Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Prove It, Again and Again

In the last post, I promised a review of the four most common forms of gender bias.

In this post, I will cover number 1: Prove It Again.  In this type of bias, women working in traditionally male professions (e.g., STEM fields) must prove their competence repeatedly to maintain their credibility while men are presumed to be competent.  If a man makes a mistake, it's more likely to be viewed as not representative of overall ability, whereas a woman's mistake is never forgotten and trotted out whenever she is compared to her male colleagues. Sound familiar?

This double standard is likely one of the factors causing those statistics showing that women must work several times harder and produce more than male counterparts simply to be acknowledged as competent.  This has certainly been my experience throughout my career.  I've observed male scientists, with few accomplishments, be described as "having great potential"and rewarded based on that belief, while highly competent female scientists with a long list of real accomplishments were overlooked.

Earlier in my career, this bias was certainly in evidence. I often felt as if I was running up a down escalator, working harder and harder to reach the top; if I paused, I would be carried backwards.  I saw male colleagues with less experience and fewer accomplishments being offered more responsibility, higher level positions, and better opportunities to work on (or lead) research projects.  They were on the up-escalator.  Some were actively climbing, while others were just standing; but all could move up, even with no effort. 

The few times I complained, I was told that "Joe" was being promoted because he showed "potential".  In one job, when I asked for a raise or promotion, I was always told that I would be recommended, but only after I had accomplished a specific task--usually something that my supervisor figured I would never be able to do (conduct a difficult study and get a paper published reporting the results within a certain time-frame).  When I came back with that task completed, I was given what I had been promised, but the delay was sometimes as long as a year.  I was too young and naive to realize what was happening. I just assumed that my performance was somehow lacking, and these extra requirements were necessary to prove my capabilities to superiors.  I eventually realized that male counterparts were not required to jump through the same hoops (I asked them).

I doubt that my superiors (male) were consciously biased, because I was encouraged to develop as a scientist.  Whatever I had accomplished in the past, however, was apparently not enough to be viewed as showing "potential" (much less having achieved that potential). They just seemed to need additional evidence of my capability--no matter what I had accomplished in the past.

I realize now that part of this perception was due to the fact that I did not "promote" myself by talking about my accomplishments or making sure that my skills were widely known.  I've discussed the topic of bragging in previous posts and the influence it can have on one's career.  It's particularly difficult for women, who are typically expected to be modest, to self-promote successfully.  I'm not sure it would have worked for me, and possibly could have backfired--at least at that time and at that stage in my career.

For more on gender bias patterns, see the Gender Bias Learning Project.  The next post will talk about the choice women must make between being liked but not respected and being respected but not liked.

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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Large Numbers

I saw this video a while back and was impressed with how well it conveyed how large a trillion dollars is.

Most of us have difficulty performing math involving large numbers in our heads. However, it's an ability that anyone can learn and may be useful to enable the average person how to evaluate policies and make decisions.  People fail to make calculations when it involves large numbers; consequently, they may make decisions based on "gut feeling" rather than facts.  However, there are shortcuts to making calculations involving large numbers:

One method involves the power of 10 and exponents. To multiply (or divide) large numbers and get a ball-park answer, one can add (or subtract) the exponents.  The number of digits in a number equals the exponent.  If the first digit is over 3, add one half.  If you want to divide 22 billion by 45 million, then convert to 10 to the 10 (1 billion = 9 zeros; 22 billion adds another digit) and 10 to the 7.5 (45 million = 1.5 digits plus 6 zeros). Subtracting, we get 10 to the 2.5, which is about 500 (the exact answer is 488.89).

Students might also find such methods useful on exams where the multiple choice answers differ by orders of magnitude.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Summer Reading

I'm always on the lookout for novels with a female scientist as the protagonist.  I just finished reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. This is the first novel I've read written by Patchett, who has published several books, some award-winning.

In State of Wonder, the story is told from the viewpoint of Dr. Marina Singh, a medical science researcher working for a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota. The company is funding another researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson, to develop a new fertility drug; Swenson's research is based in the Amazonian rainforest where the drug is apparently being extracted from a tropical plant source. When Swenson, who is an irascible and independent scientist, fails to respond to inquiries about the project's progress, the company sends Anders Eckman, Marina's long-time colleague and research partner, to the Amazon to find out what's going on with the research project.  The company CEO eventually receives a letter from Swenson stating that Eckman has died of a fever and has been buried in the jungle. At the urging of Eckman's wife, along with orders from the company, Marina agrees to travel to the Amazon to find out what actually happened to her friend and colleague as well as what is going on with the research. The rest of the book tells the story of Marina's odyssey through a remote rainforest of primitive Brazilian tribes, science intrigue, and personal discovery.

The characters are complex and interesting, and the story has many twists and turns that keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next.  Several surprises await the patient reader.  There are several ethical dilemmas that are explored: profit-driven drug development, the use of indigenous people as experimental subjects, and self experimentation by science researchers (a stereotype, but done in a novel and sympathetic way).  Patchett writes about these ethical issues in an intelligent and non-proselytizing manner.  Best of all, the novel has two "strong female" characters, who provide contrasting scientist personalities: the (apparently) emotionless and driven, older female scientist (Swenson) who has succeeded in science through grit, perseverance, and a single-minded focus on her work vs. the younger, sensitive, and caring scientist who fled into research after a disastrous obstetrical mistake she made as a medical intern.

Those of us in scientific research will identify with one of these characters (or aspects of both).  Swenson, who is nearing the end of her career and life (she's seventy-two), is the more interesting character whose true motives and personality are gradually revealed.  She initially appears to be completely lacking in any concern for the people around her and so totally focused on her research goals that she has isolated herself in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest (some reviewers describe the novel as "Heart of Darkness" meets "The Mosquito Coast" with a bit of "Medicine Man" thrown in).  I imagine most readers will dislike the Swenson character and her behavior.  Having had to deal with many bureaucratic types interfering with my research, however, I understood and empathized with Swenson.  I don't agree with all the choices this character made, but could understand them.

The Marina character will likely resonate with many female readers.  She seems to be a very caring person and highly empathetic to other people's feelings.  She's a flawed person, however, who is adrift emotionally and extremely lonely.  Her story is not only one of a search for what happened to her friend and colleague, but an internal journey of self-discovery and redemption.  I could identify with aspects of Marina's personality, but found her to be a character quite unlike me and my personality.  From a science standpoint, she is clearly a "lab person", not comfortable in a field setting--at least not initially.  She survives, however, and quickly becomes acclimated to life in the jungle.  Having seen this happen with people in real life, I found this aspect to be quite believable (but imagine some readers will not).

There is a lot of symbolism in the novel: dreams and their depiction of subconscious fears and needs; the suffocating Brazilian rainforest with poisonous animals, extreme heat and humidity, and a mysterious indigenous people who hold the key to medical discoveries.  These elements are woven skillfully into the story and contribute to the overall character development and story background.  I won't go into details because this may reveal too much.

So if you are looking for a good book to read this summer, State of Wonder, is one I can recommend.  Even if you don't like the story or the ending, you will find a number of aspects to ponder about later.  This is a great book for a reading group, with lots of ethical issues to discuss as well as an interesting story to dissect.

Let me know what you think...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Madame Who?

A colleague described something surprising (to him) the other day.  He had attended a Ph.D. student's general exam recently at which the student was asked to name a female Nobel laureate (in science).  She could not name a single female recipient....not even Marie Curie, who received two Nobel prizes for her work in physics.  Another member of her committee (not my colleague) had asked this question. When the student was unable to come up with a name, the professor mentioned Madame Curie. The student had never heard of her.

My colleague expressed shock that this student, a female, was unaware of who Marie Curie was and seemed to know of no other female laureates.  Apparently, my colleague and other male committee members could name several: Barbara McClintock, Carol Greider, Ada Yonath were some of the names mentioned.  I've asked similar questions at student exams, e.g., to name five famous female scientists and what their contributions were.  Previous posts on this topic are here and here.  In most instances, the student can name at least one or two women, usually Marie Curie. Curie's story is so well-known, it's hard to imagine anyone going through school and not ever hearing about her.

My colleague was perplexed and apparently thought I (being a woman) could shed some light on this student's failure to answer the question.  I was stumped at first, partly because I did not know the student.  I said that it did seem unusual that a female student of science would not know who Marie Curie was.  I asked my colleague why he thought this student had failed to hear about Curie during her schooling or any other female laureate (not to mention making an effort to learn about them on her own).

He did not have a good answer, but speculated that knowing about famous females scientists was not important to this student.  Perhaps. 

Another possible explanation (or contributing factor) in this case is that the student's field is one that is not recognized by the Nobel prize.  Not being in medicine, physics or chemistry, she might not pay much attention to awardees or to their contributions.  That's just a guess. I would bet that a male student (in this same field) would have difficulty naming more than one or two male Nobel laureates.  They would probably guess Watson and Crick or Einstein, but not likely know less famous recipients.  How many of us know the names of recent recipients of the Nobel (outside our fields) and the details of their discoveries?

What I wonder is whether this professor asks this question of all students. Does he ask them to name any Nobel laureate, ask male students to name female laureates, or does he ask only females to name a female laureate?  My colleague did not know since he had never served on a committee with this other professor before.  Is it fair to ask the question of female students and not male students? Is it unfair to ask a female student to name only female Nobel winners, since there have been so few of them?  I think this professor thought he was asking an easy (and fair) question. He probably assumed that she would at least know of Marie Curie.

The motive behind such questions is to gauge how broad the student's knowledge is. Students should be familiar with major discoveries in their field as well as in other fields of science and who made them.  I would expect a student of science to have some knowledge of well-known scientists--at least be able to name a few Nobel laureates (male or female) and why they received the honor.