Saturday, April 26, 2008

Insidious, hard to quantify, Gender Discrimination

This post is in response to Okham's post, on which I would have loved to log a comment but won't for reasons of maintaining anonymity.

I'm not going to comment on the paper, you can read Okham's post and get to the paper (it was sent to me in a comment on one of my posts).

Because I haven't read it yet.

However I am going to comment on a couple of interesting points raised by Okham's blog.

And yes, I read Okham's post first because it was easy and it pissed me off rather than reading the article because I had to download a file and I knew it would depress me whether it was convincing or not.

Either way, it's bad news for me that either Sherry Towers is right (probably) but nobody believes her or will do anything about it (likely) or she's wrong and making the rest of us look bad and actually weakening our case.

See? Either way, depressing. I swear I'll read it when I'm in a better mood.

Regardless, I think Okham does us a disservice, or needs to get a little of enlightenment on this one issue in particular. I'm going to excerpt this part of the post here since the original post is very long and this is just one small section:

"Conference presentations
What about speaking invitations ? Have women been reserved fewer slots than they would have deserved ?

Before we address this issue, it need be stressed that conference presentations, in and of themselves, are only a modest "reward" for one's scientific accomplishments. It is commonly accepted that the main objective of a postdoctoral researcher, is not that of speaking at conferences, but rather landing a university faculty position. Towers' case of GD is ultimately about jobs, not invited talks. Thus, the importance of any imbalance in the allocation among researchers of conference presentations, depends on the (real or perceived) impact of presentations on the main professional aspiration of a postdoctoral scientist. If only a tenuous connection with career advancement can be established, a charge of GD based on conference presentations alone is not likely to be seen of much interest, nor substance.

Towers' data seem to indicate that speaking invitations were mostly granted to male researchers, although the validity of this contention is difficult to assess independently, as no raw numbers of speaking invitations for female and male researchers are provided, and Towers' "conference reward ratio" gives disproportionate weight to talks given by "unproductive" researchers.

The most striking result, however, is that the correlation between speaking invitations and faculty appointments is weak, virtually non-existent for male researchers (Table 1). In other words, the lion's share of conference presentations may have gone to male researchers, but they derived no measurable benefit from that. Towers herself seems at a loss explaining this. Wouldn't you expect speaking invitations to be especially important for "unproductive" (i.e., male) researchers ? After all, by delivering an effective presentation, an "unproductive" individual (whose CV is presumably weak) may impress the audience and partly compensate for his productivity gap with respect to his competitors.

The observed little impact on career advancement clearly raises doubts about the real importance of conference presentations; one cannot help wondering what the perception may have been, among researchers in the sample, how many of them may have regarded presentations as a "chore", rather than a "reward", and to what extent they have actively sought to obtain speaking invitations in the first place...

Generally speaking, it is clear that any action (deliberate or not) whose effect is that of depriving a researcher of the proper recognition for the work accomplished (including a chance to showcase in public his/her speaking ability) is unacceptable, and should therefore be prevented and remedied. At the same time, given that the impact of conference presentations on career advancement is unclear (to say the least), serious allegations such as "gender discrimination" and/or possible violation of Title IX regulations seem unwarranted, if solely or primarily based on conference presentations.

At a minimum, more information on, and greater understanding of the process by which conference slots are allocated is required. It is conceivable, for example, that productive researchers may simply not be interested in, nor place too much weight on presentations, which they may perceive as scarcely useful in bolstering their hiring bids (rightfully so, apparently)."

Okham raises a good point here that is easily refuted.

Q: Do conference presentations correlate with job offers?
A: Only if you give good ones.

The point here is that more study is needed. Here's how I think about this in a nutshell:

data 1. Women are invited as speakers less often than men.
data 2. Women are a smaller part of the applicant pool.

Hypothesis: Face time is more important for women than it is for men.

The kinds of gender-biased decisions pointed out in one of the comments illustrate this point nicely:

"...qualified women routinely get ranked lower than men for the following reasons.

Many of the confidential letters of recommendation for qualified women dwell on personality and degree of assertiveness (either too much or too little), rather than scientific accomplishments. This personality rating is then used to either say they will not be leaders in the field (not assertive enough) or they may be difficult to work with (too assertive). Being "just right" is an extremely narrow window. The letter for male applicants match potential leadership qualities with their work, instead of their personality.

I have watched faculty meetings which drop qualified women to the bottom of the list due to vague comments about not fitting in, or doesn't act like a physicist. Such comments might have merit, if they refer to experimental style, teaching, or thinking. However, these comments upon later elucidation, refer to her clothes, her persona, her... femaleness.

Once low in the ranking, the woman candidate is packaged up as a "member of the minority pool, who was interviewed, but didn't make the cut", and this satisfies the University rules about affirmative action (or whatever they call it these days)."
-- Anonymous

Now, I only have one good anecdote on this point, but I'm used to use it because this is a blog.

A couple of years ago I went to meet with some collaborators, and they wanted me to give a seminar so they asked for my CV.

After my talk, one of the PIs said to me, "Wow, you're really MUCH more impressive in person than you are on paper."

So there are two points to my logic here.

1. Women appear less productive on paper than we really are.
One of the reasons we appear less productive is because we often get bumped down the author list, or our papers get downgraded to 'lesser' journals because of the catch-22.

You know the catch-22, I blog about it a lot. If you self-promote, you're being arrogant and/or bitchy. If you don't, you're screwed. It's a lose-lose.

So we often get less of a byline than we deserve.

In other words, our publications systematically under-represent our productivity.

But I don't have to support that with evidence- other people already have. It's the middle of the night so I'm not going to hunt for the references, but I'll do it if you're too lazy to go look for them. (I don't get the impression that Okham is in any way lazy.)

2. The chance to change people's minds by meeting them in person is priceless. Maybe Sherry Towers tried to make this point, I don't know. But it needs to be made vehemently.

My impression is that many of my problems at work have been because of one simple thing.

Assumption based on observation: Men are terrified of women crying.

(I hope you're laughing because I think this is a hilarious topic, but bear with me because I do have a point.)

Because men are terrified of women crying, they tend to avoid confronting us even more than they avoid confronting their male colleagues and advisees (passive aggressive types that we get in science, especially).

Since there is no direct communication with us, assumptions are made. Men confer with each other about what they think is going on with us.

Erroneous assumptions are always made in the absence of actual data.

Assumption based on observation: Men who don't have much contact with women besides their family members (i.e. especially in fields where women are in the tiny minority) DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT WOMEN.

Ahh, that reminds me of a great song from a Broadway show....

And so, dear folks, this brings us back to the Great Divide. At the end of the day, here is the take-home message from Okham's post:

"I cannot really say that I have ever witnessed a blatant case of gender discrimination (GD) on the job" -- Okham.

Dear Okham, I have. And so have most of us women bloggers. One reason Sherry has only 9 people in her study? BLATANT GENDER BIAS AT ALL LEVELS LIMITS THE NUMBER OF WOMEN.


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At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Men have it so freaking easy. Yes, many of them work hard to get where they are. But there are SO many women who worked hard and got the short end of the stick. It's so hard for me to explain to men what I perceive to be blatant, ongoing sexual discrimination. "Oh, that's all in your head," the guys in the lab usually say. Oh really, is that why I'm the only female postdoc here!

At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Girlpostdoc said...

In 1997, a study published in Nature by Wenneras and Wold examined the peer-review system of the Swedish Medical Research Council. The MRC provides funding for biomedical research in Sweden for postdoctoral fellows. To get funding the applications go through a review committee. This review committee scored the applicant on scientific competence, quality of the research, and relevance of the research proposal.

They found that for a female scientist to be awarded the same scientific competence score as a male colleague she had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant.

Was it because the women were less productive? Not at all. In this study, productivity was measured in several ways: total number of original scientific publications, first-author publications, impact fact of each of the journals in which the applicants papers were published, "first author impact measure," and the number of times the applicant's scientific papers were cited.

When applicants were equal in their productivity score, reviewers gave females lower scientific competence scores than the male applicants.

A more recent North American example of this type of bias is found in the winner of the 2006 Dobzhansky Award. This award is given by the Society for the Study of Evolution "to recognize the accomplishments and future promise of an outstanding young evolutionary biologist." Only two women in its 25 year history have received this award. The most recent recipient was Dr. Franziska Michor. She graduated from her PhD in 2005 but has published 36 papers (many as a first author in Nature) since 2002.

It is depressing to think that only when a woman is heads and tails above a man that she is recognized as his equal. Diversity is the foundation of evolutionary biology - it's too bad we can't practise what we study.

Ultimately though it is our (men and women) inherent bias in how we evaluate women that contribute to why there are few women in the higher scientific ranks. If early on the awards, fellowships and funding, mainly go to men, then there is a cumulative disadvantage that becomes tremendously difficult to overcome. No wonder there are few women in the higher scientific ranks.

I love this blog. At least I know that I am not alone in my frustration, anger and suffering.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Maxwell's Demoness said...

Ah yes, no blatant gender discrimination. Like the PI (well-known and well-funded, high up in the infastructure) I worked for as an undergrad, who told me that women were good for repetitive lab tasks but no good at original thought; ie not PI material. I left, but his poor grad students and post-docs (mostly women by his deliberate choice) were screwed. Etc, etc etc. Sigh. I bet he votes to hire LOTS of women faculty.

At 1:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assumption based on observation: Men are terrified of women crying.

You're implying that women are prone to become "hysterical" at work?

At 2:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you explain to me specifically how I did a "disservice" ? I have gone through your post and am not clear which part of my analysis you disagree with and why.... Why don't you explain to me where I am wrong ? In my own post I ask people to "set me straight". Most of your post does not really deal with mine, actually.

"I cannot really say that I have ever witnessed a blatant case of gender discrimination (GD) on the job" -- Okham.

Dear Okham, I have.

Dear YFS, do you think your quoting me right ?
This is the statement from my post:
"Although I cannot really say that I have ever witnessed a blatant case of gender discrimination (GD) on the job, I have certainly no trouble believing that it exists".

data 1. Women are invited as speakers less often than men.
data 2. Women are a smaller part of the applicant pool.

1. may be right, but Towers' paper does not show it convincingly
2. is clearly true, and I explicitly state that much at the end of my post. But it is a separate issue than what Towers' paper discusses.

Okham raises a good point here that is easily refuted.

Q: Do conference presentations correlate with job offers?
A: Only if you give good ones.

Tell it to Towers. She claims that, for men, they do not correlate at all, for women they do to some extent. Is it because women are better speakers than men ? And in any case, what "point" of mine are you "refuting" exactly ?

I respectfully suggest that you read her paper. If you agree with her analysis, please tell me where mine is wrong. I'll be happy to be taught a lesson and shall thank you for that.
But please don't tell me things like, "I just KNOW it", "that's JUST THE WAY IT IS", "as a man, you can't GET THAT"... it does not help. That does a disservice.

PS You can easily leave anonymous comments on my blog. I do log IPs, but you can easily bypass that by going through some free anonymous surfing.

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seriously, are any of us surprised? Naturally for any of these people to admit that Towers was right, would to be to admit there is a problem. They will never admit there is a problem. They will attempt to convince themselves, and the rest of us, that aliens have brainwashed us with broccoli-powered instruments before they admit there is a problem. So fight the good fight, but understand that we can only take small chinks out of the wall at one time. It does matter. It slowly erodes the wall.

These are all the ages-old refrains of any prejudice. White people in America make the same types of arguments why black people are paranoid. Etc etc. It will probably never end. What changes is when enough people are clued into the classic arguments and how stupid they are, it becomes increasingly harder to make those arguments in society, because they begin to sound like the excuses they really are.

At 9:36 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 1:51,

No. What I should have said is that men are terrified of EVEN the POSSIBILITY of ANY TEARS.


You're right, I wrote this at 4 AM and it needs to be more thorough.

But I know plenty of men who DO GET IT. I'm not completely convinced that you're one of them. You seem to have only an academic understanding and no first hand encounters. The men I know who really get it have seen this happening on a daily basis in their own labs, and make every attempt to stand up for us when they can.

So in a way you are just lacking for experience, I guess, probably because of this problem that there aren't enough women in your field, apparently, for you to know any personally or work with even one who would be honest with you about her struggles.

I guarantee that today you won't find more than a minority of PhD-level female scientists who have not experienced discrimination, blatant or subtle, whether or not they realized it until much later.

At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one reason why Ms PhD might have correctly appeared more impressive in person than perceived on paper is that women often don't craft their CVs to be as punchy as men do. I find even looking over CoHE's CV doctor, you can tell at 50 paces which CVs were prepared by females and which were prepared by men. It's a formalized version of our understatement, and our tendency to sell ourselves short, and to try to control the aspects of a search that we think we can control -- we struggle with promoting ourselves on a black and white sheet of paper.

Full disclosure: I have a first name that isn't immediately identifiable as female. But I found that writing the amounts of grant dollars, and using stronger typefaces (bold italics!) and less formatting were well-received changes to my CV. When I asked friends, colleagues and mentors to look over my CV, the females had extensive comments about formatting -- none of the men did. And I had arranged things so that the sections broke on page breaks, and my male advisors thought this organization was both unnecessary and strange -- they were perturbed that all my presentations fit neatly on one page, etc. It wasn't what they were expecting.

I am an ecologist, and statistically (unpublished data collected by somewhat bitter young male scientists in my field) women get hired 2 years more junior than men, and with fewer publications and with one fewer major grant (for instance, a postdoctoral fellowship). This is the stigma of there not being a lot of senior female faculty, and departments trying to get more parity -- women get hired when they are more junior, and less established. This may very well lead to more failures to thrive before tenure since an equivalently productive male has two more years of postdocing and publications before he starts losing time to teaching and service obligations, and will have more publications full of preliminary data to use for grant applications.

That is what I thought of when I saw more female physicists being hired out of the Fermilab postdocs -- that perhaps the same situation exists in physics as in my corner of biology. Not saying in any way that this study doesn't show GD! But I am saying that positive discrimination in favor of women can be documented on the tenure-track hiring level and that some of my male colleagues are a little bitter about it.

At 2:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know plenty of men who DO GET IT. I'm not completely convinced that you're one of them.

I never said I do, nor have I set out to discuss gender discrimination (I would have no qualification to do that, anyway).
I simply read a paper posted on ArXiv which claims to be based on a statistical analysis. I went through the numbers (the ones that are given, that is), and merely expressed my perplexity.

Let me tell you what I really do not get: Even if, as you say, I have "no first-hand experience" (I am unsure as to what basis you have to make such a speculation but anyway), what does that have to do with analyzing numbers ? Are you saying that if I had experience I would do statistics differently ? Or, that I would not even bother to read the paper, I would just assume that since it claims GD it simply must be right, and questioning its math would be doing a "disservice" (not that I am thinking of anyone in particular, eh ?) ?
No, really, is this science or religion ?

If you read my post carefully, you'll see that I do not take issue at all with whether or not GD exists. All I am asking you (or anyone else), is to explain to me the flaw in my reasoning.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with okham, he seems to argue from reason, you seem to argue from emotion. And whenever there's emotion vs. reason battle, I side with reason. This is not to say he is absolutely correct in everything he says, just that he has the correct approach to the problem.

Frankly, the namecalling and all the hysteria is not very productive. Here's the problem with anecdotal evidence: We have all been bypassed for promotion, had papers rejected, projects taken away from us etc. - some take it as a result of discrimination, others take it as life the way it is.

I know this female graduate student who manipulates every situation to her advantage and recently heard her complain about discrimination - even though she guilted her way to authorship on the paper she had no business being on, has used tears to keep her RA-ship after going AWOL for a few months and not appearing in the lab at ALL - and her advisor changed his mind and decided not to fire her - where any guy would get canned long time ago. Objectively - to most outside observers - she has it way easy. To her, she is working super-hard and we are all just women-haters. And I am sure she truly believes it too.

If you ever heard anyone complain about ANYTHING, it's hard to be objective about yourself. Everyone thinks they are in top 10%, everyone thinks they work harder than their co-workers - in fact this blog (and most other blogs too) just proves my point (no offense). All blogs whine about how terrible other people are, and how good, noble, smart and kind the blog authors are. Of course we all know this just can't be true.

Which is why scientists should approach these type of problems scientifically - and use statistics and reason, not anecdotal evidence and hysteric arguments (=it HAPPENED to me, how dare you question ANYTHING? you are not even a WOMAN!).

Look at it this way - being angry, hysterical and plain rude is not a way to get your point across. The way to make your point across is with data and unbiased analysis.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger sister of physics brothers said...

Yes, the men do make assumptions about women. And fear women's emotions. I would add that it occurs even if they know women (we always separate those we know personally from the "group." I can't figure it out: Men fear women crying more than men's fists?

Where I worked (with physicists), the men did everything they could to avoid confrontations with women, even if the women were acting badly and needed to be stopped, ie, like bitches: angry and hostile. And both men and women always counseled me on "being careful" not to seem like a bitch...or not to seem like a scatter-brain, and definitely self-promotion or asking for equipment or raises was considered a fireable offense for women (not kidding) etc. The fine line of behavior was impossible to meet.

At 6:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

is it me or are there some lovely examples of gender essentialization right here on this comment thread?

women don't craft their cvs as well as men do? That's right up there with, well...we can't really call pay inequality a problem because, you see, women don't negotiate for higher salaries.

and now...he argues from reason and she argues from emotion?

Is it possible your perception of the validity of her argument has to do with her gender, the way her writing is gendered, and maybe even just a little bit the way her position is gendered?

It is for the female to claim gender discrimination and the male part is to come in as the voice of rationality and convince her that maybe there is some problem but you're blowing it out of proportion.

who is emotionally invested here? Your reason seems guided by the fact that if you admit there is a problem, you have to admit not only that she is discriminated against but that you are the beneficiary of that discrimination.

See, this is not something that only affects women. It is endemic which means as a male, you benefit from it and you are complicit in it. you don't get it until you get that and I don't credit you with getting it until you realize gender discrimination is not just a problem that affects other people. it's your problem. you're part of fixing it or you're perpetuating it.

and throwing around arguments like "women don't put together punchy cvs" and "you're arguing from emotion"? per. pet. u. a. tion. of negative, gender essentializing stereotypes.

Please stop.


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