Translating words into action—trials of a male feminist

I have been sitting on the sidelines watching, reading and cheering (no, not cheerleading—let’s not get into that debate…) as I follow the blogs, commentaries, lectures and personal examples of wonderful women in science who are leaders of the movement towards equal representation, opportunity and equality. I am honored to be among several who blog regularly here at this site, in particular the superb blogs of Jenny Rohn (Mind the Gap) and Athene Donald (Athene Donald’s blog), and of course many others.

I agree 100% with everything being said. My spouse unconditionally agrees that I am a certified feminist. So now what? How can I translate this into action?

Please, this is a serious question, and I invite input on the matter. The gap between “declaration” and “doing” is beginning to bother me.

Until now I was fighting for my own career, my own survival. Now that I have a foothold (also known as tenure), I feel compelled to do more for science, women in science and minorities in science (a matter which I believe is separate and I will come to shortly).

I have always been puzzled by women who choose not to work and stay home to raise children. Of course I ‘accept’ this as a woman’s right, or a couple’s right to decide how to manage their own lives. But from my perspective, a person is defined by their work. This does not mean that people who work in tasks outside science are inferior. No, my point is that I hold very high respect for someone who takes her/his job seriously and is good or efficient at it. Believe me, I am full of respect for the checkout person at the supermarket who rapidly checks me out. I am in awe of the clerk at the bank who quickly processes my request, and the plumber who quickly diagnoses and fixes the leak in my toilet. It is not an elitist respect, but simple respect for a job well done. And I am certain that each and every one of these workers goes home at the end of the day, proud of their mastery at work.

Women who choose to stay home puzzle me—regardless of whether their families have enough money to afford this practice. The reason is that to me, staying home symbolizes a person’s giving up on her/his own career in favor of the next generation. Well it’s important to ensure survival of the next generation, but once our children are born, do we give up our own identity to promote theirs?

Throughout my own career I have had strong female role models. My Masters and Ph.D. advisors were both female, and the latter played a particularly strong role in shaping my scientific career. Another tremendous female scientist with whom I had the honor of being affiliated, was Dr. Peggy Wheelock. She was a wonderful person who played a unique and special role in promoting the careers of newly-independent researchers, and women in science. She was the type of person who would pick up the phone, call me, and say: “I was thinking about your career, and it’s time for you to get on a journal editorial board or two. E-mail this editor—if he tells you that I am already on the board and he doesn’t want another person from the same institute—just tell him I said to take me off.” This outstanding example of mentorship—and giving me the feeling that I was not alone in my career battle—is something I will never forget, and will do my best to pass on to my students, both female and male.

Well, back to the main question: what can I do to prove my loyalty to feminist values? As a parent, I promote the idea of gender equality, equal opportunities, and no glass ceilings. I am sure that this message is well understood. In my own laboratory, I never look at gender as a reason for favoring one student or postdoc over another, and I already have 75% females in the lab. So no ‘leveling of the playing field’ is needed at this stage. My graduated students have gone on to postdoctoral positions, and I am doing my best to help an outstanding female student to obtain a well-deserved faculty position. But this is hardly feminism; it is just doing what any mentor should naturally do.

I was recently asked to be Chairperson of a grant review study section. I received a pile of charts explaining the association’s policies and “target ratios” for women reviewers in the study panels. The aim, of course, is 1:1. My own panel currently has an 8:1 male:female ratio, and my first task was to nominate 4 women scientists to fill in the 3-4 slots that are open. So perhaps this was my first ever opportunity to institute some minor change for the better.

So where is the problem? If I have 75% female students who are among the best in the department, and they are succeeding as graduate students and going on to promising careers, how is it that the faculty in my department (as well as the grant review study section) is 90% male? Where are we going wrong?

Before trying to answer and asking for input on this important question, I would like to bring in an additional complex issue—primarily for the purpose of comparing and contrasting the situation. This is the issue of minorities in science.

As it turns out, my grant review group also has targets for reviewers who are ‘minorities’. I use the quotations here because minorities have been qualified into two sections: 1) under-represented minorities, and 2) minorities.

The under-represented minorities are scientists who are African American or ‘black’, of Hispanic, Alaskan, Native American or Polynesian descent. Please forgive me if I’ve inadvertently left any under-represented minorities out of the equation, as I don’t have the forms in front of me.

As an “aside”, I must say that I personally don’t really understand this type of categorization. I would be catalogued as “white”, although my own skin is more of a beige/pink/brown hue. It’s also not clear to me why those of North African descent are considered differently on this artificial scale than those of Hispanic descent—are there more North African scientists? Well, this categorization probably deserves a blog by someone more knowledgeable in evolution and anthropology, so I’ll get back to the point.

The other ‘minorities’ are qualified by those of Asian descent, and it turns out that reviewers of Chinese and Indian descent are not really minorities—at least in science—and some study sections even have a majority of reviewers from these countries.

So for all practical purposes, I propose in this blog to ignore the latter ‘minority’, as they are well represented in science. Now, with regards to all the under-represented minorities—who truly are under-represented—what is the reason for this? Without providing numbers and statistics, I think it is easy to see the reason—there are simply very few graduate students proportionally who belong to the above under-represented minority groups. Probably, this has to do with the fact that there are proportionally low levels of undergraduate students from these groups studying science—and perhaps in university overall.

All of this leads of to the conclusion that, as opposed to the situation with women in science, there is a problem early on somewhere in the education of these minorities. Women, on the other hand, appear to encounter difficulties only much, much later on, in obtaining and/or maintaining faculty positions.

Thus, it would be easy to contrast these two groups of minorities and suggest that lack of access to a good (science) education is the major concern for the under-represented minorities, whereas with women, the central problem comes from lack of career advancement at the postdoctoral level and above. Why?

I am certain that Athene and Jenny’s blogs will shed a lot more light on these issues than I can, with my limited perspective, but I would like to propose that there is an early educational issue that might still need to be rectified in this case as well. It is not the science level or content that is at stake, but rather the lack of sufficient women-in-science models—something that I know is noticed by girls in school at an early age, that may play a part of the attrition of women in science at the higher levels. Obviously the “glass ceilings” set by male scientists is a major reason (among many others, including women ‘sacrificing their careers’ for those of their partners)—but I suggest that even reading about historical experiments performed almost exclusively by males has so permeated scientific culture that it will take a conscious effort by parents and educators to explain and prepare girls and young women to charge forward in science and not look back. I am optimistic that in my lifetime we will see equality and justice.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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24 Responses to Translating words into action—trials of a male feminist

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Excellent post, Steve – thanks for writing this, and thank you for being an ally!

    Just a note, though, about women choosing to stay at home: my Mum took a ten year career break when she had me and my sister (two years apart). She admits that she got horribly bored and frustrated at times, BUT she alleviated the boredom by teaching us both to read and do simple arithmetic at a very early age (she’s a teacher, so it’s in the blood!). This gave us both a huge advantage – my reading age was the best in my year, at two years above my actual age – and set the stage for high academic achievement (for my sister, too).

    I don’t think I could do this myself, but I’m highly appreciative of my Mum doing it for me, and I totally understand why other women choose to do it too!

    (I’m also extremely glad that my Mum went back to work, though, and mostly enjoyed the teaching and her role as head of year very much – although she has the occasional regret that she never made it to deputy headmistress and then headmistress, which she thinks she would have if she hadn’t taken the long break).

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks, Cath-

      I do think there is a huge difference between women who do go back to work–even if it is an extended break–and those who never do. Although I can imagine that it becomes more difficult over time. The reason is that despite staying home and providing a child with a phenomenal academic start in many cases (as you describe)–the question to me is what kind of role model will little girls and boys see? They see that the father goes to work, and the mother stays home. Inevitably, I think that despite the wonderful advanced education that you describe, in many cases this is going to lead (at least subconsciously) to the gender imparity that we see today. My own mother never worked, despite having a profession. Even as a child I was always proud of my father and his work, but this attitude was lacking towards my mother. Perhaps I was an unappreciative child! Nonetheless, I am glad that my own children have a different role model to follow.

      But–you don’t answer my question–what else can males do?


  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I don’t know. You’re already doing more than most.

    Jenny and Athene and others who spend more time thinking about this than I do will no doubt have some excellent suggestions! Until then – keep doing what you’re doing, I guess 🙂

  3. cromercrox says:

    I don’t see that staying home and looking after the kids is in anyway a dishonorable thing. I know women – and men – who do this.

    But there could be a genuine difference between the sexes as regards attitudes here.

    Item: Mrs Crox (46) is a professional journalist, and apart from three years spent reproducing, has always worked. She admits she’s not the stay-at-home-Mom type, and loves to go to work. However, she is just about to lose her full-time job, a victim of the present economic downturn.

    Sure, her job is full-time, but largely home-based. When she has to travel for work, I stay at home. Mrs Crox is having a hard time finding another job, as almost all demand long hours away from home. To me, there’s no problem – the kids aren’t babies any more. Crox Minor (12) is at high school, and comes and goes as she pleases. Crox Minima (10) will be at High School come September, and will be similarly independent. If I were Mrs Crox, I’d apply for whatever job was going – after all, it’s a tough market out there. But Mrs Crox sees things differently. She is adamant that she wants to be home for the kids, and nothing can shift her. Gender equality is a fine thing, but I contend that there are real, biological differences out there that cannot be legislated away, or countered even by quite radical changes in attitude.

    On the other hand, if my employer allowed me to work from home more than I do at present, there wouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps part of the problem lies not with male attitudes, or people in general, but with the inertia of corporations. Mine is run by a female from an ethnic minority. And yet these attitudes persist.

  4. rpg says:

    I have to say that I think you’re being narrow-minded, Steve. Feminism is about being free to make choices, surely? And perhaps more importantly accepting that others’ choices are as valid as your own If anybody chooses to look after children and put their career on hold (or give it up entirely) then you have no right at all to gainsay that, nor to treat it as somehow worthwhile. Would you say what you’ve written above to a male colleague who choose to stay home and bring up children?

    From your comments, it appears you live to work rather than work to live, so maybe that’s the difference.

    To answer your broader question, I’d say that being accepting of people’s choices, whether you agree with them or not, would be a great first step in ‘doing’.

  5. Pingback: In Praise Of Ladies of a Certain Age | The End Of The Pier Show

  6. rpg says:

    *Sigh* iPhone comment. That should read

    “valid as your own. If anybody chooses to look after children and put their career on hold (or give it up entirely) then you have no right at all to gainsay that, nor to treat it as somehow less worthwhile. “

    • cromercrox says:

      Nice that OT lets us use our iGadgets to comment, though. Unlike some networks I could mention, but daren’t.

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Richard and Henry,

    Thank you for you responses and expressing your views. I’m glad to see that at least with this issue I’ve forced some kind of union of forces between the two of you! I must be doing something right…

    As I stay home today with my son who is ill, I reflect on your comments and find that I absolutely agree that there are biological differences that make matters more complex. After all, women go through the long pregnancy term, not men, and women go through the pain of birth–and probably most significantly, women nurse and usually have an initial bond with their babies that is rather unique and hard to replicate for males (but still possible).

    This has probably been one of the key reasons why over the last several million years it has been primarily men who first hunted, and much later worked to provide while women typically stayed home with their children. At least until the past 50-80 years, to varying degrees.

    So while we are all products of evolution, modern man has come to the realization that in an educated, democratic society, we can and need to put our evolutionary impulses in check. It would be fairly simple to make a case that men are evolutionarily programmed to spread their seed–yet many of us in modern society do not accept polygamy and promiscuity as morally acceptable values merely because our biological/genetic makeup would like us to mate and copulate and often and with as many partners as possible.

    If one looks at the trend of a growing number of women in the workplace over the last 50 years or so, I simply see education–and yes, to a certain extent rejection of our strict evolutionary program–in favor of equality. So modern society is really all about striving to overcome some of our impulses. Being evolutionarily programmed in a specific way does not mean that this is the best way for us to live.

    With regards to Richard’s question about a male colleague staying home–I would feel precisely the way I do about a woman staying home–puzzled. Yes, women, men and couples do have every right to do as they see fit. There is no argument with this. But I honestly believe that when society eventually reaches an equilibrium of gender equality, and we (or our children) look back, we will be amazed to study how this process of “bucking” the evolutionary patterning took so long.

  8. rpg says:

    For sure. But that’s not the same as denying choices, which caused me to froth so much at the mouth 🙂

    • Steve Caplan says:

      From my side of the ice-osphere, the only women right now being denied choices are those who can’t break through the glass ceilings. My “being puzzled” at a woman’s (or man’s) rightful choice to do as she or he pleases can’t really be equated with “denying choices”.

      p.s.- I wish I could get my espresso machine to “froth at the mouth”- right now it’s on strike…

  9. Steve, one of the most important things you can do is speak up for minorities, women included, and make people aware. For women, so often many of the issues – taking a day off because a child is sick for instance – is seen as the mother’s problem by colleagues. Then they can say the woman is unreliable because she does it. The more such matters are seen as parental problems, the more they just will have to be faced up to. It is important that it isn’t just women seen as moaning that there are problems, that men speak up too. So, delighted to have you on board. The more who do as you do, the more young men you inspire to follow suit, the better for everyone!

    • rpg says:

      That is an awesome point, Athene. From my own experience, I get a ‘huh?’ and then acceptance when I have to take time off for the F1s. So in a small way, I think it does help change attitudes.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you Athene. I agree completely–I also agree with your earlier blog and comments that striking the right balance for women (and men) is actually easier as we move from graduate and postdoctoral positions to more ‘independent’ academic research positions. To a certain extent, taking off a sick day for one of my children can lead me to be even more productive (at their current ages), because I have fewer distractions at home. It definitely took a lot more creative juggling when a call from the day care would come in to the lab and two postdoctoral parents would have to make split-second decisions on the phone about logistics for the rest of the day. But where there’s a will there’s a way.

  10. Cromercrox says:

    I had written a reply some time ago, but it was bounced, probably on the grounds that I’m an evil misogynist upholder of the patriarchy, and worse, have views that differ from everyone else’s. Fancy! But I digress. I was going to say something cautionary about invoking evolutionary biology, but the moment has passed. On reply to Athene I’d have to say ‘up to a point’: it’s laudable for us New Dads to change views on the shop floor, but many Dads don’t have the option – change will only come when matters such as parental leave are gender-blind. To do that, organisations such as the CBI and IoD will have to be convinced.

  11. becca says:

    Invite women for seminar speakers. What are you looking for in faculty? Try to make sure women get those opportunities.

    Some of it’s subtle- it’s not just having women role models, but seeing that they are accepted. Express positive things about people who are scientifically talented and have family lives. Express positive things about a wide variety of female personalities, and praise leadership that might otherwise go unnoticed.

    And keep in mind- even the best scientists are usually only known for a few hundred years. The evolutionarily ‘best’ parents will last as long as the species does. So which does it make more sense to define yourself by? My identity is scientist first, but I can grok other ways of existing.
    (for the record, my dad stayed home with me. I found it unfathomable as a teenager, but I did eventually mature such that I felt gratitude about it)

  12. rpg says:

    becca +1.

    Plus several, actually. Acceptance, expressing positive things, good. Subtle and subversive–I like.

  13. cromercrox says:

    I’ve been put in the hot seat here – I’ve had the opportunity to put forward big names in my field to serve as an editorial board of a journal. I’ve tried, really hard, to think of eminent female scientists, because, I do know quite a few, and the female scientists who have achieved eminence in my field are truly remarkable people by any measure. Well, I’ve done my best. But it’s difficult.

  14. MGG says:

    Excellent post as always.
    Here’s what I think: Since everything boils down to one’s choices, perhaps it is important to influence the choices of women in science. One can do this by increasing women’s awareness of how science works and bringing to their attention the struggles of successful women who have gone around “obstacles” they found on their way. Knowledge of their options and information about how to navigate complex situations involving their decisions to continue or drop-out of science would go a long way in helping other women not give up on science easily. Sometimes, all one needs is perspective and it is weird where one can find it.
    Perhaps at your institute, you can initiate a forum for discussion, where women scientists, young and old, talk about how they got into science and why they continued in it. I guess it will unfold tales of surprising struggles and probably lead to an awareness of the issues women face and also the key influences they had in their career. Perhaps also include talks by men scientists about how they got into and stayed in science. I guess it will attract quite an audience and will be very inspiring to all.
    Just hearing about the lives of women who made it and “seeing” that none of them are “superwomen” but just women who happened to make the right choices, who looked for and got support from the right places, would make those choices more realistic and not so hard to implement in one’s own life. After all, research is an unforgiving and highly demanding profession, and many times, it is one’s passion for it that takes one that far. I guess a reason many women drop out of science later in life as it gets more competitive is probably because they realize that they don’t want to be “losers”, and at the moment in their life they fear they might not have it all to fight a fair fight. So giving up is a better option, because you don’t technically lose if you chose not to fight… And all such women probably need is just a slight push to try just once more and maybe they would make it. After all, these women are as intelligent and trained as any man-scientist at a similar level in their career.
    So to sum it up, please try to increase the awareness level of women scientists about practical problems they will face in their career, so that they can make realistic and informed choices that would ultimately increase their chances of becoming successful.

  15. Steve Caplan says:

    Thank you to Becca and MGG for highly constructive comments on what to do!

  16. rpg says:

    OK, this isn’t a ‘look at me, give me a medal’ thing, but an example of what can be done…

    I was asked to come up with some Faculty Members (day job: for a roundtable discussion. I went through and picked some likely looking coves. I then went back for a second sweep and made sure there were women in the list. It wasn’t a case of positive discrimination (all our Faculty are *good* anyways) but simply looking a little bit harder than I might otherwise have done. I then asked the person arranging the discussion to try and include at least one of the women–raising my colleague’s consciousness, if you like.

    Not difficult to do, but makes a difference.

  17. Steve Caplan says:

    Also a good suggestion, and something that is also being implemented by yours truly with regards to committee compositions, etc. (and no medal for me, but I’ll take a trophy…).

    Ahhh- so that’s the mysterious day job of RPG. Part of the elitist F1000 crowd. Shall I call you ‘Sir Richard’!

  18. rpg says:

    Rats, busted!

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