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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Inequity, Perception, and Hope for Women in Academia

Clearly, those of us who have survived, for better or worse, as women in academics, and specifically, in the Sciences, know full well that even though it *should not* be happening according to the statements and policies of out Universities and Professional Societies, inequity and frank discrimination are still a part of our lives. I remember so clearly the meeting in which, as a graduate student, my PhD advisor said once when I disagreed with him, respectfully, about a lab issue, that it must be “that time of the month” for me, since I spoke up for myself. Needless to say, I found another advisor. Then there was the time when I was offered a prestigious postdoc fellowship in a great immunology lab, only to be told by the PI, “Well, we’re glad to have you, but please tell me you’re not going to crap up your career by doing something stupid like getting married and having kids”. Time to move on- again.

I wish these stories were isolated cases, but from my conversations with many colleagues, sadly, they are not. We’ve all know for a long time that the academic pipeline is leakier for women than for men, and even leakier for members of underrepresented minorities. Numerous studies have, over the years, tried to identify the variables that lead to greater loss of women in academic science departments. Inside Higher Ed did a great piece reporting on the findings of a National Academies of Sciences panel formed to examine existing studies in 2006.

Among the panel’s findings:

  • “A series of cognitive and other studies “have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership positions in these fields.”
  • Although women fall out of academic science at nearly every stage of the pipeline, women are underrepresented on faculties even in fields in which they have reached relative parity. They make up only 15.4 percent of full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8 percent in the life sciences, despite having earned more than 30 percent and 20 percent of the doctorates in those fields, respectively, over more than 30 years.
  • Women are “very likely” to face discrimination — sometimes deliberately but often inadvertently — in “every field of science and engineering. (Minority women, the panel notes throughout the report, often face a double whammy.) The discrimination results from a combination of built-in biases that make them less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical accomplishments, of evaluation criteria that “contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women.” For instance, “characteristics that are often selected for and believed ... to relate to scientific creativity — namely assertiveness and single-mindedness —” are both given greater weight in hiring and promotion than traits such as flexibility, diplomacy and curiosity, and “stereotyped as socially unacceptable traits for women.”

-From Inside Higher Ed, 9/16/2006,

Depressing, huh? I especially think the last part of these excerpts, addressing the fact that traits of assertiveness and single-mindedness, critical in science, are looked down upon in women. This speaks to gender differences in how men and women are socialized to communicate. One book (and now website) that does, in my view, a really nice job of discussing these differences and providing strategies for women seeking to develop stronger communication styles is Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide ( Although I hope things are changing, my experience has always been that assertive men are often viewed as “Strong, decisive, and clear-minded” and assertive women are viewed as “Aggressive, b*tchy, and pushy*. In the close halls of the academy, it only takes a few perceptions of one (male or female, for that matter) as difficult, non-collegial or entitled for some serious damage to be done to one’s ability to get a fair shake in the political world of the University. It does mean one cannot succeed, but if the wrong people get fed up with a junior faculty member, the path to tenure and success can be rockier than it needs to be.

The good news, however, is that I am optimistic that things are looking somewhat brighter in the academy for women than they did when I was a junior faculty member (12 years ago)- more of us have made it through the ranks and are in positions of administration where we may be able to help pave the way and improve climate. Senior academic women and administrators can work to educate our colleagues in the senior ranks and actively and personally support younger women experiencing “learned helplessness". Learned Helplessness is Psychological phenomenon in which lab animals (or people, frankly) learn through direct experience that no matter what they do, their behavior and performance does not translate into the expected or desired outcome, and then, when contingencies change such that those efforts could or would make a difference in outcome, the subject is too tired of trying and failing to try again. Most of us who are female (and male, for that matter) academics have experienced this phenomenon to some degree; our success is only due to being helped up to try again by a senior mentor, and having that renewed effort may off. Sadly, even trying yet again cannot always overcome frank discrimination and inequity, but with the help of some of us who have weathered the storm and have taken positions in Universities that may be able to catalyze some positive change, overcoming learned helplessness in the academic world may be a little easier, and strong women and men can be recognized for their clarity of thought, commitment to science and academics, and their ability to contribute great things to the changing academy.

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