Sunday, April 12, 2009
The PuppyScientist Syndrome
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.