Do You Believe It’s All Your Fault?

Currently I spend far more time giving talks around gender issues than about my science. I don’t know what I feel about this. I am, after all, a physicist not a psychologist or social scientist but increasingly I seem to be treated as if I were a serious gender expert.  All I have to share is my experience: my experience both as a woman who has survived within the system and as someone who is attempting to effect change within my own institution and has some scope and influence to make such change happen. In that I am fortunate. Many women wish to see things change, can see actions large and small that might locally make a difference, but do not occupy a role in their organisation’s structures that make it easy to push such actions through.

When I give such talks – last week it was at the Genome Campus just outside Cambridge, with an audience from both the Sanger Institute and the EBI – I always learn a lot both from my hosts and the questions thrown at me by the audience. Often I am brought up short by a take on things I hadn’t thought through before: everyone’s experience and environment is different, thus leading to different perspectives. At one of these talks, and I can no longer remember which one, I was challenged that it was very dispiriting to hear about the difficulties and maybe for young women it was better not to know that the going could be tough. It is a viewpoint I have some sympathy with, particularly for the individual, but if these things aren’t discussed progress is unlikely to be made.

When I was a young researcher, I didn’t think about my gender at all. Whilst knowing that I might be in a tiny minority in the room – be it an undergraduate teaching lab or, at a later date, a conference hall – I didn’t feel that had any bearing on how I was treated. As I progressed I continued to feel uncomfortable at being so obviously visibly ‘different’, but still didn’t see a fundamental problem in how I was treated as a scientist. If my arguments weren’t listened to, or if people talked over me, I assumed it was because I wasn’t persuasive and that their views were ‘better’.  What changed my perception was reading the ground-breaking 1999 MIT Report on A Study on the Status of Women. I have written about this (and its 2011 companion study) previously so I won’t say much about the specifics. Sufficient to say that the statement in this early report

In contrast to junior women, many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT.

suddenly made me realise that my experiences were not necessarily my ‘fault’ but could be systemic. I was, after all, by this point already not only a professor but an FRS, externally taken seriously but apparently less so locally. Was this a problem with my working environment and not for instance (as Mary Beard has highlighted) because my voice was the wrong pitch? In the short term, reading the MIT report actually made me angry, but possibly in the longer term it gave me confidence. It spelled out that the fault might not lie in me and that, if I could step back from the personal (always so difficult to do) maybe I could identify not how to change myself fundamentally but how to work within the system. Not simply to try to shout louder (unlikely to succeed) but how to develop support systems and strategies that might involve going round the houses but could ultimately get me to the desired end. Probably up till then I had simply assumed that if what I thought was right, right would ultimately triumph and if not I should shut up. You will detect I am not talking about science per se, but about strategic or resourcing issues. I was not an overnight success at this changed approach, nor did the anger quickly fade but looking back hindsight tells me that I did make progress.

I think, regardless of the strategy any given individual might choose to adopt faced with a similar situation, there is another important message here.  I believe for many women (in academia and outside) it is mid-career that is most challenging: when one is seen as ‘alien’ by the majority (presumed to be male, certainly in a subject such as mine), possibly even a threat, albeit probably unconsciously. My experience – and discussions with other senior women supports this point of view – is that ultimately one’s situation improves again, so there is hope for those finding themselves in this dispiriting and painful mid-career trough. This pattern of progression is not often discussed but perhaps should be. And perhaps, as another batch of Athena Swan Awards are announced this week (including a Gold to my own department), institutions should factor this issue in their action plans.

So are you better off thinking it is all your fault? Or is it better to swallow the unpleasant pill that says our society is rife in unconscious bias (and certainly not just in science) and other shortcomings so that any difficulties that have to be faced are as likely to be systemic as down to your own failings? If issues are not discussed, if the fact that there are those who (consciously or not) trample on and patronise the women in their teams and departments  – even if it doesn’t amount quite to bullying or harassment – isn’t aired, what are we doing for those who come hereafter? I fear we will be sustaining an environment in which our daughters cannot thrive as well as our sons but merely be perpetuating the same system for another generation. All aspects of our working environment need to be scrutinised.

I believe it is only if we air the issues, face up to the limitations of what we have, of identifying who does what well and where the system lets individuals down, that we can move forward. It isn’t only down to the shocking behaviour, the truly horrible sexist remarks or blatant harassment, but the more subtle and therefore more invidious actions  –  the death by a thousand cuts that too many women face up to without even necessarily explicitly appreciating the problems they encounter daily – that we will genuinely be supporting the most talented. This is not an argument against men, this isn’t a zero sum game. It is in fact merely an attempt to create workplaces where the most talented thrive regardless of their sex, skin colour, religion or any other attribute, and a place where the status quo is constantly challenged to see if there is something better around the corner.

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9 Responses to Do You Believe It’s All Your Fault?

  1. Bill Harvey says:

    One thing I find very important in my life is peers. People I can respect and who show respect for me.You obviously have that, and it is the most important thing we can offer younger members of our professions. It is difficult though, in a male dominated profession. The main potential mentors are men and they may well feel exposed taking a young woman under their wing, as it were. I get teased unmercifully about “your young ladies”, not least by my wife, but, for example, hearing of a young engineer I met as a school pupil beginning to stand out as an undergraduate, the desire to put her alongside @RomaTheEngineer and @Engineer_Ria is serious. The need for people who are standing out and standing up to have colleagues to turn to is surely real.
    And if I am to do that I need to make and maintain the contacts to start with.

  2. Bill Harvey says:

    Actually, a bit more having finished reading. Many years ago I was shocked to hear my boss (with his wife standing beside him) announce that intelligent women terrify him. Intelligence is a joy. In Civil Engineering it’s easier to find sharp witted women than men because there are few women but most of them are there because they truly want to be. Encouraging them is both a duty and a pleasure. Especially since my wife has slowly lost her sharp edge to MS.

    • I think it’s rare to hear a man openly admit that ‘intelligent women terrify him’ but that doesn’t mean the sentiment isn’t implicit in an interaction. And it can be destructive and poisonous if that is what the man feels, particularly if he is in a position of authority or power. Why an intelligent woman should be more terrifying than an intelligent man beats me but it puts the smart woman in an impossible position. Desperately sad for all concerned but most particularly for the women who get sidelined rather than treated as equals. (And so sorry to hear about your wife.)

  3. Bill Harvey says:

    What I found most flabbergasting was to say that in front of his (actually intelligent) wife. Admittedly she worked in what used to be called “Domestic Science” but she ran a business from home making and icing wedding cakes and was pretty successful at it.

    One thing I have found is that I enjoy being intellectually challenged in a way that many people seem not to. I find talking to people who think faster than me (as my wife used) a real pleasure. Others seem threatened by it, which I suppose means they are not comfortable in their own skin. For 23 years I enjoyed many aspects of academic life but in the end I was not sorry to leave, to get back to looking after, if not building, bridges and to have customers who felt I was worth paying for. Last year I was astounded to be at a site meeting where 5 of the 8 people were women including the project director and project manager. Times are changing but slowly.

    I met RomaTheEngineer through work. She phoned me to ask about some arches. I have been amazed by what she is doing, including Young Struct Eng of the year a few years ago and a Women in Construction award this year in the same week she hit the billboards as one of M&S Leading Ladies. She tells me she is doing three presentation a month at the moment and holding down a job as an associate in a major consultant.

    The MS is a pig. They used to say it didn’t affect your brain but sadly not true. Still from a diagnosis in 1975 she brought up two good kids and got through and MPhil and into a PhD in 1995 before her brain started to fray. I do worry lot about the lines between helping her, taking over from her and patronising her.

  4. Sarah Callaghan says:

    It’s very reassuring to hear that there is the mid-career slump, as I’m pretty sure that I’m right in the middle of one!

    I did have a bit of a rant here, but decided discretion would be better. Regardless, knowing it’s not me is really helpful. Thank you!

  5. Bill Harvey says:

    This came up in a very different twitter thread this morning and is somewhat relevant, I think:

  6. Rosemary White says:

    I also had an “epiphany moment”, when some female PhD students came to ask me how to deal with a predatory male professor. Why me? I asked. Because you’re the only female postdoc, and there are no female faculty, they said. I’d been oblivious until then. Phew!

    Now, many years later, my strategy is to boringly keep bringing up unconscious bias and discrimination. Never give in! Put forward female colleagues for all the prizes and awards, contact conference organisers and remind them to select women as session organisers and speakers, ask female colleagues why they’re not going for promotion. Chip away. I, too, went through a mid-career slump when I wondered if I had enough energy to stay the path. Got over it eventually, partly via the rather energy-sapping decision to move to a place where I might get ahead…

    It still amazes me how oblivious some of my male colleagues are. They find it hard to accept the evidence, even when published in Nature:

    It takes energy and determination, there is so much inertia in the system, and resistance to change from some, like the bloke mentioned above who said intelligent women terrified him. But this year HALF of the newly elected Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science were women! Now THAT is progress!

    So in response, of course it’s not all our fault, and I also think it’s useful to know about obstacles ahead. But also need strategies to get around the obstacles – it seems to me to be the only way to make more progress.

  7. “I am, after all, a physicist not a psychologist or social scientist…”

    You might want to check out this study, on how how minorities react to discrimination: — whether you believe it’s your fault has an impact on self-esteem. (In a nutshell: if you attribute it to discrimination, your self-esteem is fine; if you think it’s your fault, your self-esteem drops, which you’ve observed.) An important thing in that process is whether you have a worldview that the world is meritocratic. If you think the world is meritocratic, you’re less likely to attribute failings to discrimination.

    While the evidence is that science is not actually meritocratic (e.g. ), a common belief in scientific culture is that science *should* be meritocratic. Science appears to attract a disproportionate number of people with meritocratic worldviews — which has an effect on how discrimination against minorities is perceived.

  8. Rachel Kurchin says:

    As a graduate student currently and hence definitely ‘early career,’ I appreciate hearing that things will be difficult down the road. Because then when I get there and they are, I’ll know that it’s normal and not that I’ve ‘risen to my level of incompetence,’ as they say.
    Another story to relate – I’m lucky that my particular skillset, in addition to (I hope) predisposing me to both enjoy and be good at research, have also allowed me to shine in most of the so-called ‘objective’ assessments we face along that path. In short, I’m a good test-taker and know how to apply myself in coursework to do well. And as an undergrad, even in my department’s closest-ever Physics class to gender equality (nearly 40% of 2013 graduates were female), I never realized that I took for granted that I was the best among the women in these sorts of assessments. Until a girl the year behind me, graduating this year, started to take the same ones, and since it’s a small department, I inevitably found out how she did on some of them. And every score I found out was better than mine. I found myself starting to be irritated by her a bit, thinking “oh, what a stick in the mud, she’s such a boring person, she cares too much about her marks,” etc. etc. etc. It wasn’t until I undertook some real self-examination that I realized that that wasn’t what bothered me. I resented her for being female and outdoing me! Why did that bother me but I was fine with the handful of men who did better than I did?
    I was sort of taken aback at myself for this – surely I, who’d been thinking about and involved in this cause for three years now, had conquered my own biases? But obviously not. A stark reminder that while we should of course turn outwards and identify the problems in society, the system, the institution, etc., that it behooves us to turn inwards now and again as well and make sure that we’re truly able to be supportive of everyone.

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