Tuesday, December 9, 2008

She was just invited because....

"As I seem to do at least once a week, I would like to point my readers over to a great discussion occurring at DrugMonkey."

That sentence was actually written for a post in Sept, but I've decided to just start using it as a heading to let people know this will be a DrugMonkey inspired post. So, once again, ladies and gentlemen, a DrugMonkey inspired post.

In Problem? What Gender Problem?,  DrugMonkey noticed at a scientific meeting that the representation of women was low. When I read his post this morning, I nodded my head sagely, thought "yep" and then spent the day working on a proposal and revising a manuscript. I had no idea that such a statement of truth could engender such a wild, interesting, and sometimes slightly bizarre discussion. Truly. I can't summarize it for you, you have to go check it out for yourself.

The truth of the matter is that the loss of women and minorities from the pipeline is a complex issue and I think the discussion over at DrugMonkey also shows that it is an emotional one for many of us. Many of us have heard, either leveled at us or at other women/minorities, "yeah, insert-name-of-speaker-who-does-not-look-like-everyone-else-here only got invited because....". Even when it's not explicitly stated, (shockingly many people do realize a statement that someone was only invited because they were female, black, hispanic, etc makes them sound like an ass), there are often enough undertones to make one seriously suspect foul play. I once had a reviewer spend the review explaining I wasn't as great as one might think from my CV....seriously, dude? The problem is, perhaps that asswipe does that crap to everyone, not just women, but there's no way to know so the recipient of such an interaction is left with the strong suspicion that this was motivated by other issues, which makes someone, like me, feel angry, betrayed, unsettled, suspicious, and worried this happens to everyone but I've become overly sensitive and unjustifiably paranoid. No wonder when those statements of "you're just an affirmative action placation invite"  come out clearly, we tend to go a little ape-shit.

But the emotional part for me is that the entire discussion made me a little sad. No doubts we've made some great strides in some areas, but as kiwi gal pointed out in her comment (#41) over at DrugMonkey:

In my field, ecology, we have a very large number of world class women scientists. At our national meeting in 2007, at an invited symposium reviewing progress in ecology over the last decade (to be published in a special issue of the journal etc etc), there was one woman speaker and 19 men.

Ouch. So much for my beloved ecology. The demoralizing thing is that this type of feedback (whether it is the review arguing why your record shows you are a hack despite how hard you worked to get those high profile papers or the lack of invites to give high profile talks when people of lesser records are praised like gods) reinforces the idea that you have to work twice as hard for half the credit.

I have to admit that after reading the discussion over at DrugMonkey, I was a little demoralized. I also have to admit, I always get demoralized when I get hung up on how I am perceived in my field, but - like always - I remember three things that make me feel better: 1) my science kicks ass. I didn't participate in the Scientiae  this month because every time I came up with something good it gave away my science (and thus me), but damn it my science is hot.  I routinely get it published in kick ass journals - despite some bizarre, occasionally angry reviews - and it is well cited for someone at my career stage.  2) I love what I do and I am a position where my gender might keep me from becoming a superstar, but it won't keep me from doing what I love. 3) I am deeply aware that I can say 1 and 2 because I was fortunate enough to have threaded some narrow, scary sections in the academia pipeline to be here today. Seriously, there was some major luck involved in my tango from undergrad to assistant professor.

So, I'm shaking off my malaise and tomorrow I'm going back to work to bust my ass on my proposal and my manuscripts that need to be resubmitted. Why? Because screw all those asses who want to come up with some reason why I'm not as good as I seem, who dismiss my speaking invites because I'm the "token woman", and my papers because its actually my co-authors carrying me, or whatever other excuse makes them feel better at night when they look at their own CVs. Besides, I have found that nothing pisses those people off more than a truly successful woman. And nothing would make me happier than to really piss them off.


Professor in Training said...

Seriously, there was some major luck involved in my tango from undergrad to assistant professor.

Yep - me too.

... nothing pisses those people off more than a truly successful woman. And nothing would make me happier than to really piss them off.

Ditto again :)

I never really considered myself to be a "feminist", I just find it incredible that anyone would think I was incapable of doing something simply because I'm a woman.

Isis the Scientist said...

A lovely post, Chaos. I think this sums up how I have been feeling about the issue all day. However, I have also felt happy that we have some very vocal allies in this here blogosphere (namely PP and DM). It makes me hopeful that we may have vocal allies in real life as well.

saxifraga said...

"Seriously, there was some major luck involved in my tango from undergrad to assistant professor"

This is also true for me, but when I think about it it's probably also true for many men.

Great post

Prof-like Substance said...

Great post, but I have to echo Saxifraga as well. I have had the same things that you talk ablout happen to me and also got to be an Assistant Prof through a series of events I was fortunate to benefit from, in addition to working my ass of. So, the women here are not alone there. Jealousy and pettiness can be gender blind.

However, in response to your post yesterday:
Our department currently has 11 active faculty, not including people who have moved into admin positions. Of the 11, 7 are women. In our grad student/PDF population, I would estimate we ratio of women is higher - maybe 80%.
The seminars, on the other hand, are biased towards male speakers. Last semester we had 8 seminars, with only a single woman speaker. Next semester, we have 9 seminars, two women on the schedule and one male minority (a third female speaker cancelled).
I'm glad you brought this up, because I am the one who is in charge of the seminars in our department and it hadn't crossed my mind to make a specific effort to bring in female or minority speakers until I started reading a number of recent blog posts, but thinking about it now, it should be an obvious thing to do. I want our department to see good talks AND role models. With our department so heavily biased towards female scientists, why don't we have more women giving talks? Part of it may be a function of the fact that I have been trying to get speakers who are in driving distance (for budgetary reasons) and the make-up of the departments I can realistically call on is biased, making the pool of female or minority speakers who would give a talk of interest to our department even smaller. Nevertheless, I should be doing a better job of that, particularly for the benefit of our students.
A bit ironically, however, I solicit suggestions every semester for speakers (especialy since I just got here in August) and only one of the female speakers I mentioned above was suggested to me, but by a male faculty member. Why aren't my 7 female colleagues asking for more female speakers in our seminar series?

chall said...

I wouldn't have thought that the discussion would turn that much into the direction it did...

It reminds me of the study in classrooms of junior/high school that when girls get 40% of the speaking time the boys think they have talked more than 60% of the time since "normally" girls take up 25% of the time of the talking, to boys doing 75%.

Maybe it is similar to conferences, if the amount of women would be 30% people would be convinced that "there were SO many women and jolly gosh, men are on the verge of extintion". Half joking but I think it might be something to that.

My old dept thought they had tonnes of women researchers. They did. It was only the fact that all tt researcher/profs/assistant prof apart from one were male. Aswell as the people on the board. But there were a bunch of female grad students/techs/post docs who were female. THe few male post docs were therfore "tendered" and groomed "not to be lost in the masse of women". Circle problem anyone?!?

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post Prof Chaos. You inspire me. I am going straight back to writing my (languishing) paper.

Anonymous said...

Hi River Tam, Seeing as you quoted me I thought I should go back and count properly instead of writing in the heat of the moment: the count of women ecologists speaking at the symposium I mentioned should be 1: 16 men. I'm not sure I feel any better though. .. What stuck out for me was that there was only one woman speaker ALL DAY.
Kiwi gal.

yolio said...

Major luck is a factor in every successful career, without exception.

When I start to feel discouraged about the obstacles in front of me, I try to remember the obstacles behind me. There are a lot of them. I have much to be grateful for. Few people on this planet have had the luck and opportunities that I have had. No matter what happens next, I have a good and rich life. I try to express my gratitude by opening every door that I can. Hopefully, those behind me don't have to fight these same fights over again, but can move onto the next set of battles.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! It's hard enough to jump over all the barriers that my male colleagues haven't had tossed in front of them but then to be told my path is easier because "they always want to hire/publish/invite women" when it is so demonstratively untrue makes it hard not to throw punches. Just knowing that there are others out there going through this AND succeeding really helps.
Ecology Postdoc

River Tam said...

Thanks everyone for your lovely feedback! Seems like the luck statement struck a bunch of chords. No doubt luck plays an important role for women AND men - it has to when more PhDs are created than there are jobs. After the responses here and the discussion over at Professor in Training's place, I'm mulling writing something about the important of luck and strategy in this crazy biz....

Prof-like Substance, I'm really glad you've joined the profs in science conversation. As I think you mentioned at your blog, we're dominated by young female asst professors and I think sharing your perspective is valuable. While gender plays some role, much of what I experience on a day-to-day basis is not gender-related but assistant professor related. And your comment about the women not stepping up to nominate other women in talk is dead on. I have noted before that if I brainstorm "impressive people to invite" I invariable come up with a list of all men. I think there's something deeply ingrained in men AND women when it comes to reflex list making. I always revisit my lists now and discover there are always really great women I overlooked.

Kiwi Gal - thanks for checking on that! 1 in 16, yes, that's.... still really really sad.

Anonymous said...

This fall 27% of the speakers in my departmental seminar series were female. The departmental faculty is 22% female This is a Ecology/Evolution program in Canada.

Anonymous said...

Biology dept, Australasia. 17 men and 5 women for departmental seminar series. Of the women, one visiting academic, 1 PhD student, 1 postdoc and 2 faculty. Of the men, looks like 9 visiting academics.

ScientistMother said...

One of things that many people forget is that a significant number of male and female speakers can not do talks b/c of childcare issues. I have numerous (fe)male professor friends who would really appreciate childcare considerations. Many of us share child rearing duties, but what we do is dependent on the flexibility of our partners jobs.

As a personal example, I wanted to attend a 1 week workshop, but b/c it had specific start and stop times, I would not be able to do the childcare p/u and drop-off. Mr.SMs' work+commute hours prevent him from doing that. In order to enable me to attend the workshop, he had to take a week off of work.

My male professor friend was up for tenure the year after his son was born. He had alot of travelling to conferences etc and would've loved to bring his son with him, unfortunately he could not b/c his wife could not get time off work, so who would take care of baby?? If the conference had some childcare he would've gladly taken him.

Child care / family responsibilities is the main reason I have had difficulty attracting female speakers for events. As one woman famously put it. "I would love to come give a talk to your group about maintaining work-life balance, but one of the ways I do that is to not attend after hour functions". I believe both Dr.Isis and Sciencewoman have said that dinner/bath/sleep is a no-go zone for work.

River Tam said...

ScientistMother - I agree. Child care is a huge issue for getting women to participate. I have often heard my male colleagues say it is hard to get women to accept invitations - but they never say why (the men...but perhaps the women are not forthcoming with their reasons either).

I had a friend who would bring her children to conferences and they would sit next to her in talks (reading, playing video games, etc). If they were good all day, she would take them to do special things in the evening (swimming in the pool, etc). They would BEG to go to conferences with her. The most amazing thing I've ever seen.Don't know how she did it.

ScientistMother said...

bringing them and getting them to sit next to you is probably feasible with kids older than 4. its also very child dependent. Mine will not sit still even at that age