Dangerous Assumptions

Last week I was put in touch with a reporter from my local newspaper, the Cambridge News, who was writing a story about the University’s Annual Report. They seemed concerned about the lack of women academic staff (and ethnic minorities) – as we all are – but they also seemed rather more surprised than perhaps they should have been,given that it’s data that has always been in the public domain. In fact, they initially contacted my classicist colleague Professor Mary Beard by email, but she was travelling and passed the query on to me. So I sent them a carefully worded reply, to the effect the numbers were low but we were working hard to improve the situation and stating that I was the university’s gender equality champion. When the article came out I was very pleased to see they had used my quote accurately and in an appropriate context. But then I looked more carefully at what had been written and felt a lot less happy (as far as I can see the story didn’t make it onto their website, so you can’t check it).

They used quotes from two Cambridge professors in the story, my colleague Malcolm Longair (ex-head of the Physics Department) and myself, both of us saying very much the same thing. But the difference was that he was referred to as Professor Malcolm Longair, and I was merely Athene Donald, with no title at all. Did the journalist – a woman herself – realise that she had done this or was it, as so often, completely unconscious? As a woman, indeed as the university’s gender equality champion, maybe she simply assumed I couldn’t be a serious academic, couldn’t be a professor and she hadn’t checked any further. But I had sent my comments by email so she had no excuse. My email signature spells out quite clearly that I am a professor. Indeed I had, most unusually for me, actually changed the signature to add in the fact I was a Dame – something I usually try to gloss over. So, it would appear she had simply made the assumption

woman= insignificant,

and hence no title required (at least she hadn’t called me Miss; I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies).

This kind of unconscious putting-down is, I fear, prevalent in our society. It is deeply troubling to see it in action, and yet it is difficult to overcome for the very reason that it is unconscious. In this particular journalistic instance, it is of no consequence except as an illustration of how these things crop up all over the place.  Other similarly irritating occasions will be familiar to many a professional woman who turns up somewhere unfamiliar only to be first cut dead and then be greeted with ‘oh I was expecting a man’ (this frequently happens to me when drivers pick me up from airports or stations waving their placards saying Professor Donald). Boring but unimportant.

Other instances of unconsciously ignoring or marking down an individual simply because they are female can be much more serious. The 1997 study of Swedish fellowship applications by Wenneras and Wold is frequently cited on this front. Examining how male and female applicants for postdoctoral fellowships were judged, it demonstrated that the playing field was anything but level. Other well known papers demonstrating similar subtle (or not-so-subtle) effects include a 1999 study of reviews of CV’s, when either a male or a female name was attached to the same CV. This study showed that both men and women scored the ‘male’ CVs more highly than the ‘female.’   In a totally different context it was shown that when auditions for orchestras were carried out blind, by placing the players behind a screen so that the judging panel couldn’t see if they were male or female, suddenly more women were successful in the auditions. This was also published in 1999.

However, it is possible that things have improved substantially since these papers were published at the end of the last century. As I cited previously, the Royal Society’s recent statistics actually show a marginally higher success rate for women fellowship applicants than for men. Recent work from the US by Ceci and Williams also suggests that the outcomes of the Swedish study may no longer apply. This same paper suggested that examination of studies about hiring processes, grant reviewing and journal refereeing all failed to show significant differences by gender. Is it possible that we have actually progressed beyond the obvious problems associated with unconscious bias? I am afraid I am not convinced that the world is quite that rosy.

It may indeed be the case that interview panels are much more aware of the issues, but it is still the case that judgements may be formed very fast, and be remarkably hard to overturn. A chilling, although I suspect statistically flawed study (the numbers were tiny) of mock job interviews showed just how much first impressions count: this might be anything from firmness of handshake, to body posture on the interview chair to – well, I suppose, is this what the interviewer thinks a new research fellow/professor or whatever should look like? Having been told in the not-so-distant past by a male colleague that my ‘turn would come’ when I applied to take on some role, despite the fact I was more senior (in age and status) than the alternative male applicant, signified to me I did not meet with his superficial expectations; it had nothing to do with my actual skills and experience.  That is the danger if thought is not applied. And that is exactly the sort of thing my recent experience with the Cambridge News demonstrates. In that case it didn’t matter. Many times it may make the difference between career progression and stagnation, or even failure and dropping out.

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27 Responses to Dangerous Assumptions

  1. Tiina Roose says:

    Fabulous blogpost. Both me and my husband are readers and of the same age. We did our PhDs at the same time. I still get asked (12 years after) at conferences “who is your supervisor?”. And bot, men and women do it equally in my opinion. Hubby has never been asked this question even during his PhD. I almost panicked when at one of the recent conferences I did not get asked this question since I thought I had started to prematurely age. However, as my hubby pointed out it was “honey, you were the plenary speaker”. I think it is still a numbers game, there just aren’t enough senior women around so people are not used to it. And I suspect men are more conscious of their status than women, i.e., women tend to let their work speak for themselves rather than wave their titles around.

  2. Dear Athene,

    Great post, as usual.

    To echo your intuition that “it is possible that things have improved substantially” about accidentally doing people down :

    You probably saw this study published last month :

    Survival Analysis of Faculty Retention in Science and Engineering by Gender
    Deborah Kaminski1, Cheryl Geisler
    Science 17 February 2012, Vol. 335 no. 6070 pp. 864-866, DOI: 10.1126/science.1214844

    Reading the paper, one would think that things are now better indeed, especially considering promotion :
    “Overall, men and women are retained and promoted at the same rate. […] The lack of gender effects in retention and promotion in our data is good news and confirms the patterns found in recent aggregate and indirect analyses (1, 3). For all STEM disciplines considered together, the percentage of women hired is lower than men, but the retention rates are comparable. This indicates that, if the women are hired, they will likely persist”.

    The cold shower actually comes with the last words, stressing how long the road is :
    “However, the long span of faculty careers provides considerable inertia in the system. Marschke et al. (22) estimate that it would take about 40 years for a department to match the gender composition of the hiring pool because of the long length of faculty careers. Although our data do show an increase in percentage of women hired, the goal of 50% women may not be achieved until as late as 2050. Thus, if current trends continue, it may take 100 years before women are 50% of the faculty in STEM departments.”

    Best regards,

  3. Karen Stears says:

    Interesting. I had a boss once, like me a PhD, who would send me mail addressed to Mrs K Stears despite the fact that I’m Mrs something totally different but professionally am Dr Stears. Didn’t maker a blind bit of difference complaining to his secretary either. Also when I last applied for a loan with my bank the computer program would not allow the input of the combination ‘Dr’ & ‘female’!

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    I know that the US isn’t immune to such problems, but from your writing it seems to me that the UK is particularly problematic with regard to gender inequality. The issue of political correctness (in a good sense) is so high here that a comment such as “I expected a man” would simply be unheard of. At least as far as I know.

    The same goes for minorities, although I need to stress that here the term is strictly qualified as “under-represented minorities.” Scientists of Asian origin are not considered minorities in the US, nor are Jewish scientists. So-called target ratios for equality on committees and review groups aim for 1:1 male/female ratios, and for inclusion of a percentage of Hispanic, Alaskan, American Indian and Hawaiian researchers.

    • Ulrike says:

      Many studies unfortunately show that the US is not at the forefront of gender equality; not even promoting women’s right or choices. Many people just like to assume we are….

  5. Try being a very short and incredibly young looking applicant (back then – I have grey hair now)and then apply for a position of even minor importance. You could see it the moment you entered the room – they would take one look and then fail to interview you altogether in any serious way. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I did try but just ended up looking like I’d borrowed my elder sister’s clothes. I tried being loud, being soft, wearing high heels, lots of makeup, no makeup dressed up, dressed down. Nothing seemed to help so I basically gave up and used my hard won skills to clean floors! At least it gave me a living. I did once get a part time decent job sort of by accident and got rave reviews at the end of it but even that didn’t seem to help. By my early thirties I decided I was just never, ever going to have any sort of career and gave up altogether. I hope my children do better than I (or my husband) have done. There just has to be a better way to run a society than this. At least it seems as if there are some changes for the better. I wouldn’t want any woman to be told as I was, that because I wasn’t 6 foot tall and male, I wouldn’t get a job. (that was in the 80s)

    viv in nz

  6. Ellie Banwell says:

    Sample size is too small to be draw any real conclusions, but it has just occurred to me that my successful grant applications have always been the ones I have written and then submitted under my male supervisors name. It could just be that my supervisors are more established and well known than I (although my current lab head has only been a PI himself for a couple of years, so he’s really only very slightly ahead of me on the career ladder) but my writing ought to be consistent and my hit rate is respectable, so I have to wonder…

    Perhaps I should start writing under my nickname “Bob”?!

  7. I’m glad it’s not just me. I thought I was being over sensitive when I get irked by work emails adrressed Dear Mrs Warwick, when my title is on my webpage and email sig- I’m happy with Dr or Prof, but there is no Mrs Warwick (other than my mother) because I don’t use my husband’s name either. I think this probabaly is due to unconsious assumptions about how vauable women are and, as in this case, it is just as common from other women. I realised this very acutely when a young visiting scholar from overseas came to a meeting with me in my office (door clearly marked with my name and title). We had not met before and had arranged to meet over email. I opened the door, to find a young women looking at me in horrified surprise: she then blurted out ‘Are you Claire?’. It was all too clear that as far as she was concerned someone of my age and gender was clearly not the right stuff when it came to being a professor and HoD. She was from a culture that is less liberal in terms of gender realtions- but I do wonder whether as a result her reaction was simply a more obvious form of what others think but are too polite to say.

  8. Ernesto Priego says:

    Thank you for a great post. Indeed, “many times” these often undiscussed assumptions “may make the difference between career progression and stagnation, or even failure and dropping out.” As you point out between parentheses in the first paragraph, ethnic minorities also suffer from this. Sometimes it takes the form of rude patronising, in which a type of awareness of one’s difference is emphasised loud in a way that would never be tolerated in any other situation. I wonder if there are UK studies about how ethnic origin affects hiring processes, just as there are for gender. I was forced to add “Dr” to my email signature and social media accounts because journalists and colleagues kept referring to me as a student in the best of cases, and as nothing at the worst.

    I will never forget one day many years ago in San Francisco, when I went to pick up my author’s copies of my recently published book. At reception I said I was there to pick up some books– having a Mexican name I guess they assumed I was a delivery person and pointed to me to the deliveries section in the basement of the high rise building– it took me a while to realise this before I brought myself to say, “er, no, I am an author”.

  9. Thanks for this post. It’s clearly struck a chord with a number of us. I also have ‘Prof’ in my email signature and get Dear Mrs (or Ms.) Leach all the time (also my mother, not me!). And I also get asked what I’m studying and then told, when I explain that I haven’t been a student for years, that I should take it as a compliment that they thought I was that young. If I demur, they think I’m grumpy or over-reacting, so one really can’t win.

    I was musing at the weekend about having a T-shirt printed saying ‘This is what a Professor looks like’…

  10. Steve – I’d be interested to know if your optimistic view is really correct. As I said in my last post I am not convinced the US really is any better than the UK, though it may be different. People may not say explicitly that they expected a man, but is that PCness more than skin deep? I am not sure I know the geographical origin of everyone who has agreed with the sense of the post but, as the MIT report published last year showed, all the issues are not yet eradicated (I wrote about that report here).

    It is clear the world is ageist, heightest (as Nutty Knitter demonstrates) as well as biased against ethnic minorities (as Ernesto’s comment shows). It isn’t just gender and the depressing thing is we probably all have our own blindness about some aspect or another in which we make inappropriate assumptions. Talking about it is probably the best we can do. But it is well summed up by a tweet I just received.
    When I first qualified, farmers used to look behind me for ‘the vet’. Once I had proved myself, they asked for ‘the vetess’!
    It is so wearing constantly having to prove onself, in ways the dominant majority – whatever that might be depending on the situation – do not. And yet it can seem petty to complain sometimes (I didn’t write to the Cambridge News to complain, for instance) and there are only so many hours in the day! As Eva says, you can’t win – but we can surely keep pressing for change.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I’m glad that someone tagged me as an optimist! I’m going to print that out and show it to my family every time they say I only see the bad side of everything!

      I don’t doubt that there’s a long way to go here, but I do think that the political correctness DOES trickle in slowly but surely. On a different issue, I’ve seen the tremendous campaign that schools have done to have youth stop using the derogatory term “retard” (as a noun), and I have no question that it’s become completely outmoded and vilified. Even if the actual understanding and empathy follows the laws and rules, eventually it seems to catch up.

      On the lighter side, I just noticed an article in a recent Newsweek magazine about the Higgs boson (titled “In Search of the God Particle.”). In a follow up, 3 people were briefly interviewed under the title “What’s So Heavenly About the God Particle?”

      The interviewees were:
      Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, director of mission and public affairs at the Church of England

      Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author

      Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University

      You will of course notice that NEITHER academic received the Dr. title, only the reverend.

      Coincidence? I’ll let you decide!

    • Just to chime in (or interrupt as is my title)
      I think the US is actually worse than the UK on subtle things like this – at least in my experience. I see many more women her in higher positions than I did in the US in science. Perhaps this is just my experience? But I am not so sure. There were fewer women in more senior positions (such as full professors) and those that were were talked about in the standard trope way ‘bitch’, ‘ice queen’, ‘not so able only got to her position because she was a woman’ – people even said these kind of things about female graduate students. I don’t hear this kind of stuff very often in the UK – but maybe I am not listening.

  11. Ilse says:

    The issue is deeply ingrained in society. Look at all the tv commercials: guys buying cars, women always cleaning… I take care of all financial matters in our home, my husband barely knows the name of our bank. Yet I get consistently addressed as Mr. whenever I receive a letter. The worst was when we moved and I notified the bank with which I had been a client for over 15 years. Their reply was addressed to my 8 year old son, who was obviously the oldest male in their records. And they were still surprised I canceled my business with them. Long story short: we have a long way to go, but we should continue to generate awareness!

  12. Kate Adamson says:

    When I got married a few years ago, my colleagues kindly had a small gathering to give me a gift. I took the opportunity to let them know that I would still be using my own name after marriage (not the norm in that workplace).
    My boss of several years asked, in a particularly patronising tone “So will you still be MISS Adamson then?”
    The story of the look on my face when I told him ‘Doctor’ went round the rest of the office within hours.

  13. mgg says:

    As far as things in the US, here is an article that might interest you.

  14. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I recently received an email from a female admin assistant saying that the people invited to the meeting were “Dr. A___, Dr. H___, Dr. S___, and Cath”. Now, granted, the other three invitees – all men – are professors, while I’m not; I help them with their grants and manuscripts, but I’m not their peer. It still bugged me, though – apparently I’m not worth any title at all, and definitely not the “Dr” I earned 10 years ago.

  15. I frequently get people addressing me as “Mr.” Wintle – and no, I don’t mean bank tellers, I’m talking about scientists, industry and related types who ought to know better. It annoys me, too.

  16. It seems clear that there is some scepticism that Steve’s optimistic take on life in the US is shared by many. Certainly, as my last post highlighted, they are very backward on maternity leave policies which must impact hugely on women’s progression. I was also struck by this story about the success rate for women winning prizes in the US. I guess both countries are probably equally bad, just in different ways. Would I rather be called Mrs Donald (or dear or love, as women so ofter are in the UK) but be nominated for – and win – prizes? In fact, I probably would!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I guess we are all tainted by comparisons to what we are used to seeing. I obviously can’t fairly comment on the UK, not having ever lived there, but in comparison to the gender issues in Israel that I have been sporadically reporting in this venue, the US is far better. At the same time, the comment about maternity leave is clearly a bad mark on the state of things here. Weird as it may sound, although it certainly leads to inequality (compare Canada or Scandinavian countries that have leave for EITHER parent for a year or a combination of both), I’m not sure that the powers that be intend for this to be a means of securing inequality. In other words (and please don’t mistake me, as I DO NOT agree in any way with this policy), I’ve seen women at NIH give birth and return to work in 2 weeks, thereby “proving” their ability to overcome their life situation and carry on at work as usual.
      As for women professors in prominent positions, I can’t and won’t argue about awards given. Statistics will obviously override any of my own more limited experience. But my own experience does indicate that in my environs, a good percentage (close to 50%) of women hold the departmental chair positions, and other high ranking positions on campus. Meritoriously. I would suggest that the disparities are probably a lot greater in the lower socioeconomic groups, and as the level of education is lower.

  17. Ursula Martin says:

    It wasn’t that long ago that I was roundly ticked off by a librarian for trying to fraudulently borrow books on my husband’s library card – it said “Professor Ursula Martin” on it….

  18. Les Dix says:

    I was appointed as a chemistry lecturer in a UK Polytechnic a few years before it became one of the new universities in 1992. It was a male dominated institution then, I cannot recall there being any women in senior management or reader/professorial posts (there were not many of the latter anyway). It is remarkable how things have changed. Until a restructuring a couple of years ago our school was run by a dean, three associate deans and a registrar – all women. In our new school (formed by a split & merger) we have an executive group that is almost entirely made up of women. However, the readers and research professors tend to be men. The model of leadership in our kind of university is different to that in a research-led institution but the women who lead our school have, in most cases, a solid research background usually gained in a pre-92 university. It is interesting that over 20 years or so a University can have changed so dramatically and I wonder if a similar change could happen in a research-led institution. Perhaps there are many examples where it has?

    • The Hospital for Sick Children, where I work, is one – the CEO, CIO (‘Information Officer’) and a number of other C-level executives are all women. I’m not sure how typical this is but it’s sure working well here!

  19. Ursula Martin says:

    I’ve just run across an article in the US based Inside Higher Ed concerning a campaign to ensure that the eminent philosopher Ruth Barcan Marcus received a New York Times obituary.

    This led me to the excellent blog by Jennifer Saul, head of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield
    and the web page for her Leverhulme funded project on Implicit Bias and Philosophy

  20. BB says:

    Nice post Athene (professor dame etc.) but you have left us hanging! Did you phone up and give them hell? Did they apologise? Do you want me to phone them up and give them hell?

    I used to get the ‘how far through your PhD are you?’ even as a lecturer but I think having had a baby has helped with that. Now I look too tired to be a student…

  21. BB
    No I haven’t challenged the newspaper. Interestingly, the following week they gave me all my correct titles in an article by the same journalist reporting on International Women’s Week – but I think they were simply reproducing a press release from the University then. I have made sure the Communications Office here know though, so perhaps it will filter through.

    Thanks for the links. As it happens Professor Saul – already recommended by colleagues in Sheffield – was giving a talk in the Cambridge philosophy department at the start of the week. I was frustrated not to be able to attend. I’m told the problems of numbers of women in philosophy are at least as bad as physics.

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