Every Other Thursday is a book about a woman’s self help group in California, which has attempted to address the problem of where academic women might find support. Founded on the precepts of radical psychiatry, the group gathers every other week with a structured format: time is set aside for each member to discuss issues in her life, and in a supportive environment she is encouraged to express her emotions. I personally did not find the book, which I read a while back, described a solution to the issue of support that I thought would work for me; it was too structured and required a time commitment I could not imagine making. Nevertheless I am reminded about this book, by two very different blogposts: one from Sylvia McLain which expresses some scepticism and ambivalence about women’s groups; and one from YoungFemaleScientist which expresses frustration at the general uselessness of any advice she got, from women or men, to specific problems she faced. This post is, if you like, a downbeat counterpart to my upbeat assessment in the wake of the Athena Swan awards .
That particular post is about how institutions are changing their internal procedures and cultures, seeming to head in the right direction even if perhaps too slowly. Nevertheless there is a big gap between policies being decreed from on high, the sort of actions that underpin an Athena Swan award, and what it actually feels like for the individual scientist struggling with research not going to plan and being unsupported by those around – or worse, being actively denigrated in the subtle drip-drip way that such denigration usually manifests itself as. I would not like it thought that I don’t recognize such problems exist. Far from it. Indeed, one of my motivations for starting this blog came from a younger (female) colleague in Cambridge saying to me in surprise at some point in our discussions ‘You mean this happened to you too!’. No one should believe people who have made their way up through the hierarchy successfully have done so without hassle, misery and/or setbacks. That remark I suspect applies equally to men and women, although the form the knocks may have taken probably differ. I would hazard a guess that relatively few men have been sexually propositioned at conferences. I would also suspect that at least half, and possibly nearer 100% of women have been. I should hasten to add this is an unscientific comment, as I have no statistics to back up either of those statements. I merely know that leery drunken males can often be found at the conference bar.
YoungFemaleScientist clearly feels she rarely receives useful advice or even apparent empathy from those she turns to. She translates this as a lack of caring, and that probably isn’t true. As a professor I find it hard to strike the right balance between empathy and self-disclosure. With friends there is an ongoing bond of trust, between work colleagues – particularly of different seniority – this is unlikely to be the case. If a student comes along complaining of sexual harassment, would it be reasonable, helpful or even wise for a professor to say ‘this happened to me too’. It could come across as trivializing the incident (ie this happens to everyone so put up and shut up), or irrelevant (it happened 10 years ago and times change), or even find its way round the department at the speed of light. But if the professor stays detached then it may look like the uncaring response that is being complained about by YoungFemaleScientist. Of course, if there are simple solutions people probably will help: a word in the ear of the relevant offender might solve the problem without a formal complaint, but I fear rarely so. (Lest it be thought that I am trying to sweep things under the carpet, let me say that any clear case of harassment should always be reported. The trouble is so many – the unwanted compliments on dress or appearance, the frequent touch on the arm, regular innuendo – are ambiguous enough not to be easily dealt with.)
And this is where I differ from Sylvia McLain. Asking for help from senior colleagues is always likely to introduce discomfort of this sort. Practical tips of course should be sought: how do I write a grant? Should I submit a poster abstract to this conference? What funding is available in my field? How can I improve my CV? Would it be wise for me to take this position? Or accept this new responsibility? All these sorts of questions can and should be asked of anyone and everyone who might be able to help. But support groups of essentially one’s peers, formal or informal, or simply a supportive group of individual friends, are more likely to be a better resource for the vexed question of how to cope with everyday fraught situations: there will be no black and white answers and discussion should be the name of the game to tease out strategies that work for a given situation. In my experience these helpful friends and colleagues most certainly don’t need to be in my field (sadly lacking in women in any case, though these supporters don’t need to be female), since so often the problems are basically generic though nuanced by the local environment.
Let me describe a generic problem which bugs most women above a certain rank: how to make your voice ‘heard’ on committees for which the women are in a minority. The scenario runs like this. You rise through the system until you are asked to sit on some committee with teeth. First you have to gain enough confidence to open your mouth at all, and when you (finally) do offer some wise words, maybe after attending several meetings, no one appears to take your contribution on board. Shortly afterwards an (almost invariably) male colleague says very much the same thing and everyone gets very enthusiastic, indicates how insightful this is, what a splendid idea, just what’s needed etc. Nearly every woman I know has had this happen to them, and often not just at the start of their ‘committee career’ but time and time again. I would be interested to know if men feel this happens to them too; no male has ever mentioned it to me, but then why should they?
So what is the solution? I have to say I wish I knew. Someone once suggested I should have voice-coaching to train myself to lower my voice, because then I would sound more like the majority males. I did not follow up on this and, as I have argued before here, that implies that I, the woman, am the problem rather than those listening. Another possibility would be to join the school of thought that thinks they will be heard if they get red in the face and thump the table; also not an attractive proposition to many. Saying ‘excuse me, I just said that’ may be justified but I doubt if it would be productive and on the contrary would tend to make one look merely petty. I suspect, as with the narrative about pulling a committee chair up when behaving inappropriately described here, having allies (probably male) on the committee who can say ‘but Athene just said that’ might be helpful, but is certainly not always viable or indeed probable. It is a frustrating problem but, as I say, may not be the sole province of women.
At the end of the day problems ranging from coping with sexual harassment to managing to get listened to at committees are all about us as individuals. What works for me may not work for you. Likewise, what support works for me may also be very different from what others need. We each come to any situation with our own previous baggage, coloured by our upbringing, education and whatever good or bad experiences we have encountered en route. But support groups and individual friends are a vital resource to help one survive, progress and (one hopes) ultimately thrive.