I have been writing this blog. I have seen a change for the better -- a substantial one in my own life/career and a not-insignificant one in my general field of science -- but still not as much as I would expect given the increasing number of female students, postdocs, and faculty in the STEM fields. The feeling (by some) that women get jobs, grants, awards etc. because they are women and not because they are highly qualified persists at a disturbing level.

The persistence of this view is surely related to the still-low numbers of women in some fields, but I wish it did not have to correlate quite so closely, given the slow rate of increase in the participation of women in some fields, particularly at the post-graduate level. For now, I suppose we have to hope that there is some critical level of representation -- << 50% but >> 1-2% -- at which these perceptions become exceedingly rare.


Anonymous said...

I think most people are not very aware of how the social environment shapes their own behavior and choices. You only really become aware of this when you radically change social environments and find that what was considered perfectly normal and positive behavior by everyone in your previous behavior is now seen as deviant or somehow "wrong" because it fails to conform to expectations either for people in general or for people in your group. By doing this, you can become acutely aware of social punishments, and the arbitrariness of the norms to which you are expected to comply. Social conformity is enforced by both carrots and sticks. In my experience, these norms are both more diverse and more stringent for women than for men -- i.e. the expectations for women's behavior are extremely different in different social groups and different locations, and are also enforced more harshly.

Often, people who do not believe sexism exists (or other forms of social discrimination) either (a) do not belong to the discriminated-against group, or (b) do belong to that group but do not violate expectations for that group, either because they have internalized those expectations, or those expectations are aligned with their personality. So only the people who actually experience discrimination believe it exists, and they are they are crazy and imagining things by the majority of people, who have never experienced this.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting piece of news appeared in the Swedish media today. In our local equivalent of SAT, the average score for females was 9.4 points (out of 160 total) lower than that of males. This is an anonymous exam. But female high school students have consistently received higher average scores in the non-test based high school grades than their male colleagues. This inconsistency provoked headlines in the media to the effect that 'Men are favoured by the (anonymous) test'.
Such a suggestion will probably go down well with a good part of the Swedish public, but it ought to provoke some thoughts in a scientific audience, I hope.

Anonymous said...

I ran a mini-conference for women in my subfield a while ago and we identified some very prominent and very successful women in our field who hold this opinion. To a person, these women had "champions" who actively advocated for them, networked for them, promoted them to others in the community etc. In this case, the champions were all male because this is a very male-dominated field. Their experience made their path easier and they benefited from the "old boys club" therefore they did not feel that they experienced sexism and therefore it didn't really exist. Some of the women at the conference who have made it to equal levels of success through hard work and good science had many stories of sexist behavior, in contrast.

So women scientists, get out there and get yourself a champion to get you the secret handshake to enter the old boys club!

mamallama said...

As an undergrad, I said the equivalent of #1 on several ocassions... Now, some 20 years later as an asst. prof. I'd say #2. I just hadn't personally encountered it as an undergrad.

Perhaps that's a sign of some positive change? Those of you who were undergrads 30, 40, (50?) years ago might have experienced sexism much earlier, and by the time my students are assistant profs, maybe they'll be saying, "it wasn't really a problem until I was dept chair"?

Anonymous said...

I'm in ecology, arguably one of the most female-friendly sciences. (I left computer science, my first love, in part because of the adolescent male dominated culture.)

A study of gender in ecology just came out showing that while women represent MORE than 50% of grad students and field assistants and a reasonable 41% of post-docs, the numbers keep falling off for tenured faculty (36%). One might argue that it's a legacy problem -- not too many old female profs, but these numbers have stayed about the same for TWENTY years, so things are not changing in our field.

This particular study looked specifically at publishing and funding. Women in our field receive a somewhat greater percentage of small grants (<$20K) than their representation, but a much lower percentage of large grants (>$100K), even after accounting for their lower numbers. There are similar trends in publishing.

I think what we're fighting against is still the cultural image of scientist=man. If I try to think of as many famous well-established scientists in my field, they are dominated by men (despite personally knowing some exceptional women scientists). To my chagrin, I find myself surprised when I read a really cool paper and notice that the author is a woman. I've read very few (any?) major papers single-authored by a woman. There's a lingering unconscious bias when people have to make decisions about proposals and papers. Men are still seen as more competent and smarter in the sciences than women. Sadly. Even in women-friendly ecology. I think it will take a long, long, long time for this bias to go away, if it ever does.

Phillip Helbig said...

"But female high school students have consistently received higher average scores in the non-test based high school grades than their male colleagues. This inconsistency provoked headlines in the media to the effect that 'Men are favoured by the (anonymous) test'."

Obviously, one could also conclude that girls are favoured by the non-anonymous grades. Actually, that is more probable, because they are not anonymous.

In Germany, girls tend to get better grades than boys in school.

I think #1 applies in many cases.

The biggest obstacle to progress are people who attribute any sort of difference to discrimination without considering other possible reasons.

Anonymous said...

I'm not one of the people who claim sexism doesn't exist because it hasn't happened to me, but it really hasn't happened to me - at least not at work. I'm a woman, I've been in physics for >15 years (at multiple institutions and in large, multi-national collaborations), I've always been treated with respect, and I feel that I've had equal opportunities for advancement. From my observations, the same is true of my female colleagues. So when I read your stories (or those of many of your commenters), I believe them, but it seems sort of baffling to me - as if you must be living in a parallel universe - because it is very hard for me to imagine the people I work with behaving that way towards anyone. I don't have any explanation for why my experience is different (is my subfield weird? am I weird? am I secretly part of the old boys' network?...) but the fact that my experience is possible seems like a positive sign.

pramod said...

Regard the SAT/SAT-like tests, I remember reading in this paper [1] that women did worse than men on the SAT even though they actually did better in college. Since the SAT is actually supposed to be a predictor of future performance in college, the fact that women did worse on the SAT but better in college indicates that the test is in fact biased towards men. I wouldn't be surprised if the same were true in the Swedish case.

None of this is remotely close to my area of work, so I what I am about to say may be incorrect. With that disclaimer out of the way, the impression I have gathered from various popular science books and the little academic reading I have done on this subject indicates there are all sorts of innocuous ways in which one can create a test that is allegedly "neutral" but is in fact biased towards one demographic or another. So if we are going to use these tests to make important decisions like admission to college and the awarding of scholarships, it's very important that we rigorously analyse these tests to ensure that the tests are unbiased.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment. There has clearly been improvement through time, but there is still a lot more to explanation #2 than #1.

Many of your remarks involve those writing to complain to you about women receiving "special treatment" in getting jobs. As an early career male experiencing frustration in getting a job (but not in any way taking it out on successful women), perhaps I can comment on that. I think the a large part of sexism (and discrimination in general) is a redirection of frustration at oneself. Academics is extremely competitive, and it is full of insecure people who may not be the most socially adept. We are all, male and female, looking to the more senior levels. What we see is mostly men and too many of the women we see made huge sacrifices in family and relationships on their way up (a lot of men did too, but there are more who didn't). This makes too many young men feel entitled to the positions, and it makes too many young women (and some men) feel like it is not worth giving up what it appears they must in order to succeed.

This is NOT an excuse. It is an observation. Young women getting jobs is the single most important thing that needs to happen to change the culture. I recently had an interview at Fancy Prestigious U, and I had 12 individual meetings, 11 of them with males, and the one female I met was a grad student. For myself, this is the dream job I have been conditioned to covet, but it would be ridiculous for them to hire me over the qualified women who I know they interviewed. I would be simultaneously thrilled and appalled if they give me an offer.

If I don't get this job, my other opportunity is leaving academic research. I am excited about it, and I think it is a great move for me. However, I wish my academic mentors were more supportive. Feeling (implicit) pressure from my respected mentors that any path other than faculty is not successful, and the overwhelming odds against getting a faculty position is a breeding ground for insecure people to take out their inward directed frustration in inappropriate ways. I'm guessing this is in no way unique to academics, but that is the venue I am familiar with.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent demonstration of #2, Phillip. Well done!

Susan said...

1.5: It's a good thing overall that it's less noticeable or overt, and openly laughable when it is overt. I do believe that it's less prevalent than in the past. But it still does exist, and it's bad to dismiss sexism and especially to diminish awareness towards the possibility.

I think the worst of it today is the unconscious biases that result in still-measurable disparities (funding, upper levels of jobs, publications, awards). If we dismiss sexism as so 1980, we'll doing nothing to address those biases and their results. We'll be stuck here, and ... it's not over yet.

wombat said...

At least some of the difference is likely attributable to confirmation bias. We tend to see evidence which supports our conclusions, and ignore evidence to the contrary.

It may also be partially attributable to the fallacy of composition. "I don't see any sexism" => "There is no sexism" and "I'm being discriminated against" => "sexism is rife".

The latter can potentially be cured by presentation of a counter-example. The former is much harder to combat.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Thanks for the excellent demonstration of #2, Phillip. Well done!"

Actually, your remark makes my comments more believable, because when someone disagrees with you, you offer pot-shots rather than arguments, while at the same time hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.

Yes, there are reasons why there are fewer women in some fields. Yes, sometimes this has to do with discrimination. But not always. The sad thing is, people who claim differences are always due to discrimination are so unbelievable that they hurt the cause of those of us who fight against real discrimination. Also, in many cases the cause has nothing to do with the field in question, but with things outside the field. This doesn't mean that one should ignore them, but one shouldn't place all blame on people in the field.

Of course, many people also gloss over areas where men are discriminated against. Usually the argument is that that's fair since more women are discriminated against or (really stretching things here, but people do argue like this) have been in the past. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Anonymous said...

The link to the article in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution ("Where are all the women in ecology?") is here:

The answer? Women are in the acknowledgements, not the author lists and not the big grant proposals. (FYI, "big" is >$100K, which is a year of funding at an R1).

I wonder how much of this is as much internalized sexism/low expectations. My female students do more work (sometimes better work) and expect fewer rewards.

Think about it: getting on the author list as an undergrad gets you into that top grad program; getting on papers and grants as a grad and post-doc gets you that faculty position; getting listed as a co-PI gets you that first big grant and teaches you how its done.

If women are not included early - they can lose ground very quickly.

sleddog said...

These continuous discussions of whether discrimination exists make me tired, but I see from some of the comments (I'm looking at you, Phillip Helbig) that they are still necessary. While I agree that we should consider an array of possibilities as to why we are treated differently when this occurs, I do not think that "people who attribute any sort of difference to discrimination without considering other possible reasons" are the *biggest* obstacle to progress.

As a young female in academia, I am finding that I see more discriminatory behavior as I ascend the ranks (which correlates with increased competition, in keeping with comments from Anonymous 10:29), and that I particularly experienced gender-based weirdness (I believe this was FSP's term) during and after my pregnancy. As a nod to considering "other reasons" for weirdness, I will note that I took a short (<3 months) maternity leave, and never *really* left (was consistently on email and working from home somewhat, and came in to work periodically during my leave). I had a pretty uncomplicated pregnancy, labor, and delivery, and prepared for my absence and managed my leave very effectively. I'm not sure what else could have been asked of me, short of not having a child. Still, I experienced a number of things that I really do think were discriminatory, even if not ill-intended. One example: I am part of a users group for some very expensive equipment that is shared across departments and even institutions. Periodically, users break into smaller groups for training sessions, online discussions, etc. and communicate via listserve. I was involved in one of these for several months, and all contact was periodic and over email for quite a while. When we had a face-to-face meeting after a few months, I showed up very pregnant. The very senior (male) person who leads the group was clearly very surprised and uncomfortable. He kept commenting on my pregnancy to an almost ridiculous degree. I did not take offense; I have known this man for several years. He is a bit socially awkward but a friendly person, and he works mostly with men and a few young, single women. I figured he just did not know what to say but felt compelled to say something (a lot). Shortly after the meeting, I gave birth. A couple months later, a research assistant mentioned some further meetings of this group. I had not received word of them, and can only conclude I was removed from the group listserve. A mistake? Perhaps. The timing was curious, though.

Phillip Helbig said...

I never said there was no discrimination. I'm only saying that fighting real discrimination, like you experienced, is hampered by the fact that many people who could do something about it have heard the unbelievable claims that a) all differences are due to discrimination and b) there is no discrimination against men anywhere so often that they, unfortunately, become deaf to complaints about real discrimination.

Each case of discrimination is one case too many. However, the fact that things aren't perfect shouldn't detract one from recognizing progress where it exists. (Maybe more of it exists where I am than where you are.)

Anonymous said...

An observation:

A few years ago my husband and I redid the hardwood floors. He spent more time with the big sander (we weren't married yet so I did not live in the house) and I spent time staining and polyurethaning the floors. The big circular sanders if not used expertly can leave little circular marks in the floor. Before redoing the floors he and I had never noticed this, despite seeing many other hardwood floors. After helping my husband with the floors and examining his work for hours on end as I stained, I (and he) noticed these little circular marks on many floors. We could see them in an instant, from a distance of ten feet!

Similarly, now that I've had some experience with sexism I can spot it from ten feet away. When I was younger and less experienced, I didn't see it so much. I wasn't dumb enough to claim it didn't exist, thank goodness, I just reserved judgement.

A small but crassly amusing example: men exclaiming that sexism doesn't exist because they don't see it is like a man exclaiming, "But no one stares at my chest when talking to me!" It is not impossible for a man to learn to spot this behavior when practiced by others, but it is unlikely he will encounter it.

Anonymous said...

...discrimination against men

Where exactly are men discriminated against, pray tell? Where have opportunities systematically been taken from them or they were constantly made to feel unwelcome or unable to do their jobs just because they are men? Just because a guy did not achieve a goal or get a job on account of being a douche or unqualified or unlikable, and whoever was hiring dared actually give the job to a woman, that doesn't mean men are systematically discriminated against.

I am sorry, but men are the norm in all careers that are considered to carry money or any kind of prestige, not just academia. How is it that men are discriminated against?

Anonymous said...

I am a successful mid career FSP who has won several prestigious awards. After every award, I have been shocked at the individuals that make sure to tell me that I won because I am female - not only shocked because it's ridiculous that they feel the need to point this out but also who is doing the pointing (these are not senior curmudgeons but people I thought were more enlightened). In every case, these awards have gone to proportionately fewer women than there are in the field so any thought at all would show these commenters the contrary. I have no doubt that my receipt of these awards has to do with some incredible mentors who have taught me the secret handshake for the club in addition to my own accomplishments - the statistics show that the handshake is often still necessary.

I do think one reason that sexism is less apparent is that most people are now smart enough not to be overt with it. The experiences I've had with obvious sexism are much fewer in number than the insidious, snide comments or subtle belittling and ignoring. These cases are much harder to explain after they're over and often leave the victim wondering if they misunderstood something because surely that person couldn't be so sexist.

On a side note regarding testing vs. class outcomes, it's clearly been shown in controlled studies that traditional classroom learning works better for one style of learning which is most often seen in female students. Whether that's because of biology or socialization is hard to separate but that, coupled with the known biases of testing that are almost impossible to eliminate, likely plays a role in the differences observed between tests and classroom performance.

Anonymous said...

I think these ideas of special treatment for women often stem from the line "women and minorities especially encouraged to apply" that is tacked on to almost every job ad these days. People (men) read this and leap to the conclusion that only women/minorities are interviewed, given offers, and hired DESPITE ABUNDANT EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY. I have heard several otherwise reasonable people grumble that only women get hired in my department, but the reality is that less than 20% of our hires in the last ten years have been women. And this is in biology, so it's pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Yes to sleddog, I am the prior commenter she referred to. I think in most academic settings, sexism increases with advancement through the ranks, and the biggest jump is at the end of grad school/post-doc time . . when sink or swim competition is most intense . . . . and when many talented, creative, successful people would like to start a family.

The critical time in landing faculty positions is in direct overlap with a completely reasonable time to start a family (in your late 20s/ early 30s). It is a HUGE problem that so few institution have clear parental leave policies for grad students and postdocs. Things then become a negotiation between the parent-to-be and their direct supervisor, which has inconsistent and often undesirable outcomes. It would be much better if policies and procedures came from higher up that everyone had to adhere to.

It is a lot easier (biologically) for men to delay having children, and it is still more common for men to have a spouse in a "supporting role". So, while there is often equality in numbers in graduate programs, many more men get on the fast track to the senior leadership positions.

Another part of the problem is the steady march toward a funding structure that encourages hiring too many temporary scientists. For the reasons above, It is easier for a single, childless man to string together a series of postdocs in different locations on the way to a faculty position. The incentive structure is driving away those of us (male and female, but perhaps disproportionately female) who have a holistic view of success, those of us who have a happiness index that is not so connected to our h-index.

This is a great summary of the bad incentives that are hurting individuals and science as a whole:

Anonymous said...

there is no sexism in academia, simply because in every country in the world men outnumber women in STEM's just the way it is, nobody is stopping females from entering the would have to be paranoid to think otherwise....I come from one of the least developed country in the world and there if you look at the statistics , girls outnumber boys in grade school enrollment and yet when it comes to higher education in STEM fields the ratio is like 10:1 in boys favor.....although there have been female toppers in nationwide competition in high school level or for entrance into prestigious engineering or medical schools, overall boys have always outnumbered's just the way it is...

Geologist said...

Regarding the Swedish test discussed above, this is a test which is normally only used when your grades are insuffucient for the education you want. The selection is therefore hardly random and it is easy to imagine that, as women generally get somewhat higher grades in Sweden, a talented woman is more likely to get good enough grades not to need the test than an equally talented man.

Anonymous said...

False dichotomy. There are at least three other options:

3) The same-old bad thing: sexism has decreased a bit [old text: is as prevalent as ever] and the fact that some people don't see it -- in their own lives or in the experiences of others -- is one reason why there is still work to be done [old text: it persists].

4) It is really hard to see when a snub happens to someone else, particularly if it's "death of a thousand cuts". As such, on any given instance it seems that the complainant is just being oversensitive.

5) Creepy professors tend not to make advances in front of other males, so they are not witnesses to some of the worst examples.

Even further your question presupposes that the motivation is the same for that entire group. It likely ranges from mysoginists who simply refuse to admit the backwardness of their own attitude, to some who choose to believe there is no discrimination even though it is right in front of them because it would mean that their success is not entirely earned, to others who do not like the idea of living in a world where such things happen so they shunt it away, to a combination of 4 and 5 above.

Personally while as a male professor I have witnessed several instance of sexism, I'm always aghast at the stories I hear from my female colleagues of what happens when they are the only other person in the room.

Anonymous said...

I vote for #2.

It makes me really angry if people claim that there is no sexism in my field. In particular, if these people are male. I would never dare to claim to know how much racism a foreigner experiences in my country. I believe those claims are sexism in its purest form -- it means they believe we are all nuts and deluded, and it means that they do not respect us. How should they respect us professionally if they do not respect what we tell them about our experiences? The same goes for women claiming that these experiences do not exist. Women can also be sexist against other women.

To answer to Phillip Helbig:
I recently had the following conversation with a male friend: 'The way that this professor reacts to me and looks at me when I say something feels sexist to me. He does not have this look when a male colleague speaks' - 'How can you know that? Maybe he just does not like you.'
It is impossible to argue with that. Of course, that is possible. It just feels like sexism this time (not every time someone does not like me, but here, yes).

Unfortunately, this 'potential other explanations' are exactly the problem. If you are not extremely self-confident, you will of course also consider the option that maybe you are less liked and respected, well, just because you are less good, even if you're papers are well cited, maybe people think these papers are still not that original, maybe it is because you do not come across clever enough in talks etc. etc.

The only solution that works for me is to stay away from people that I experience as sexist, even if that means disadvantages on the short run, and that means trusting my instincts, and I believe my instincts on this matter are good. You do sharpen those if you are always in the minority.

Amanda said...

My feeling is that many people don't think that sexism (and racism) don't exist not because it doesn't happen to them or they don't witness it, but because they have very narrow definitions of what sexism (and racism) are. To many people, these workplace injustices aren't sexist because no one is literally saying, "Woman, you should be barefoot and pregnant at home instead of here doing science with the men!" Thus, all of the small, common instances of sexism are internalized as normal, just because they aren't explicitly oppressive.

Anonymous said...

It's like with racism. The really overt and nasty stuff is no longer socially acceptable. The more subtle manifestations persist because you can always just gaslight the victim and *poof*, no more problem.

That said, there are other factors that play into the derth of women in some fields. When the male/female ratio gets critically out of whack, the atmosphere quickly turns into that of a locker room. It's not hostile, but it can be a little hard to take for the minority. And, also, the interests of women need to be taken into account. Women who break into STEM tend to flock more towards life sciences than physical. Having been involved with both I can't say it's because one is inherently "easier" or "softer" than the other. It's just the way people roll.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to echo what many others have observed - that the sexism we often have to deal with today is less often someone directly saying "you can't do this because you're a woman" and more often a undercutting of women along the academic trajectory. For example, my chair has never said "we didn't give you as much money or space as the men" of course he would never actually say that. Instead he gets this slightly bemused look, cocks his head and nods when I ask for more space and then he talks about something else (usually related to teaching or advising) and ignores what I've said. He likes me - in fact he thinks I'm adorable - all cute and funny with my demands to be treated like a real scientist. From the outside it looks like I'm just not as good at advocating for myself as the men are but since there's no way for me to crack that wall there's no real way to test that. I can't even get to a fair starting line - and this is in contrast to other faculty in my dept. I (almost) wish we were in the bad old days when the sexism was obvious because at least then it wasn't so easy for people to deny it was occurring.

Anonymous said...


There are plenty of sites and blogs out there that explain the problem of 'unexamined privilege'. I'd like to recommend that some of the people producing "but what about the menz?!?"-ish comments go do some reading on that issue.

"Blindness" to something that exists is never a Good Thing. "Denial" that an undesirable situation exists in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is never a Good Thing.

Here's a shocker: Yes, sexism and misogyny exist. In professional realms, they're more subtle, persistent, and subversive, rather than overt or violent. It is precisely because they are so subversive in modern society that we must take active and offensive action against them, rather than gaslighting those who point them out.

Anonymous said...

I am not so sure that being female helps with getting jobs. Gender can overshadow the work that you are doing. For example, I am female in a heavily male dominated field and I do some work in Subfield A (which is a *large* subfield). There was one other woman on the market in Subfield A and we applied to pretty much the same places. It seemed that the search committees ranked us and then gave an interview to the higher ranked: we both got a lot of interviews, but nowhere interviewed us both. While interviewing, I was specifically compared to her by people at multiple departments ("Well, that's the natural comparison..."). The problem is, we actually do quite different work. I am somewhat theoretical and active in Subfields B and C as well. She is more application based and does some work in Subfield D.

The kicker: I shared an advisor with one of my (male) friends who also works in Subfields A and B. We got multiple interviews at the same places. The number of times that I have ever heard anyone compare us: 0.

Anonymous said...

About the Swedish test: You seem to think that because a test is anonymous it can't be biased. Did you know that the first IQ tests found that girls scored better than boys? So the designers went through and found every item where girls systematically scored better, and threw those items out. They engineered the test to produce equal scores across gender.

There is no such thing as a neutral psychometric test. I can think of a dozen ways that the Swedish test might be biased. Off the top of my head: 1) It might load for academic subjects that boys tend to take as electives and not those that girls tend to take as electives. 2) There is a narrow range of pretty unimportant spatial skills for which males do better than females. The test might load for those.

More fun facts: For a given LSAT score, racial minorities actually do better in law school than whites. "That's not so bad," you think, until you flip it around: For a given talent level, proportionally more whites will be admitted to law school because of their artificially high LSAT scores.

Nobody knows exactly what causes the LSAT bias, but that the test is biased is not in dispute.

Anonymous said...

I did my postdoc in a federal lab and it was all inside hiring as far as federal staff scientists. Some upper management were externally hired but the jobs I was gunning for went to the postdocs whose mentors were powerful and influential technical staff and never the postdocs whose mentors were less powerful or external postdocs. Don't get me wrong there is a diverse mix of scientists from varied backgrounds there but half or more are contractors on soft money and most disappear suddenly eventually due to gaps in grant funding. The federal employed scientists (an extremely stable and well paying position equivalent to tenure in academia) all went to the postdocs of the influential staff.

Anonymous said...

My experiences with CS culture (currently PhD candidate) have also been quite uncomfortable. "Adolescent male-dominated" sounds about right. And I happen to be male and about that age, so I can only imagine what it's like to deal with this culture as a woman -- I may be uncomfortable but at least I can blend in.

I guess I just want to offer the consolation that that culture makes a lot of people uncomfortable, even those who may at a first glance appear to be part of it, and a hope that it will become a more welcoming place in the future.

Anonymous said...

"Did you know that the first IQ tests found that girls scored better than boys? So the designers went through and found every item where girls systematically scored better, and threw those items out."

This line gets trotted out even with the words girls and boys exchanged for women and men respectively.

Wiki says,
"When standardized IQ tests were first developed in the early 20th century, girls typically scored higher than boys up to age 14"

And after that age did the boys start scoring equal or higher? If the latter, gender equalization would mean that it was women that got the real advantage.

Googling "gender difference IQ age" gives a study by Satoshi Kanazawa where he shows that the gender difference flips after puberty.
Another site says the same after age 15.

"I can think of a dozen ways that the Swedish test might be biased. "

Considering how the test consisted of 80 out of 122 questions relating to vocabulary and reading comprehension, the bias was surely not the way you might think.
Of course, that didn't stop the bias chant. It's Sweden.

Grant said...

It drives me crazy that women often put being nice ahead of being aggressive. Up until recently I didn't really notice gender discrimination or differences, but recent events have really brought it into the forefront of my mind. I watch as men continually receive promotions and are put in positions of power over highly qualified women. The men in these situations possess more "swagger", and thus more perceived drive, than the women who are passed over. Maybe if women were more easily able to get out of our comfort zones and act like these men, we would truly be viewed on an even playing field.

muddled postdoc said...

I wouldn't say sexism doesn't exist but for some reason I have always faced what I consider sexism from other women rather than men (I am female). To give a few example when I was discussing the possibility of doing a post-doc in a different country, I given "advise" by a female professor about long distance relationships and their impact on marriage, having children etc. Another female student was also given similar advise by female professors. None of the married male students were given similar advise and the same discussion with my male supervisor only resulted in advise on what place is best academically etc.
In several other instances, female students have suddenly quit their studies (in their 5th year etc) because they got married or were about to have children because according to the "it doesn't matter anymore". Is it surprising then that the supervisors of these students then become wary of taking other female students. We have excellent maternity leave systems so it is not about not being able to take time off etc.
We used to have a rather equal ratio of female to male students in our lab of around 30+, especially considering that it is a generally male dominated field (as seen at conferences/other groups) but the number has continued to dwindle.

Phillip Helbig said...

Again, I never said there is no discrimination of women anywhere. I said that not all gender imbalance is due to discrimination. One story of discrimination, or even many, do not falsify my claim. And even in cases of discrimination against women in academia it is not necessarily the male colleagues who are doing it, but it can be due to laws regarding leave for child care etc. It would make more sense to work together to make things better than claiming that every time a man is hired instead of a woman this must be due to discrimination and every time a woman is hired it is because she is clearly the best candidate. (Yes, this might be an exaggeration, but no worse than the caricature of my position in other comments here.)

An opposite story: I once knew a woman who was simply not a good scientist. She moved from institute to institute for a while, often getting a job on the "women and minorities" (or "women and handicapped") tickets (yes, some well meaning phrasing could be improved). In her CV, of course, her moving around was due to her desire to get experience at different institutes. When the make-or-break time came and no-one wanted to write a positive letter of reference for her, she threatened all concerned with "I'll publicly play the discrimination card".

Yes, not typical. I just want to make the point, which some commenters here don't see from the other side, that individual stories do not invalidate general statements (at least not the type of general statements I make).

Anonymous said...

I am also a female science professor. I am constantly subject to 'passive discrimination' - on so many levels.

I know that I am as good or better a scientist as most males. I have the self awareness to know that.

BUT persistence in a science career is because of my love of science - not because I feel valued in my department, not because my opinion is listened to, not because I am treated with equal respect as male colleagues and on and on and on.

Anonymous said...

When I look back at my working life, there is another factor that makes me a less-than-objective reference point: I am older, I come with a better business card, and, frequently, with recommendations or connections -- ie: a reputation. So, do I encounter as much sexism as I used to? I suspect I do, but there are other things in play that might offset it.

Hence, I can't evaluate the over-time change in my immediate work/world. My comparisons are skewed.

Watching what goes on in the abstract (as much as it can be), I definitely think there has been an improvement, but I really think it is impossible to say there is 'no' sexism. If someone doesn't notice it, it doesn't make it go away, it just turns into wallpaper, or the soup we swim in.

Certainly, it seems in my field more of the same-old-same-old that it is only the outstanding women who get the promotions/awards/accolades. Reminds me of the Bella Abzug statement that went something like this: "I am not so concerned with the female Einstein getting a university position; but, that a female schlemiel is promoted at the same rate as a male schlemiel." I know some amazing outstanding engineers who are women, and some males who are, too. But, at least in my immediate world, the men have a better, smoother, quicker path to promotion.

Anonymous said...

@ Grant posted @ 5/06/2012 08:52:00 PM:

Swagger and aggression doesn't always help. I'm an (un)civil least that's how I introduce myself. I frequently am on-site with construction companies. I occasionally have to play games of chicken over some proposed change of methods with a contractor and this is in heavy construction with very large amounts of money involved. So, aggression is necessary -- preferably diplomatically applied aggression. My company happily uses me for that. BUT, within the company? I'm too bossy, I'm trouble, I'm a loose cannonball, I'm a bitch, I'm a whole lot of things. I certainly am NOT nice. But, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Anonymous said...

muddled, it's not sexism if someone gives different advice to some people (women) but not others (men). It is sexism if someone won't hire students or postdocs who are women because they are women. I have found that my male students and postdocs have a much higher incidence of depression and substance abuse problems than my female mentees but I don't get to act on this preference and discriminate against men because there are so few women in my field.

Anonymous said...

I was a 1 but became a 2 after seeing so many different insidious examples of inequity in science.
I am still reeling from yesterday --American Association of Immunologists conference in Boston where my company had a booth. In order to advertise next year's AAI conference in Hawaii they had 4 girls in bikini tops and hula skirts walking around and hulaing for 3 days. I was appalled and offended that not one person said "gee, maybe some of us will find this inappropriate for a scientific conference". Made me almost cry at the lack of notice and the lack of consideration.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 12:54, it IS sexism if the advice given is about something that should not be gender specific, vs gender-related. Rather than relationships and family being a human problem, they're seen as a female problem, and thus many more women get these talks about lifestyle choices. That's an example of non-gender-related discussions that are primarily initiated in a gender-specific fashion.

(Gender-related advice would be about things like how to get a man to look at your face rather than your chest when you want to talk about his scientific presentation. This is usually something men don't have to deal with.)

Anonymous said...

Just a couple examples of sexism I've seen as a first-year female grad student in ecology, coming from men who seem to be trying not to be sexist...

Recently a male, older, respected prof came to give a seminar, and surprisingly, he asked if he could have a talk with grad students and anyone else about issues for women scientists. He and others had done some research (side interest, he's an ecologist, not sociologist) to try and pin down reasons that there are fewer women professors. He said, somewhat mournfully, "There just aren't ANY women superstars...take your advisor, for example, he's SO prolific, there just aren't any women like that." Which sort of took me by surprise, because my advisor himself has said that he has a pretty low number of papers compared with others his age (though he is undeniably a superstar scientist). So I looked up publication counts for some women in our field that I could think of off the top of my head, and several of them blew him out of the water, especially accounting for age differences. So are there no women superstars, or is Dr. Oh-So-Sympathetic not seeing them because he's oh-so-sexist?

(caveat: I'm not sure if this "superstar" description is actually based on some kind of numbers, or if it was just based on his personal impressions. Perhaps I should have compared my advisor's h-index rather than just publication count, but publication count is the example he was using to describe a superstar.)

My advisor, though an old guy, seems quite non-sexist and I think he's actually had more successful female grad students than male grad students. But even he slips sometimes...during one class he was briefly going through a timeline of famous scientists in our field. There's a famous couple who wrote many papers together (and apart), and my advisor has stated before that they could only have done that work together, and she was not riding his coattails as some people said at the time. Yet during his presentation he only put up a photo of the husband, not the wife. Yes, I called him out on it :)

Anonymous said...

Disagree with muddled and the person who agreed with them about what constitutes sexism. I am a female professor who gets asked often by female students and postdocs to talk about family issues, having a baby before tenure etc. etc. Male students, postdocs never ask me these things and my male colleagues don't get asked about this. Is anyone being sexist? No.

Anonymous said...

Phillip, of course you didn't say that there was no discrimination against women anywhere. What you said was that the "biggest obstacle to progress" is people pointing out discrimination. On the other hand, I and many others would consider discrimination itself to be the biggest obstacle to women's progress. (Which includes people who argue that all other possible avenues have to be considered first before we can even think about addressing a claim of discrimination.)

It's like the people who claim that the ones pointing out racist behavior are themselves the racists for bringing it up, rather than the people who are actually committing the behavior in question.

Anonymous said...

I too am subject to so much passive discrimination. For example, yesterday, a male colleague turned to the male colleague we were with and was asked what he technically thought of the faculty candidate. I am more in faculty candidate's area so I countered what the less-knowledgeable guy had to say (since I was never asked). You could tell the men didn't care what I had to say... to them, I am not technically capable.

I also know I earn less pay here than all the men.

Until I can receive equal treatment, I have to at least require special treatment to be on the same playing field.

Phillip Helbig said...

"What you said was that the "biggest obstacle to progress" is people pointing out discrimination."

Please don't quote me out of context. Here is the relevant quote:

The biggest obstacle to progress are people who attribute any sort of difference to discrimination without considering other possible reasons.

This means something completely different than what you attributed to me. Like the little boy who cried "wolf", people who attribute all differences to discrimination run the risk of not being heard when they try to point out real discrimination.

Anonymous said...

It's bias when females are selected more by blind auditions, and it's bias when blind tests like SAT don't give females better scores


It's equality when women are doing better in law, it's inequality when they are doing worse in CS

Anonymous said...

I am a middle-aged female full professor in a male-dominated science. From my experience, the sexism is still there; I have experienced it more than I care to recall. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to note that the staunchest defenders and supporters of female scientists (at least, in my world) are actually the male scientists who had female mentors. This gives me hope that the gender bias in science is gradually changing for the better.

Anonymous said...

I am a female science professor and I sometimes simply don't know what to think about the "women issue". First of all lets be clear: there has been quite a change in the past 30 years (improvements for women). And I, being only age 39, have never really experienced the old day type of gender discrimination. Our research institution has an obvious low percentage of females in higher positions. But employing women has now become such a task that I fear that more colleagues will say in the future "this selection (of personnel) was done towards gender and not towards quality". And I am not sure if this is doing any good. On the other hand I believe that once we reached a higher percentage of women in leading positions (at least 30%), the environment will change and balance itself. So maybe we need to "push" females into these positions.

Another thing that confuses me is that since I reached my professor position, I am constantly asked to participate in committees, organizations etc. to support and mentor women in my field. I sometimes even hear from the men "you women need to organize yourself to increase the numbers of women in post graduation positions". In my whole life I never thought about the fact that I am a women. I wanted to do the job I do today since my childhood and so I did. Do I now HAVE to help other women to do the same? Do I have to feel responsible, because I made it that far? I doubt that men feel this way. I just want to do my job and I mentor the students and postdocs in my group no matter if they are male or female. Why should I specifically support only women? If I can be a role model for women and if they contact me for specific questions, that is totally fine and I am happy to help. But why should I spend my times with these female meetings?

A really strange situation came up recently. I organized a workshop to discuss some methods in my field. One women had to decline her participation, because she took over the job of the female representative in her institution, which keeps her quite busy. I thought great, no these female jobs keep women from doing their actual science.

Don't get me wrong. I am absolutely aware of all the hard work done by women over the last decades to fight for the rights of women in science. And I am greatfull for it! But maybe now, after basic rules have been established, has come the time for women to spend most of their time for doing actual science and not waisting their energy to fight for more rights....?

Scarred for life said...

An anecdote for people who don't believe sexism exists in academia:

I recently went back to school for a B.S. in a STEM field after already having earned a B.A. from a highly regarded college. I also had a successful career working at a major research university writing large institutional grants. I was bit by the "science bug" and decided I'd start over from square one and possibly go the MD/PhD route. At this point, if you'd asked me, I'd have said "What sexism?" since the scientists I knew up to that point were nothing but supportive of my goals.

So I went to a small teaching college where tuition was cheap and I could quickly get the credits I needed. The fact that there were only two female science professors at the school should have been a red flag, but it wasn't.

My experience there was like a slap in the face. For a while I was afraid I was developing PTSD, and couldn't even get within a mile of campus without having a panic attack.

Being a little older, I stood out, naturally. I noticed immediately that male professors shamelessly withheld good grades from females who didn't go to office hours and flirt. I had professors refuse to answer questions via email and tell me they would only see students during office hours. Strangely, my male counterparts got email responses no problem. I would have identical answers as male students on tests, but be given 1/3 of the points that they were given. I even had one professor tell me "I can give any grade I like..."

In courses (such as introductory biology courses), references were constantly made to how women were biology unfit for the hard stuff like math, inappropriate sexual humor was used liberally, and once, after I questioned a professor about something, he made the entire class watch an evolutionary psychology video about how females are basically made to be dominated by males.

When trying to intellectually strong-arm me didn't work, they moved on to sexual harassment. Within my department, there was only one professor I "trusted" not to make creepy comments around me or to hit on me. At one point (I still don't know how), a few male faculty became privy to sexual gossip about me and would loudly allude to it in class. One of the particularly creepy ones would get comfortable in a corner and stare at me through an entire 3 hour lab. He once asked me to "stop using big words in front of him" when I asked a question about a term taken directly from the assigned reading.

When I pressed on and continued to do better than most of the other students, even the ones who flagrantly cheated, things got ugly. I scored >90th% on both sections of the GRE, and this seemed to precipitate a full-on assault. At this point, professors started, in front of the entire class, making fun of me. They would say things and then lie about having said them. I was definitely "gaslighted"... I was told by one female faculty member that I was too accomplished and it bugged them, so they were trying to force me to leave.

Of course, I applied to grad schools and was accepted everywhere I applied, including three of the top-five ranked programs in my field.

All I can do is hope that my next program will be different. I'm not optimistic.