Continuing fallout

Still trying to process ongoing sexual harassment allegations of the last few weeks. At the time I wrote my last post, I don’t believe that this post from Kathleen Raven had been posted. Kathleen describes two stories of harassment and abuse- first at the hands of a high school teacher/coach, and then a lengthier story of her interactions with Bora Zivkovic.

Much has been written in the science blogosphere about that second bit ( it has even hit Nature)- but for some reason it was actually reading the first part of her post that made me feel as though I really wanted to cry. I did, in fact, sit in my office and cry. I cried for the vulnerability of all teenage (and younger) girls, who, with fragile confidence and little real world perspective look for external validation of their talents, gifts and abilities from people who seem to know more. There is always some person (a man usually) there in a position of power- a teacher, a coach, a family friend, willing to use that vulnerability to suit their own needs.

And in your innocence and inexperience- you don’t know enough to think they are creepy- because they tell you they are your friend, they are looking out for you, and you are special. You crave that validation of your fragile teenage self confidence, and you trust in the essential goodness of people. It is crushing to realize that they just needed you to satisfy their desires- and that the attention they paid to you had nothing to do with who you are- other than the fact that you possess a vagina along with 50% of the general population. It is humiliating to feel like you should have known better. There is overwhelming sadness too- to feel like you lost someone you loved- even though you don’t  understand yet what real love between equals looks like…. and this definitely wasn’t it. You stay silent, not because you are OK, but because there was real damage.

I was once this girl, and I now have two daughters at this vulnerable age. What happens to my daughters at the hands of boys at school, of teachers and coaches at school, of boys they meet in college, keeps me up at night. On one hand you don’t want your children to know the ugliness of the world because you want to protect them. On the other hand, you cannot protect them and that it is essential that they know the ugliness of the world so they can protect themselves. You work against the backdrop of a less-than-enlightened culture reflected in the school system- where girls are blatantly taught that they should ‘dress modestly to avoid being distracting’ to the boys. Where there is no official lesson teaching the boys that it is their own responsibility to control themselves- that girls are not objects to be leered at or used, and that these boys need to keep their eyes on their paper. When are we going to teach boys that they are fully responsible for their own actions?

These boys eventually become men. Men who mysteriously got the message that women are objects to be used to satisfy their desires, whatever those may be. Men that learned in their youth that they either can’t or don’t need to control themselves because someone else is responsible for that…… and the cycle repeats itself for life.

I’m not one of the guys.

It will come as a surprise to no one that my work universe is very male dominated.  I frequently find myself in meetings or business type dinners where I’m the only girl. I generally do fine with that, being the token, and usually the youngest, one and all that. There are so many ways that I have to go along and get along by just being ‘one of the guys’.

But wow- will someone just answer me one question… WHY, I say, WHY do the men at the table feel it is appropriate to chat about the effects of Viagra, tell the odd off color joke, and use slang that refers to female anatomy or sexual encounters in these situations? WHY. They just carry on as though I’m not even sitting there- apparently never giving a thought to the appropriateness or lack thereof of such conversation. And right when I convinced myself that we are in 2013 and shit like this doesn’t happen anymore. Do they wonder what I’m thinking… do they even realize when they have veered too far off into the belief that I’m one of the guys? Y.I.K.E.S.

So guys- here is a news flash- we may be sitting at the same table now, but I’m not one of you.  I don’t want to hear about Viagra, and all those other details that you talk about with your guy friends and colleagues. Keep it classy, ok?

So you’ve got tenure…that changes things.

Anyone who has taken a casual glance at my posts, can see that I have written quite a lot about the academic job search, and all kinds of fun things that happen leading up to tenure time. I wrote about these events in real time for the most part- and since I’ve gotten tenure I find myself on the steep part of the learning curve again. I suppose that I thought that once I got tenure, I would keep on keeping on.. doing the basic things that I was doing pre-tenure, and that my job would reach a plateau of  hum drum normal stuff that I knew I was already pretty good at. NOT.

That just didn’t happen, and that even post-tenure, my life, my job and my career continue to be filled with all kinds of interesting surprises, twists and turns, new tasks that keep me out of my comfort zone. First off, seems like the instant that letter signed by the board of regents arrived in my mailbox, there was a line-up outside my office door of various people in various positions of power, requesting that I participate in this or that new service commitment. My service on committees grew exponentially, like overnight.  This is OK with me, but I have to confess that all I really want to do is interact with my lab, look at data,  write papers, and think about where I am taking the direction of our science in the future. I know the committee stuff is necessary- and sometimes it is interesting, but most of the time I wish I could be looking at data. I don’t think that I am going to become the person that re-makes the graduate program from scratch, or the person that re-writes curricula. Maybe that is wrong of me, but I’m saying that these things don’t excite me the way they seem to excite some other faculty.

Secondly- it seems like the instant I was essentially un-fireable, there was a new emphasis on political correctness. I know, I know. Right now you all are saying … .wha…..t? Because you all thought that you had to be maximally politically correct before tenure, after which point you could just let it all hang out… NOT. I’m not sure I paid attention to how politically correct I was being pre-tenure- this was mostly because I didn’t have any energy left to be politically incorrect, or give it any thought even- I was writing nearly 30 grants, trying to get papers out, blogging, and mentoring a bunch of people. I still find it stunning when I see pre-tenure faculty trying to re-make the first year curriculum, that a more senior faculty have usually developed and been tinkering on with lots of debate for years and years… I’m not sure where they find the time for that (maybe while I’m blogging!).

Now, I find that there are some silly barriers that get in the way of projects going forward that have to be solved at levels outside my lab group. My preferred way to get these issues solved has been to be the squeaky wheel. And believe me, I can be the queen of squeaky. Funny thing though, I don’t feel like I’ve been very effective at translating the message up about what we need to happen up the line, or – alternatively- I’m not finding the people who can solve a particular problem so that we can move on. Then sometimes it seems even worse than all this. It seems like my squeaky-ness about a given problem, and my personal commitment  to getting the problem solved work against me, and for the first time I am running up against all of the negative comments that are hurled against aggressive, driven, ambitious women.

‘Can’t you be more pleasant’? (read, you’re so bitchy)

‘You are too direct.’ (read, you don’t make nice)

‘You are so emotionally involved in this topic.’ (This one leaves me speechless)

‘We can’t put you in that role because you won’t play nicely with others’. (Not a team player)

To be clear- I’m making up the exact comments as examples, they only roughly approximate the literal truth- but the thrust of each of them is real. I had read all about this sort of thing when I was more junior, but I never really felt I was being dealt these cards earlier in my career. I naively assumed that because I myself had not heard these things previously in my career- that I wasn’t going to be hearing them in the future either. Wow- was I wrong about that. In my first year or two post-tenure- I’ve heard all kinds of bullshit like this. And honestly, I’m still stunned when I hear it and I’m not sure how to get around it.

And also on the topic of this issue, even though I’m pretty squeaky- I start to see those 1000 small cuts that can disadvantage women in their careers, one of which is unequal allocation of resources- in a more immediate way than ever before. Remember those women faculty at MIT who crawled around on the floors of their labs to show (with actual data) that they were being awarded less space than the male faculty?  This kind of resource inequity can happen in about thirty-thousand different ways- and many of them are not so easy to get at as using a measuring tape. There is inequity in certain kinds of specialized  space, there is inequity in $$ awarded internally for various things, there is inequity in getting stuff fixed or making certain things a priority… and the list goes on. …  It is nearly impossible to generate an accounting of such resource inequity- and they can affect a career in very real ways. Every minute I spend fighting for a needed containment device that a man in a similar situation doesn’t have to spend- is time I’m prevented from spending on grants, papers, or mentoring.

My personal hero for the day, the week, and possibly the year: Dr. Paul Greengard

I interrupt my blogging hiatus to bring to your attention something that I totally missed- for like 8 years.

A story in the Huffington Post today by Nell Scovell entitled “The man who loves women who love science”  caught my eye. I started reading thinking- ho hum- gee this will be kinda interesting- Paul Greengard– my first job as a tech in a research lab was for one of his former postdocs, plus he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2004- so the name rings a bell…. wonder what this will be about….

When I finished reading, I had tears in my eyes. Actually, I didn’t even get through the second paragraph:

“I’ve seen many terrible examples of prejudice against women,” Dr. Greengard said on the phone recently. “It’s built-in and people don’t even realize it. When I first announced the prize, there was an article saying I was giving money to help women in the sciences. I got 500 emails from women, each of which would make you cry. It made me realize the enormous amount of discrimination that still occurs. A lot of women are suffering more than we realize.” (This quote is from the HuffPo article)

before I started to cry. Maybe they were tears of relief. Relief at having a very distinguished male scientist openly and publicly acknowledge the difficulties and discrimination that women in general, and women in the sciences face. You see, after winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, Dr. Greengard and his wife established the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, awarded annually to honor outstanding women in the Biosciences. Dr. Greengard and his wife named this award in honor of Dr. Greengard’s mother, who died in childbirth- and whose career was limited to secretarial work. Dr. Greengard- today you are my hero, not just for recognizing systematic and sometimes subtle discrimination against women, for doing something about it, and for being a role model for us all.

I can’t say anything more appropriate or eloquent than about this subject than Dr. Greengard and the folks who award this prize have already said in their own words- somehow I stumbled upon a set of youtube videos of the 2010 Pearl Meister Greengard awards ceremony. I watched them all, and I urge you to watch them as well: 2010 Pearl Meister Greengard Award Ceremony videos (Part 1 (Sir Paul Nurse does the honors), Part 2, Part 3 (Andrea Mitchell is inspiring), Part 4 (the description of the contributions of  recipients of 2010- Drs. Janet Davidson Rowley and Mary-Claire King), Part 5 (Sir Paul has a conversation with the winners), Part 6 (conversation Pt 2)). Previous recipients of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize can be found here.

Later today there will probably be a whole new set of videos on youtube- because the the 2011 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize will be awarded to Dr. Brenda Milner, now in her 90s, for her groundbreaking work on human memory which has ” revolutionized the way we understand the human brain.”

Could describing personal circumstances hurt your grants chances?

I stumbled upon David’s post at Terra Sigiliata entitled “NIH biosketch change as  “kick- me” sign?” this morning.  In this very nice post, David points out a poll of researchers over at on the new NIH policy to allow an explanation of personal circumstances that may have affected progress (read publication gaps) on the biosketches that we send in as part of out grant applications. I didn’t see the poll myself when it was up- but I am pretty sure that you all can figure out how I would have voted. Nevertheless, here is what was asked:

Do you think you will make use of the new option in NIH grant applications to include possible disruptions and delays to your research?

And after being posted for a week- Genomeweb received 105 responses that broke down in the following way:

17%  Yes, I’ve been waiting for NIH to do this.
17%  Yes, it sounds like a good idea.
16%  Maybe, if it becomes applicable to me.
2%    No, I don’t foresee any delays.
46%  No way, why would you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?

And here I have to pause to say WTF. I’m hoping that the two percent that answered ‘No, I don’t foresee any delays’ are young idealistic grad students that haven’t experienced much of life. Cause you know, no one can really ‘foresee’ getting hit by a car, having life threatening pneumonia, how having a baby is going to affect your life, or whether or not one of your parents is going to be diagnosed with glioma. ALL of those circumstances will undoubtedly and understandably affect your productivity, and let me tell you kids- shit just happens. Sometimes a really bad shit happens.

And for that 46% of you that answered ‘No way, why should you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?’ I say double WTF. I guess I am at a loss to understand why ANY of the circumstances I listed above would ‘potentially hurt your grant’s chances’ if explained.  I have a difficult envisioning conversations on study section like… I think we should give so-and-so investigator a 5 because he wasn’t very productive when he had to take care of his mom for three months after her near fatal car accident. Perhaps you all think of this section as ready made for providing a section that will catch any excuse for low productivity? A section for the whining whiners to go on about how their tech is lazy and couldn’t just get ‘er done?

I, however, do not. I think of this section as a fail-safe from stupid ass comments on reviews… i.e. so and so had low productivity during X period….. when the reviewers didn’t read the biosketch carefully enough to pick up perfectly obvious cues like the applicant was in the MD portion of their MD/PhD during the period in question and WASN’T PUBLISHING because they were in professional school. I see this section as a way to explain critical issues like… had a new baby was away for 3 months- that are not otherwise spelled out anywhere in a grant application. Can having a new baby affect your productivity? I want to believe that I don’t have to explain the logistics of this anymore. Having a baby can affect your ability to get in a shower once per day, we are not even going to talk about what it can do to your ability to complete tasks that involve actual brain power. And anyone who has had a baby knows that when the maternity leave is over your brain isn’t automatically switched back on to its full pre-baby full night of sleep every single night productivity.

Maybe you all should read, this- and yes, click on that link for the study cited in the article entitled ‘Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline’ out of the UC system. Read this study and you will see that women with children have a 35% lower probability of entering a tenure track career than men with children, and a 28% lower probability of achieving tenure. Read between the lines there- put that together with the facts that women do the vast majority of child care, the vast majority of night time care etc- and that lock step rigid systems with rigid “time based criteria” and “productivity assessments” do not lend themselves to inclusion of a life in your basic science career.

Oh sigh. I guess I am hoping that when a grant comes up at study section and reviewer #1 is ready to trash the productivity of the applicant, that reviewers #2, 3, and 4, armed with the reason for the productivity gap now explained in the biosketch, will be prepared to make reviewer #1 and the rest of the panel think twice about penalizing someone for circumstances beyond their control and occurrences that are part of real life.

Linky Linky…blogging and doing science while female.

I’ve been meaning to write about Science Online 2011 (#scio11), which I found so enjoyable but for some reason more intense than scio10. Anyway- I came across this post today by Kate Clancy on her blog called Context and Variation. This was one amazing post and really sums up some of the perils of blogging and doing science while female. A couple of Kate’s observations from conversations before the panel are things I hear over and over and over:

  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.
  • We still can’t be ambitious without being considered a bitch. People will always fall back on that term if they think you are too aggressive, but the same behavior is not criticized in men.

FOR SURE. In fact I’m asking myself if this is ever going to get better? And the observation below from the panel itself-

  • One fantastic young woman talked about how she avoids discussing her blog with her peers for fear of becoming the “soft skills chick.” Doing anything other than the hottest science seems to delegitimize women very quickly; however in some cases men get rewarded for doing the same thing (examples that come to my mind are picking up extra teaching and service, or having offspring, the latter being empirically supported).

Many male scientists that I know that blog are doing so under their own names… (Bjorn Brembs, and Jonathan Eisen – both writers of great blogs that I read regularly), and I never ever ever think of them as less of scientists because they blog about topics sometimes outside of bench work. They why oh why do I always feel like I have to keep my blogging/tweeting on the down low because I may be considered a less ‘serious’ scientist…. I guess I didn’t realize that this was a general feeling among us blogging girl scientists…


There is no gender discrimination in science

I’m dusting off the ole blog after a rather lengthy absence, because I must. (YES, I JUST FIXED A TYPO)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. In my travels have had the opportunity to talk to many of my female colleagues about various topics, including the state of women in science. Some of these conversations have been somewhat disturbing to me. See, from time to time I hear the refrain that there is NO discrimination against women in science anymore, and that conclusion has been reached by women scientists who feel that they themselves haven’t yet encountered any overt discrimination. This flavor of conversation usually goes further- from male and female colleagues alike- to conclude that women are under-represented at the upper echelons of science because they: 1. dropped out to have children or 2. didn’t want to work hard- or weren’t equally motivated with the men who made it up to that rarefied atmosphere of full professorship, national academy membership or whatever.

I have to confess that this conversation REALLY bothers me. Why? Because I can identify with it to some level- I’m one of those good girls who feels like she’s had every advantage. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a dad who encouraged me to be whatever I wanted,  an otherwise supportive family that strongly believed in the value of education, enough $$ (usually), mentors that were unusually gifted and who I always felt supported me 100%, and colleagues in my institution and elsewhere that I know are pulling for me. So if I just looked at ‘women in science’ from my own vantage point- I could come to the conclusion that because my own experience has been relatively smooth thus far- THERE MUST BE NO DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN IN SCIENCE.

But all of my career I’ve been trained to discern anecdotal evidence from real, controlled, statistically significant data. One experience does not a data set make, we all know that. I recently read this beautiful article by Georgina Ferry  in Nature about the Nobel Prize Winning Crystalographer Dorothy Hodgkin (The making of an exceptional scientist (Georgina Ferry) (29 April 2010, Nature 464, 1268–1270 DOI: doi:10.1038/4641268a),- and I’ll just quote:

By tradition, the students of Stockholm sing to welcome the prizewinners before the Nobel ball, and one of the laureates responds. Hodgkin said: “I was chosen to reply to the students here this evening as the one woman of our group, a position which I hope very much will not be so very uncommon in future that it will call for any comment or distinction of this kind.” Since she expressed that hope, and despite the intervening revolution in women’s rights and expectations, only ten further women have won science Nobels. In total, women make up 2.8% of the 537 laureates in science since 1901, and 1.5% of those in physics or chemistry. (emphasis is mine)

Hmmmm. That data hit me squarely in the face. 2.8% is pretty freaking low.

And this morning Isis has a beautiful post up on the History of how women came to serve on study section….   that has an instructive chart about the representation of women in the National Academy of Science.  And there is some data in there… although the number of women in the lower ranks is creeping up…. we have not really made substantial gains in election to the National Academy.

And now I know I’m going to hear from somewhere that women make up a small proportion of scientists and thus OF COURSE their representation at the top is low. But I’m just going to cut that argument off at the knees.  In 2001, 55.9% of bachelor’s degrees in the sciences were awarded to women (Table 2-3, To Recruit and Advance), and that number was nearly 60% for biological and agricultural sciences in 2007 (AAUP Why so few?). Even better, in 1991 the 45% of the graduate students in the biological sciences were women- and this crept up to be just over 50% in 2001 (Figure 2-2, To Recruit and Advance) and was maintained as 47.9% of doctorates in the biological and agricultural sciences were awarded to women in 2006 (AAUP, Why so few?). This is the last 20 YEARS people.

But, … in 2003 women continued to be under represented at the top of the academic ladder- holding 21% of full professor positions in biology (the numbers at the assistant level are 38.8%, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty).  Numbers from 2006 bear this out as well- at 4 year institutions women made up 41% of the faculty in un-tenured positions in biological/agricultural/environmental/and life sciences- but were only 22% of the tenured faculty in the same fields (AAUP Why so few?). Although we have made some gains- no denying that- it is pretty sad that for the last 20 years women have been trained in equal numbers to men, but the numbers that reach full professor are STILL only in the low end of 20%.

I know I’m going on with numbers and more numbers, so after all that laboring here’s my point. We all have our own experience- but the data don’t lie. No matter how rainbow and unicorn your own private academic science experience with an N=1 is, take a look around at the actual data. There IS a gender disparity in academic science. Is this because women have families? I don’t know. Is this because women are somehow less motivated than men with the equivalent degree? I don’t know. But I think we should be asking ourselves two questions. First, WHY is there an obvious gender disparity in the rise up the academic ladder – and even if your answers are because women have families or are less motivated THAN MEN there should be a WHY for that as well.  I’m not satisfied with those simple ‘personal experience’ type answers- for one thing men have families as well- and that hasn’t hurt them any in the numbers being promoted to full professor, getting Nobel and Lasker Prizes, and being elected to the National Academy.  And second- WHAT can we do to fix it. There are some simple lessons for this in Dorothy Hodgkin’s story.

(And while you are at this read Feminist Chemist’s take on why this is all even worth bothering with in the first place)