Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouse

….is a film about the brutal and Kafkaesque experience of a girl in junior high school (in America). It basically portrays how cruel kids can be to each other. Dawn Wiener (aka “Wiener Dog” to her classmates) is the central character who is psychologically tormented by both family members and classmates primarily because she is somewhat nerdy, unattractive, and exudes a “victim vibe” that seems to attract bullying.

I often think about this film whenever I contemplate how things in the workplace/field of science are not much different from the schoolyard.

We’ve all (male and female) experienced instances in which we are not treated with respect. For women in science, however, disrespectful and unequal treatment is fairly insidious and very difficult to articulate, much less prove.

I realize that some women, particularly younger women, entering the field of science think that all these “feminist” problems were solved back in the 60s. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A number of recent reports suggest that female scientists still lag far behind their male counterparts (see previous posts). The fact that many members of the new generation of female scientists seem unaware of this is quite disturbing.

There are many reasons for lack of progress, which include lack of mentors, family-work conflicts, and others. The point is that we have enough obstacles without having to deal with subtle discrimination. The point of articulating recurring problems is not to complain or whine about unfair treatment, but to raise awareness in both the potential victim and the (sometimes well-meaning, but clueless) perpetrator. And possibly this articulation will suggest ways of dealing effectively with these situations so that we can concentrate on more important things.

So, over the past few months, I’ve been collecting examples of ways in which female scientists are marginalized, discouraged, or undermined. Some of these are from my own experience (some as recent as this month), some have been forwarded to me by other female scientists, and others have been gleaned from blogs written by female scientists.

What I find interesting is the similarity among examples reported by other women. In the past, the ways that women (and other minorities) were discriminated against were quite consistent and blatant. It seems that although the means are no longer so blatant, there are still consistent themes.

Here is my list so far (in no particular order):
1. Deja-vu: You make a valid point, but it is ignored. Later (sometimes minutes after), someone else (usually male) poses the same idea and only then is it acknowledged by others. This is a direct putdown of you and your ideas.
2. Do I Exist?: A male member of a group consistently ignores you in meetings, looking only at other males in the group and directing questions or comments to everyone except you. No, it’s not your imagination.
3. Alpha Male: A male scientist tries to get you to turn over your dataset or method (that you’ve spent years or your career developing) to them, with no offer of collaboration. This often happens right after you give a presentation. The implication is that you do not know what to do with such excellent data; whereas he, the alpha male, does.
4. Subordinate (Insecure) Male: A male, typically a lackluster scientist, upon hearing about your research, announces that he’s already doing that study or “has the paper ready to go”. In fact, he doesn’t. He’s just threatened by someone who has actually completed work he wishes he had done.
5. We All Look Alike: You are often confused with other female scientists (despite major differences in appearance). This behavior is a dead give-away that you are not considered to be an individual, but a member of a group of “not-so-important others”.
6. Misplaced Chivalry: Men frequently offer their help in telling you how to do something or even try to intervene physically (even if it is your job or your project). When you politely decline their assistance, they protest that they are only trying to be nice, helpful, etc. Actually, they are undermining your authority (whether consciously or not).
7. Inappropriate Comments: Women are more frequently judged based on their appearance than men. People feel free to comment on your appearance, often in the context of an overall assessment of your abilities.
8. Call Me Dr.: You are frequently referred to as “Miss”, “honey”, “young lady”, or titles other than your correct professional title (Dr.). If you think this is the result of ignorance, ask yourself if your male colleagues with Ph.D.s are often mistakenly called “Mr., Boy, “Little Guy”, or “Sonny”.
9. Boy’s Club: You hear about a lunch or meeting that you were not invited to or an email that was sent to all your male colleagues, partners, or coworkers, but somehow you were left off the list of correspondents. Once is an oversight. Twice or more is a pattern.
10. Territorial Imperative: Other male scientists attack your work like a pack of wild dogs pouncing on an innocent rabbit, making outrageous accusations and hinting at your incompetence. Some write nasty letters to you, telling you how you misinterpreted your data. A few call you to demand that you stop working on THEIR TOPIC. Others write directly to journals trying to get your papers withdrawn. Still others actually go to your field site in an attempt to collect data to refute your previously published research that disproved their pet theory.

We can deal with isolated incidents or slights by ignoring them; but when they occur regularly, it gradually eats away at our confidence. The frustration can even lead us to subvert our principles (so as to be accepted by the crowd) or even behave like our tormenters.

Which brings us back to “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. The film is a spot-on portrayal of human behavior in an unrelentingly hostile environment. Dawn Wiener is so starved for acceptance that when a bully orders her to meet him after school so that he can “rape” her—she actually shows up for it. The bully is also abused, and so on…


Aurora said...

OMG you picked Deja vu as #1 even though it wasn't intentional. That's the biggest one I've experienced. I hate it. #10 "Territorial Imperative" makes me furious. I've given up getting mad over "call me dr" and "inappropriate comments."

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister, Amen. Top 10 hits are are LOSERS!

My life revolves around #4
because next to me, they don't look so productive

and #9
I really don't want to join them for their beerfest.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Yesterday I was verbally attacked at a meeting by my boss, for trying to take control of a meeting I have called (In our last review he asked me to take ownership and be more aggressive, although I do do that, and he literally pulls it out of my hands every now and then). When he was cutting me off and not letting me express where I was going (and at the same time accusing me of doing something wrong)I took stand and asked him if I could, please, finish my thought. I heard "why are you so f**king defensive?" screamed at me, in front of my older male colleague loudly enough that the whole office heard. I am rereading the posts, thank you for writing them. I feel so lost especially that I used to think of him as a good guy, ok mentor etc. Thanks again, these article provide me with the necessary tools.