Saturday, April 24, 2010

Staunch Support

As someone who has recently spearheaded efforts to encourage women in science, I still find resistance both from male and female colleagues regarding such activities--especially against the formation of formal groups (or blogs devoted to female experiences in science). 

From (younger) women, I get the reaction that there is no longer any need for such support....all the problems women in science faced in the past are no longer relevant. Some worry that such efforts send the wrong message that women are less capable and need special help.

Men mostly object in a joking manner.  For example, this blog is associated with a group within a science society that provides mentoring for women in the field and hosts symposia that focus on science skills (for both males and females). The reaction we got initially from some male society members was that perhaps men should form a group called "Men in Marshes"--as a counterpoint to "Women in Wetlands". However, I later heard about some more hostile remarks made by other males--after they had had a few beers.

All of the above reactions confirm that there is still a need for formal and informal efforts to encourage women in science and to educate others. Those who think there is no longer any need seem to be unaware of the facts--of how many women leave science or who stay but end up in low-level positions, of the subtle biases and barriers that still exist, and that there is still active discouragement of women from pursuing science careers.

Some of the negative reactions seem to focus on the assumed exclusivity of such groups.  That reaction is, of course, based on a false assumption. Our group does not exclude anyone, regardless of gender.  In fact, we encourage male membership. Since many female students and post-docs are advised by male scientists, we think it's important for male advisers to be aware of the challenges and barriers that women face.  Some of these issues apply to any underrepresented group in science, not just women.

Any group of people with common interests and concerns should be able to meet as a group to exchange information or promote interactions without fear of criticism. 

I also suspect that some people think that all such groups do is sit around and bash the male science establishment. I have had a few male colleagues make some joking comments along these lines--which tells me that this is perhaps an underlying concern among those who question the rationale for such groups.

The charge that interest groups send the message that women are less capable is more serious. I think this fear is behind the decision of some women who adamantly refuse being characterized as a female scientist, female engineer, female mathematician, etc.  They want to be known as just a scientist, engineer, mathematician.  I think we all want this.  Unfortunately, regardless of how we want to be viewed, there are people who refuse to see us as just scientists. The effects of this bias, both direct and indirect, are difficult to avoid.


JaneB said...

I've been mulling over similar thoughts - I had the chance to join a mentoring programme for women through another learned society. I ended up deciding that since I can't stop being visibly female, however much I want the scientific world to ignore my femaleness when evaluating my competance, I might as well get involved - it's rather a catch-22 situation. I don't want there to be a need for women-only sections etc., but in order to achieve that desirable state, I conclude that such sections are needed... if only for the conversations with well-meaning but not-understanding colleagues both male and female.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked, SHOCKED, I say! Resistance! NO WAY.

I have a bit of experience with organizing meetings aimed at increasing women's participation in science, and I love the DEARGODWHATABOUTTHEMENZZZZZZ from the eyerolling d00dz, the leave-me-alone-to-do-nothing-on-the-committee-but-play-games-on-my-laptop d00dz, and yes, the "senior" women expressing concern about "leaving out the men." DOOM, IMPENDING DOOM. Except that it *really is* DOOM for the societies and the disciplines to be losing expertise because the humans who work in those fields have tits. Heads need to be forceably removed from asses, and egos need to be set aside for the good of the *society*, not for the good of their buddies careers or the good of their favorite students.

When the men pull that joking crap with me, I dish it right back. I give as good as I get now. Last time, I said "go ahead, organize all male meetings! oh now wait. men have been doing that for decades! don't let me stop you this time! i won't attend, but go ahead, have your clubhouse meeting as usual!" Two women cornered me in the bathroom and said the men aren't happy with my remarks (tough titties) and another woman told me that there's umph in my voice, and she likes it:)

I'll be giggling about the new soap, er I mean, swamp opera "Men In Marshes" for evah!
*evil laugh*