'Every Other Thursday' – Do Support Groups Support?

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.

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4 Responses to 'Every Other Thursday' – Do Support Groups Support?

  1. sylviamclain says:

    I am not sure our opinions are really different. In my blog post, similar to yours when you say ‘what works for me may not work for you’, I said that if you feel that a woman’s group is the way to get support, you should join.
    And I also agree with you that sexual harassment should be reported – I gave a couple of examples of what I would refer to as unconscious bias towards me in my post, but I didn’t state whether or not I reported this. As a matter of fact I did report these incidents. In one instance I had my full instiutional support and in the other instance I did not.

    That being said, sexual harrassment is an institutional problem, not a women’s group problem per se – unless of course that women’s group serves as an official advocate to institutions for these issues, and sexual or other harassment can (and does) happen to men as well. I also agree with you, its hard to see how individuals can do anything about this, especially when it comes to unconscious bias. When people talk over other people in committees, there is not much you can do about it on an institutional level, except for educate, I believe. As most people might simply deny that is what they have done.

    I was struck by your final comment that its ‘all about us as individuals’ which I think echos what I was saying in my blog post. If you want to join a women’s support group in science do it, if not don’t. But what I would think we really need is institutional change for issues about sexual harrassment, ESPECIALLY the more subtle variety, and this is slow to come….

  2. On the specific question of sexual harassment rather than the general question of dealing with some of the more common gender-based annoyances, there are other options besides making a complaint, though they may not be available to “YoungFemaleScientist”. One of these is mediation. The advantage of mediation is that it addresses the issues without forcing the person complained about into the position of defending his actions. It is explicitly focused on finding a mutually acceptable way forward rather than assigning blame to one party or the other, as tends to be the situation when a formal complaint is made. Mediation can be helpful if the woman is concerned either that she will be perceived as the problem or that her department will respond in a way that makes things more difficult for her – ‘zero tolerance’ policies can be a barrier to women reporting incidents. In the UK, women should consult their institution’s ‘Dignity at Work’ policy to see what options are available.

    Universities in the UK are subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty which means that they are legally obliged to take steps to eliminate harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, ‘Dignity at Work’ policies tend to focus on dealing with problems once they have occurred. It would be better to find ways of preventing them from occurring in the first place. One way of stopping incidents escalating would be if people could be persuaded that the correct response to a request like ‘Please stand further away. I feel uncomfortable when you stand so close’ is to apologize and move away, perhaps explaining that you didn’t realize the effect your actions were having, not to deliver a lecture on how you should be allowed to stand wherever you like. Another would be to have an intelligent discussion on what it means for people in a workplace to treat each other with respect, courtesy and consideration at all times, with men taking responsibility for their behaviour. Presumably we are all in favour of treating each other with respect, courtesy and consideration, regardless of gender or any other characteristics.

    Annoyances arising from unconscious bias are different. The point about unconscious bias is that it is unconscious. The only ways of dealing with it are by designing policies and practices to minimize its effects and by educating ourselves and others about it. It might help if a male senior academic recommended Virginia Valian’s book.

    The advantage of women’s groups is not necessarily that they can provide emotional support, though they can, but that they can help spread information about what really works, which is not always an institution’s official policies. In principle they could also help raise issues in a way that focuses on a generic behaviour rather than a particular individual’s behaviour. For example, a women’s network could take such a role.

    • Sylvia, no we probably are not poles apart! I do think it is a matter of personal choice where to turn to for support, and for many women’s groups may be helpful. But I think it is important to distinguish the different kinds of support that one may need to seek, because if you ask the wrong person for the wrong kind of help it can add to the stresses of a given situation when you don’t get the support you need.

      1) Purely practical for which senior mentors, male and female, are probably most helpful. The bookmark, and associated web-based commentary that the Athena Forum produced has a clear list of the kinds of questions postdocs in particular should be asking themselves and then identifying who to turn to. Maybe women’s groups can be encouraged to take this ‘toolkit’ to their HR sections to get them promulgated. I believe my university is handing the bookmarks out to all new postdocs with their contracts, appropriately modified with local contacts, logos etc.

      2) Support to deal with what Esther calls ‘gender-based annoyances’ is more likely to come from support groups or simply friends. People who may have had similar experiences recently and know what may work within the local culture or with the specific individuals concerned.

      3) Sexual harassment, for which formal proceedings – including mediation – are probably required. This is indeed an institutional problem, as Esther says, but it is even more a problem for the individual because it can be so damaging to one’s sense of self. Due to the seriousness of the issue, the formal processes can be very slow during which time everything has to be treated with such confidentiality it can feel as if there is no support and no progress. The real solution has to be to try to ensure the culture just makes it a completely unimaginable transgression, but I doubt most organisations have reached that happy state. But support groups and individual senior staff all have a role to play in bringing smaller items to senior management’s attention in the hopes things can get ‘nipped in the bud’.

      As for unconscious bias, it is of course a problem because it is necessarily unconscious at the moment of action as Esther says. But I suspect many people are aware after the event, perhaps because of other people’s reactions. This is where the Implicit Association Tests are so valuable – or Valian’s book – because once you have seen how easy it is to believe in stereotypes, even when you think you are thoroughly aware of diversity issues, you can consider your actions and try to improve. There is a long way to go for society, organisations and individuals, and we all need to take some responsibility.

  3. I saw your complaint on FemaleScienceProfessor that no males had responded to your question “I would be interested to know if men feel this [a higher status colleague getting credit or enthusiastic support for an idea originating from them] happens to them too; no male has ever mentioned it to me, but then why should they?”

    Possibly you have too small a male readership to have gotten a response. I can’t remember specific incidents of this happening to me (though I have vague recollections of it happening in my grad school days). Part of it may be that males in the US (maybe throughout Europe also) are socialized to lay claim to ideas, so that if someone repeats an idea, we are quick to stake out precedence. I don’t know.

    I did notice one incident in a faculty meeting a couple of years ago when I brought back to the table a comment that had first been raised by a junior female faculty member that I thought had not been adequately addressed. When the chair attributed the idea to me, I was quick to point out that it had originated with the junior faculty member. I don’t think that this was gender bias on his part, just that he had not been paying enough attention the first time the issue was raised. I think that the same dynamic would have played out if I had raised an important point that had been ignored and she had re-iterated it. Not having done a controlled experiment, I don’t know for sure.