Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (IV): Patriarchy and the ball-and-chain mechanism of inactivation.

I'm referring to mechanisms of inactivation of potassium ion channels in allusion to the accumulation of negative effects in women's careers.

In truth, the multi-factorial formula that slows advancement is much the same for all oppressed populations, although the 'contents' of specific variables differ (income, gender, sexuality, race and cultural constructs of language and socialization). Two variables that are universal in the equation of oppression, however, are (a) blame/responsibility (b) the indifference of power. Power, like money, is an indifferent intermediate that magnifies errors in perception and communication. (Hopefully, I'll have a chance to write more about these variables and how I think they work in a different context.)

In this post, I'm turning back even further in the past to present more details that I'll use in a subsequent post(s) to suggest possible improvements in academia in relation to the Pipeline Problem. I'm also turning back to describe the reasons I felt I had reached a tipping point as function of the hostile takeover of Research Genetics. When I, myself, looked back on my CV, there were enough times when my career had stalled, even before the hostile takeover -- at least on paper.


While growing up, I received a quadruple dose of keeping the peace -- most often by staying silent, giving in and finding a 'work-around' to obstacles. I was (1) a girl, (2) an only child of (3) immigrant parents doing their best to fit in and succeed in a new culture. The fact that we moved several times as my father moved up the corporate ladder meant that my parents were my only source of a sense of stability. Their disagreements felt earth-shattering. I learned to adapt as much as possible to avoid the discomfort of argument which, as for many couples, were typically triggered by minutia without addressing root causes. My father having to lay off 40 engineers due company restructuring -- a shock to my parent's idealized American dream --, the death of my brother a few days after birth, and the stresses of immigrants trying to fit in, to name a few.

My Undergraduate Years: Psychology and the Transition to Neuroscience

I grew comfortable in the realm of ideas while growing up, so it's not much of a surprise that I chose undergraduate work in Psychology.
I loved Psychology and Sociology coursework and appeared to have an affinity for it. After completing the degree requirements for a double major, however, I instead decided to pursue studies in Neuroscience, in particular, Auditory Neurophysiology.

The decision was motivated by several factors. First and foremost, I had become enthralled by the possible existence of neurons acting as feature detectors for phonemic distinctions. Scientific understanding of auditory processing lagged behind the understanding of visual processing for which feature detectors had been found. I rationalized that auditory physiologists might not have been looking at the right features. If phonemic feature detectors could be found, at least for the phonetic distinctions already present at birth, it might then be possible to work backwards to find organizing principles for sound, and gain understanding beyond the processing of pure tones and noise and the localization of sound that were the focus of researchers at the time.

My switch to Neuroscience and an academic career as a researcher also was motivated by my experience of psychology in practice. More advising and/or a strong meditation practice back then might have affected my decision. It's difficult to look back and say for certain now.

My honor's thesis, a multi-variate analysis of the factors affecting parents ability to cope with having a developmentally disabled child, was emotionally draining. I had designed a questionnaire which, if I recall correctly, was sent out to approximately three hundred couples whose addresses were supplied by an organization affiliated with the Department. There was an approximately 80% response rate. I scored the answers myself -- no need for a double-blind since most of the questions were multiple choice, although often parents provided additional comments. They were a personally invested population. For myself, the process of going through the questionnaires was emotionally charged with empathic resonance. Some of the couples had gotten divorced and, in some cases, the children had died. I remember being upset that the organization hadn't kept their mailing list up-to-date. The pain and anger of some of those couples was palpable.

In an irony of ironies, I didn't learn that my little brother had died of a severe case of Down's Syndrome, such a severe case that he couldn't process food, until the mid-1990s when my mother and I were discussing my having children. I wonder whether either of my parents were at all haunted by my thesis topic. Even I, in retrospect, wonder why I chose it. Was it a subconscious wish to understand problems in my own family? Either way, plenty of reason for empathic resonance with minimal resources for coping.

In terms of advising, I wonder that no one asked how I was coping. In addition, although theses were still commonly referenced in papers in those days, I'm surprised my advisor didn't suggest publication, especially since the thesis won an award.

Another experience that deterred my enthusiasm in the practice of psychology was my own experience with counseling. Not the same as clinical psychology or psychiatry to be sure, but I became familiar with how insensitive counseling could be in spite of the supposed intention to help.

I went to counseling towards the end of my undergraduate years because I knew I needed to escape from the beginnings of domestic abuse in my first marriage. I had gotten married during the summer after my freshman year, most likely in an attempt to find stability after my parents' divorce. As a married undergrad I was working 20-30 hours per week in addition to a full course load and my honor's thesis research and didn't have much of a social life. As I became more successful at school and found a job with United Cerebral Palsy of Vermont (instead of working retail as I had before that), a rift in the relationship appeared and grew. I had written papers on domestic violence and knew the situation wasn't going to get better and that I had to leave. The counselor I saw suggested I leave immediately even though Christmas was only a few days away. I couldn't bring myself to leave my husband's family with that 'gift' for their holiday. During my next appointment, the counselor decided I wasn't really motivated to leave and recommended a 'great' psychotherapist -- my thesis advisor, a real conflict of interest in my opinion. I left the counselor's office and never looked back. I asked for a divorce when I left for graduate school.

Graduate School

For graduate school I was hoping to backdoor my way into the Neurophysiology program at the University of Wisconsin, which at the time was the most well known for Auditory Physiology in the world. 'Backdoor' because I had made the decision to switch rather late in terms of the timing of applications. Also, in my opinion, it was the only program that had the reputation suggesting the search of phonemic features would get done. The professor I written a book chapter on phonemic distinctions for recommended I attend my first Gordon conference (!!!). While there, he suggested I meet with a colleague from the Communicative Disorders Department at UW that was also at the conference. It was a great conference and I was accepted into the Communicative Disorders program and assured of a research assistant position when I arrived. My hope was that I would be able to arrange to perform the research on phonemic distinctions as part of either the Communication Disorders or Neurophysiology programs.

I was never given the chance. As it turned out, within a week or two of arriving on campus, I went to visit the professor I had decided was most likely to have the enthusiasm and interest in the project based on the papers I'd read and essentially received a polite, but blank stare. There were a lot of auditory physiology professors on campus so I ended up spending many late nights helping one of the teams record cortical responses to pure tones and noise while also completing a Master's thesis on a completely unrelated topic which, honestly, I had only minimal interest in (though it fit with the interests of the lab in which I was employed).

Part of the difficulty I was to encounter during my graduate years was a heavy bias against my undergraduate Psychology/Communication Disorders degree and a bias towards a common core of coursework in the 'hard' sciences. Speaking for the Psychology Department, I consider that bias unfounded. None of the coursework in my graduate years provided as sound a training in scientific methodology and ethics than what I received as an undergraduate. In fact, there were numerous instances in which I was surprised by the comparative laxity. For example, it took awhile to get used to the much lower n (number of observations in a given category) for experiments. Further, because of low observational counts, statistical comparisons were often oversimplified. Low n could be rationalized based on the increased difficulty of experiments and greater control of 'environmental' factors compared to research with human subjects. Based on what is now known about genetic variability in its various forms that rationale is obviously an assumption. I still remember my days at Yale buying seaweed to nurse Aplysia back to health in the attempt to induce the bursting state of the channel that was the basis of my Nature paper. There were several months out of the year and especially after storms along the coast that channels in the bursting state were almost non-existent.

During my masters years I took courses in Statistics, Fortran and Engineering in addition to the more standard departmental coursework. [My first encounter with sexism in academia that I had no trouble identifying as such was when I received a B+ instead of an A in Engineering. Even though I had higher overall numeric score than one of the male students receiving an A. When I asked the professor he said it was because my last exam score (non-cumulative) was lower than for the first three -- the very exam I'd asked to reschedule because I was in court finalizing my divorce an hour before; I had requested an alternate time for the exam as soon as I was notified of the court date, but he'd denied the request. The overall effect of that specific instance, however, was minor compared to the effects of sexism overlapping with other biases.] I also regularly attended the Auditory Physiology departmental Journal Club. I hadn't given up on my dream of having the chance to look for phonemic detectors.

I was admitted into the Neuroscience Ph.D. program after receiving my Master's and officially began working in the lab I had frequented during earlier years. To my dismay, I was again penalized for my Psychology degree in spite of my masters coursework. My advisor recommended, and the advisory committee agreed, that I needed to go back and pick up more common core coursework in addition to the normal requirements.

Another factor that might have contributed to my advisory committee penalizing me with extra coursework was my test scores. My Miller Analogy and GRE scores were average. I was off the charts on the analytic portion of the GREs, but that portion of the test was new and didn't count. In those days, it wasn't yet the trend to spend a significant amount of time prepping for those exams. And knowing what I know about how the tests are designed I'm inclined to suggest that one reason my scores weren't higher was due to cultural differences. My parents' own socialization had been limited by the difficulties they experienced during World War II. For example, I was surprised to find out my father, although an extremely intelligent man, had not heard of Freud. Finally, my scores might have been affected by a mild case of dyslexia I believe I have but have never taken the initiative to be formally diagnosed with. At any rate, even though I wasn't bothered too much by average, it's possible the advising committee was.

I absolutely loved Physics, but all together the coursework was too time consuming in terms of the big picture when I look back on my CV now. In addition, at least in my view, most scientists pick up the necessary information readily along the way and learn better through active involvement doing the experiments. Over the years I found the extra coursework wasn't very useful and had contributed very little to my research.

During my first year in the auditory lab I was part of another collaborative project. Then, instead of being allowed to take the reins and look for phonemic detectors, I was assigned a morphological experiment that required my reinventing the wheel to look at pathfinding of neuronal tracts in the developing cochlea. In retrospect, an implicit bias on the part of the advisor likely suggested that being in charge of recording experiments wasn't the best choice for a girl. As I read the literature on the inner ear, I fell in love both with the aesthetic beauty of the cochlea, mechanisms of resonance, and ion channels. When the University hired an ion channel physiologist, I switched labs and for the next four years worked with the best Zen teacher I've ever had (!) even though he was Baptist. Although I already had developed a desire to investigate the ion channel mechanisms giving rise electrical resonance in the cochlea, the questions we were addressing in terms of the mechanisms regulating ion channels in Schwann cells and axons of the sciatic nerve were close enough.

During my first year we performed experiments together. I learned all the basic techniques, tissue culture, analyzed data -- everything except actual recording. When I finally was allowed to record channel activity on my own I had miraculously acquired a perfect sense of the technique required for patch clamping, which works a little like surfing in terms of the interface between the experimenter and recording equipment, i.e. a certain amount of skill and sensitivity (to the un-initiated, perhaps best understood as a form of balance in the comparison to surfing) was required. In later years, especially at Yale, I had to smile to myself a little when people wanted to learn how to record using the patch clamp technique in a day.

I ended up winning another thesis award for my I felt I had finally thrown off the bias associated with my Psychology degree and the run-around I received while trying to get the opportunity to pursue the search for phonemic feature detectors. I was in business! (After nine years in graduate school and all the while accumulating student loan debt... Though at least those debts were nothing like they are in the present day.)

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (III)

I'm writing about failure. You'd rather hear about success. We all would. Whether on the level of individuals or international policy and politics, failure is a drag. If I write about failure you might recognize yourself in the story.

It's our instinct to want to transcend. Turn the page, start a new chapter. Start a new conversation, all the while evading the more difficult, potentially confrontational one.

We transcend because time keeps going. We're propelled into the future before we understand the present whether we like it or not. And we keep going in the hope we'll have better 'luck' next time. But evading isn't transcending. And, in some cases, the conversation's been attempted too many times with an individual incapable of listening, unwilling to change, or in which bad communication habits have grown too deeply engrained.

To the people I care about, and that's all of you and any person reading this even if in real life it would be unlikely we'd get along (due to differences in politics, ethics, or whatever), please take the time to listen to Tim Wise's "White Like Me" about racism and sexism. About how even those intending no harm can cause harm.

In fact, it's so very ordinary and normal that if we comment on what's happening it's very easy to be "othered" and then the informational content of the message goes unheard.

In these days of the Internet if the conversation is public, as in the recent case of Tim Hunt, the key point gets lost due to mob reactivity. Women students in academia typically ARE more emotional in their expressions of sadness, hurt and disappointment. More senior women learn to suppress and internalize those emotions because emotional expression is badly received and, more importantly, they learn that the intellectual content of what they're saying gets lost. Tim Hunt's joke was not only in bad taste, it WAS sexist in the context of the meeting. Although it contained some truth, just like more rude comments about women's appearance, it distracted from women's overall intellectual contribution and added one more comment to the mountains of obstructions women have to overcome to be heard. It's more than sad that Hunt and St. Louis had to cope with mob reactivity. But also disappointing is that the point got lost -- even in's article.

Each one of us, regardless of gender or race, has been guilty of othering, more often than we like to admit. Each one of us has been othered and not been heard.

Othering occurs, at least in part, because as a species we tend to operate on emotional autopilot. More visceral emotions and intuitions based on our inner beliefs play a larger role in affecting our decisions than our rational intentional mind wants to admit. I think men have learned to externalize their negative reactions (most typically anger), whereas women have learned to internalize their negative reactions (most typically hurt and disappointment) -- at least before feminist thinking grew to be more common.

Part of the pipeline problem, however, is that the frequency of being unheard occurs more often for women and minorities and the negative effects accumulate to have big effects on their lives and livelihoods over time.

In the case of gendered conversations, women's intellectual contributions are marginalized and women tend to be remembered for the wrong reasons by both men and women.

One point I missed in my last post is that when married tenured women DO exercise their assertiveness (by expression, tone, quantity or volume) or their feminine powers to be heard, it has less of a negative impact on how they're judged because our implicit mental weighting of their femininity and nurturing remain unchanged. Their marriage and children act as a counterbalance in observers' minds. But a price married women pay for this protection and success in the perceptions of others is that even the most productive married women's contributions usually end up being overshadowed by the contributions of their spouse in the public eye.

At the University of Michigan I can't tell you how many times my contributions at the seminars of invited guest speakers, faculty meetings, administrative functions and social events were overlooked. More numerous than I can count. I made an effort to contribute, an effort because of my own shyness, but rarely, if ever, was that contribution recognized. It grew even more frustrating when I realized that my ideas continued to flow through the discussion, but that others would receive the credit. When I mentioned this phenomenon at an assistant professor's meeting, I was told I was being oversensitive. When I mentioned it later at a tenure committee meeting, the official meeting minutes emphasized the patience of the all male committee and neglected to mention the point itself. Over time it grew more difficult to overcome my shyness to contribute at meetings.

All of this is even more ironic when you consider that NSF Advance was making an effort to correct sexist biases in hiring and the work environment at the University, but many of the senior faculty had failed to attend the seminars presenting the research indicative of the many ways sexist biases affect judgments and behavior.

About women's intellectual contributions being overlooked, Virginia Valian writes:

Those whose comments were ignored have suffered a small loss in prestige, and their contributions have been labeled, implicitly as low in value. Because they now have less prestige, they will be listened to less in the future; they will carry their previously earned labels into the next encounter... If everyone understood explicitly what some people understand implicitly―that success comes from creating and consolidating small gains―no one would counsel women to ignore being ignored...The well-meaning advice often given women―not to make a mountain out of a molehill―is mistaken.

While at the University of Michigan I, somewhat like Cheryl Gore-Felton at Stanford, tried to change the dynamics of the interactions. There was to my knowledge no poker night, but I joined a social hour once a month in which my colleagues and I, and sometimes students from our labs, would talk science over a beer at a local pub*. Unfortunately, I was the only woman, most of these colleagues were from outside my Department, assistant professors, and in the Medical School, though the conversations were some of most enjoyable during my time at the University -- part of my vision of what being a scientist was about. Without saying a word, I even forgave one of the tenured males from the Medical School for making googoo eyes at and flirting with the bartender considering we were in a pub. Without doubt, I would have preferred if we could have put our minds together and figured out a way to rescue my career after the hostile takeover.

Speaking for myself, the most significant case in my career of my contribution receiving less recognition than it deserved occurred prior to my time at the University of Michigan when my postdoctoral advisor chose to present my research at a prestigious Gordon conference himself. I was neither informed of the meeting nor invited to attend and missed out on an early opportunity to network and gain recognition. Maybe he considered it more important to promote his lab or someone else. At least my paper pulled his lab out of a bit of a slump. And I did get invited to a conference in Armenia many years later, even though I had to pay the airfare myself and I already had failed to get tenure.

In terms of the pipeline problem, the accumulation of negative effects in my case translates to the scientific community studying ion channels and synaptic plasticity having lost an enthusiastic contributor, colleague and friend.

*Conversations like this, in the absence of alcohol in this case, were also one reason I enjoyed Green Gulch as much as I did. Though we didn't talk about ion channels or synaptic plasticity. We talked about our individual experiences, the environment, and other problems of our world. (I never quite made it to The Pelican Inn outside Green Gulch borders, but possibly that will change sometime in the future.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (II): Let's NOT make this about luck.

Luck. I doubt anyone would argue with the observation that luck isn't good business. And whether the currency is scientific knowledge or money, universities are business.

In her book Why So Slow? Virginia Valian presents evidence that women have a tendency to attribute success or failure to luck. She suggests that the tendency is due to the perceptual distortion women experience as they navigate the triple standard of productivity, femininity and nurturing mentioned in my last post.

About luck Virginia Valian writes:

"success demands competence, strategic analysis, and effort...Luck, in the guise of an uncontrollable set of external circumstances, plays an unwarranted role in women's professional lives. Women do not reliably profit from their competence, strategic analysis, and effort to the same extent men do...because women's objective circumstances are more difficult than men's."

So let's NOT make this about luck!

Productivity, Not Luck

I know I deserve to have been tenured. When I left my postdoctoral fellowship at Yale I had already reached critical escape velocity and would have been easily tenured. In that sense I know the University of Michigan failed to provide the support I needed to demonstrate the productivity we all would have preferred. I assume that wasn't their initial intention even though that was the effect.

There's an old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," not to mention a lot of wasted dollars, time, and effort. The adage is true whether talking about war, natural disasters, the financial excesses of Wall Street, the increasing capitalistic structuring of health care, pharmaceutical industries, or education from charter schools to universities.

If the University of Michigan really wanted the success they were after when I was hired -- and as a University trying to be competitive with Ivy Leagues that seems like logical reasoning -- then I should never have found myself in a situation so sensitive to the effects of the hostile takeover of Research Genetics.

When the Department failed to consider it essential to recruit one or more graduate students with a sincere desire to learn electrophysiology, I was placed under a tremendous handicap in terms of productivity. In fact, the first graduate student that got sent my way (without information concerning their condition) was an extremely intelligent and kind manic-depressive interested in biochemistry.

Electrophysiology is my primary area of expertise. With an initial set of electrophysiological publications I would have been able to recreate the rich context of the project on ion channel regulation and plasticity I had worked on at Yale, this time in a biological system that was more genetically and behaviorally tractable with strong correlation to the processes of synaptic plasticity that underlie learning and memory. In contrast to that ideal, as it was, I performed the electrophysiological experiments to supplement the work of my students. As it was, my research program was outside my primary area of expertise. Most scientists only risk that after promotion.

I did eventually manage to recruit a postdoctoral fellow with electrophysiological training. Because I couldn't afford to gamble after the hostile takeover, I tasked him with a project that other investigators' work suggested would have a high likelihood of publishable data regardless of what the results were. Namely, modulation of the channel by calmodulin. Although his work was delayed by writing up his thesis results and then an NIH fellowship (to gain familiarity with the project regardless of the chance of funding), in the second year he presented his findings at the Annual Biophysics meeting and his project attracted the interest of David Yue whose work on calcium-calmodulin signaling mechanisms I had long admired. I envisioned a collaboration in which we could explore the physical interaction between the channel and calmodulin using FRET. I was thrilled because I hadn't had the opportunity to pursue the more structural and biophysical approaches to channel modulation in the earlier years of my own training.

Most likely due to gossip and politics in the Department, as well as the discouragement of not getting his fellowship award, my postdoc decided to begin applying and interviewing for a second appointment in a larger lab instead of focusing on the project. I understood. Once he found another position, we agreed on an exit date that would allow him to bring the project to a close and write the paper. On the day he entered my office to mention that he was taking an extra month to vacation with his wife before leaving, I resorted to tonglen and then tried, unsuccessfully, to convey that his choice was likely to negatively affect both of us since my lab would shut down if I didn't get tenure.

That gossip and politics were in the air was clear in variety of ways. For example, after the hostile takeover there was an obvious change in the tone of my annual meetings with the promotions committee. In another example, my faculty advisor caused one of my students to fail his preliminary exams by using an overly confrontational tone of voice when asking a basic question. My student went blank and gave the wrong answer even though I knew he knew the right one. It was a silly waste of our time and energy to make my student prepare and retake the exams at a later date, especially since my students were already having to work as teaching assistants to support themselves.


The University of Michigan's failure to recruit a graduate student wanting to learn electrophysiology in the initial years of my appointment provided them with sufficient evidence to validate a negative judgement concerning my abilities, not to mention the judgements of any outside evaluators they selected to write letters for my case.

The promotions committee can bias their selection of letter writers in any way they like, although at least some of the writers are derived from a list provided by the candidate. The writers had considerably less information concerning my case than the promotions committee. Without sounding whiny or overly defensive, there was no way to include details concerning graduate student recruitment, the combined effect of the hostile takeover and funding, and the overload of teaching that resulted for myself and my students as a result of the lack of funding in later years. That was also the case for numerous grant proposals I submitted to NIH, NSF and the American Cancer Society.


Teaching requirements for faculty in Letters and Sciences are much more extensive than for Medical School faculty. Although it varies for different universities and departments, some Medical School research faculty are required to teach only 3-5 lectures in a major Medical School class per year. Or, alternatively, share responsibility for a graduate level class or journal club with ~ 20 students one semester every one or two years. In contrast, in the Letters and Sciences, faculty in my field are required to co-teach an undergraduate and a graduate level class every year. I was assigned to teach Animal Physiology for undergraduates and Neuroscience for new graduate students.

For a starting Assistant Professor, Animal Physiology, with greater than 300 students each semester was a big ask. It's not that some of the other large lecture courses weren't also taught by research faculty. However, the other large lecture courses were taken by freshman and sophomores and were supported by study sections. In contrast, Animal Physiology was typically taken by competitive juniors and seniors needing to ace the class for a good chance at medical school. And for some strange reason Animal Physiology lacked study sections and teaching assistants.

My first two years teaching the class were hell. Not only was I inexperienced instructing classes of that size, the students also seemed to respect teachers less and to feel overly entitled compared to when I was a student. In addition, my authority was overshadowed and undermined by the other more experienced lecturers. I was in a unfair situation in that I was judged relative to (a) tenured male research professors with considerable teaching experience or (b) women lecturers with considerable experience and teaching as their only responsibility. Those of you in academia know that student evaluation comments can be as virulent as sometimes observed in the online environment. (Perhaps I've gained some immunity from those days.) I witnessed one of my male teaching colleagues slam his office door in a student's face in response to being interrupted outside of office hours. I received the same negative evaluation simply as a result of politely asking students to return at another time if they visited while I was in the middle of an electrophysiological recording experiment.

I learned to change my projection to be more authoritative while still being encouraging. I learned to present lecture material as a story with a narrative. Pausing to take and ask questions to allow students to process the material. I prepared extensive online lecture notes, including practice problems and past exams, in addition to providing online access to my PowerPoints for the lectures. I doubled office hours. I moved my electrophysiology rig to the other corner of the building so that I wouldn't be interrupted. Exams were half multiple choice and half short answer. I took a class to learn how to design less ambiguous multiple choice questions. During the last two years I finally had Animal Physiology down to a point that I was enjoying teaching.

Other teaching included weekly lab meetings, weekly meetings with each student in my lab to review their data and plan subsequent experiments (I devised a form for this purpose and wrote down the major points of each meeting), and I ran a journal club with other scientists in my area of research, the majority of them from the Medical School.

While I did learn to appreciate the Animal Physiology class, there were other courses I could have taught that would have been more appropriate: the Department's upper level class in neuroscience with 40-50 students or the Department's upper level electrophysiology lab for undergraduates and new neuroscience graduate students, or the interdisciplinary Learning and Memory laboratory course. The laboratory courses would not have been much more time consuming than Animal Physiology in the end and I might have been able to recruit an electrophysiology student to my lab from that student pool.

Spousal Hiring

Judging by the numbers of women who have reached the higher ranks of academia whose spouses are also in academia, the benefits of spousal hiring are clear. First, married women have support at the personal level that can provide an independent source of self-esteem and comradery to counteract some of the implicit biases of sexism Virginia Valian has researched and described. Second, when women scientists are part of an academic couple they typically don't have to be as assertive as single women to be heard at faculty and adminstrative meetings and even at social events. In this way the magnitude, as well as impact, of sexist biases are reduced. Married women scientists are protected by the fact that loss of one would mean loss of the couple. Not only do married women have to be less assertive, by virtue of being married they have an easier time at being judged as competent while still preserving the characteristics of femininity and nurturing. Virginia Valian presents considerable evidence for the inverse interactions of these variables in how women are judged.

Because my husband was employed by a university already (essentially in his dream job) it would have been extremely helpful to bring him in under the umbrella of a spousal hire. This possibility wasn't considered because my husband was a graphic artist and not a professor. (Similarly, the difference in standing also resulted in my being ineligible for spousal hiring at his university.)

The lack of flexibility on the part of either university left me without personal support during difficult times, stressed the relationship, and spelled doom for my chances of having children. In addition, my husband's absence likely created additional bias due to lingering questions in people minds concerning why he wasn't there.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having to put effort into maintaining a long distance relationship, especially when combined with my teaching and service load, obstructed my opportunities to network with the international scientific community to gain stature and recognition, as well as establish productive collaborations. Both would have provided a better chance at grant funding. Less than 10 percent of submitted grant proposals are funded in my area of research. Proposals compete with those submitted by huge well-established labs in medical schools whose principal investigators have considerable reputation and numerous collaborations.

It would have been helpful if the university and department had been more welcoming and made a stronger effort to find my husband a position similar to the one he would have had to leave. I had already done what I could to select a location with family and friends in the area.

...As deftly as a camel handler in Egypt, society had sold me on the idea that having both a career and marriage was within reach. And academia had led me into the desert demanding ever-increasing payments until, finally, I was left stranded with neither.

My experience at the University of Michigan was only the tip of the iceberg (buried in the desert no less) in terms of the implicit biases and systemic inefficiencies I've encountered in life. Please continue to follow along during the next few posts while I draw on my own experience to contribute to the cause of equality for women and minorities.

*Typical requirements for tenure at a major university in the United States are:

1. (60-75%) A strong record of productivity which is judged on the basis of:
a. Number of research publications
b. Ranking of the journals in which those publications occur
c. Funding record
d. International reputation and scientific impact of the research findings.
e. Letters of recommendation judging the entire tenure package, i.e., research, teaching and service

2. (25-40%) Teaching and Service Record
a. Undergraduate and Graduate Level Courses taught
b. Student End-of-Semester Evaluation Scores
c. Innovation in Teaching
d. Undergraduate and Graduate Student Recommendation Letters

It is important to observe that there is a significant amount of subjectivity incorporated into each of the variables and that many of the productivity variables covary. There is also substantial opportunity for members of the promotions committee to influence the outcome of the tenure decision based on their own views and biases.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (I): Patriarchy doesn't have the balls; women have the heart; and the 1% keeps rolling in the cash.

Please regard the next few posts as an open letter to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Advance Program and a personal case study from a panoramic view that distance and time allow.

I'll be addressing the Pipeline Problem: Academia's difficulties in recruiting and retaining women, particularly in the STEM fields.

The Pipeline Problem is a question of considerable shared interest: For myself, from an historical perspective; for NSF and universities, as evidenced by the grant dollars awarded to study the problem and the continued commitment to diversity; and also for industry, technology and politics because the obstacles in those environments are very similar in terms of biases, harassment, pay gaps, promotions and retention.

I'll have some actionable recommendations before I'm done. I'll also point to some issues that I doubt universities can resolve without more concerted changes across our society.

Moreover, until the problems of sexist biases, sexual harrassment, pay gaps and promotions are resolved, the stratification of effects in terms of the socio-economic class hierarchy are little more than window dressing and lip service to gender and racial equality. It represents an enormous waste of resources and effort on the part of people, families, communities, and education systems. It's a shame that academia and its supporters haven't done a better job investigating and resolving the problem given science's commitment to ethics.

I'm writing, in part, in response to the recently published study by Williams and Ceci (2015) and related commentary (e.g., Lehmann, 2015). The conclusion reached by Williams and Ceci (2014), namely that sexism is not present in academia, is flat out wrong precisely because the variables they use to control their data sets are the variables in which gender and racial bias are most operational. Gender and racial biases held by all genders collude with other causes and thus typically escape detection.

The good news is that having served on hiring committees, as well as having been offered a tenure-track appointment at each university I interviewed, I agree that university departments are making real efforts to bring women and minorities into the ranks. I'm not suggesting those efforts be curtailed, at least not until the numbers are substantially more representative of the diversity in awarded degrees.

The efforts made in hiring, however, are where the good news ends. Women are still navigating the razor's edge of a double or, more truthfully, triple standard that men rarely, if ever, have to face. (That men have little experience facing a similar triple standard is perhaps to the detriment of all). The razor's edge of the triple standard by which women are explicitly and implicitly judged by students, as well as male and female faculty and colleagues include: productivity, femininity and nuturing. I would further argue that conflation of the latter two variables has been at least one source of confusion in addressing the Pipeline Problem.

The conclusion of Williams and Ceci that women are choosing family over career is an ad hominem and/or ad feminam argument since (a) most men in academics have families, in other words the issue of marriage and family is never used to evaluate the careers and characters of men; (b) women entering graduate school have decided in favor of careers; and (c) in today's economic environment most women are employed and the statistics in business and technology aren't much, if at all, better as the recent statistics gathered by the PEW Research Center suggest.

From Wikipedia: an Ironic illustration showing Sutherland Highlander wearing exaggerated Feather bonnet observing "By Jove, what extraordinary headgear you women do wear!"

In future posts I'll address the various ways academia fails to adequately provide women with the resources they need to survive the obstacles they encounter on the tenure track. The raw data are much more discouraging than the doctored numbers of Williams and Ceci would lead us to believe. For example, a recent study by Jane Junn at the University of Southern California found that only 55% of women and minorities were promoted, in constrast to 92% of white males. (Scroll to the top of the link to see data from other countries.) Dismal results of this nature also point to the method by which the illusion of equality on campuses is maintained as discussed in: Ivy League Stiffs its Female Profs. If you look at any given STEM department's webpage, the majority of the women's faces you'll see are staff, lecturers, adjuncts, researchers and assistant professors. Finally, I feel obliged to mention one more point, a statistic I haven't seen discussed, and that is the proportion of those fully tenured women that have reached their position without either (a) a spouse appointed at the same university or (b) former mentors appointed at the same university. Both of these categories of women are swimming with the current by virtue of support other women don't have. (I am not at all against spousal hiring programs, I highly recommend them, but the fact that other women don't have access to the various types of support spousal hiring provides needs to be recognized.) In short:


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

For the Rights of Women

One group of people that's been taken advantage of for longer than African-Americans and Indians in our country and the world is Women. Regardless of race, women have been enslaved and exploited since our species began. 

Even today, whatever rights women have gained since they wised-up while championing the rights of African-Americans, a woman's worth is still often judged by whether or not she's physically worthy of man's attention. Patience, ingenuity, intelligence, wit, creativity and the ability to challenge and debate alternate views are characteristics that can be as much of a liability as a strength. 

After living four years in an isolated monastic-like setting, it might be understandable that I am disturbed by the high degree of sexism in marketing, which undoubtedly has been normalized in the perceptions and cognition of many. Its nearly impossible to escape the sexism present in news and the entertainment industry whether the propaganda being fed to society relates to romantic love or the exaggerated sexist image of what an ideal woman should look and act like. 

With the above in mind it should not be surprising that I find yesterday's decision by Amnesty International to decriminalize sex work disturbing. Amnesty, care and compassion for victims, yes; decriminalization, no. Let me ask Amnesty International this: How do we now as a society define “pimping”? Can not our entire capitalisitic society, not to mention the GOP, or prostitutes themselves be declared guilty?

In my view, decriminalization is an endorsement of slavery. Decriminalization will likely lead to an increase in sexist biases, dismissiveness of the concerns and views of women, and disrespect for women's true potential. Speaking for myself that seems to be the antithesis of compassion and is in contradiction to the values I've lived my life by and the sacrifices I've made believing in and fighting for the equality for women.  

I am aware that other women may disagree with my views as result of conditioning or normalization to a different set of cultural standards and values. To them let me say that its not that I wish harsher conditions on anyone, what I wish for all is a recognition of and respect for their full potential and worth. What I support is a society that is more respectful of relationship at the level of community, friendship and family regardless of race or gender. 

There is not a single human being that has not been harmed by the disregard and disrespect of relationship due to the stresses inherent in our capitalistic society. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Black Lives Matter: Death is not an Opinion

I'm not talking about the Great Death, Great Doubt of Zen koans, though I've commented on death in reference to koan introspection in the past.

I'm talking biological death -- the measurable fact of when the opportunity for conversation ceases. Death is irrevocable. Death is not an opinion or a feeling except for those that are still alive.  All the speculations about what happens after death can not change the fact of death. And all the Social Security and Medicare our country has to offer can't reach the person that died, can't replace the promise or potential of the life that was lost.

African-Americans of our country have been waiting for longer than a generation for Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of equality. The gradual gains made via education and equal opportunity laws rapidly pale when all that effort can be wiped out, undone in an instant, by the overly indignant attitude of a police officer. 

Listen, remembering all the times in your life you wished you would have been heard.

Listen and work to demilitarize the police. Abolish the prison industrial complex. Improve and correct for racial bias in our judicial system and sentencing laws.

You can't talk to a dead person.

Monday, July 27, 2015

At the Intersection of Mindfulness and Compassion in a Complex World (I)

Though my view is as spacious as the sky,
My actions and respect for cause and effect 
are as fine as grains of flour. 

- Padmasambhava

I have a tremendous appreciation and respect for the Buddha-dharma and its teachers. The Buddha-dharma is part of me anywhere and everywhere I go. But if I have a criticism of meditation and mindfulness as they are taught today, it concerns a disrespect of the effects of karma for students. Many of the people arriving at the gates of practice are facing multiple difficulties in their lives. Meditation and mindfulness are a balm, but encourage passivity in the face of those difficulties and, initially, teach only the simplest interpretation of karma by focusing on personal responsibility and self-improvement when the systems of our society, even if not all the people in those systems, are corrupt. 

Has Tibet won autonomy from China? How much harm have its people suffered in the interim? 

Are the only options in the face of extraordinary levels of suffering in the US and across the globe, meditation, malnourishment, deprivation and self-immolation? 

If that's the case then none of us, not even the Dalai Lama, can say we've avoided doing harm by sitting.  

Moreover, the wave of meditation and mindfulness that's sweeping across the US as a counter-current to unregulated capitalism is at risk of de-powering, if not outright harming, some of the individuals most aware of the need for a more altruistic approach. If a major demographic is the white middle class woman looking either for self-improvement, a strengthening of some sense of spirituality, or recovery from depression or depressing circumstances, what are the long term effects on equality for all women going to be if the primary recommended response is passive acceptance? Moreover, in contrast to a view voiced at a Mindfulness and Compassion Conference I attended recently, the Sanghas I've been a member of have been racially diverse and included traumatized, low income and unemployed.

There aren't enough monasteries in the world, let alone the US, to accommodate all the individuals arriving at the gates of practice. A traditional role of monasteries has been to provide protection as practitioners move through the ranks of perceptual shifts meditation gives rise to. 

In addition, the meditation and mindfulness movements, as well as funding for neuroscience research fueling those approaches, are at risk of burning themselves out if they don't recognize a need beyond introspection, one that recognizes the reality of phenomena and circumstances. Precisely because karma is not only the result of our own actions.

From the kamikazi pilot to the middle class white woman to the peace activist, the majority of karma lies in the roles other people project onto us -- good and bad --whether we've recognized and agreed to those roles or not. The lethargy of our social and political systems demonstrate in bringing about positive change is, in part, caused by the inertia of thousands and millions of people accepting things as they are, in addition to different strategies for how problems should be resolved.

I'm convinced that to address the wrongs within corrupt systems we all need to learn to communicate more effectively with ourselves as well as others. 

In that regard, one of the best books I've read in recent years is Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication. If you haven't already read it, read it now! The forward by Arun Gandhi, alone, is worth the price -- or the trip to a library.

For one thing, in my case, Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication put me in touch with the types of questions I should be and should have been asking of my feelings. Feelings are highly sensitive indicators of distress. But if we only sit with them allowing them to dissolve into forgiveness, equanimity and kindness, none of us will ever develop the ability to think outside the box or do more than accept the status quo.

Considering our society's continued inability to identify and negotiate needs-based solutions across political boundaries such as race and/or religion, socio-economic status and gender, and considering the increasingly rapid depletion of our planet's natural and economic resources, accepting the status quo is simply not good enough.

The disconnect we experience in communication about serious problems ranges from individuals to political parties and countries. 

Using some of Rosenberg's suggestions and using my past feelings as a guide, I'm going to unpack some of my experiences as a woman in academia because it's the situation I'm most familiar with. One issue I'll be addressing is the continued low number of women in faculty ranks in spite of being recipients of approximately fifty percent of doctorate degrees

My sense, however, is that some of the problems, as well as strategies for resolution, are generalizable.