Sunday, June 19, 2011
What Women Want
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.