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Professional communities, barriers to inclusion, and the value of a posse.


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Last week, I wrote a post about an incident connected to a professional conference. A male conference-goer wrote a column attempting to offer praise for a panel featuring four female conference-goers but managed to package this praise in a way that reinforced sexist assumptions about the value women colleagues add to a professional community.

The women panelists communicated directly with the male commentator about his problematic framing. The male commentator seemed receptive to this feedback. I blogged about it as an example of why it’s important to respond to disrespect within professional communities, even if it’s not intended as disrespect, and despite the natural inclination to let it go. And my post was praised for offering a discussion of the issue that was calm, sensitive, and measured.

But honestly? I’m unconvinced that my calm, sensitive, measured discussion will do one whit of good to reduce the incidence of such casual sexism in the future, in the community of science journalist or in any other professional community. Perhaps there were some readers who, owing to the gentle tone, were willing to examine the impact of describing colleagues who are women primarily in terms of their looks, but if a less gentle tone would have put them off from considering the potential for harm to members of their professional communities, it’s hard to believe these readers would devote much energy to combatting these harms — whether or not they were being asked nicely to do so.

Sometimes someone has to really get your attention — in a way that shakes you up and makes you deeply uncomfortable — in order for you to pay attention going forward. Maybe feeling bad about the harm to someone else is a necessary first step to developing empathy.

And certainly, laying out the problem while protecting you from what it feels like to be one of the people struggling under the effects of that problem takes some effort. If going to all that trouble doesn’t actually leave enough of an impression to keep the problem from happening some more, what’s the point?

* * * * *

What does it take to create a diverse professional community? It requires more than an absence of explicit rules or standing practices that bar certain kinds of people from membership, more even that admitting lots of different kinds of people into the “pipeline” for that profession. If you’re in the community by virtue of your educational or employment status but you’re not actually part of the discussions that define your professional community, it may help the appearance of diversity, but not the reality of it.

The chilly climate women have been talking about in a variety of male-dominated professional communities is a real thing.

Being a real member of a professional community includes being able to participate fully in venues for getting your work and insights into the community’s discussions. These venues include journals and professional meetings, as well as panels or study sections that evaluate grant proposals. Early in one’s membership in a professional community, venues like graduate seminars and department symposia are also really important.

One problem here is that usually individuals without meaningful access to participation are also without the power in the community required to effectively address particular barriers to their access. Such individuals can point out the barriers, but they are less likely to be listened to than someone else in the community without those barriers.

Everyday sexism is just one such barrier.

This barrier can take a number of particular forms.

For the students on their way into a professional community, it’s a barrier to find out that senior members of the community who you expected would help train you and eventually take you seriously as a colleague are more inclined to sexualize you or full-on sexually harass you. It’s a barrier when you see people in your community minimize that behavior, whether offhandedly or with rather more deliberation.

It’s a barrier when members of your community focus on your looks rather than your intellectual contributions, or act like it’s cute or somehow surprising that someone like you could actually make an intellectual contribution. It’s a further barrier when other members of your community advise you to ignore tangible disrespect because surely it wasn’t intentional — especially when those other members of the community make no visible effort to help address the disrespect.

It’s a barrier when students don’t see people like themselves represented among the recognized knowledge-builders in the professional community as they are being taught the core knowledge expected of members of that community. It’s also a barrier when the more senior members of the professional community are subject to implicit biases in their expert evaluations of who’s cut out to be a full contributing member of the community.

Plenty of well-meaning folks in professional communities that have a hard time fully integrating women (among others) may be puzzled as to why this is so. If they don’t personally experience the barriers, they may not even realize that they’re there. Listening to lived experiences of their female colleagues might reveal some of the barriers — but listening also assumes that the community really takes its female members seriously as part of the community, when this is precisely the problem with which the women in the community are struggling.

* * * * *

Professional meetings can be challenging terrain for women in predominantly male professional communities. Such meetings are essential venues in which to present one’s work and get career credit for doing so. They are also crucially important for networking and building relationships with people who might become collaborators, who will be called on to evaluate one’s work, and who are the peers with whom one hopes to be engaged in productive discussions over the course of one’s career.

There is also a strong social component to these meetings, an imperative to have fun with one’s people — which is to say, in this context, the people with whom one shares a professional community. Part of this, I think, is related to how strongly people identify with their professional community: the connection is not just about what people in that community do but about who they are. They have taken on the values and goals of the professional community as their own. It’s not just a job, it’s a social identity.

For some people, the social component of professional meetings has a decidedly carnal flavor. Unfortunately, rejecting a pass from someone in your professional community, especially someone with more power in that community than you, can screw with your professional relationships within the community — even assuming that the person who made the pass accepts your “no” and moves on. In other cases, folks within the professional community may be perfectly aware of power gradients and willing to use them to get what they want, applying persistent unwanted attention that can essentially deprive the target of full participation in the conference. Given the importance professional conferences have, this is a significant professional harm.

Lest you imagine that this is a merely hypothetical worry, I assure you that it is not. If you ask around you may discover that some of the members of your professional community choose which conference sessions to attend in order to avoid their harassers. That is surely a constraint on how much one can get out of a professional meeting.

Recently a number of conferences and conventions have adopted policies against harassment, policies that are getting some use. Many of these are fan-oriented conventions or tech conferences, rather than the kind of research oriented, academically inclined professional meetings most of us university types attend. I know of at least one scientific professional society (the American Astronomical Society) that has adopted a harassment policy for its meetings and that seems generally to be moving in a good direction from the point of view of building an inclusive community. However, when I checked the websites of three professional societies to which I belong (American Chemical Society, American Philosophical Association, and Philosophy of Science Association), I could find no sign of anti-harassment policies for their conferences. This is disappointing, but not surprising to me.

The absence of anti-harassment policies doesn’t mean that there’s no harassment happening at the meetings of these professional societies, either.

And even if a professional community has anti-harassment policies in place for its meetings, this doesn’t remove the costs — especially on a relatively junior member of the community — associated with asking that the policies be enforced. Will a professional society be willing to caution a member of the program committee for the conference? To eject the most favored grad student of a luminary in the field — or, for that matter, a luminary — who violates the policy? Shining light on over-the-line behavior at conferences is a species of whistleblowing, and is likely to be received about as warmly as other forms.

* * * * *

Despite the challenges, I don’t think the prospects for building diverse and productive professional communities are dim. Progress is being made, even if most weeks the pace of progress is agonizingly slow.

But I think things could get better faster if people who take their professional communities for granted step up and become more active in maintaining them.

In much the same way that it is not science that is self-correcting but rather individual scientists who bother to engage critically with particular contributions to the ongoing scientific conversation and keep the community honest, a healthy professional community doesn’t take care of itself — at least, not without effort on the part of individual members of the community.

Professional communities require everyday maintenance. They require tending to keep their collective actions aligned with the values members of the community say they share.

People who work very hard to be part of a professional community despite systemic barriers are people committed enough to the values of the professional community to fight their way through a lot of crap. These are people who really care about the values you purport to care about as a member of the professional community, else why would they waste their time and effort fighting through the crap?

These are the kind of people you should want as colleagues, at least if you value what you say you value. Their contributions could be huge in accomplishing your community’s shared goals and ensuring your community a vibrant future.

Even more than policies that aim to address systemic barriers to their entry to the professional community, these people need a posse. They need others in the community who are unwilling to sacrifice their values — or the well-being of less powerful people who share those values — to take consistent stands against behaviors that create barriers and that undermine the shared work of the community.

These stands needn’t be huge heroic gestures. It could be as simple as reliably being that guy who asks for better gender balance in planning seminars, or who reacts to casual sexist banter with, “Dude, not cool!” It could take the form of asking about policies that might lessen barriers, and taking on some of the work involved in creating or implementing them.

It could be listening to your women colleagues when they describe what it has been like for them within your professional community and assuming the default position of believing them, rather than looking for possible ways they must have misunderstood their own experiences.

If you care about your professional community, in other words, the barriers to entry in the way of people who want badly to be part of that community because they believe fiercely in its values are your problem, too. Acting like it, and doing your part to address these barriers, is sharing the regular maintenance of the professional community you count on.

_____________
While this post is focused on barriers to full participation in professional communities that flow from gender bias, there are plenty of other types of bias that throw up similar barriers, and that could benefit from similar types of response from members of the professional communities not directly targeted by these biases.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 12:36 am 07/11/2013

    As I read your post a song came to mind. I’m sure you know it. The final chorus is:

    “They would not listen / they’re not listening still / perhaps they never will.”

    It is a noble goal, but I agree with you that eliminating gender bias will require something other than a strong letter. I was pleased to see your reference to the many other types of bias that exist as well.

    I have no training in psychology, but I will speculate based on observing human beings for many decades. My guess is that a type of meritocracy does actually exist within groups of people as evidenced by the sorts of individuals who end up leading those groups. The attributes which influence success are just not all those from the list you and I would propose.

    Continuing my speculation, it seems likely that both cultural as well as a psychological evolution of human beings may be needed to address your issues. Apart from basing my hiring decisions on who can best fill specific job requirements and raising awareness within my company, I can offer no solutions.

    Link to this

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