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.)

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