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!