Guest Post: Women In Science at Evolution 2014

This is the third consecutive year that the Evolution Meeting has had a workshop and networking lunch focused on Women in Science. This year’s focus was on implicit bias in the workplace. The event was organized by Jenny Boughman (Michigan State University) and Michele Dudash (University of Maryland) and led by Joan Herbers (Ohio State University), past president of the Association for Women in Science. During the workshop, which was attended by about 45 women and 1 man, participants were asked to share instances in academic settings in which they felt they had been disadvantaged due to implicit bias. For me, these experiences include disrespect from male students, having a male colleague tell me that I was being held to different (lower) standards than he was, and sexual harassment at meetings. For others, instances included being referred to as “Ms.” instead of “Dr.” (this issue is eloquently discussed here), exclusion from meetings with deans and other higher-ups, greater service loads, and the list goes on. How can we counteract implicit bias? Joan suggests allowing ample time for making thoughtful decisions, explicitly stating criteria and standards, bringing the issue out in the open when having discussions, and mentally preparing yourself prior to situations where bias may occur.

The second half of the workshop and the bulk of the networking lunch (which had over 300 attendees) involved small-group discussion of issues faced by post-tenure women, including receiving recognition, avoiding burnout, negotiating reasonable service loads, and finding appropriate mentors/supervisors. We were asked specifically to focus on brainstorming solutions to these challenges. These are some of the major themes that arose.

  • Ask to be nominated for awards. Presumably this is what our male colleagues are doing. The number of women receiving awards and recognition is oftentimes not reflective of the faculty gender breakdown. When women do receive awards, they are far more often focused on teaching and service rather than intellectual merit. This issue has received a lot of attention lately and was recently discussed here.
  • Seek out mentors and sponsors. It is important to understand the distinction between mentor and sponsor. A mentor’s main responsibility is to provide advice and guidance with regard to navigating the vagaries of academia and tenure, while sponsors play a more active role by promoting your strengths and recommending you for promotions and awards. It is important to not exclude men from your search; they can be good mentors and sponsors to women as well as men. One point that was raised was that women sometimes are not the best mentors because they themselves have not always been mentored well. Don’t be afraid to ask someone because you fear they are already overbooked. Let the decision be theirs to make.
  • To avoid being taken advantage of in collaborations and authorship, clearly define everyone’s role at the outset of the project. Sometimes this can be tricky in long-term projects, but we thought it could help to avoid awkward situations down the road when it comes to authorship and people getting fair recognition for their contributions. I’m currently in a situation in which I feel an author is getting far more credit than she deserves based on the amount of effort she has put into the project; this issue could have been ameliorated if all collaborators had been willing to get together at the start of the project to develop a plan for completion and explicitly lay out each person’s contribution.
  • Don’t shy away from recognition. Women have a tendency to take the blame in a collaboration when something goes wrong but not take recognition after success. Why is this? To what extent do men do this, too? Be gracious in accepting recognition for a job well done.
  • Work with your university to increase equity in the student evaluation process. We perceive that male and female instructors are evaluated differently by students (a whole separate post could be dedicated to this issue). Some women spoke out about how they were perceived as maternal figures to their students and therefore students felt comfortable treating them as parents or therapists, whereas male colleagues did not experience this (this phenomenon has previously been covered here). Furthermore, some women noted that students would evaluate them negatively if they did not ‘sufficiently’empathize with them. How do we remedy this? Set boundaries. Be clear about the role of evaluations. If possible, rewrite evaluations to make them more objective and be evaluated by colleagues as well as students.
  • Understand how the tenure process at your university works. Each university has different SOP’s. Knowledge is power. It’s up to you to make sure you’re aware of current policies and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. For example, make sure you’re aware of policies regarding maternity leave – some universities will allow for an extra year before tenure review if it is taken.
  • Be selective about committees. Women are often likely to be asked to be on committees so that they can have female representation. However, since women tend to be underrepresented as faculty, they tend to have higher committee loads than their male counterparts. Furthermore, often these committees are not as prestigious as those that men primarily serve on. Don’t be afraid to say no or use these as opportunities for bargaining – only agree to be on extra committees if you can get something you need in return.

Bottom line: Be proactive. This theme was pervasive throughout the discussions of which I was a part. Ultimately it’s up to the individual to stand up for, assert, and promote herself.

This event stood out to me as one of the highlights of the Evolution Meeting. I have never before had the opportunity to engage with so many female scientists and be able to participate in brainstorming sessions to generate potential solutions to challenges that we’ll all likely face at one point or another in the workplace. Since I traveled solo to the meeting, it was a great opportunity for me to network with people that I otherwise probably would not have met. Even though I myself am not post-tenure, what I found great about these discussions is that these bits of wisdom are relevant to scientists at any stage in their professional career. Being in a male-dominated department in a male-dominated state, it was reassuring to feel solidarity with other women and get advice that I would not receive in my home institution.

Want to know more? Michele Dudash has put together links to summaries of the event here.

This post was contributed by PhD candidate

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Women In Science at Evolution 2014

  1. I was there too — was happy to see this tweet from AmNat last week.

    Looks like the event convinced someone to move to double-blind peer-review. Will be interesting to see if/when/how that plays out.

    • That is great news. I hope that more journals and committees start doing this. I actually did this for a class, where I had students double-blind peer review their papers. The biggest hassle was keeping it all organized… I wonder if there is simple software program that has been written to simplify the process?

  2. This is a great post – but just a note that the event was attended by many more people than 45 women and 1 man (I was there, but you can also quickly see that in the photo on Michele Dudash’s page).

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