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?

 

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