Nothing to Prove

May 10 2011 Published by under advising, sexism, students, women in science

Here is an intriguing situation, with a question for discussion:

A female science professor is asked by a colleague to be on the examining committee of one of the colleague's doctoral students. The doctoral student has told the FSP to her face that he does not think that women are good scientists, and that women should not even do certain kinds of science (particularly those involving field studies).

What should the FSP do?

  • Agree to be on the committee, be as fair and objective as usual, and show by example that she is a talented scientist whose expertise and advice could be quite useful to the student. Serving on this committee would be a good use of the FSP's time if the student saw an example of a professional, smart FSP doing her job, just like the MSPs.
  • Refuse to be on the committee. Why should she have to deal with a student who has explicitly demonstrated prejudice against women and who is unlikely to appreciate her expertise and advice? Serving on the committee would be a waste of the FSP's time.

I deliberately removed information about the career stage of the FSP in order to present the most basic facts of the scenario, but it might matter whether the FSP is pre-tenure or tenured. I have experienced this exact scenario twice: once as an assistant professor, and once as an associate professor.

I hope the fact that I have not experienced it as a full professor means that there are fewer students who hold this view about FSPs (or at least who would state it openly), but it could mean that if you stick around long enough and acquire enough wrinkles, the student-skeptics will assume you must have learned something over all the years you've been a professor.

In the case when I was an assistant professor, I agreed to be on the committee. I did what was required of me as a committee member, and even went slightly above-and-beyond for one particular part of the student's research, but I never made any obvious progress in convincing the student that I was a 'real' scientist like his advisor. Every time we had a one-on-one meeting, the student made sure to tell me that he was only talking to me because his advisor made him do it. He was aggressive and confrontational ("What do you know that can help me?" A lot, actually..). I did not enjoy our interactions, but I fulfilled my responsibilities as a committee member.

In the case when I was an associate professor, I was inclined to refuse to be on the committee. Some of the student's research, however, was directly related to my expertise, so I sort of felt like I should be on the committee and said I'd do it. But then I found out that the student had scheduled his oral preliminary exam without consulting me about the day/time (he consulted the rest of his committee). I could have changed some things around to be available for the exam, but I decided not to, so I was replaced on the committee. Perhaps that was the student's intention all along, but it was a relief to me also to limit my interactions with him.

What happens to these people? In the first case, I never saw or heard of the student again after he got an MS and disappeared into the rest of his life. In the second case, the student got a PhD and eventually returned to his home country, where he has a job as a scientist.

I wish I had a happy-ending story of a miraculous change of mind. I wish I could say that I worked with these guys and we developed mutual respect and understanding, and they realized that women can be scientists, and in fact, it's not a big deal to work with one. Perhaps someone else can share a story like that? I can think of  a couple of mini-examples involving senior scientists, so I know such transformations can happen: FSP 1, FSP 2.

But back to the main question: What would you do: serve on the committee or refuse? And does your answer vary depending on your career stage?


37 responses so far

  • Kate says:

    I'd say "serve on the committee", no matter what.

    I wouldn't buckle to that kind of intimidation... and it seems to me that it's an important point to make that women CAN be good scientists, and part of that involves the kind of objectivity these students had yet to develop. Serving on the committee seems to send the message "I'm serious about this, this is my job" while not serving seems to say "I'm pissed off that you're such a jerk, and I'm allowing my scientific objectivity about your work go out the window as a result."

  • cluless guy says:

    I very rarely swear in public, but I think this is one of the few cases where a FOAD response is appropriate and perfectly justified.

  • My immediate reaction is to refuse. If there's no respect for my expertise, then it won't be provided. Also, I'm not keen on helping someone who is so small minded. With that said, I guess there could be all kinds of extenuating circumstances that would cause me to be on the committee.

  • An Onymous says:

    You left out the most interesting (though perhaps not BEST) answer:

    Agree to be on the committee, be far more rigorous, detail-oriented and generally tyrannical than usual, and show by example that she is a talented scientist whose expertise far exceeds his, despite their difference in genitalia. Serving on this committee would be a good use of the FSP's time if the student learned something useful from seeing an example of a professional, smart FSP doing her job, just like the MSPs. Or, failing that, if the student's soul was crushed like the sad little wine grape that it is. That would be useful, too.

    Setting that option aside, however, as verging on the morally dubious, I think I wouldn't bother serving on this student's committee at any career stage. And I would be least likely to as an Assistant Professor, because there's just no time for unproductive stress at that stage.

    ~An Onymous

  • Nicole says:

    As an associate or full, I would definitely decline. Not worth my time. As an assistant, it is more difficult to say. My chair is very supportive of diversity issues of all kinds, so I don't think the student would be allowed to express such opinions without censure. He would likely be given multiple lectures on professionalism and etiquette, like we do for our students who have issues with race. If we had a different chair... I dunno, it would depend on my other commitments... if I could beg off because I was already on too many committees I would.

  • SS says:

    There is no reason for someone who is at least a tenure track professor to feel initmidated by a grad student, more so somone who is earning a mere MS or early into a PhD. Moreover, this seems to be someone not just with stupid views, but also stupid enough to insult a potential committee member.

    I think when someone screws up that badly, you should just let them go out of pity. The power differential between the two people here is so large that you almost want to root for the underdog. I would say serve on the committee, do your job as usual without trying to prove anything and laugh off the student's "skepticism".

  • At both stages, I would call him out on this in public -- for example, in the presence of the other committee members -- and document it. So that as few women as possible suffer by going anywhere near him in his (alas, inevitable) career.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hell no.

    The grad student will discount your contribution no matter how rigorous you are. Do these people ever change? If you do put extra effort into this committee, the student may end up with a stronger dissertation, more competitive on the job market, and more likely to inflict his stupid views on future colleagues, job candidates, postdocs, and students. Fuck him.

    I was in this situation a couple of times when untenured. I served on the committee because I felt I couldn't say no, and I took the high road of being extra rigorous. Both times, I got bounced off the committee after the prelims -- the best ending I could hope for. If I was in this situation now that I am tenured, I would decline and then I would tell the rest of the committee exactly why, and let them deal with it.

  • anonymous says:

    Thankfully I've not been in this situation. If I'd been asked as an assistant prof, I probably would have idealistically agreed to serve. But I probably would not do it now. Also, this is not about intimidation -- I would not feel intimidated by such a student, but about why I should volunteer to do something unpleasant that would ostensibly help someone who does not want my help. There might also be further complications if the issue were to air with other committee members. Why open the grill when I'm likely to get burned?

  • I *love* the suggestion of being on the committee, and then holding the student to the most rigorous definition of science that exists. I probably wouldn't be inclined to take such an approach until I have tenure, though.

  • Anonymous says:

    In my department (I'm a grad student who just went through her prelim) it is up to the professors' discretion as to how rigorous and nit-picky to be in the prelim. I don't think there's anything wrong with being extra-rigorous - his statements show a lack of objectivity and professionalism, both of which are important in science and what better place to teach him than at his prelim! Plus, if any grad student was stupid enough to outright insult a prof, then ask them to be on their committee, they've totally got it coming - you can't expect to insult people and get away with no ramifications.

  • Christine says:

    Few people are mentioning something between refusing to be on the committee and agreeing to be on the committee and putting up with this. All universities have some sort of code of conduct and surely there must be some disciplinary action available. And especially as a faculty member, you can always stop a meeting where someone is insulting you - just calmly say that the meeting is not about his views on women in physics, he needs X from you, and you can reschedule the meeting if he is unable to work with you without insulting you at this time. And if there is any wiggle room in the formal requirements for a PhD/MS that allows some judgment of professionalism, you can nail him there. And by all means make sure the committee, including his advisor, know exactly what is going on!

  • another anonymous person says:

    Not worth my time, not worth my mental energy.

    Serving on committees is service. We've got to be selective on our service - we're all asked to do a lot more than we can, and choose where we will do the most good. This is one that wouldn't make my cut. Students try not to choose known a**(*&# for their committees no matter how much they may have to offer; profs can too.

    I've got better things to do. Like sitting in on a procedural meeting to decide how to approach making a decision about how to pursue our next search.

  • Male Grad Student says:

    Decline. You are under no obligation to prove to the student that you are a talented scientist; the fact that have a PhD and you are a professor is ample proof, if there is a need for it.

    If somebody is so forthright about telling women that they should not do science this late in his life, he is a lost cause. Why bother and waste your time? I am more willing (relatively) to understand this attitude in older professors as they are a product of another time; but there is no excuse for graduate students. If academia is to change, such bigots need to be weeded out; so definitely don't help them along.

  • Elmo says:

    Hell no! Waste of time at my stage in the game (tenure-track year 4). I would make sure that his advisor as well as any administrative graduate school official, knew of the students behavior, and then respectfully decline the request stating a conflict of interest...example: I respect myself.

  • Kaija says:

    I would hope that someone along the way...advisor, committee member, etc...sees the need for a "come to Jesus" meeting with this student on professionalism, appropriate conduct, personal biases and bigotry, and general attitude adjustment. Would it be ok if Mr. A$$hat had said the same things about black scientists, handicapped scientists, or any other particular group of people?

    I agree that any student who is cocky or dumb enough to say such things to a professor is asking for The Shoe (in his butt, pushing him out the door to learn some more about being a human being). However, if I were not tenured, I probably would not be the one to take on this situation, but I would most likely bring it to the attention of the appropriate office that CAN address it (assuming of course that the institution actually does handle these cases and doesn't just sweep them under the rug). I also like the option of serving on the committee and being a hardass...teaching the kid about some of the rigors of being a full-fledged scientist and the difference between opinions and observations.

  • GMP says:

    When I was a graduate student, I had several extremely unpleasant sexist encounters with a couple of male graduate students from countries where women hold subhuman status. These remain -- bar none -- the most aggressive and awful bigoted experiences I have ever had. There is no way you can change someone with such deeply ingrained sexism -- it has nothing to do with you or your credentials, or those of any woman.

    I would refuse to be on the committee if at all feasible. If, for some reason, I have to be on it, I would tear the student a new asshole AND let other committee members what is going on. I have absolutely no qualms about looking like a crazy bitch in this situation. Subtlety is overrated -- the blatant disrespect the students showed in your example above should only be met with an appropriately outrageous response.

  • becca says:

    There's always serving on the committee and being a *strategic* asshat... Say during the prelim, keep asking him questions about science that happened to have been done by women, until you find the limits of his preparation (the finding-the-limits-of-preparation is something that is part of the point of prelims, right?). Then, ask him point blank in his exam 'you once said you believed women make inferior scientists... why should I pass you when you can't be bothered to learn what they have done?'
    If he can muster any kind of grace under that kind of pressure, maybe he's redeemable. If not... well, that's a good time for him to fail.

  • Anonymous says:

    I would ask my colleague to have the student approach me directly. It would require at least a tacit acknowledgement of my merit and his/her dependence on me. It also gives the opportunity, if desired, to dialog with the student about the issue prior to making a decision to serve on the committee, or not.

  • anonymous says:

    I'm just a grad student, but I would be tempted to say,
    "Someone with your attitude has no place in the scientific community. Unless you shape up, I will not serve on your committee or support you in any way, and I will make sure everyone in this department, and all of our mutual colleagues know what you think of women scientists."

    But before that I would probably talk to the adviser and make sure he knows exactly what the student said, and request a three way meeting with the student where the adviser says the above instead. A dressing down would be effective coming from a (male) adviser than from me.

    I think I might not even serve on the committee at this point, though. It would be very difficult for me to evaluate such a student fairly.

  • BugDoc says:

    I would decline to serve on the committee by emailing the student and cc'ing the advisor and department chair, as follows:

    "Dear Stu,
    I appreciate your invitation to serve on your dissertation committee, but will have to decline. Since my time and effort are valuable to me, I generally serve only on committees where I feel I can make a contribution to the student's intellectual and professional development. Based on your direct comment to me that you perceive women cannot be good scientists, I think it unlikely that you will benefit from the expertise and experience that I can offer. Best of luck with your future research.

    an FSP"

  • I once made a flip comment to a colleague I had recently met, that he took to be offensive. He pulled me aside and told me that so (he was right, though it wasn't meant that way). He also told me that since I was early in my career, I may want to watch how I say things, and to whom. It was sound advice, and politely put.

    I think I would agree with a variant of BugDoc's e-mail, though depending on the department, pulling in the advisor and chair may not be wise. If that is not enough to make the student see that he is shooting himself in the foot by estranging colleagues that he may need to progress academically, that's his problem.

    But there's one other criteria to consider... is the department politics such that by not serving on the committee, the professor is going to create bad blood between her and the advisor?

  • For me it would depend on my opinion of the student's supervisor. If I'm confident that the supervisor respects my expertise and will back me up in any conflicts with the student, then certainly yes. Otherwise no.

  • anne says:

    One of the FSPs in my dept in grad school required students who wished her to sit on their committee to attend regular meetings where they would discuss papers, etc. In other words, she wanted them to prove that they wanted her expertise and they weren't picking her for less noble reasons. This created some extra work for her per student, but cut way down on the number of students she actually had to advise.

    In this situation I could see such an approach being helpful - ie, say yes, on the condition that he fulfill certain obligations. If he refuses, he has to look elsewhere and explain why to his adviser. It's somewhere in between "outright refuse" and "say yes and turn the other cheek".

  • yolio says:

    I would probably avoid serving on the committee, although I recognize the circumstances might make me serve on it anyway. But my default would be to avoid serving on the committee. I would also make a point of speaking frequently about my exact reasons for avoiding this committee. My goal would be to be certain that every committee member, and preferably most of the department, understood my alienation from this student. It is tempting to take the committee assignment and then use your power to make the kid's life hell, but that is an abuse of power and undermines the purpose of the thesis defense process. I think that this situation calls for yielding social aggression rather than institutional aggression.

  • BugDoc says:

    Barefoot doctoral, I agree with you in that cc'ing the student's advisor and dept chair should be carefully considered. If the FSP thought the student was just naive, perhaps just cc'ing the advisor would be sufficient. However, based on what FSP told us, it sounded like the student made some pretty egregious comments that can't be attributed to naivete or ignorance, i.e., "he does not think that women are good scientists, and that women should not even do certain kinds of science". In my opinion, this deserves some calling out. If she just emailed the student declining to serve, I'm not sure such a person would learn a lesson from that and might happily go on with his all male committee. However, cc'ing others in a position to advise the student of the error of their ways might make him more accountable without initiating official university mechanisms, which I think would be over the top in this case. It also avoids any appearance of personal conflict that might result from serving on the committee of such a self righteous misogynistic a*hole.

  • MaleGradStudent says:

    As a grad student, its my anecdotal evidence/experience that the kind of people who hold these views also come from cultures where public shaming is considered especially harsh.

    I would take advantage of that, completely.

    Presumably this student respects their adviser, or at least wants a good letter of recommendation from him. I think an email declining to be on the student's committee because of those comments with a CC to the adviser is a good place to start. Make it absolutely explicit in the email what about the student you find to be objectionable. Why the student would waste their time asking someone who they don't respect on their committee is beyond me, however it may also be a good idea to have a private conversation with any other FSPs in the department about this particular student.

    I would hold off on bringing in any kind of administrative power (ie, don't file a complaint with HR about a hostile workplace) immediately because you don't want to create the position of looking like you're bringing a juggernaut to bear just to crush this student's tiny, fragile, undeserving-of-your-mercy skull. If he replies to your email and says something stupid, by all means destroy him.

    I disagree with those who say that this FSP should serve on the committee and nitpick the crap out of the student. At best, the student winds up with a stronger thesis, a marginally changed mind, and the FSP looks like a bitch. At worst, the FSP just looks like a bitch.

    I also don't think that this changes whether the FSP in question has tenure or not. If she does, then she can do whatever she damn well pleases. If she doesn't, I think there is something to be said for respect gained from colleagues by handling this situation well.

  • atmos_prof says:

    I think both the advisor and chair should be told, not necessarily by being cc'd on an email to the student, but perhaps directly. As an advisor I would want to know if my student behaved this way, and while I haven't been a chair (yet), I think in that case I would as well. That is a step short of reporting someone to HR etc. But departments should have codes of conduct for this kind of thing and some informal enforcement - in the form of a talking to from the advisor or chair - would be appropriate here. While a nasty response from the FSP might not make a dent in the student's psyche, a threat of bad letter of recommendation from the advisor (who presumably is male in these cases, as am I) just might.

  • Respi Sci says:

    While I love the wording of BugDoc's letter, I think that first I would want to approach the student directly so as to give the student a chance to rethink their words/stance. As Barefoot Doctoral mentioned, I think we have all made flippant comments at one point. I would inform my colleague that I want to speak to the student before agreeing to being on the committee, without detailing the reason as of yet. With the student, I would raise the issue that in the past he made comments in regard to his view that women should not be scientists. Does he understand that if I am on his committee he will need to be respectful, listen to my advice and weigh it based on scientific merit? Does he think he can do this? If not, let me know now because my time is limited and I am not about to waste it. Give him a chance to respond. If he continues his stance, then do as BugDoc suggested, inform the student that you will not be on his committee and let him know that you will be writing a letter declining your participation and will cc the supervisor, as you need to let your colleague know why you aren't doing this. As for cc'ing the department chair, I'm not sure-I think that would depend on the internal politics of the department.

  • tess says:

    Kaija's point about how this situation would differ if it was a racial prejudice being voiced is extremely important. Discussing the case openly with the advisor, the chair, and anyone else concerned with student discipline seems like the obvious next step. If they do not agree with the seriousness of the situation, reference to the analogy with racial discrimation could be stated.

    As a graduate student I recall an FSP being asked to attend cultural awareness classes because she was unhappy with a male student's statements and behaviour that resulted from him holding and expressing similar views - I think a more appropriate response would be to treat the case in the same way as any other discplinary offense.

  • (I am repeating my comment from over at The Difference Engine.)

    This is just fucking wrong. Students should be held to the same social standards re. behaviour towards others as staff.

    That is all.

  • Tenured FSP says:

    I think it is worth having the conversation with the student's advisor and the chair to explain why you won't be serving on the committee. Serving on committees is often tit-for-tat... you serve on my student's committee and I'll serve on your student's, so sometimes and explanation is needed for why you aren't stepping up.

    I also like the idea of having that conversation because I observe that many of my male colleagues are not aware of sexism in their daily lives, so they assume the world is now perfect... that any complaints about sexism come from unreasonable people. I think it is good for FSPs to remind MSPs that we all have a long way to go (and, implicitly, that we need to all play a role in making the world better). Having a conversation about the issue above is a great way to do it because the point comes across as a neutral news item ("Just updating you that I won't be serving because of your student's views, but please do encourage your future students to ask me to be on their committees") rather than a complaint ("Let me tell you about how sexist some people are!"). [Substitute racism or homophobism where appropriate.]

  • MB says:

    serve on the committee, and grill him the hardest, and publicly and systematically and unemotionally tear his work down during his defense. make it so that he's on the defensive the whole time. Be the one who puts meaning into the words thesis "defense"

  • Han Aiwen says:

    I am surprised this guy didn't get kicked out of the program. Aren't there laws and rules to protect women from these bigots? If a student told me I can't be a scientist because I'm black guy, the consequences for this kid would be dire. Why should it be any different when women are targets?

  • lauren says:

    I don't have an answer for your poll, as I'm not an SP or any kind of P, but I'm sorry that happened and that your MSP colleagues weren't supportive.

    Hai Aiwen said: "If a student told me I can't be a scientist because I'm black guy, the consequences for this kid would be dire."

    That's what I thought too. What if I told an African-American professor that I didn't think black people were good scientists? But yeah, I'd consent to letting him serve as my advisor if I had no choice.

    I would get kicked out of the program, right? I can't imagine that people would only roll their eyes at me or angst about how to educate me. They'd just conclude I was a creep and I'd be out of there.

  • Janos says:

    I (MSP) agree with Lauren.

    The creep came to the US to be EDUCATED. This does not mean only doing research for a PhD, but being told what our values are.

    There should be ways to make sure he understands the local culture. For example, such a student should never be allowed to be a TA. It is not clear, but there are arguments that many research grant giving organizations would also frown on supporting students with sexist views--if, as in this case, those views even interfere with his scientific judgement.

  • Helen Huntingdon says:

    I'm not sure what I would actually do, but the most probable is that I would be on the committee and then repeatedly fail him for being unable to stick to the topic and to rationality in general, until the whiny baby learned to actually stick to the topic and to rational discourse.