Tag: sexism

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.

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DoctorAl Digest 7

This list by John Dupuis is a great summary of why as a scientist I will not be voting Conservative in the upcoming federal election.

An effective piece by Kausik Datta pointing out some authoring issues with ResearchGate and the algorithms used.

A great piece by Leigh Honeywell on making bingo cards to call out cluelessness about the challenges faced by women in tech.

The hottest tool in biotechnology these days is CRISPRs. A great blog post on the ways that phages have evolved to deal with the CRISPRs used as bacterial defense over at Eat, Read, Science.

Science Moms

There have been some great articles on-line this week talking about the realities of being a female and/or Mom in science and technology.

Meg Duffy tackles the logistics of pumping breast milk at work and sending bottles to daycare in today’s post over at Dynamic Ecology . This is a practical post about an important topic that doesn’t get talked about a lot. I give Meg props for making this work. I found that after my kids started daycare we had to switch to formula during the day due to a lack of supports for pumping/breast feeding on my campus. I just wasn’t willing to pump in a nasty bathroom stall and probably would have gotten bizarre looks if I had asked about a lactation room.

An awesome article posted yesterday by Rebecca Schuman in The Chronicle of Higher Education on how Academe Is a Lousy Family Planner. Rebecca has articulated very well how I felt as a graduate student starting a family. Looking back I’m amazed that I was so strong (or naïve) to start my family during that phase of my career. It was tough, but I have no regrets and the timing worked out exceptionally well for me. Start your family when you are ready; do not let the academy dictate your reproductive choices.

Jessica Valenti has an interview in theguardian with Anita Sarkeesian about GamerGate and how it has changed her life. The comments kind of say it all and illustrate the point of the article quite effectively.

I’m also pleased to have taken part in @EdenHennessey’s display that highlights the challenges faced by women in STEM. The #DistractinglySexist exhibit is on display @LaurierLibrary for the next month.

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, 2014

Being a scientist is tough, but being a scientist who is female is tougher than being a scientist who is male. I know this because it has been my personal experience. I have had negative experiences during my training and work in my chosen profession that are shared by my female colleagues, but not one of these episodes have been shared by my male colleagues. I am therefore forced to conclude that most of these negative experiences are a direct result of my gender.

Equality and affirmative action have made some gains in the past decades and I am especially grateful. Without the work of these tireless pioneers I would not be a university professor. Sexism and misogyny have not gone away though; instead they have become subtle and in some ways more nefarious. Women experiencing sexism today risk “death by a thousand cuts”. One event by itself is survivable, but a lifetime of these smaller insults takes its toll. After a while you start to question whether it’s all in your head. I am being too sensitive? Pick your battles carefully. Don’t rock the boat. I’m sure he didn’t mean to come across that way, he’s a nice guy. Sexism and misogyny are clearly still a problem in science and academia. Two recent examples include the fiasco with the Ask Alice advice column at Science Careers and the illuminating interview of an academic couple in the journal Science .

What Works for Women at Work helps to articulate the subtle biases that women experience in their professional lives and is particularly relevant to scientists as a large portion of the interview data was collected from female researchers. The book focuses on four patterns that the authors identified in their data that represent challenges for women in their professional lives due to cultural and societal biases around gender. They are:

1) Prove-It-Again! I’ve already shown you that I’m a competent individual, but because I’m a women I need to prove my competence over and over and over again. If I’m meeting you for the first time you will make (often incorrect) assumptions about my competence just because I’m a woman.

2) The Tightrope. Women should behave a certain way. If I don’t act a certain way and I’m a woman then I’m trouble. Act too feminine; well you must be an idiot, so you’ll have to Prove-It-Again! Act too masculine and you are abrasive, aggressive, don’t play well with others, are difficult to work with, and lack social skills.

3) The Maternal Wall. If I don’t have kids then something must be wrong with me. Once I do have kids then I’m not serious about my career and somehow using my uterus has made me into an idiot and not fully committed to my work. If I chose to have kids then I should be at home mothering them 24/7 and therefore should “lean out” or give up my spot to someone who is fully committed to their career.

4) The Tug of War. Traditionally academia was a man’s game and was based on a monastic model of education. Do I try to play the game like the guys do? Do I do the opposite so that I can maintain my femininity? Can I attempt to change how the game is played? How are other women playing the game? Is there space for only one token woman in the game? Women often disagree with how other women are navigating this landscape; these disagreements are characterized as “cat-fights” and used to bolster the idea that women are irrational and emotional creatures.

That’s quite the stacked deck…certainly not a level playing field.

The strength of this book is that it clearly defines these biases and provides concrete examples of the behaviours that are the result of these biases that negatively impact professional women. The most valuable part of this book is that it goes one step further and provides strategies for combatting each of these biases. The authors are especially savvy since they recognize that one strategy will not work for everyone and they therefore offer multiple options that could be used alone or in conjunction through the course of a career. The strategies are realistic and take into account that you are playing a rigged game where you will likely be unable to change the rules of the game.

Part V of the book addresses the additional challenge of Double Jeopardy faced by women of colour who have to combat biases based not only on their gender, but also on their race. As a white woman this section of the book revealed my ignorance on the experiences of people of colour in academia. I need to do better.

The two final chapters of the book deal with the difficult decision of how to recognize a toxic environment and how to decide if it is worth staying, or whether the best career move is to leave. The final part of the book summarizes the book’s take home messages as 20 quick paragraphs.

I wish that this book had been available to read when I was just starting out my career in academia. It would have saved me many sleepless nights as a graduate student and post-doc, especially after I had my kids. I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and might have had better coping strategies than righteous anger. I’ll be recommending this book as a read to my trainees in an attempt to combat the “old boys network” culture that still pervades many aspects of academia. If you are a male academic wanting to be a real ally to your female colleagues, but don’t know where to start, reading this book would be a great first step. Perhaps the best analogy (especially if you are a gamer) for how “others” experience life can be found on John Scalzi’s website.

Don’t feed the trolls

I think that I was first introduced to trolls in the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff . In children’s stories the troll is always an ugly character who is up to no good. I particularly liked the treatment of trolls in the film Willow  and the way that they climbed up walls. The next time that I thought about trolls was when my kids were younger and we went through a phase when we all watched a lot of Dora the Explorer . This troll wasn’t particularly threatening, but you did have to solve his riddle if you wanted to cross the bridge. He had a theme song that easily became an ear worm in our house. Recently my husband and I started watching previous seasons of the TV show Once Upon a Time  and there was one episode containing trolls on a bridge.

Last weekend I had an experience with a real-life troll. I am talking about the internet variety. I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now and consider myself fortunate that I haven’t had to interact with any trolls. I feel that way given the frightening amount of trolling that is directed towards women on the internet. I usually don’t check my email over the weekend, but last Sunday afternoon I did. Sitting in my inbox was an email from a person who I didn’t recognize, but I get lots of emails from students looking to do graduate work with me so that wasn’t particularly unusual. Unfortunately the contents of the email were not harmless and were of a sexually harassing nature. This person had taken the trouble to learn some personal pieces of information about me which was very disturbing and signed off the email as a secret admirer. It was thoroughly creepy, distracting, and made me feel very unsafe. It is also unwanted and unwarranted.

I accept that as part of my job as a professor that I will receive my share of unpleasant emails such as those that convey bad news about grants, complaints from students that I teach about my evaluations of their work, or disagreements with colleagues about how to solve problems. In my naïveté I never thought that I would be subject to anonymous sexual harassment by email. I’m now wondering how many of my colleagues have had to deal with something similar, but haven’t said anything out of fear, shame, or bewilderment. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. I expect that I am not the only person to have had this experience, but I think that it’s important to talk about it and not sweep it under the rug.

I’d appreciate hearing from others who have had this experience and how they dealt with it.

The Hidden Curriculum: Sexist Shirts have no place in Science (or anywhere else for that matter)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hidden curriculum in university science departments. This is the idea that what and how we teach our students imparts information in addition to the content that we are delivering.
My parents both completed high school and then directly entered the workforce. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. As an undergraduate student I spent a significant amount of time working out the expectations that faculty members had and how that translated into the marks that I earned in my courses. When I started doing a fourth year research thesis in the lab I discovered that I had a new bunch of expectations that I first had to figure out before I could even dream about meeting or exceeding them. I am not talking here about learning content or scientific concepts; I am talking about uncovering the unvoiced and not obvious rules of how to be a successful scientist. This professionalization process is fraught with challenge and danger for many of us. In some cases it is because our very presence in the academy challenges what was formerly the status quo. We will therefore find it difficult to plug in to a network of people who can help us to navigate what are to us uncharted waters. I often found it difficult to know what questions I should even be asking, let alone how to go about finding the answers. As educators it is well worth asking ourselves not only what content we are delivering, but whether we are intentionally or unintentionally delivering other messages as well.

As a topical example, a cool topic in today’s news is the Rosetta mission which represents a significant scientific achievement. This represents the first time that a probe has been landed on a comet. A series of YouTube videos are available on the topic. One of these is produced by Nature. It’s an exciting news story and is certainly cause for celebration as it’s been 10 years in the making. The money shot in the video pertaining to the hidden curriculum starts at 1 minute 24 seconds. This is when the interviewer starts talking to Matt Taylor who is a Rosetta Project Scientist. At first it’s kind of cool because Matt is showing off his awesome tattoo of the landing module and Rosetta. That’s pretty awesome because that tells me that scientists are just like anybody else and we can have tattoos and be successful and gainfully employed. Unfortunately, his shirt sends another message. I can’t listen to his content (what I’m guessing he’s trying to teach me) because I’m too blindsided by the other message he’s delivering. His sexist attire that is objectifying women tells me that I wouldn’t be welcomed as a member of his team or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or respected.

I don’t need a Rosetta stone to translate that message, it’s coming through loud and clear.