Conferences, Childcare and Uncomfortable Stereotypes

The comment stream on my recent post  about the lack of female invited speakers at conferences was illuminating.  This lack of women on the conference podium appears not to stem simply from women not being invited, according to a recent paper, but because if they are far more likely than men to decline invitations when they receive them.  The comment stream got lively when it came to explanations: was it simply down to issues over childcare or did this act as a surrogate ‘excuse’ for a feeling many had that conferences were simply unpleasant places for women, not worth the effort and ‘cost’ of attending? It seems to me that these two explanations are not as distinct as perhaps some of the heated comments implied, a thought in part provoked by reading this paper  (Unstable Identity Compatibility: How Gender Rejection Sensitivity Undermines the Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fields by Sheana Ahlqvist, Bonita London and Lisa Rosenthal) about gender identity and the challenges this can cause for women in STEM. These same ideas about the importance of childcare versus working environment are also implicit in some of the discussion stream on the recent Guardian Higher Education web discussion about the visibility of women in STEM, in which I participated.

I will not attempt to discuss the pros and cons of professional childcare providers, nor whether mothers are too prone to assume responsibility for childcare rather than expect their partners to get fully stuck in. Both may be factors in individual family’s decisions about conference attendance and be of overwhelming significance in particular situations, but I want to explore a rather different aspect.  The paper I refer to above, which appeared online in Psychological Science at the start of the month, discusses the way young female college students’ confidence fluctuates over time according to their experiences and their own ‘gender rejection sensitivity’. This phrase describes how much individuals anticipate rejection simply by virtue of their gender and so is an attempt to quantify how likely women are to feel disadvantaged in different situations. The paper is behind a paywall and the main thesis is not particularly relevant to the points I want to make. What struck me was to be found in the introductory background material and the references cited therein. These sections highlighted how those who are not simply in a minority but also a minority acting in a non-stereotypical role, may feel a strong internal disconnect between their actions and how they believe they are expected to act. In the context of this blog it therefore demonstrated the extent to which women in STEM can feel constantly at odds with expected behaviour, and consequently disadvantaged and sensitive. To quote a few lines (note that I have removed the references from the original passage):

It has been well documented that individuals who pursue non-traditional academic and career paths are exposed to various forms of social-identity threat, including being a member of the numeric minority, lacking members of one’s in-group in positions of authority (e.g., professors or research advisors), feeling excluded from informal social networks or having peers who hold negative attitudes toward one’s group. Perceptions of bias seem to affect both sense of belonging and academic performance, two factors critical for long-term success in any field…..

For instance, women who perceive STEM careers as incompatible with female-typical communal goals express lower interest in STEM careers than do women who view them as compatible, even when controlling for STEM self-efficacy.

If you can get hold of the paper, and so read the introduction in full, I’d recommend you do. I found it very illuminating. Basically it spells out just how much the going may be perceived to be tough for women in science, almost (but not entirely) regardless of how their colleagues behave. It isn’t that we are all wimpish women who can’t take a joke when surrounded by men, it is that we are likely to be (unconsciously) feeling identity-threat which makes us sensitive and, possibly overly so. I recognize that feeling, even at such a late stage of my career. Maybe if more men found themselves in situations where they were alone in a room full of women – a situation described to me recently by a retired senior industrialist when he had attended Weightwatchers week after week – they would understand just how unwelcoming such situations may feel without any malice aforethought on the part of anyone present. Add in some slightly crass comment and the whole thing can seem just overwhelmingly unpleasant. I guess this is where the question of just how much you expect ‘rejection’ becomes important, i.e. how sensitive you may be to that crass comment when it arrives, as it so often will. And sometimes the comments are way beyond crass and just plain hostile.

To give a specific example of what I mean by a crass (though hardly worse) comment, let me relate one such that was made to me just a few weeks ago by a very senior figure who walks the corridors of power, with whom I had had occasion to interact many years back in different circles. When a third party enquired if we knew each other I said yes, and explained when, to which the retort came back from the man concerned that he ‘had the scars to prove it’. All one can do is laugh at such a remark, but it struck me as pretty offensive, the more so as our contacts had been so slight I found it hard to believe there were any legitimate grounds for it. Additionally, if I had been male I find it inconceivable such a retort would have been forthcoming; my guess is that if, in that case, I had ever got one over on this man, the last thing he would have done would have been to refer to it. Consequently, gender was at the heart of his remark; he was pointing out that by being a strong female I was not behaving as a female should. Or, alternatively, you can regard this anecdote as merely indicating I am blowing up the whole thing and it is because I anticipate ‘gender rejection’ I interpret his actions this way. I can’t tell myself which analysis is correct, but I certainly didn’t like it and that may be the only material factor.

I may have seemed to have strayed a long way from my original point of why women may not accept invitations to conferences, but it seems to me that the combination of negative experiences (along the lines of this anecdote or much worse) and finding oneself in a marked minority may be quite sufficient for women to say to themselves ‘why bother?’ It is then easy for them to justify this decision, not only to others but also internally, by explaining they don’t like to leave the kids.  After all, that is a stereotypically acceptable reason to give, something that is probably comforting when they are actually feeling stereotypically at odds with themselves. Obviously this scenario isn’t always an accurate description, but I don’t think the commenter on my blog who claimed that another commenter was changing their grounds (from childcare arguments to those around the culture she found at conferences) and just sounding feeble, really grasped quite what the reality may be like for women. It isn’t about their competence, brilliance, child-care arrangements or the willingness and ability of their partner to step in on the domestic front. It is the weariness of feeling that, after all the effort of putting a fantastic talk together and travelling long distances, they may still end up feeling excluded and denigrated which may lead them to decline invitations.

Men, please stamp on your colleagues being crass or worse and think how you might feel if you suddenly found yourself in a minority of around 10% surrounded by high-powered women!

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16 Responses to Conferences, Childcare and Uncomfortable Stereotypes

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    On the subject of stereotype threat, see

    “”The authors of the study made a distinction between two different kinds of stereotype threat. There is group-reputation threat—where women fear doing poorly because they worry it will reflect badly on women in general. And there is self-reputation threat—where women fear doing poorly because they worry it will be taken as proof of a stereotype (in this case, that women are bad at math).

    Here’s what happened when the researchers gave women fake names. Women who took the test under a false name—male or female—performed significantly better than women who took the test with their own name at the top. Men were completely unaffected by the name on the top of their paper.””

  2. Abby Kavner says:

    Your anecdote is a perfect example of the type of low-level hostile comment that I receive all the time. One that the speaker can easily back-off and say “just kidding!” so it leaves the recipient feeling responsible for the bad taste of the interaction. Your analysis of the interaction is spot-on. Even a slightly-raised awareness of this type of dynamic will help everyone. Thanks for your great post & blog.

  3. Karen Masters says:

    A friend – a young women scientist with a son was waiting in the queue for registration at a conference while holding her baby. A senior (male) scientist walked straight past her to the desk as if she were not there. Perhaps it was just a mistake, but it seemed like he assumed she couldn’t be waiting to register because of her gender and the baby.

    • Geologist says:

      Yes. I have had this happen to me, but I wasn’t holding a child. Being ignored is a really common experience at these meetings because many men bring their wives with them so women are present. But, so many of the men just assume that I’m someone’s wife and therefore I’m ignored when we are standing in casual groups discussing science. The men will physically turn their backs to me so as to cut me out of the conversations (unless they know me personally). I’m sure they don’t even realize what they are doing and the behavior isn’t spiteful or specifically directed at me, it just is part of the culture that I have to work in.

      I also brought my husband to a national meeting as a guest and they screwed up our name cards and ticketed events for the guest – his was missing, and mine was not labeled as “Dr.” but instead as “Mrs.”. So we went over to the desk to get his tickets (I was not wearing my name tag) and the women at registration immediately ignored me, assumed he was the scientist, and couldn’t figure out what we wanted. It took forever to get THEM (it took talking to several people) to understand that I was the scientist, and that he was the guest.

      • Geologist says:

        Interestingly, the last comment about how men might feel if they were placed in groups dominated by women rings very true for me. My husband tried to do the guest events at the national meetings I attend – but the guests are ALL women. He tried to go to several events the first time but he felt awful – the same thing happened to him that happens to me while attending the meetings. Both of us are extreme minorities in the groups of people that we try to interact with.

        As the only male in the guest group any small thing that other women said about ‘their world’ (shopping, clothes, hair, kids, etc.) made him feel out of place, not welcome. Certainly their comments were not meant to exclude him or make him feel bad, but just as was said above in the blog, your sensitivity to comments increases when you are an extreme minority in a large group. He came back from the first event feeling terrible and has never attended those events again. I feel bad for him because my work trips are an opportunity for him to do ‘mini-vacations’ but he has to now do the tourist things by himself since he is really uncomfortable with the large groups of wives of the scientists.

        By the way, I was surprised at his experience (until I read this blog) because my husband is really comfortable with women. He is now retired, but his work environment was about 50% women, the vast majority of his friends are women, and he even has developed groups here at home with the wives of other faculty that I work with and they do things together and commiserate about being a faculty spouse, but at these big meetings, it is just really uncomfortable trying to fit in with large groups of people in which you are an obvious minority.

        • Ciara Kelly says:

          A colleague of mine recently refused a lunch invitation from a group of researchers because he would have been the only man present. As a woman who has been in this situation many times I found his strength of feeling about it a little surprising.

      • Nan Parkinson says:

        Yes. We have a long way to go yet! This reminds me of the Fawlty Towers scene where Basil could not get his head around a man and wife BOTH being doctors.

  4. Karen Masters says:

    By the way it was extremely illuminating to hear about the identity-threat thing and how that can make you so much more sensitive to things which probably aren’t even intended as sexist. Makes so much more sense now how I feel sometimes….. that feeling of “hey that comment was a bit off” but if you bring it up to anyone it’s almost always dismissed as nothing.

  5. AnnaW says:

    It is reasonably common for my conversations at conferences with Junior Male (JM) colleagues to be interrupted by Senior Alpha Male figures who never acknowledge my existence as they swoop in and sweep off JM, never mind apologising for the fact that they might be interrupting a scientific discussion. Based on very poor sampling, British Alpha Males seem particularly crass in this regard. Depressingly though, not one of my JM colleagues has ever said ‘Please excuse me whilst I finish my discussion here first’. Fortunately there are usually a sufficiently large number of decent folk around in my field that one can always find an alternative source of interesting conversation.

  6. Mick Watson says:

    You lost me at the “scars” anecdote – it seems a big leap to put this on gender. Can you explain this a bit more?

    • Zuska says:

      Why don’t you try re-reading the blog post one or twenty times to improve your reading comprehension? And study some basic texts about gender issues & stereotype threat? And go off and think about it all for a year or two? Then try explaining it to yourself. I didn’t see “Feminism 101” at the top of this blog post.

      • Ciara Kelly says:

        Having a rant at someone when they politely ask for further explanation is not helpful.

        Lets assume Mick is actually trying to learn about the experiences of women in science and how he might better facilitate a comfortably diverse workplace, but finds the whole thing genuinely confusing. Which I think is legitimate. Your response teaches him not to ask questions, not to take an interest and probably not to bother.

        Sorry Mick for making assumptions on your part. But thats how I read your question.

  7. Clare says:

    Thanks for flagging up the article on identity compatibility – very illuminating. I have not heard of this before and now that I think about it, it explains some things that I have been puzzled about in relation to some of my peers and also some of the students I teach. I am going to recommend my whole group reads this.

    • Kirsty says:

      This leads me to wonder how the influence of ‘like-me’ bias (identity compatibility) also impacts on the world outside of work….. is this actually a double-whammy for women? The concept of the social-identity problem extends beyond the realm of work; for example, women in science with children might find themselves the odd one out at the school gate (at the times that they make the school gate). That’s certainly been my experience; the working mum seemingly being the exception at the start and the end of the school day.

      You can argue that I am probably not the only working-mother at the school, or even the only one working in the world of science (albeit on the dark side of management), we might not even be the exception. BUT those of us that do work probably don’t have the same patterns of school gate attendance – so the working-parent community isn’t a visible one. So, as well as being a ‘non-normal’ colleague you also perceive yourself to be a ‘non-normal’ mother…. a double-whammy of being in the minority inside and outside of work. What impact does that have?

      Blogs such as this one do help in many respects – an on-line crowd to identify with. Although I don’t know where you find the time!

  8. moosh says:

    This points out a very real, but mostly hidden, reality to the way we interact with the world.
    I always feel ‘wrong’ for being who I am, liking what I like, having the skills & interests, personality & traits that I do, because they’re corralled into a mainly male box that I then feel wrong / bad / not accepted for transgressing this arbitrary line.

    Those things which are not expressed, but remain hidden inchoate feelings, are as important as the physical, tangible barriers. This may be why some men just can’t seem to see ‘what’s the problem’ in relation to issues like this, or catcalling, or rape – their world of interaction & the feelings it generates in them, the expectations they have & how this colours their approaching the world with enthusiasm or trepidation can be so different to that of many women.

    The concrete role reversal situations seem to be the best teacher for those situations – we can ‘get’ it if we can relate it to our own feelings. However unless you’ve felt excluded by dint of being in a non-dominant group attempting to make your way in an environment controlled, consciously or not, by the dominant group, it’s very hard to understand what that feels like. And if you can’t imagine it, then you conclude it mustn’t exist / be a real problem. Meanwhile, there are those of us who live our lives wishing to live on a planet where we can be accepted for who we are, without being excluded, minimised, belittled, threatened etc etc etc. It gets very tiring.

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