Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Women Want

I've been thinking lately about the reaction of men to women's support groups (and blogs devoted to female scientists). I sometimes get the comment from male readers and colleagues (who hear that I write a blog about women in science) that it's not necessary to talk about gender issues due to the  improvements made over the past ten to twenty years.  Yes, there have been improvements in some areas, for which I'm thankful. However, there's a flaw in the idea that because the situation for women in science has improved, we no longer need to be alert for gender bias (or to discuss gender-specific issues).

First, if you are experiencing gender bias in your workplace, it is no consolation whatsoever that things have improved for female scientists overall. If you were suffering from a rare brain tumor, it's unlikely you would be comforted by being told that few people get this tumor...and because of its rarity, no researchers are interested in finding a treatment for it.

You may find yourself in a job with, for example, coworkers who think women cannot be good scientists...who show you daily, in various ways, that your work is less important because you are only a female.  Your once supportive supervisor may retire and be replaced by someone who thinks a woman's place is in the home; he undermines you at every opportunity, but is careful to stay within the law.  Your complaints to superiors may be dismissed or ignored because no one has technically broken the law.  Such treatment gradually eats away at your confidence and feelings of self-worth. If you are in such a situation and are told that you should not be concerned about gender bias because it's no longer prevalent in science, how does that make things better?

It doesn't, of course. In fact, it will make you feel even more isolated and alone in your experience. Eventually, you will begin to question yourself. You are told that most other women are either not having these problems or that they don't dwell on them and just get on with their work.  You may ultimately think that there is something inherently wrong with you because you seem to be the only one experiencing these difficulties.  You may find yourself, the victim, being blamed for the actions of the perpetrators.  No matter what you do: ignore the problem, suffer in silence, or take official action against your tormentors, things continue to get worse.  Your friends and once sympathetic colleagues begin to avoid you....they join the "blame the victim" camp.

Second, just because blatant discrimination against women has been mostly curtailed (at least in Western countries with laws against it), doesn't mean that cryptic or unconscious bias does not exist and does not have an equally devastating effect on women in science.  By cryptic gender bias, I'm talking about those people (both male and female) who believe women to be unsuited for traditionally male fields, such as science, technology, engineering, and math.  Or, they may intellectually accept the right of women to work in those fields, but think that they cannot succeed without "extra help".  They may hold personal or religious beliefs about the traditional roles of men and women and find it difficult to think and act differently in the workplace.  Such people know better than to voice these thoughts in the workplace, but proceed to act upon them in various ways (e.g, "forgetting" to tell you about an important meeting). Those with unconscious bias toward women are perhaps the most damaging because they don't recognize that what they are doing undermines women ("But I was just trying to help her design her project!") and blindly blunder along trying to be "helpful" and "supportive". 

I know such bias exists, because I continue to experience it and to hear from other female scientists who also experience it.

Third, everyone (male and female) must be on the alert for gender bias because it hurts all of us...and scientific progress...when anyone is prevented from achieving their potential because of conscious or unconscious bias.  We should also keep in mind that although women in some countries have equal rights as men under the law, this is not necessarily the case in all parts of the world.  One of my goals in writing this blog is to make others aware of gender issues, not just in the US but in other countries, as well as to explore solutions.

Finally, the fact of gender bias is supported by numerous studies, many that I've mentioned in previous posts and that are readily found in the published literature. So I won't be restating those statistics to justify discussing gender bias in the science fields.  At least a portion of the readers of this blog are having some problems stemming from gender bias (or gender-related issue such as work-life balance).  I know this because I can see what search terms are used to lead readers to this site and which posts are most frequently read.  That knowledge is all the incentive I need to continue writing about gender issues.

In the following posts, I'll review the four most common forms of gender bias.


Swamp Thing said...

This is a very solid post. I am always interested in the dynamics of people in the workplace, and one thing that I think is fascinating is the "rats from a sinking ship" ethos of coworkers when one employee is being targeted (rightly or wrongly).

We are talking about scientists here - educated, supposedly rational and analytical people. But if your particular "problem" becomes too well known, it gets lonely really fast.

In workplaces full of scientists and rational decision making protocols and practices (on paper, anyway), it's amazing to see the effects of fear.

I was very interested (as someone who has supervised and trained many women scientists), though not totally in agreement, with your "puppy dog syndrome" posts. I've worked for about half of my 15 career for women scientists and I see the "power" dynamic as a little stronger than the "gender" dynamic......but of course, they are related (thanks to our upbringing, culture, etc).

I also have read that the selective abuse of women employees by women managers is a rapidly increasing problem, and I would honestly like to know more about how that works and how it gets out of hand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I am tired of the "it's much better for women" trope as a response to the voicing of current crap.

Men are going to get defensive the minute you mention bias against women. Men are going to see The Woman as The Problem, while dismissing the actual problem of bias and mistreatment. Men are going to cover their asses, and then make sure their asses are covered. Men will remind women time and time that their thoughts are not important, their concerns are not valid, and women don't matter and are not needed.

For these reasons, it is 100% without a shadow of a doubt CRITICAL to keep talking about MEN'S ISSUES WITH WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE. The problem is not the women. IBTP.