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?