Archive for the 'sexism' category

I Notice These Things Too

Feb 22 2012 Published by under sexism, talks (conference)

Consider this:

Last week I went to listen to a talk by a graduate student. I didn't know this student, as he is in a different department from me, so I don't have any way to understand a particular aspect of his talk: and that is that throughout his talk he referred to some relevant previous work by others by the author's or authors' last name/s for all male authors, but whenever there was a female author whose work he mentioned, he gave her first name as well. I noticed this but it didn't bother me until I realized that he was highly critical of the work done by the female authors he cited by name, but the work of male authors was presented as being useful, interesting or neutral. This bothered me. Should it have?

I notice these things too. Of course, there's no way to know if the speaker in this case was consciously or subconsciously bashing women or whether it was just a coincidence that he did not like the work of the women but he did like the work by male authors on these topics.

It is strange that he chose to say the women's name in full, but gave only male last names. Possible explanations:

- He thought it was disrespectful to refer to women by their last name only. I don't tend to buy this explanation; we cite authors by their last name in papers all the time, and that is not disrespectful if the first author is female, ergo it is not disrespectful to refer to these citations in a talk, using only the last name. In this way, there is a difference between talking about a citation ("Snoopy 2010", or just "Snoopy" for short) and a person ("Snoopy").

- Until we were told that the work of the women was criticized and that of the men was not, a possible explanation was that he was highlighting the work of women to show that there are women scientists, thereby providing inspiration for students in the audience. I think we have to reject that in this case, unless someone wants to make the argument that he was showing respect for the women by highlighting their gender and criticizing them rather than being chivalrous (I really had to twist my mind to come up with that one, but who knows..)

- What else, other than random coincidence with no meaning?

I wrote a post in the FSP blog about a related scenario last year. In that case, a speaker used different words for how he described the work of women and men who had opinions about a particular topic. The women did not fare well in his choice of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

It's fascinating how many ways we have to use word choice, tone variation and emphasis, image design/selection, and other methods to display our opinions about people and their work, even while giving a seemingly 'dry' talk on our scientific (or other) research. I think there is definitely a place for criticism in such talks, but there are respectful, professional ways to do this.

Not long ago, I saw a talk by someone who criticized the work of others -- men and women -- by name, directly and by unflattering descriptions. Based on that experience, I can tell you that the direct approach to criticism is not more appealing than the subtle approach.

It is possible to eviscerate someone's work in a classy way. I find a classy evisceration to be much more persuasive.

But back to the original scenario: If I noticed someone doing this in a talk, particularly if it were a student I knew, I would ask him/her whether they were aware of how they cited the work of others in their talk. For example, I might say "Did you realize that you were citing women by their first and last names but the men only by their last names?" Note that there is no mention of the possible woman-author-bashing in this question. Depending on the response to that first question, one could decide whether to proceed or not.

Questions for readers:

- Have you noticed anything like the phenomenon described? Did it bother you? (or do you think it would?)

- What do you think the speaker was doing, consciously or unconsciously (based only on the information provided)?

44 responses so far

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

Women's League

Jan 13 2011 Published by under letter of reference, sexism

Sent by a reader, from a recent letter of recommendation for a candidate for a faculty position:

[the applicant] is in the same league as other top female graduates [from this department]

But how does she compare to people with the same hair color? eye color? height? weight? religion? race? Surely these are as relevant as classifying by gender in a letter of recommendation for a faculty position.

The reader who sent the excerpt notes that the writer of the letter is male and in his early-mid 40's. That puts him in the same league as other top sexist letter-writers of older generations.

The letter-writer may have been trying to compliment the woman in question, or he may have been trying to signal that she isn't actually as good as the top male graduates from that department. If the latter, he probably could have found a better way to do that.

My question is:

Is someone who would write the above statement in a reference letter -- no matter what their motivation -- capable of making a fair evaluation of a female doctoral recipient, or does the very act of writing something like that in a letter of reference indicate bias?

52 responses so far


Nov 03 2010 Published by under sexism

A reader writes:

Dear FSP,

I was wondering what you think is the best way to handle/ confront "passive sexism" from an adviser or peer? In the past I have had the "opportunity" to work for an openly sexist adviser and dealing with that was of course a struggle but at least it was straight forward..."he didn't think women had a place in the lab". However, my current male adviser and all-male group are much less open with their sexism. It is just a sum of "little" things: Pay inequality, work inequality, varying expectations, favoring male students with worse records, etc ...and of course my all time favorite is secretary duty: copying, note taking, scheduling, and ordering.  Despite all of that, in 2 years I have out produced/ published most (if not all) students in our group, but it doesn't seem to matter. I have tried bringing these inequalities (especially pay) to my adviser's attention directly and indirectly, but he is always prepared to jump to the defensive.

How do you handle/fight being overlooked when work alone isn't enough? Can it be done without coming off as cold or earning a more offensive title?

First of all, I would not call that passive sexism, and I don't think some of those examples of inequality are so little, considering that some can have a major negative effect on your career. Just because an adviser doesn't say to you "You are less qualified because you are a woman" doesn't make it OK for him to pay you less, favor less qualified male students, and single you out for clerical tasks. That is quite active sexism.

On the bright side, your productivity could be valued more than you think, although it might be hard for you to tell from your adviser's behavior.

Over at the FSP blog, I wrote at some point about how my grad adviser never supported me with a grant (I was a TA the entire time) and in every way favored his male graduate students. In my last year, he told me that he was giving an RA to Unproductive Guy instead of to me because he knew that I could teach and be productive with my research, but Unproductive Guy wasn't able to do that. As a student, I felt hostile about that. As an adviser.. I can understand it better, although I'm not sure I would make the same decision.

Although it is little comfort, your adviser may give you clerical tasks because he knows they will get done and get done well. Even now, as a fairly senior professor, I get assigned to do things like this and my male colleague seldom do. Is it sexism to single me out for these tasks or is the chair just trying to get things done by giving tasks like this to someone who will get them done efficiently?

A few weeks ago, I got asked to clean out a teaching lab. The task was deemed too complex for a student because decisions would have to be made about what antiquated devices and materials to throw out and what to keep. I discovered that most of the clutter in the lab belonged to courses I have never taught, but when I brought this to the attention of the relevant faculty (all men), they refused to do anything to help clean up their mess. I am guessing they don't do much housework at their homes, but I could be wrong.

As a professor, it is of course much easier for me to say no to my department chair's requests than it is for a graduate student to refuse a task from an adviser. It might, however, be worth saying something like "Since I did that last time, perhaps one of the others could do it this time?" or "I've been doing all the ordering this term; could someone else do it next term?". Maybe you've done that already, as you say you've tried to bring these issues to your adviser's attention in various ways. If your adviser refuses reasonable requests like that, he definitely has a problem, but to be a bit optimistic, perhaps his first reaction is defensive, but maybe he will make some changes.

Are your fellow grad students aware of the situation and, if so, are they at all supportive or are they just glad that they don't get asked to do the ordering and copying.

When I was in a similar situation as a graduate student, I just did my work as best I could. I was productive, wrote papers, and my adviser respected that and wrote positive letters of recommendation for me.

So things turned out fine for me in the end, but an important question is whether there is any way to change the behavior of advisers like this so that these issues don't arise for the female students they will advise in the future. For those advisers who are apprised of their unfair advising practices and who nevertheless refuse to change, I don't think that students can do much to improve the situation; at least not without possibly harming their career prospects. These changes have to come from above, if there is any will to do so, or an adviser has to otherwise experience negative consequences of unfair advising practices (e.g., difficulty recruiting new students) and voluntarily change out of self-interest.

28 responses so far