Sunday, April 12, 2009

The PuppyScientist Syndrome

This post is an expanded version of comments I offered at another blog in response to the question, “Does sexism get worse as you get older?”. Note: I’m referring here to any behavior (male or female) in which people are treated differently because of gender as “sexism”. The idea originally posed was that males are fine when they mentor younger women, but when the woman becomes a successful colleague (re: competitor) some males react negatively and begin various disrespectful and sometimes outright aggressive behavior toward females. Most of the older respondents to this question at the other blog stated that they had experienced increased sexism by male colleagues and/or superiors. Several of the younger respondents said they were not sure, since they were still students or post-docs.

I think that the experience of increased sexism with age can be the result of two processes: 1) sexism is actually greater for older than for younger women and/or 2) as women age, they become more aware of instances of sexism (better able to spot it). I think both are probably valid explanations.

Let’s take a look at the first explanation. When women are students or post-docs in laboratories run by a male scientist, they tend to be supported and encouraged because they are still in a subordinate position (to the male) and therefore not a threat. I think of this phenomenon as the “PuppyScientist Syndrome”, which arose out of conversations with another senior female scientist. When you are young, cute, cuddly and bursting with enthusiasm, everyone wants to pat you and encourage you. Both female and male students experience this to some degree.

But the similarity often ends when the female advances to become a successful colleague, especially at another institution that did not know her as a PuppyScientist. She may be treated well in the beginning, due to the lingering PuppyScientist effect. As the PuppyScientist matures, this perception fades, especially if she begins to growl or bark (speak out) at faculty meetings. The weaker pack members (faculty who are not productive) also will be threatened if she shows signs of being highly productive (e.g., brings in a multi-million dollar grant or publishes in Science). Not all male colleagues will react negatively, but some will. Not all females experience this change in treatment as they advance, but many do.

Her male counterparts, however, are naturally accepted into the pack and treated with increasing respect with each successive accomplishment. They are automatically assumed to be in line to be an Alpha Male someday.

One of the most telling stories I’ve heard recently regarding gender bias was told by a scientist (Dr. Ben Barres) who underwent a sex change (female to male). Some time after changing sex, Barres gave a seminar. Afterwards, two (male) faculty members were overheard discussing the seminar. One said to his colleague, “Dr. Barres’s seminar was outstanding, wasn’t it? He is a much better scientist than his sister.” Barres, of course, does not have a sister. Dr. Barres also tells of the dramatic difference in his treatment as a professional before and after his change from female to male gender. One of his talks “Dearth of Women in Science” discusses why he thinks there are still fewer women than men in the sciences. A video of his presentation can be seen here.

Let’s now consider the second explanation, that women become more aware of sexism or are better able to spot it as they mature. I had a conversation recently with a young female scientist who has just completed her Ph.D. In the course of our discussion, I asked how she perceived her experience during graduate school (as a female) and her expectations for the future (I try to ask this whenever the opportunity arises). Her response basically was that she had experienced no bias and did not anticipate any disadvantages due to her gender.

I responded that it was great she had had a positive experience, but that I and others had not been so lucky. I had been discouraged from pursuing a career in science from childhood (being told that women are innately incapable of being successful as scientists). Later experiences involved less blatant but no less discouraging actions. I went on to suggest that failure to recognize the more subtle forms of bias might lead to a false sense of security.

She asked for an example, so I described a common behavior (of males) that involves the male offering to help the female with something. I’m talking here about a situation in which the female is perfectly capable of carrying out the task independently, but the male is interceding either in a chivalrous (and unconscious) gesture or in a very deliberate way. Regardless of the reason, the effect is to undermine the authority and confidence of the female. When challenged, men often protest that they are “just trying to be helpful”. There is nothing wrong with chivalry, but when it’s applied in a setting that should be gender-neutral, it is inappropriate.

When I finished this description, she said that this reminded her of something that happened when she was in graduate school. A technician working for her advisor frequently tried to tell her how she should carry out her project. She ultimately had to tell him to back off. She subconsciously recognized that allowing this to continue was harmful to her efforts to develop as a scientist and took action. However, she had not identified this experience as a type of bias.

The experiences I describe above derive from gender stereotyping (men are strong and women are weak—and therefore need help). Again, there is nothing wrong with helping others. It’s when the helpfulness is applied inappropriately that poses the problem.

I don’t have a good answer for overcoming biased treatment (more about this later), but being aware of some of the subtle ways in which it might occur is a start. So, for the younger crowd, think about this the next time someone approaches you with:

“Cute puppy…..let me help you…”

Photo Credit: modified photo from Tinypic.


CaliforniaH2OSprite said...

Thanks for this post. As an older scientist (>50), I can say I have experienced sexism many times; now, however, ageism is being added to the mix. This is particularly so with the newer generation of males entering the field and being placed in their first supervisory positions. I must watch them make unnecessary mistakes that ultimately affect natural resources. To question them is deemed unsupportive; as though I must play the supportive mother role... Also, I would like to add that a woman is rarely sought-out as a mentor to a young man; but the reverse is common.

DrDoyenne said...

Interesting point about women rarely being sought out to be a mentor to young male scientists. In my almost 30 years as an employed scientist, I’ve only been sought out once by a male to be a mentor (compared to several females). However, I have hired and supervised a number of male staff over the years, and felt that they looked up to me for guidance and approval.

At one time, I thought I could make more of a contribution to advancing women in the sciences by mentoring primarily females, but my experience supervising males has shown me that I can make perhaps as much of a contribution by showing young men that women can be strong leaders from whom they can learn a lot.

For example, I have gotten some feedback from male subordinates that working for a woman (me) has raised their consciousness regarding the obstacles women have to deal with compared to male counterparts. They’ve observed how I’m occasionally treated differently by male superiors and colleagues—and are quite shocked to see it (they are concerned because my treatment ultimately influences their jobs—so they may be more aware of discrepancies in assignments, funding, space, etc.).

I’d be interested to hear from other senior females who have supervised males as to their experience or views about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I was recently referred to this blog by a friend. I realize this is an older post, but I was hoping that someone might have some good advice. I am a woman PhD student and my research is in remote areas. I am a pretty small woman often mistaken for being a bit younger than I am and I have a pretty causal personality. Due to funding, I am only able to hire one field assistant and last year it was an undergraduate male. I wanted to have a relaxed work environment especially as we were camping. Unfortunately, my assistant began making inappropriate comments such as "you're a such a cute little boss" when I would outline his tasks. I found this pretty surprising (and inappropriate) and I wasn't sure what to do. I believe I indicated that I found this to be out of line, but such comments still occurred sometimes. This year, the top candidate for my technician position is again an undergraduate male. I was hoping someone might have advice about how to set the correct tone from the beginning and how to handle any comments over the line. While I prefer to be pretty casual and relaxed, I believe that I should be a little more formal this time?

Swamp Thing said...

I'd like to further confuse matters by entering my (male) observations -

1) What then, of gender-based hyper-scrutiny of women scientists by women colleagues? I have seen this many (at least 4 or 5) times and it is just UGLY. I could call this the "I've got a good gig here, don't screw it up for me" syndrome.

2) Ageism cuts both ways. I have mentored, trained, and supervised too many young wetland scientists (men and women, but notably women) whose opinions and VALID WORK are just absolutely, systemically disregarded by older colleagues, funders, and obviously competitors.

I'm being completely honest when I say that my 15 years of mentoring young biologists has made me MORE suspicious of the older generation, because of the absolutely unacceptable way that I have seen that generation's scientists engage young scientists. I myself have been the recipient of comments like, "Oh good - you're older than you sounded on the phone" (@ 11 years of post-MS experience) and "I hope they're sending out someone older with you to tell you how we do things (@ 12 years of post-MS experience)" and directly "How old are you, exactly?" (at 13 years post-MS experience).

Ageism cuts both ways, particularly with women scientists, who seem to catch the unfair end of it at both young and older ages.

Swamp Thing said...

To anonymous - these lines of comment by your male employees are totally unacceptable (I'm a male biologist).

I've been in very close quarters with a lot of other employees over the years and there is no question that once an "informal" conversation about sex, life, love, etc. crosses into asking personal questions or making comments about one another, it is FAR over the line.

The nature of fieldwork is that these conversations can occur. It's disappointing to hear that there are still young male biologists out there that are dumb enough to sprint over that "boundary" of conversation between "Well, here's what's going on in MY love life," and "I'd like to comment on YOUR (my boss's) love life."

Not good! There has got to be a way you can handle this, maybe just in casual conversation at the beginning of employment!