Lady Ghostbusters, Hillary, and what I learned in women-only spaces

Last summer, I submitted a grant application with two women. It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in an all-woman project. Partway through the process, the lead PI revealed she was stressed out — up against another deadline, traveling, and struggling with a chronic illness. The other co-PI and I both sympathized, told her to take care of herself, and asked what we could do to help — we picked up the slack, stepped up with preparing some of the documents that usually the PI handles, and shared a moment of solidarity for a tough time. This attitude continued throughout the process: supportive, helpful, positive, fun. It was so unlike my other grant experiences, in which I have almost universally been the only woman and often the lead PI. I’ve struggled to get materials from co-authors, to get people to answer emails, and had to balance out squabbles amongst the group, but I’ve almost never experienced anything like the proactively supportive environment of that all-women proposal. It was awesome.

All this was happening around the time that the Ghostbusters remake* came out, and I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. Women were helping and supporting each other on screen! They weren’t undermining one another! They were getting shit done, without dehumanizing anyone in the process. Most of my female friends adored it — the representation of women geeks, the direct references to sexist tropes, and the general badassery. Meanwhile, from what I could tell, most men were either absent from the theater, or busy harassing women online about the movie.

I’m  active on social media with my “real name,” and my field is pretty male-dominated. One thing I’ve noticed is that on Twitter, I often stumble into arguments involving pedantic, nit-picky points (which is always super fun when you’re limited to 140 characters), or alternative hypotheses portrayed as absolutes. These encounters are almost always with men — either interacting with me (“Well, actually…”) or with each other. There’s a certain machismo to them that I just find so off-putting — demanding an answer, rather than asking a question. Mocking, rather than earnest dialog. And I hate that this sometimes makes me second-guess my willingness to speak or write about my science in public. Why do these interactions with my male colleagues, who presumably agree with me on most things and share similar interests, have to be so combative?

These experiences have had me thinking a lot about the culture of science, how men and women are socialized differently, and all the myriad ways this plays out. Continue reading


Ageism Goes Both Ways

I recently got into an argument with a friend and former colleague about ageism in academia. I insisted that young women professors experience regular, persistent, and pervasive ageism in the workplace. I couched this claim in my usual “the personal is political” mode and emphasized my own recent experiences with what I would call ageism. My friend shot back that ageism, like racism, can only go one way. Young people are the privileged workers of the academy. At the time I capitulated. Was I advocating reverse ageism? How embarrassing! But recent experiences have caused me to return to the question.

I do not in any way want to argue that academia is more or most discriminatory towards young faculty. Given the well-documented discrimination against older faculty who remain in temporary and adjunct positions with little chance of a full-time hire,  it would be ridiculous for me to participate in a discrimination competition. Robert Mckee has a great piece on this exact topic. I do want to argue that ageism is a complex and nasty monster that intersects with gender, race, class, sexuality, and other axes of oppression to close doors and make the workplace uncomfortable if not downright hostile to young women faculty.

Let me give you some recent examples from my daily work routine. Continue reading

Nobody wins microaggression Bingo

I was recently at a workshop where I was one of two women (out of ten).  I’ve generally had a really great experience in working groups, but this once quickly morphed into a Bingo card of sexist microaggressions. With the plethora of recent articles on how there is no sexism problem in science, and how talking about microaggressions is the greatest threat to our universities (and not, say, funding or the adjunct crisis), I think it’s worth sharing this experience.

This workshop had it all. My female colleague and I were routinely interrupted, talked over, and ignored. One senior male participant stood up and gave a spontaneous presentation on something that “he’s never seen anyone mention before,” despite the fact that I had just shown the exact slide and mentioned the very point he did, not ten minutes before. Participants in very different fields mansplained our research to both of us, or in some cases dismissed our entire fields outright. They responded with hostility or patronizing tones to our questions or contrary points, but accepted the same criticisms with good nature from their male colleagues. The men asked one another questions that the women were better-suited to answer based on what we do, but we were talked over. During meals and coffee breaks, the men clustered together in groups and didn’t socialize with us.  Continue reading

The troll down the hall: what do academic comment sections reveal about our colleagues?

If you spend twenty minutes on the internet doing anything besides looking at videos of baby sloths getting baths, it’s almost impossible not to discover some kind of abuse, and odds are it’s going to be in a comments section. We know not to “feed the trolls” (a philosophy I actually find really unhelpful, because trolls are like asexual autotrophic amoebas that don’t need chum to reproduce). We remind ourselves and each other not to read the comments– to NEVER, EVER read the comments (and then we always do anyway). Because comments sections are cesspools where discussion and nuance and respect go to die, buried under a mountain of abuse and inanity. Continue reading

I’m not taking career advice from old white dudes anymore.

Recently, a senior emeritus professor called me out because he hadn’t seen me at a talk in a different department (let’s say it’s Astronomy). “I’ve never seen you at a single Astronomy talk,” he admonished. “You really need to go to those.” I patiently explained that I typically have a teaching conflict, which he brushed off, and repeated his imperative that I really needed “to go to those talks.” He was angry at my laziness in failing to attend these critical seminars in a tangentially related field, and didn’t respect my explanations that 1) I couldn’t, and 2) even if I could, I have to make hard choices and don’t always have the luxury of doing everything I’d like to.

Now, I’m an interdisciplinary scientist– in fact, my position is split between a departmental home and an interdisciplinary institute, which means I go to twice as many faculty meetings and probably four times as many seminars as most of my colleagues do. But the advice of this retiree was that I needed to add yet another seminar to the list, and he wasn’t afraid to scold me about this front of my colleagues. This particular professor is of the opinion that I need to be just like him — or, rather, like his retired incarnation, which has a lot of free time to leisurely enjoy talks — in order to succeed. It’s just a small example of a phenomenon I’m starting to grow tired of, which is this paternalistic attitude some of my senior colleagues — all older, white men — have. They give advice liberally, these silverbacks, from the comfortable position of retirement or full professorship.

And you know what? It’s really, really shitty advice. Continue reading

What happens when everyday sexism is ignored?

Today’s post is by a guest author, graduate student SquirrellyRed. She shares a recent experience about what happens when small acts of (benevolent) sexism add up to create a broader culture of hostility towards women.

Given Acclimatrix’s recent post on how gender equality needs to be a collaborative venture in academia, I thought it’d be helpful to share a story about what could – and in this case, did – happen when some of those points that seem trivial or harmless (especially #2) are ignored – and how the effects are amplified the further down the academic totem pole you travel.

As a PhD student in a mid-size biology lab at a large Midwestern R1 university, my group includes a team of undergraduate research technicians that I help supervise. In my lab’s case, all of the undergrad helpers are female students in biology related majors (woohoo!). They are curious, hardworking, and hilarious – a critical combination when we sometimes spend twelve hours at a time together, driving to field sites and collecting measurements. So while I’d like to tell you the rest of this story is about how hard the lab has worked to mentor and support them, unfortunately it’s a story of how the lab failed one of them this summer. Continue reading

Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic

There is a plethora of research on the causes of hostile environments for women in academia, and on why we have an underrepresentation of women in many fields. There are support groups for women, societies entirely devoted to women academics (broadly and field-specific), workshops for women in academia, and countless articles and blogs devoted to the topic.

These initiatives are important, but here’s the thing: gender equality has to be a collaborative venture. If men make up the majority of many departments, editorial boards, search committees, labs and conferences, then men have to be allies in the broader cause of equality, simply because they have more boots on the ground. And, as much as I wish it weren’t so, guys often tend to listen more readily to their fellow guys when it comes to issues like sexism. I’ve also found that there are a lot of guys out there that are supportive, but don’t realize that many of their everyday actions (big and small) perpetuate inequality. So, guys, this post is for you.* Continue reading