Saturday, July 23, 2011

No Show

I was attending a conference a couple of weeks ago and observed the usual behaviors that occur at such gatherings.  One occurrence, which I thought I would relate, involved a speaker who failed to show up for his own talk.  He was at the meeting, but apparently lost track of time during the break. 

This is not an earth-shaking event, but there are a couple of aspects I'd like to muse about.  First, from a purely practical standpoint, how would you handle this if you were the session moderator?  When I am moderator, I try to determine if all speakers are present in the room before the start of the session.  There is nothing worse than having a gap in the program, which happens frequently enough that you should be prepared with a backup plan.  Nowadays, it's relatively easy to determine if all your speakers have shown up for the meeting and are prepared to give their talks.  Most conferences require speakers to upload their presentations beforehand, and these are loaded to the session computer or room.  The moderator can check the lineup on the computer and see that everyone has arrived and loaded their presentations.  However, that does not guarantee that they will all show up for their I observed at this conference. 

In this case, several people in the audience knew the missing speaker and knew that he was present at the venue that day (i.e., had not gone sightseeing or had slept in).  Someone volunteered to go look for him and fortunately found him within a few minutes (this was a small conference--about 500 people).  When the missing speaker arrived, the session was able to proceed with only a few minutes delay.  At a very large conference, this action would likely not have worked.  In that case, there are a few other options.

The worst option is for the moderator to announce that a talk has been cancelled and then leave the audience to their own devices or, more likely, to get up and leave (actually, the worst is for the moderator to move up the remaining talks, which should never be done).  A better option is to try to fill the time with something.  If the missing talk is not the first one, then the moderator could invite additional questions of the previous speakers.  This option is better than doing nothing and leaving a gap in the program, but some in the audience may still leave to go to other talks in competing sessions. 

If the missing talk is the last one of the session, then the moderator can invite all the previous speakers up for a panel discussion.  The latter works well if the session was an interesting/controversial one, and the audience is likely to stick around to hear what else is discussed.  Some moderators simply end the session early instead of trying to fill the time with something useful.  I can understand this, especially if it is the last session of the day or the meeting when people are tired and ready for a beer.  However, I would make an attempt to start a discussion to fill the remaining minutes of the session or give a quick summary or concluding thoughts.  As moderator, you might want to plan ahead and have some questions/ideas ready to throw out to get a discussion going.

The option that I have been prepared for lately is to have a backup talk of my own ready to replace a no-show.  At this recent conference, I organized a symposium with six speakers, but did not give a presentation of my own (due to various reasons).  However, I had a presentation ready in case of a no-show.  In this instance, I did not need to use it.  What I prepared was a synthesis of previous work--something that I could use as the basis of a future seminar or that I could give at the next meeting.  So, I did not feel as if this was a waste of time.  This option is feasible mainly in this type of situation--where the moderator is not scheduled to give a talk in the session.  Giving two talks in the same session would be too much.

If I were already scheduled to give a talk in my own symposium, an alternate option would be to find someone else to fill in the gap.  That requires some lead-time, of course, and someone willing and prepared to give a last-minute talk.  I've been approached at some meetings by a desperate moderator who was trying to find a replacement speaker. 

The question is whether to agree to give a last-minute talk.  Is this wise?  Would you look like an "afterthought"?  Are there situations where it might be advantageous to give an impromptu talk?

I would probably do it to help avoid a gap in the program, and if I had a talk that this particular audience had not heard before.  As a senior scientist with a good reputation, I wouldn't worry so much about people thinking I was added as an afterthought.  In some cases, there might be enough time for the change in schedule to be announced, so that people interested in your topic could choose to attend.  If you are a junior scientist and an invitation was extended to you to give a replacement talk in a symposium with mostly senior speakers (who will be attracting a large audience), it might be a good opportunity to get broader exposure.  Of course, you should be prepared with a good talk and deliver it well.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mommy Wars

The fourth and final type of gender bias is known as "Gender Wars" in which women find themselves in conflict with other women....either directly or indirectly...regarding how to behave as a scientist or in life/work balance choices. 

Possibly the most common conflict is related to philosophical differences.  Those women who have chosen to "fit in" with their male colleagues have adopted masculine ways of thinking and working (ambitious, long hours, etc.) and may have foregone a family to ensure career success.  Many women of my generation have invested a tremendous amount of time and effort and made sacrifices to gain recognition for ourselves and for female scientists as a group.  We've succeeded during a period when we were actively discouraged from seeking careers in science, engineering, and math...mainly by sticking to a rigorous and professional work ethic.  We had to work many times harder (and smarter) than male counterparts to gain grudging acceptance by our peers and to be considered by superiors for positions mostly held by men.

Things are different now.  It's not unusual for a woman to hold a professorial or other high-level science position, and in many countries there are laws preventing outright discrimination.  Gender bias is still there, but is not as blatant as it once was.  However, women who had to work hard to gain a foothold in science are often critical of other women who are choosing more "feminine" approaches to science, i.e., not adopting the traditional male work ethic, putting family before career, or just working fewer hours.  Younger women who choose a different path (from that of my generation) are often shocked and upset when an older female mentor is critical of their choices.  Those choices may involve having children or not (or when to have children), spending more leisure time with family or in non-science pursuits, or selecting alternative career paths in science (as opposed to the academic or research path).

This can be a touchy subject, but one that needs to be explored so that we (women in science) do not end up hurting the progress we've made over the past decades.  I've often had conversations with female colleagues (as well as male) about the apparent change in work ethic and sense of entitlement adopted by those now entering science fields (I'm talking about general trends; specifics vary from place to place and with the individual, of course)  We worry about how this change will affect the success rate of women in science, if for example, long hours and high productivity are expected to gain tenure or permanent status in some workplaces, and a woman decides she doesn't have to meet this expectation.  In the past, men had better options than women in terms of balancing work and family; they still have an advantage over women, on whom childcare and housework more often fall.  The bias we've been discussing in this series may also come into play if a woman takes time off to have a baby, stops the tenure clock, or decides to work part-time for a period.  She may be judged to be less serious about a science career than male colleagues.

This concern usually comes to a head when a young female scientist decides to start a family and seeks advice or encouragement from an older, established female. In many universities and science organizations, a high percentage of female scientists are childless (and also unmarried). This is the case where I work.  Some of these women are highly critical of younger female scientists who decide to have a family at an early stage in their career.  The reasons for this reaction are varied and not always rational ("I gave up having a family to have a career, so why shouldn't they?").  Others are concerned that women who ask for special treatment (e.g., stopping the tenure clock) will promote the stereotype that women can't succeed in science unless they are "helped".

These so-called "mommy wars" are harmful and unnecessary.  The decision to have children is highly personal, and what worked for you may not work for someone else.  My response to a request for advice from a young scientist would be to mainly ask questions to help them clarify what they really want and what is possible, given their circumstances.  My only advice for a woman who wishes to maintain a career in science and to have children is to choose your spouse very carefully.  Even if you don't have children, having a supportive spouse can make all the difference when you encounter obstacles during your career.  That is certainly what sustained me (in addition to my drive, persistence, and self-confidence, of course!).

The Gender Bias Learning Project describes all four patterns of bias that I've covered in this series, and there are videos that illustrate each type of bias.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Verbal Attack, Take Two

In the last post, I described how one would go about defusing a verbal attack involving gender bias. I showed how to avoid the “bait” in a verbal attack and to instead address the underlying presupposition, which is the less obvious attack. In the next example, we will look at an interaction in which the target of the attack handled himself pretty well, but perhaps could use some help.

In that scenario, Mike is a new father and has applied for family leave to help his wife care for their newborn. He walks into the coffee break room and sees several of the other faculty members sitting around the conference table.

Robert, a somewhat conservative fellow, says, “Hey, Mike. I hear you’re getting some kind of special “mommy leave” and won’t be able to teach your usual courses this semester. Guess you figure the rest of us will carry your load!”

Mike replies, “I’ll be here part time and teaching only one course. My wife applied for maternity leave, but we chose to share it so that she could return part time to work…she has a new research grant. On the days she works, I stay home with the baby and vice versa. The department arranged for a post-doc, who needs teaching experience, to take my undergraduate course for the semester. I’ll still teach my graduate seminar. Overall, our choice benefits everyone.”

“Well, that’s a pretty sweet deal, “ Robert says, looking knowingly at the onlookers at his table.

“Actually, any employee can apply for family leave…to take care of a newborn, a seriously ill spouse, or an elderly parent. Any of you might need to use it one day.” Mike decides to have his coffee in his office and walks out.

Let’s analyze how Mike responded, given our insights into verbal attacks.

The “bait” is clearly the charge that Mike is taking “mommy leave”, a derogatory characterization of maternity leave, normally the prerogative of women. Robert has not only denigrated maternity leave, but has also impugned Mike’s masculinity. Many men would fall for the “bait” and attempt to defend themselves, only encouraging more ribbing from coworkers. Mike avoids that bait and instead addresses the second charge--that the other faculty will have to do his job for him while he stays at home with his newborn. That’s a pretty good answer, because it completely ignores the challenge to his manhood and addresses what is a concern of his coworkers—increased teaching load due to Mike’s absence.

However, Robert then voices the real presupposition: that Mike is getting a “pretty sweet deal”…implying that Mike is benefitting due to his special family situation, an option not open to the onlookers (whom we’ll assume don’t have children). Again, Mike ignores the “bait” that he’s getting special treatment and addresses the incorrect presupposition that family leave only benefits those employees with children. He gives some specific examples that childless employees might encounter.

Notice also that Mike keeps his comments civil, non-emotional, and focused on providing information that his coworkers might find useful. When Mike fails to respond emotionally to the teasing, Robert and the others will likely lose interest.

The part that could be improved upon is at the end, when Mike retreats to his office with his coffee instead of spending his break in the coffee room (as he had obviously planned to do). This action might signal that Mike is actually uncomfortable, despite his effective riposte, and lead to more teasing at a later date. Instead of retreating immediately, he could readily change the subject and say, “Hey, what did you guys think of the game last night?” He should stick around for fifteen minutes or so, until it’s clear he’s not being chased off.

Then, if he doesn’t want to talk to this oafish group any longer, he can say, “Well, I’ve got to get back to work on that revision of the paper I just had accepted by Nature. See you guys later.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to Respond to a Verbal Attack Involving Gender Bias

In the last post, I provided two hypothetical scenarios illustrating a type of gender bias known as The Maternal Wall.  In both cases, the perpetrator (of bias) used a "verbal attack" to express criticism of the target or victim of bias.  I've previously discussed how to recognize and defend yourself against "verbal attacks".  So I thought it would be worthwhile to take each of these examples and show how one might handle such situations.

In the first hypothetical example, Joan has a problem with her department chair who assumes that when she is not in her office, it is because she is taking care of family business.  In the interaction I described, her boss asked if her kids were sick, because he had not seen her all week. In reality, Joan was attending a conference, which the chair knew about beforehand.  Apparently, the chair is in the habit of making such statements to Joan.  Such interactions are known as verbal attacks (you know you are the victim of one when your gut tightens and you feel defensive).  In this example, however, the verbal attack involves gender bias (against an employee who is a mother).

There is a very effective method for dealing with verbal attacks, which I will apply to this example.  Verbal attacks contain two parts: the "bait", which is the obvious attack, and the presupposition, which is the less obvious attack.  In Joan's case, the bait is the charge that she was out of the office because her kids were sick.  The presupposition, however, is that Joan is not doing her job.

The best response to a verbal attack is to ignore the "bait" and respond only to the presupposition.  Here is a revised version of Joan's conversation with her chair:

Ben asks,  “Joan, are your kids sick?  I haven’t seen you the past few days.”  

Joan calmly replies, “Ben, when did you start thinking that I was not doing my job?

Startled, Ben says, “What? I didn't say you weren't doing your job!"

Joan says, "Well, I'm often out of my office for various work-related activities, such as teaching my classes, attending conferences, and doing my are all the other professors in the department.  Yet, I seem to be the only one you assume is out of the office for personal reasons.  Why is that?"

Ben, now completely flummoxed, replies, "Uh, Ahh.  That's not what I think....uhhh....I'm sure you are doing your job...." [clears throat and begins looking around for the nearest exit]

There might be other ways for Joan to respond, but the point is not to fall for the bait and instead directly address the underlying attack.  The attacker is usually so accustomed to getting a defensive answer that s/he will be discombobulated, at least momentarily.  Let's assume, however, that Ben quickly recovers and continues his plan of attack:  

Recovering his composure, Ben says, "Actually, what I wanted to ask you about was whether you could pick up our seminar speaker at the airport at 5 pm this evening?” 

Joan has plans to attend her son's softball game after school.  She replies, with a hint of censure, "I have a previous commitment at that time.  If you had given me more notice, I might have been able to work it into my schedule.  Isn't this a bit late to be organizing the speaker's schedule?" 

Ben frowns and replies, “Uhh, well, actually....I do have a schedule, but Joe, who was supposed to pick up the speaker, has a family emergency and can't do it.  I guess I'll have to instead."

So in this example, Joan has completely turned the tables on Ben and put him on the defensive.  She has also managed to extract the real story from Ben regarding why he's asking her at the last minute to pick up the seminar speaker.  Interestingly, Joe has had to cancel because of family obligations, information that drives home the point that it's not only Joan who has a family.

Contrast this with the original reaction of Joan in which she went for the bait and set herself up for the additional "test" of her devotion to her job.  You can see how the latter reaction would confirm Ben's biased thinking about Joan and encourage continued verbal attacks (i.e., Joan's defensive reaction to such attacks actually invites further attacks).  By not going for the bait and directly addressing the presupposition, however, Joan has short-circuited Ben's specific attack, which will likely make him think twice about trying it in the future.  A commenter yesterday recognized the mistake that Joan made in explaining that she couldn't pick up the seminar speaker because she had promised to go to her son's game.  That response just reinforced the chair's bias toward her.

In the second scenario, Mike, a new father, is being teased by coworkers about taking family leave to care for a newborn.  His responses to the gender bias and verbal attack were better than Joan's, but perhaps we can improve upon it.  See if you can identify the "bait" and then come up with an alternative response that directly addresses the underlying presupposition.  I'll follow up in the next post. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hitting the Wall

Consider the following scenarios:
1.  Joan is on her way to teach her class and runs into her department chair, Ben, who says, “Joan, are your kids sick?  I haven’t seen you the past few days.” 
Startled, Joan replies, “No!  I was attending a conference and presenting a paper on my research….remember?
Ben says, “Oh, yes.  I just forgot.  Actually, what I wanted to ask you about was whether you could pick up our seminar speaker at the airport at 5 pm this evening?”
Joan hesitantly says, “Oh, I can’t.  I had promised to be at my son’s game after school.  Perhaps if you had given me more notice…..”
Ben frowns and replies, “Well, I guess I’ll have to do it then.  I can see that your family takes precedence.”
Later, Joan confides to one of her coworkers, “He always does that to me…he assumes that I’m not working if I’m not in the office.  When I provide a reasonable explanation for my absence, he then “tests” me by asking me to do something that he knows will interfere with my personal responsibilities.”

2.     Mike is a new father and has applied for family leave to help his wife care for their newborn.  He walks into the coffee break room and sees several of the other faculty members sitting around the conference table.
Robert, a somewhat conservative fellow, says, “Hey, Mike.  I hear you’re getting some kind of special “mommy leave” and won’t be able to teach your usual courses this semester.  Guess you figure the rest of us will carry your load!”
Mike replies, “I’ll be here part time and teaching only one course.  My wife applied for maternity leave, but we chose to share it so that she could return part time to work…she has a new research grant.  On the days she works, I stay home with the baby and vice versa.  The department arranged for a post-doc, who needs teaching experience, to take my undergraduate course for the semester.  I’ll still teach my graduate seminar.  Overall, our choice benefits everyone.”
“Well, that’s a pretty sweet deal, “ Robert says, looking knowingly at the onlookers at his table.
“Actually, any employee can apply for family leave…to take care of a newborn, a seriously ill spouse, or an elderly parent.  Any of you might need to use it one day.”  Mike decides to have his coffee in his office and walks out.

This post is the third in the series about gender bias.  One of the most common biases is called “The Maternal Wall”, in which mothers (and men who are non-traditional parents) are judged to be less productive or professional than their childless colleagues. 
The scenarios described above are two common situations in which bias of this type can occur.  One example involves a woman who is being targeted by her department chair because he thinks her family responsibilities are interfering with her job performance.  His comments reveal his prejudice against mothers (or parents, in general).  In the second example, the maternal bias is directed at the spouse, who is taking a portion of the maternity leave to care for a newborn.  Note that nothing that was said or done in either example qualifies as sexual harassment or sex discrimination. 
These hypothetical examples are meant to show how subtle bias can be…either disguised as a concerned question (Are your kids sick?) or teasing (“mommy leave”).  Such bias is very difficult to spot immediately.  It may take further reflection on what was said or several similar instances before the victim realizes what’s happening. 

For more on the Maternal Wall and other gender bias patterns, see the Gender Bias Learning Project.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not A Team Player

We've been talking about gender bias and the "Double Bind", which is a bias in which a woman who displays more "masculine" professional behavior (assertive, strong, confident) may be viewed less favorably by colleagues or even be disliked.  In contrast, a woman who adheres to more traditional feminine behavior in her interactions is liked, but not respected professionally.  I mentioned that today's gender bias is often of a subtle nature, not always easily spotted; I described some scenarios to watch out for and specifically mentioned that whenever anyone was characterized in black and white derogatory terms such as "bossy" or "not a team player", that bias is likely at work.

In the New York Times Magazine, an article describes an exit interview with Sheila C. Bair, chair of the F.D.I.C. (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.), an agency in the US with the mission of protecting citizens' money in banks.  She transformed the F.D.I.C. during her tenure (June 2006 - July 2011) and was an outspoken critic of bank bailouts. Other U.S. bank regulators failed to curtail the various practices that ultimately ended in major failures and the recent economic crisis. The exception was the F.D.I.C. under Bair's leadership. She pushed industry executives to change lending standards "to avoid abusive mortgages so that homeowners would not lose their homes when the housing bubble burst."

Not surprisingly, Bair was characterized as being "difficult" and "not a team player".

Another aspect of her "difficult" behavior was in reaction to something called the "Basel Committee on Banking Supervision".  Basel II, which permitted banks to evaluate their assets with their own risk assessment models, was widely adopted in Europe.  In the US, the Federal Reserve also strongly favored adoption of Basel II. The F.D.I.C. was opposed to it, due to the greater risk of bank failures under Basel II.  Bair was pressured into signing on, but managed to delay long enough that the financial crisis struck before Basel II was ever implemented in the US.  Bair's bureaucratic "foot-dragging" is described by some as a factor in the US avoiding the very worst of the financial crisis.  Apparently, European banks are in much worse shape, a mess that caused widespread bank failures in a number of countries and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.  Bair's "difficult" reputation arose from her refusal to participate in the rescue programs that other US agencies were pushing during the financial emergency.  In other words, she didn't support her team, even though what was being pushed would have made the crisis worse (iwhich turned out to be correct).

The interesting question for us, of course, is how would a man (who behaved as Bair did) have been characterized?  Would he have been called "difficult" or instead "persistent" and "strong-willed"? Would his lone voice have led to his being charged with "not being a team player"?  Or would he have been seen as forceful and confident in his opinion, that is, "sticking to his guns"? Even after it was apparent that some of the proposed measures would have made the financial crisis worse in the US, Bair's influence was still not recognized, much less praised.  Would a man in this position instead be acclaimed as a fiscal "hero" for trying to protect American borrowers and homeowners (the basic job of the F.D.I.C.)?

Bair explained that she "didn't start off being assertive and going public with concerns, but we were being ignored, and we had something to bring to the table." This statement suggests that she initially tried to be heard, but was not taken seriously.  She then changed tactics and became more assertive and persistent, which led to her eventual depiction as being "difficult".  Sometimes, being persistent is the only way a woman can be heard.  Our opinions or requests may be repeatedly ignored, which is frustrating.  It's especially frustrating when we see male colleagues not only being listened to, but assumed to have a useful opinion even before they speak.  We must resort to restating our ideas or needs multiple times and more forcefully in the hopes that eventually someone will acknowledge us.

No wonder that a woman who is forced to use these tactics (more often than men) develops a reputation for being "difficult".

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Women Should Be Paid Less Because of Monthly Periods

Just when you think all the dinosaurs have gone extinct (or at least have learned to keep their thoughts to themselves), one of them forgets that it's the 21st century and makes a blatantly sexist statement.

Alasdair Thompson, the CEO of New Zealand's Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), said in a debate on gender and equality that women should be paid less because of their "monthly sick time".  He stated that women take more sick leave than men, a difference he attributed to women's monthly periods (and having babies). He was attempting to explain why women are paid, on average, 12% less than men.  Thompson walked out on two interviews when asked about his "monthly sickness" statement and where were his statistics about women's sick leave.  Thompson later said in an interview that he was sorry if what he said upset anyone, but that it was true.

Government officials did not agree with him.  Some reactions:

"To have someone with those sort of neanderthal views head of a major employers' association undermines the credibility of the whole organisation."

"At least some of the true attitudes that employers hold are coming out, but they are pretty shocking and utterly sexist." 

"His ideas are 19th century."

"These are the people that are providing hundreds of hours advising business in New Zealand... He's spreading it. He's creating the space for these ideas to take root."

"He's saying we're not entitled to equal pay because women are women - because we have the capacity to give birth and have children. He's in a leadership role and it's pretty much rubbish. It shows worrying prejudice. It's actually illegal to discriminate against women."

"Alasdair Thompson needs to get with the programme."

A firestorm ensued, ending with Thompson getting the sack.  Other repercussions include Air New Zealand cancelling its membership in the EMA.

It's ironic that I've been recently posting about gender bias in the workplace.  This incident highlights the point I made about a bias that someone keeps hidden or that may not be recognized by the perpetrator as a bias until they are called on it.  At some point Thompson said (and I'm paraphrasing) that he realized that what he said was sexist, but he wasn't a sexist.  Hmmm. 

I personally know some men who sound exactly like Thompson.  If you asked them if they support equal pay for women or if they believe women are as capable as men in science, they would vociferously respond in the affirmative.  However, they periodically let slip a comment that reveals gender bias, but they clearly don't recognize it as such (or don't realize that their words reveal their bias).  They defend themselves by insisting that they're just stating the facts...that it has nothing to do with bias.  This is what Thompson tried to do.  This is a guy who says he is all for gender equality and equal pay for women, but who either doesn't "get it" or is flat lying.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Deja Vu

Not so long ago, I wrote a post about extraterrestrial life and used the movie, Contact, to illustrate a couple of points.  I included a still image from a scene in which Ellie meets up with an alien being who has taken on the form of her long-deceased dad, played by the actor, David Morse.

I'm at a conference at the moment in the Czech Republic and earlier today was standing in the Prague airport looking for the limo service driver who was supposed to transport me to my hotel (never showed).  My attention was drawn to a group of people right next to me who were hovering around someone who looked vaguely familiar.  In my jet-lagged haze, I stood there staring and thinking that I knew this person (I was on the look-out for a colleague with whom I could share a taxi, since my arrangements had fallen through and taxis are expensive here).  Suddenly, it occurred to me that this guy was David Morse!  He was politely answering the group's questions (they were trying to decide on an agenda or something--yes, I was eavesdropping).  He said something like, "Okay, let's go." And they hustled out the door. I was hoping for a hint at what he was doing here, but no such luck.

This almost always happens to me whenever I see a celebrity.  I first think it is someone I know, but can't think of who they are exactly.  Then, I realize that I don't know them personally.  I've come close on a couple of occasions of saying, "Don't I know you?" to a famous person (before I recognize them). In this case, I was on the alert for a familiar face--any scientist would do--to resolve my transportation problem. If I had not recently done that post and used his photo, I might have gone over and asked Morse if I could share a taxi with him and his students to the congress hotel!  Wonder what he would have said?

Airports are great places to catch a glimpse of celebrities.  Once, my husband and I had a long layover somewhere and were "discussing" whether it was better to wander through the shops or just sit and "people-watch" (my preference).  My husband thought that sitting was boring and a waste of time.  Ultimately, he went window-shopping, and I sat on the concourse watching the stream of people flow past. Not ten minutes after he walked away and into a shop, Elizabeth Taylor and her entourage swept past (this was a number of years ago).  Did I mention that my husband is a big movie buff?  When he returned about thirty minutes later, he snidely asked, "Well, did you see anyone famous?" I couldn't have planned a better set-up. 

Anyway, this post has nothing to do with anything other than something funny I experienced yesterday.

Photo Credit: The Green Mile, Castle Rock Entertainment & Warner Bros. Pictures

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Double Bind

If you are a woman, which do you prefer? Being liked, but not respected or being respected, but not liked.

What's that, you say? You don't like either option? You prefer to be both respected and well-liked? Like your male colleagues?

Unfortunately, women in science and other traditionally male fields may find themselves in a double-bind situation in which they experience a more complex political dynamic than men. This dynamic is sometimes referred to as "ambivalent sexism". The experience is one in which a woman who adheres to more traditional feminine behavior in her interactions is liked, but often not viewed as professionally competent as her male counterparts. Women who depart from the feminine profile may be respected (or their work is respected), but viewed as "too aggressive", "odd", or having other personality "issues". The latter woman is sometimes the butt of department jokes and may be left out of unofficial office social gatherings.

Sure, some women succeed at being both respected and liked. But others do not..for various reasons, some internal, but mostly external. If you are lucky enough to work in a truly egalitarian lab, then count your blessings. If not, then read on.

Gender bias is no longer as blatant as it once was.  Nowadays, it can be quite difficult to spot (which may explain why some people, particularly men, insist it no longer exists or is rare).  There may be little or no overt gender bias, and the workplace culture may be superficially egalitarian and seemingly benign.  Most workplaces, however, are inhabited by at least a few people with traditional views of men and women and "acceptable" behavior by the sexes.  Even though the institution strongly prohibits gender-based bias, individual beliefs and behaviors determine how women are actually treated in the workplace.  Also, the workplace culture may be strongly pro-masculine in its reward system, i.e., reflects a historically male-oriented means of doing business.  The resultant gender bias is virtually invisible to males.  A woman may also not recognize it initially, especially if her workplace makes a show of supporting women and diversity in general.  However, the professional woman may find the work atmosphere strangely stressful, uncomfortable, confining, or somehow not in synch with her own self-view.  She can't quite put her finger on what it is that bothers least not until something obvious happens to reveal the double bind.

The double bind often becomes apparent when the issues of leadership, work-life balance, or self- promotion (bragging) come into focus and are more carefully scrutinized with respect to how men and women in the same positions are judged.

The Leadership Double Bind:  Good leaders are expected to be strong, confident, and assertive.  However, when women act with confidence and take charge, they may be judged to be too aggressive, self-promoting, ambitious, or uncaring.  If instead, the woman behaves less assertively (quietly influential, for example), she is judged to be a poor leader. 

The Work-Life Balance Double Bind:  A lot of workplaces purport to be "family-friendly" with flexible hours, paid leave for family issues, etc.).  However, the person who fails to follow the traditional male model of putting work before family (in a workplace that expects it) is judged to be a poor performer.  Those men and women who put in long hours are rewarded, and those who don't are viewed as less devoted to their work. Although some men may be nurturing and take time for their families, it's more often the woman on whose shoulders these family chores fall.  Males with traditional wives will have an edge over their female counterparts in such a workplace . The female professional without a "stay-at-home spouse" may have to take advantage of the "family-friendly" options to balance work and personal life and consequently be viewed as less productive.  This bias will express itself in various subtle ways. I recall recently a male professor wondering if a female professor should head up a large research project due to the demands of her "large family" (she has three children).

The Self-Promotion Double Bind:  Women are more often chastised for being a "shameless self-promoter" whereas a man is expected to talk about his accomplishments.  I was once chided by a male supervisor for announcing an award I received (even though such announcements were routine in my workplace). The reason given was that I would make my colleagues "jealous". 'Nuff said.

The Team-Player Double Bind: Another common experience of female professionals is being referred to as a "lone wolf" or "not a team player" if she develops a project on her own, whereas a guy will be praised for his initiative and "striking out on his own". I've gotten this very criticism despite a long history of working as part of large research teams. It took only a single case of getting a small grant to do a project on my own to be branded with the term "lone wolf". It seemed that while I was working as part of a team, I could be safely viewed as a follower, or at least not a leader, a more masculine role. When I deviated from that role and showed I could succeed without anyone's (i.e., male) help, it caused consternation in some observers, who quickly tried to shame me back into the more feminine role of follower/supporter.  Female colleagues report that predatory male scientists try to horn in on (or take over) particularly successful research projects they (the female) initiated; when rebuffed, the male reacts by charging her with "not being a team player".

By the way, when you hear yourself (or someone else) being characterized in black-and-white, derogatory terms (lone wolf, bossy, not a team player), be assured that bias is at work.

In misogynist workplaces, women may get along by playing one of three feminine roles (there may be more, but these come to mind):

1. The Mother/Wife who volunteers to do clerical, service, or low-level lab tasks that are not her duty but that frees up the men to do the more "important stuff".  She often cleans up after male colleagues (who may see nothing wrong with this behavior since their mothers/wives do this for them as well).

2. The Faithful Companion/Mistress who aligns herself with a powerful male and never challenges his superiority or upstages him.  There are several variations on this theme. 

3. The Cheerleader who praises male coworkers/colleagues and remains modest and quiet about her own skills. In some cases, female support staff may fulfill this role by complimenting the alpha males and admonishing the female professional for not being similarly starry-eyed about the workplace's Golden Boy(s).

Let me hasten to add that I'm not advocating the above roles as a solution (ha).  I'll try to write a later post with some better approaches to dealing with the double bind and other gender biases.

You might say that someone in a double-bind situation should just ignore it and focus on her job and career.  However, being disliked or disrespected is just another stress on top of other stresses and biases. These little stresses add up, and eventually some women decide that it's just not worth the hassle. The scientific community loses out when talented women drop out.

For more on the Double Bind and other gender bias patterns, see the Gender Bias Learning Project.