I have (re)started the process of trying to sort through my old notes and textbooks, once again trying to break the irrational attachment I have to course materials I will clearly never need. Part of that process involves sitting down and looking through tables of contents and telling myself that the information – should I somehow, someday end up teaching a course on it – would no longer be relevant by the time that happened. I am bad at this process, which is why I have to start it again every few years. Typically, I end up getting sucked into one of the books and sitting on the floor reading for the full time I have set aside for cleaning. This time that book was a nearly-300-page guide for graduate students about how to be a better scientist.
Buried among the sections on literature searches and picking advisors is a 4.5-page section on “Gender Issues.” After a quick glance at the publication date, I thought I could spend ten minutes to see how a section on the topic had aged over the last decade. Well, the experience has clearly lasted more than ten minutes, and the short answer seems to be that it has aged poorly. More honestly though, I don’t think the topic was particularly well handled even the day the book was published.
As a woman in STEM, I have read my fair share about the leaky pipeline. I have attended talks, spoken to colleagues, and cringed at logic that has ranged from outdated to offensive. But most of all, my fuse has gotten increasingly short for justifications that effectively boil down to a glorified, shrugging “oops.” In this case that oops took the form of the phrase, “for whatever reasons.” In full: “For whatever reasons, relatively few women and minorities have chosen to pursue certain scientific disciplines.”
Now the authors – white males – likely believe that they have made an effort to be sensitive to this issue. They included a section in the book after all! In the self-congratulatory passage, they explain how they even took the sneaky step of biasing pronoun use in the book towards “she.” They cheekily ask the reader whether they were caught off guard by the frequent use of the female pronoun. And the researcher on the cover is a woman! They are basically crusaders for women in STEM! *Please excuse my sarcasm; it is the most appropriate response I have that is fit to print.*
I am not trying to demonize these authors. I do believe their intentions were good, just like the business colleague who once sincerely advised me that I would be better off if I acted and thought “more like a man.” But any section about gender issues that does not include any references to sexism or sexual harassment has not been proofed by a woman. There is the staggering phrase, “Because women often have more balanced personalities and suffer less from inflated ego, female scientists might be less aggressive in the hunt for tenure and promotion than are their male colleagues.” This quote actually had a footnote, so I was curious which academic reference had been shoe-horned into supporting this statement. Instead the footnote says, “This is a reflection of the authors’ bias.”
If, as an author, this kind of footnote seems necessary, I would hope that the response would be to put in the required work to provide a meaningful edit. I doubt the authors would let such a footnote stand for any of their students’ publications. A blog post or tweet is one thing, but a multi-hundred-page guide meant for widespread use is another. Just this week, Hidden Brain showed how this same topic can be handled in a way that addresses the culture behind this perceived conflict rather than just writing women off as inherently bad self-promoters. But this footnote is just a written version of the “oops” that seems to happen all of the time. When my graduate department asked all the faculty to submit and vote on names for speakers at the weekly seminar, none of the finalists ended up being anything other than white men. There was an email from one of the female members of the department pointing out the exclusion, and a male faculty member responded that the process had been designed to be fair and that any bias in the result was unintentional. She responded with a blistering, “Well then fix it. Intentionally.”
With the number of times I have been flirted with at conference booths or editor dinners, the number of warnings I have given or received about particular researchers, the number of articles I have read about experiences of other women in STEM … there is nothing “whatever” about the reasons at all. When one of the female students in my graduate department had to have a shouting hallway showdown when one of the male graduate students felt it was acceptable to say that he wished that the women speaking at the weekly seminars were “at least nice to look at,” I can’t keep accepting shrugs in response.
If we are going to get more women and minorities into STEM careers, acknowledgements of systemic limitations need to stop being relegated to literal footnotes like this one: “While writing this chapter we were surprised, and shocked, to see how easy it was to think of factors that contribute to a lack of diversity in the research community.” At least based on perusing the book index, the few inclusions of the word minorities jammed in the gender section are the only reference the book contains at all. All the work we do to make all kinds of kids feel like STEM is for them won’t matter much if a collective shrug allows all the same leaks in the pipeline to stay in place. Acknowledging bias or injustice is not the same as doing something to address it. Maybe we can stop the metaphorical pats on the back for simply stating that a problem exists, and use that statement as a way to ask for what that person will do to address their little corner of the problem – intentionally.