It’s not you, it’s your environment

I recently had a conversation with a male friend at another institution. While he is successfully advising graduate students of all genders, he was concerned because two women students had quit after their first year and he’s not had a man quit. My friend told me that they had good reasons for quitting, unrelated to his advising, but he just didn’t like that pattern and feared that maybe he was also doing something wrong that made it harder for women to succeed in his lab.

Having watched my friend in professional settings and knowing that he’s pretty plugged and conscientious about issues of women in science, I don’t think my friend isn’t doing anything egregious. In fact, I’d like to believe that he’s one of the men exemplifying how our society is changing for the better. Nonetheless, it probably wouldn’t hurt my friend to review Acclimatrix’s “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” to up his game.

But knowing my friend and knowing his institution (having spent a few years there myself), my response to my friend’s fears was “It’s probably not you, but it might be your environment. Look around at the climate for women in your department and university.”  Even if my friend is running a great, supportive research group and doing a superb job mentoring students of all genders, that won’t completely counteract a male-dominated, sexist broader environment. Of course, my friend, in possession of a male gender identity, might not be able to completely diagnose how sexist his environment is, but there are some easy things he can consider.

Where are the women?

If your graduate students don’t see people who look like them amongst their fellow students, they may feel isolated. That can be fixed over a relatively short time by considering a more holistic admissions policy, combined with seeking outside help in mentoring these more diverse student cohorts.

If your students don’t see women successful as post-docs and professors, they may feel like there are no role models. This is also fixable over time, but the timescales at play are probably longer. In the meantime, I encouraged my friend to connect his students with female faculty in allied departments, through coursework, committee membership, or just  socially. I think it’s important for the advisor to take an active role in fostering these connections, because the students may not even realize who and where the women are on campus. If there aren’t enough women in allied disciplines on your campus, then connect your students with women in your field at other universities.

If your students don’t see women as invited seminar speakers or on course reading lists, they may be questioning their place in the field in general. There are women who give great talks and write superb papers, this can be fixed if the faculty just put in some additional effort.

Who are the men?

This may be harder to figure out, for a guy with male privilege, but if he listens closely, he may discover that there are one or a few bad apples among his colleagues or in the department’s postdoc and student ranks. These are the men who harass or even assault women, usually serially, and usually preying on power dynamics. The women who stay usually figure out who those men are and learn to avoid them as much as possible, while other women may choose to simply leave, whether they’ve been the first-hand subject of harassment or assault or just want to get away before it happens to them.

What is the departmental culture like?

There are plenty of aspects of departmental culture that may be overtly sexist: inappropriate conversation and “jokes”; men talking over women in the classroom, seminars, and meetings; travel policies and field work situations that put women in unsafe or uncomfortable positions; and many more.  My friend should be watching and listening for those overt and subtle forms of sexism and doing what he can to squash them.

There’s another aspect of departmental culture, that while not overtly sexist may be having the effect of disproportionately affecting women. That’s a culture of overwork – and it’s rampant among leading departments.

I once spent time in a department where every faculty member, postdoc and graduate student had a couch in their office, and there was an expectation that people slept in their offices at least part of the time. This was a place that saw no problem scheduling a seminar at 4:30 pm on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and advertised an hourly undergraduate research assistant position that required being available to respond to the professor’s requests by email within 2 hours, 24/7/365. Frankly, students of every gender should be turned off by such an always on culture of overwork, because its not only anathema to work-life balance or any life at all, but not even very productive to be working all the time.  For women, who disproportionately shoulder care-giving and domestic responsibilities, or can see themselves as future caregivers, finding themselves in a place where its expected that students sleep in the office could be a sign to run screaming for the exits.

The department in the previous paragraph, by the way, is the most overwhelmingly male dominated place I have ever been. My friend’s department is almost surely not that bad, but he should look around at when and what sort of academic and social events are held after business hours and whether students are informally competing for who can work the longest (and whether professors are reinforcing that competition). Is the department emphasizing quantity of time or quality of work?

What’s your graduate student orientation like?

Maybe the problem for friend’s department starts right when students arrive on campus. Does graduate student orientation at both the campus and departmental level help to connect students to places like the women’s center, the LBGTQ student group, associations for minority students, etc.? Does the orientation suggest that forming social networks outside the department is encouraged, and demonstrate that point by having active members of various organizations already within the department? Does the orientation point out that physical and mental health services are available, confidential, and free?  That grad school can be tough on both mental and physical health, even tougher for those already dealing with illness, and that seeking help is a sign of strength? Does the orientation provide students with information on campus resources like emergency food banks, sexual assault survivor services, student legal services, the campus ombudsman, and other things we’d like to think graduate students will never need, but that some undoubtedly will? Are the points above made just once at some university-wide assembly for new graduate students, or are they made again at the departmental level, and preferably periodically reinforced over the first semester and beyond? One of the most rewarding exercises I have ever done as a professor was assigning a group of first semester graduate students to identify campus and town services that they thought they might use at some point or that they wished they had known about before they arrived. I was astounded by the diversity of what they came up with, and we created a tip sheet for subsequent cohorts of incoming students. Letting students know that you and your department care about their overall well-being and that there are people and services beyond the department that can support them is absolutely critical to recruiting and maintaining a diverse student population.

What else?

In the conversation with my friend, I told him to keep taking data on his own advising success, while critically examining the environment around him, and I offered to be a sounding board for both him and his students if needed. I encouraged him to think about the questions above, but I’m sure there’s more I could have said. What did I miss?


3 thoughts on “It’s not you, it’s your environment

  1. Completely agree. My PhD advisor was very supportive of women in general, but not so much the rest of the department. No one did anything outright, but there were lots of subtle things that add up. The result is that women got fed up and left without PhDs. I stayed, but many didn’t (including a couple in my group). The attrition rate for women was about 4X higher than that for men, but until the department started caring out it, nothing changed.

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