Monday, February 18, 2008

A follow up to the equal opportunities

This started out as a response to the comments on the previous post, but it got so long that I'd rather make a full post of it.

I talked about how I have often felt like the "token woman" in my overwhelmingly male work environment and the contradictory consequences of the involuntary exposure, and I talked about how women are often dependent on male mentors in order to be considered serious colleagues. I do still think there is something to this idea, but as Wayfarer Scientista pointed out in the comments male scientists are also dependent on good mentors to advance in science.

I discussed this with a male and a female colleague the other day. We talked about how most senior scientists in our field are men and therefore most potential mentors would be men. Even if there is something seemingly offensive about female scientists being put forward by male mentors to their male networks, it is hard to see the alternatives at the moment when so few of the senior scientists are women. But we also talked about how we all had experienced subtle (or not so subtle) patronizing comments to or about female colleagues in various work settings and how sometimes even the most diversity-minded people at our workplace do this (sub)consciously*.

I wasn't satisfied with the post below when I wrote it, but it was late and I was leaving and wanted to finish it. In hindsight I realize that one thing I wasn't satisfied with was that it somehow sent the signal that I don't appreciate what my mentors have done for me because of their gender. That is not true. It is not about trashing all men or saying that senior scientist men cannot have female protegees, but about the way we talk and act that make women feel unwelcome or less worthy in many professional settings.

Even here, where we have all the right legislation in place, where affirmative action has gone to extremes and women don't have time to be on all the committees they need to be on to fill their quotas, the understanding of what really matters is sorely lacking.

*A few examples:

When I came to the first meeting as the only woman in the leader group at current institution, and at some point during the meeting asked a relevant question, whereupon the person responsible for diversity patted me on the back and said how brave it was of me to say something. (Geez, thanks, what else would I be doing there)

When a younger female scientist who has done extremely well recently and won a prestigious grant was introduced at a recent meeting as young and up-and-coming, while her male peers of the same generation were simply introduced by name and credentials. (she was however the only female speaker at a two day meeting supposed to show off the best of the instution's work)

When assistant department head** positions were introduced in order to encourage women to move into department head positions. (I am one of the fools who jumped on that wagon because it seemed/probably is career enhancing, but in hindsight it is also really offensive to assume that women need a special training ground, while men can jump directly into the "real" department head positions. WTF!)

** this is not a university and department head positions are not only given to people in the top rank


At 2:00 AM, Blogger Psycgirl said...

That's the worst part about sexism in academia, at least in my field as well - it's so subtle. Which means when female students say something is sexist, faculty can easily say its not.

At 6:05 PM, Blogger saxifraga said...

I absolutely agree. We actually discussed this aspect too. That claims of disadvantage are easily brushed off, because the individual occurrence doesn't seem like it's worth to make a fuss about. I hope I will become more aware of these incidents and practice speaking up about subtle discrimination more often. I think it is important to talk about, but I think it is very difficult to be taken seriously when bringing up seemingly "minor" issues.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger Wayfarer Scientista said...

I wasn't disagreeing with you about the lack of mentors...their definately are in my field and I witnessed a very painful blackballing of the first female professor candidate at one of my Universities which was so blatantly sexist that I was appalled. I do agree it's subtle and insidious. It's interesting because people think in my field that there are a lot of women, but my field is wide and the portion I am in is very male dominated. I remember when I started my master's degree my advisor, saying in front of a class I was to TA,"oh? you are a woman? i didn't know that." which he did, of course, but it demeaned me in front of the all male class.

At 9:45 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Wayfarer: Thanks for chiming in again and what a ridiculous introduction from your advisor. Sometimes it is so openly wrong, that it's incredible that it's still going on.

My field also has sub-fields that are more or less male dominated (or maybe even sub-sub fields). Generally fieldwork heavy parts of my discipline are often male dominated. In my sub-discipline of Quarternary geology fieldwork in the Arctic is male dominated while pollen analysis and other microfossils and lab work on cores tend to be female dominated (all of these require little field work). This division starts already at the entry level, so it is not entirely about practicalities for women with small kids or who are pregnant.

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Wilhelm said...

Why on earth would you want to take on an assistant department head position, though?

From what I have observed, something like that would put a serious dent in your scientific output and give you all kinds of mind-numbing administrative tasks..

At 9:52 PM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Wilhelm: Good question! I ended up writing a full post in response to this.

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