Micropromotion and some problems with protégés

Microaggression, particularly racial microagressions, have gotten a lot of well-deserved press lately in the US, as hate crimes and police brutality have raised awareness of multiple kinds of oppression – some of which is structural, institutional, and overt and some of which is individual, personal, and “small.” There is research evidence that despite seeming small, microagressions add up to a large psychological burden for victims, whether they are being targeted for their race, sexual identity, gender, or other perceived differences.

Lately in my workspace, I’ve been thinking about an opposite: micropromotion. I’d define this as small amounts of praise and opportunities, deserved or not, that add up over time. This has been on my mind recently with regard to gender especially, due to a set of situations I’ve watched develop in my department and study results indicating that professors were more likely to respond to inquiries from white male (fictional) students. [Sadly, there are plenty of additional recent studies that appear to compound layers of implicit biases about women in the academy, including this PNAS study in which professors offered better pay to (fictional) male lab managers.]

After this other PNAS study came out discussing how elite male scientists mentor and employ fewer women, I started thinking about the composition of labs in my department. While there are possibly more female than male graduate students overall, I was reflecting on the fact that several male advisors clearly had favorite graduate students who looked exactly like them (white males). Some of these professors even refer to those students explicitly as their protégés. And while that might seem cute, I think it’s problematic, especially if/when these faculty are unwilling or unable to see themselves (aka great potential) in their female graduate students. It seems to be causing the advisors to give more opportunities to their male students. While the individual instances look small (like the study on how words used in letters of recommendation are different for women and men), they add up – and help account for the lack of female leadership and leaky pipeline in the academy.

So what kind of instances am I talking about? Here’s a few that come to mind from my own department. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Visiting fieldsites – One of my committee members has a policy of not visiting his female students at their fieldwork / research sites alone. Presumably he’s afraid of the optics, especially since some of his students do work overseas, sometimes in glamorous European locales, and he is a married man with a few decades on most of his advisees. But this hurts his female students in multiple ways. Number one, it insultingly presumes impropriety, as if male and female adults can’t work together without sexual misconduct — and as if the possibly of impropriety didn’t exist if the student is male. I am certainly not belittling the very real risk for mentees of mistreatment or assault by coworkers or supervisors in remote fieldwork conditions. However, this means that he can speak from personal experience about how his male students conduct themselves and their research in the field, but not his female students. That’s going to be reflected in his future letters about their work.

Lab responsibilities – Recent studies and blog posts have looked at how women are given (or are potentially socialized to volunteer for) administrative tasks, like note-taking at meetings. I’ve seen this play out in my department, while male graduate students are assigned (or given / allowed to volunteer for) tasks that help their professional development. I am thinking of one particular incident where two ABD female graduate PhD students requested (and were denied) opportunities to guest lecture or help TA an undergraduate class in their area of expertise, while their first-year Masters student male labmate was allowed to help TA instead (and the women were told by their advisor that they had to take the class, for credit). In another, a female graduate student interested in outreach was being trained by a graduating student to take over web management and social media presence for their lab. As soon as a male student joined the group, the opportunity was given to him instead, despite no experience or training (seemingly based on the outdated idea that men are better or more interested in technology and computers).


There are lots of other small instances I can think of, experienced by myself or my female colleagues in the department. But often, the incident in question is squishy or micro enough that instead of feeling confident in the bias (and potentially more able to shrug it off), it feels deeply personal and too small to complain about. I hesitate to even write some of them out here, because they seem context-dependent and hard to describe in the abstract. Did they pass me over because I’m a woman or because of something else? Is it because I’m not good enough? Am I overthinking this?   Many female grad students I know are devoting time and energy to reliving these moments, trying to figure out if they aren’t good enough or if they’ve been played.  When women are passed over for opportunities or described less as leaders it’s often by their own supervisors (! who in theory should be their biggest mentors and champions), so it’s a topic I’d like to keep thinking about. Do you have thoughts on how to combat this as a student or as an advisor?


37 thoughts on “Micropromotion and some problems with protégés

  1. “One of my committee members has a policy of not visiting his female students at their fieldwork / research sites alone. ”

    I can understand how this behavior might be indicative of an unfair bias, but I am betting the faculty member has learned from experience, direct and or indirect. While I acknowledge women generally face many unfair hurdles in the workplace compared to men, not all is roses on our end of this. Unsupported allegations of impropriety can ruin a career… a family… a life… well before any sort of investigation or judicial process provides exoneration.

    I have several friends and acquaintances in law enforcement- from beat cops to judges. All have communicated a distinct bias nowadays, where a man is presumed guilty when a woman alleges abusive conduct. I guess what I am trying to say is, this faculty person you mention would probably prefer to treat male & female students alike… but he has seen too much to allow himself such vulnerability.

    • I disagree with you; there is a difference between treating everyone “the same” and treating everyone with equal support, time, and energy. This advisor should find a way to support and visit the fieldsites and work of all of his students. I intentionally wrote about a specific incident to make it clear that this is not about generalizations about all men, all advisors, or accusations undeserved or otherwise.

      You say “women generally face many unfair hurdles in the workplace compared to men.” Yes, and this post is about some of the many small ways in which that has been and continues to be true.

      • Just because he doesn’t go into the field to visit females, it does not necessarily mean he does not support them. Does he also refuse to skype with them or email them as well? Men and women face different realities. If a female said that she was uncomfortable meeting alone with male students because she was concerned that they might be inappropriate or she felt unsafe and instead only met with male students in public places or when others are around would we condemn her? Or would we say something like that is just being cautious and if she feels unsafe then she has the right to modify how she meets students?

        • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I disagree with you. The problem/point is that the advisor has different policies for his advisees based on their gender/sex. The scenario I describe wrongly presumes that, for example, there is no risk of impropriety between supervisors/students of the same sex/gender representation. So the issue would be solved by an advisor having a consistent policy. In your example, if a female professor wanted to meet students in public places, it would only be fair to all of her students if she held the same policy for all of them, not just ones of a particular sex/gender.

          • That’s a good point. And that might be a good way to open a dialogue with people discriminating in this fashion. It offers a good solution while respecting their concerns

        • Please don’t call women “females.” It’s disrespectful. “Female students” is okay, and “women” is okay.

    • This is a good opportunity to point out that the vast majority of accusations are not false. It’s actually quite rare for allegations to end up being fabricated, and even when allegations do occur, women are also treated really poorly, at all career stages. If there are concerns about impropriety, there are ways to deal with that professionally that don’t unfairly disadvantage female students.

      • Perhaps the overseas element of what you mention effects these interactions. Difficult to say, I suppose, but it might not be possible for this faculty member to arrange for the comfort level he needs so far from the home base.

        I disagree with the “quite rare” occurrence of fabricated allegations. And I also believe “fabrication” is not always the reason for inaccurate reporting/ allegations. We all perceive reality differently from what it truly is, and those perceptions become more clouded when relationships begin to fray.

        Objectively one could argue this faculty person you mention is more objective than you think him to be. If it is the case he is not at ease with the kinds of interactions you describe, then he simply could have not agreed to mentor any female students. That would have been an easy fix for him. But instead he chose to promote diversity and equality by retaining female students, despite his misgivings.

        I also do not know to what import it is crucial a mentor visit any student’s field sites. I have had almost countless situations where either the mentor or supervisor never visited my field sites. No one ever suffered because of that.

        I would very strongly suggest that if this continues to be an issue for you or anyone else, that you approach it directly, but with some subtlety and compassion. Most people do not respond at all well to accusations of personal foibles, and so abject directness likely takes you nowhere. Instead, maybe mention something analogous to the situation that is non-threatening, and take the person to a point of self-realization.

        I bet both of you would open up and learn a great deal about all of this. However, reading tea leaves to intuit his motives does no one any goiod.

        • You can disagree all you want, but unless you have data to back up your claim, it doesn’t really matter. Your statement about false allegations is commonly brought out whenever there is an accusation, and it’s used to silence and discredit women.

          You’re not promoting diversity if you treat your students differently. The end. There are many, many ways to promote safe work practices without choosing to not accompany [only female] students into the field. If you can’t provide the same attention and time to every student, don’t provide it to any.

          • Then so be it, I shall refrain from continued attempts at any kind of congenial and well intentioned debate. I used to think the world a very black and white place… but truth be told, it’s terribly grey. I had to go grey before I realized that.

          • Sometimes, things are cut-and-dried. Equal treatment, in my opinion, is one of those things.

            Personally, I’m more interested in respectful debates, rather than congenial ones. It’s entirely too easy to hide disrespect behind a facade of congeniality. Plus, requests for congeniality can be a form of tone policing (http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument).

          • “Tone policing”??? I guess were I to have the authority to issue citations, conduct searches, interrogate suspects, perform arrests & detain individuals, then I could police. But I do not. Let’s not deflect from the point of the post.

          • Look, you made the comment about congeniality. My comment was topical to that. The concept of tone policing is a well-known one, and it’s worth understanding if you care about equality.

            I absolutely agree that we shouldn’t derail the post, but you’d already done that. I’ve said what I wanted to with regards to your original comment.

          • I understand where you are coming from but I disagree with this blanket statement you made “You’re not promoting diversity if you treat your students differently. The end.” Each student has their own separate needs. I would be more comfortable if you phrased it as “You’re not promoting diversity if you treat certain groups of students differently in a systematic way. The end.”

          • Responding to DrMellivora’s comment up here (the thread is cut off): I agree, and that’s what I meant– apologies if that wasn’t clear. I was referring to systematic bias, as in the professor in question’s blanket policy to not go with women in the field. I definitely agree we should tailor our mentoring to individual students, but we should provide the same opportunities– in mentoring, etc.– to the best of our ability.

        • I’m not assuming — he told me verbatim that he has this policy for female graduate students. Taking on a student as a mentee should require PIs to accept their role as advisor and mentor, which should in turn require them to accept that role for all students they are working with. Clearly this PI finds it important to visit research sites, since he does it with all of his male students. The point is that he doesn’t do it for women, because they are women. That is the part that isn’t okay.

          I’m not going to address the rest of your comments here, because “not deflecting from the point of the post” means let’s go back to the overall point of my post: there are small but measurable ways that advisors and others in positions of power offer praise and opportunities, sometimes in ways that embody implicit or explicit biases. These add up and they matter, even if they each seem small individually.

          • It seems we are talking past one another. There is an underlying reason for his behavior, and it does not seem you know what that is. Yes, a bias obviously exists, but why? And I will assert again, if he were truly biased against women, then he would not recruit any as students. Something is going on here neither of us understand.

            Unless his employer has a policy that dictates he is prohibited from behaving this way, then the truth of the matter is, he is compliant. And universities have the most extensive of equal protections anywhere. Thus it appears he is exercising the discretion the university granted unto him. So the argument he is discriminatory on the one hand is valid, but on the other hand he is allowed to do it. I think the bone you have to pick, if there is any, is not with the professor, but the institution.

            Often the simplest of explanations are the best. We really do not know what that might be. However you mention he is married with a family. So perhaps this is as *simple* as a spouse not completely comfortable with her husband going into the backcountry with young, unwed female subordinates. And that could well have nothing at all to do with any fear of infidelity, but simply someone protecting his or her family from a potential nightmare.

            I will say it again… I believe you have leaped to conclusions that are not yet supported. Choosing the well-being of ones family over a perception of unfairness is a no-brainer.

          • “And I will assert again, if he were truly biased against women, then he would not recruit any as students.”

            That makes zero sense. People aren’t always aware of their biases. And in this case, his actions demonstrate a demonstrable bias in terms of treatment. Similarly, if you only ever take your male students out for beers, and not your female students, then there’s a culture that isolates women from potential discussions and exchange of ideas. If you always ask the women in your lab to take notes or make cookies for lab meeting, you’re reinforcing stereotypes and privileging the contributions of some members over others. These are all ways in which small actions can add up to inequality.

            And there are many, many things that are wrong without being officially codified in policy. The university is not at fault here; the professor is. His actions are explicitly problematic because they are privileging one group of students over another.

            You’re bending over backwards to defend a professor who is taking on students but not given them all equal treatment. You’re also saying that SquirrelyRed shouldn’t jump to conclusions about motive, and yet you have zero problems ascribing motive yourself — not only of the professor, but now his spouse. So how about you stop trying to defend someone without sufficient information, and focus on the broader point: the actions. It’s inappropriate to treat students differently. If you can’t provide the same kind of attention or support to everyone, then don’t do it at all. Failing to do so actively disadvantages the female students at the expense of the male students in this case. And that is wrong, even if it’s not explicitly forbidden by university policy.

          • If by engaging you in debate, you derive that I am defending the professor & ascribing motive, then you would be mistaken. I have not defended him, but only attempted to explore the dynamic you present. In describing a *hypothetical* I did not ascribe any motive- the point of this hypothetical was to open your mind to the potential underlying causes… which are infinite.

            The beer example you cite I think is an important one, but not for the reasons you mention. Our lives are increasing subject to scrutiny, as this post highlights. But when & where does this scrutiny begin and end? When you clock-in, clock-out… or never???

            I have supervised as many as 50 or so people in an academic setting. My philosophy then, and now, is that my workplace behavior is subject to scrutiny when I am on the clock, and that’s it, period. Yes, there were employees I shared a beer with after work, and many I did not. There were also employees I went fishing, camping, hunting and hiking with, and those I did not. And yes, there were even employees who invited me to their weddings- and those who did not.

            Did any of them gain an advantage in hanging out with me? No… and if anything, it could be a disadvantage. Get to know someone, and the warts come to the surface.

            While picking & choosing who I associate with once the clock hits 4:30 is discriminatory… you better believe it needs to be.

        • Okay, putting my moderator hat on: I’m not letting your newest comments through moderation. You’ve gone from patronizing to outright hostile, and your apparent need to have the last word is not only disrespectful, but is creating a chilling climate for others. This is a blog for the voices of women and other marginalized groups in academia; if you can’t respect that, this is not the place for you. We don’t require that every commenter agree with posters, but we do require that posters be respected. Please remember that this is not your personal platform, and that if we are to create a space where people feel safe in commenting, we need to make sure that we enforce our comment policy. Please read it here:


  2. Even if one were to agree to the questionable point that interacting with opposite-sexed students in remote places exposes a faculty member to accusations of impropriety, the point remains that the advisor is doing things for his male students that he cannot/will not/does not do for his female students. In doing so, he advantages his male students and disadvantages his female students. If he cannot afford (in time, money, effort) to provide support for all of his students, he should not do it for some of them; if he chooses to differentially support his students and the only criterion for choice is that some are male and that its easier to support them, then his actions perpetuate the bias women face (even unintentionally). He need not have ill intentions but he (and all of us) should be mindful of outcomes that contribute to unfairness for women, LGBTQ students, and students of color.

    Accepting students and not providing them with equal access and opportunity does not promote diversity–it perpetuates the idea that some are not “real” scholars or capable of doing all of the things that might be required of a job. In addition to having concrete examples of the abilities of the students he spends time with in the field, those (male) students may have better access to colleagues (personal introductions and networking are facilitated by on-site visits) and may have stronger relationships with the advisor (because field work promotes bonding and is often a context in which research plans get made). These have real and often compounding consequences for students.

    (as an aside, I’d venture that the instance of false accusations towards a man in power are orders of magnitude much lower than the instances of un-reported or un-punished male aggression towards women. Is it too bad that it happens, and destructive to those men? Of course. But it’s not the elephant in the room, its the mouse.)

  3. Great post. This is a really persistent problem, and it’s so hard to address because it’s not the stereotypical macro-level aggression people are used to thinking of. And yet these microaggressions add up, and have a big impact. I love that you call it what it is: micropromotion. That’s exactly it — you’re giving advantages to a select few, and they are literal advantages, in small and in aggregate.

  4. Thank you for this post. In my field, I notice that male students are often asked & allowed to do fieldwork more often than female students. I have also seen a lot more male students get asked to give outreach talks to important audiences (representatives from state governments, for example). Sometimes that’s even because they can share photos and stories from their amazing field experiences! So sad.

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  6. My advisor is generally progressive and supportive of all of his students – yet I have never seen him offer a tech-based RA to his female students. Any time a GIS project comes up with funding, you can bet he will offer it to one of the men without even mentioning it to his female students.

      • Here you are again, shutting down a (presumed) female commenter and defending the male advisor. I’m thinking this isn’t the right blog for you; or, at least, you should spend more time reading and listening to other voices and less time taking a defensive stance with zero background information.

      • The whole point of ‘micropromotion’ is that it happens on such a small scale that generalization is impossible and therefore it is very hard to do something about it.

  7. “The Graduate Advisor Handbook” by Bruce M. Shore has some advice for male professors attending conferences with female graduate students. Basically he says professors should avoid any chance of perceived impropriety, so, for example, they must always meet the students only in public spaces of the conference venue – Never in a hotel room. I think he strikes a better balance than the professor described in the post in the context of fieldwork.

  8. Ah yes.. my husband calls this “I like you even better than the other white people!” Definition: when an advisor sees the younger self he always wanted to be (i.e., cooler, funnier, and more popular with women) in a lab member.

  9. I realize that my question is coming much later than your original post, but I have only just followed the link at the bottom of InsideHigherEd.
    Thank you for drawing attention to this issue. I was actually just thinking about this earlier today: I was compiling a list of undergraduate students to whom I would send research assistant requests. These were students who have taken one or more of my classes, and who have expressed interest in my methodology (or at least I thought these were the primary reasons). However, every student on my list was like me: a white male. By the way, this does not match the demographics of our student population. I’m disappointed by this.
    To clarify, I think the misrepresentation of the student demographics in my short-list is due to my own biases–conscious or otherwise.
    My question is the same one you have voiced at the bottom of your post: any thoughts about how to combat this?

  10. Thanks for this article, it represents exactly what I’ve been running into during my graduate studies. My supervisor is definitely not consciously trying to favor his male grad students, but it happens. Every single event is small, and not enough to say something about, but it builds up into somthing bigger every time. Because he’s not consciously doing this, and because every single event is so small, it’s nearly impossible to bring it up.

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