Sunday, March 8, 2009

Does sexism get worse as you get older?

One of my female mentors once said to me, "Some of the men out there are good guys when you're a grad student or a postdoc. But when you're a colleague--especially a successful colleague--that's when the tone changes. They're fine when they get to mentor a younger woman, because the balance of power still rests with them. But when they have to treat you as equals, they can't always handle it.

I had this in mind when reading Candid Engineer's recent post, and follow-up, about not experiencing sexism in the workplace. I've experienced only modest issues with sexism, or what I perceive as sexism: not the full-blown harassment crap, but the way that men sometimes talk over women during conversations; that they can be slow to share credit; that they can compartmentalize women in rapid and demeaning ways that make me antsy (e.g., recently someone in my lab referred to a woman in another lab as a "crazy bitch"--language that he might not have used if he were surrounded by women, rather than by men.)

Most male faculty treat me with respect and courtesy, which is great. But my mentor's words linger in my mind. Right now I treat faculty with some deference (I can hear the people who know me falling off their chairs with laughter right now, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I treat them with a mixture of deference, ease, and sarcasm, whose relative values depend on many factors). The point is, even when I'm challenging male faculty, I do so from a position of comparatively less power.

Plenty of them may not care at all that I am female. But some of them may be predisposed to be pleasant to me now because the older male/younger female relationship is a well-established setup. The May-December marriages; the father-daughter relationship; and here, the mentor/mentee.

What I don't know is this: when I reach the faculty level, will the same guys who liked me as a postdoc still treat me respectfully as a colleague, an equal?

And if so--how come the junior faculty I know are still predominantly male? Could it be that the leap from postdoc to faculty slices the ranks of women not only because of child-rearing issues and suchlike, but also because the men who were happy to mentor a 25-year-old woman feel threatened by a 40-year-old?

That is, are some men happy for women to go into science--just not to succeed at it?


Mad Hatter said...

That's a very interesting question. Many of my friends who are junior faculty have found their postdoc advisors to be less supportive and more competitive with them once they became faculty. This has been true of both men and women, but perhaps the process of becoming competitors with their former trainees brings out the worst in PIs and reveals their latent (or not-so-latent) -isms.

SciMom said...

I experienced minor sexism but mostly when I was younger. Those incidents were things like "Who's lab do you work in?" when I was a junior faculty and being called "Missy" and other diminutives by senior male faculty. I'm sure they thought is was enduring. What I've dealt with mostly since then is the "wife of the recruit" sexism which sets up a situation where people automatically assume you are a less talented scientist if you are part of the recruitment package for your spouse. In three "wife of the recruit" moves, I had one chairman who really respected me for my abilities.

PhizzleDizzle said...

That is a really really interesting question. I've never had (serious) problems myself and I always wondered what planet FSP lives on to get the kind of crap she gets on a seemingly regular basis. Not that I don't believe her, at all - more just...some of it is so over the top, it's mindblowing to think anyone is doing them. But your post makes me think...perhaps it is partially because she's so successful.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Yes, and it's difficult to tell whether FSP experiences more of this crap because her peer group is simply older (=more dinosauresque) or because she's perceived as more of a threat than, say, one of her grad students. Some of each?

Anonymous said...

YES YES YES! As you become more and more of a threat - you get more sexist shit thrown at you. During grad school, I never had a clue as to how men perceive me. Well, they saw me as someone who would crank out papers.
Once I started interviewing for faculty jobs, I realized they were treating me like their assistant, not like they were hiring for an assistant professor. over and over and over again. Would I work on their shit? NO. I'm an independent researcher dammit - you are dead weight. Would I share my new lab? NO. Get your own toys instead of mooching off my startup. Of course, I was polite about all this, but they all wanted a piece of me. and power over me. I showed one search committee a $1M grant proposal I had written, ready to be submitted... they wanted to take it! yeah - like I have STOOPID on my head. hell no. Each time I told them something about the design, they told me it was done before or someone was working on it. Who? no answer. When? they didn't know. They were making shit up as they go to scare me away.

The depts seriously lacking in women (like only 1 or 2 of 30+) were the absolute worst. Horrible treatment all around. They are actively keeping women out of their playground by abuse. Even the women students would openly tell me how bad things were for the women faculty, but that the women students were treated like crap by the male students mostly. And then I thought about it... the male profs need the women students to do the work and to take credit for it, so their treatment was subdued for productivity sake.

One day I woke up in a hotel on an interview and bells went off. And once you hear the bells, you can't turn your ears off. And you learn how to fight back and you keep your knives sharp.

Find a seriously accomplished woman who has street smarts - she'll be the best person for your career ever. I have 2 in my corner now and it's a tremendous help.

Anonymous said...

Great post Dr J. From my own experience I think this is true. I have been finding it difficult to make the transition from postdoc to independent researcher, and I think the change of status has elements that are very difficult for men especially to cope with. As you say, the older male advisor role is one most of us understand; but how to be equals is not. I was moaning to my husband just last night about how male colleagues assume I have less publications, and less nous in a field without even checking it out. Amazing!

I have trouble, too, presenting myself as an equal even when I know I am just as accomplished as the male scientists I am with. The change from polite deference to having and holding views that are different to theirs, for example. I have to say I can easily imagine most of the scenarios FSP discusses. I have seen many of them.

Candid Engineer said...

To echo others, very interesting question. Of course, being relatively young, I don't know the answer. All I know is that I will try to plow through the system, and deal with shit as it arises.

Anonymous said...

Again, very interesting question. And I think you're on to something. I went from "lucky me, I've never had any real problems due to my gender" to "shit! WTF!" in a year -- just by moving away from working for somebody else to being an independent researcher. And my male colleagues who have children near my age seem to be treating me like a daughter rather than a peer. I don't like it.

Anonymous said...

This is a great question. I have had the reverse experience of most of the responders here in that I've experienced less sexism as I have gotten older. As a grad student and postdoc, I was the object of some fairly dismissive behavior, but since I've been faculty (esp. now that I'm tenured), I've gotten quite a bit more respect. I think it may be due in part to the fact that my confidence levels have risen as I have achieved more success, and I project this to my colleagues. However, the lack of sexism applies only within my work environment. I still get treated to the occasional bout of dismissive behavior in my non-work life, and it surprises me when it happens.

DrDoyenne said...

Another (female) colleague and I refer to this as the PuppyScientist Syndrome. Everyone wants to pat you when you are cute, cuddly, bursting with enthusiasm, and especially if you gaze admiringly at Dr. Hotshot whenever you encounter him in the hallway.

However, when the PuppyScientist begins showing signs of growing up and especially starts looking like a threat to Dr. Hotshot's ego (like getting a pub in Science or bringing in a multi-million dollar grant), then watch out.

Sure, some of your male colleagues will be truly happy for you--all two of them.

Seriously, though, this is an interesting issue and one I've pondered for many years (being a senior female scientist).

I've experienced the gamut--from blatant discrimination (in the "good ole days") to more subtle strategies of marginalization (today). Not that there aren't supportive male colleagues out there, there are.

I don't have any answers for the younger crowd--except to be aware of this phenomenon and stand your ground, especially whenever anyone approaches you with:

"Cute puppy...let me pat you..."

Jane said...

I think there is some truth in this. I'm thinking in particular of a very senior colleague in my department, who is intermittently nice/helpful and condescending/lecturing, depending on how threatened by my success he's feeling on a particular day. But I've also found that this is true for students, too: I tend to get the harassing phone calls, the challenges to my authority in the classroom, the snide sexist comments, etc. when I'm visibly empowered. This, I think, is the really sad thing: I don't really buy into the whole "all sexism will be solved with the up-and-coming generation", because I see this generation perpetuating the same sort of crap as the old fogies.

Jenn, PhD said...

Great post DrJMrsH, it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I think that in a lot of ways, it does get more prevalent as you get older, and not just for family tending roles either. It's happened to me on more than one occasion that an older male colleague (postdocs in other labs, other group leaders), made remarks or actions (someone once patted me on the head!) as if to say, oh you cute little girl... I don't think they see me as a serious scientist or an equal and that bothers me. I had hoped it would get better as I moved through the ranks and there wasn't a seniority difference, but I'm not so sure that will be the case...

Rosie Redfield said...

I think several factors come into play as women scientists get older:

1. As we have more power we become more of a threat to male colleagues.

2. As we become less sexually attractive our male colleagues feel lees inclined to (unconsciously) favour us.

3. The cumulative effect of the unconscious biases we've experienced through life take an increasing toll on our status and confidence.

This increasing disadvantages are only partly compensated for by the improvement in official policies and conscious attitudes.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Yes, I think all of these aspects you've brought up (Dr Doyenne I especially liked the "puppy" bit, and Rosie Redfield I think you're spot on about diminishing cuteness meaning diminishing returns) are factors. And yes, it occurs precisely when we need independent success, rather than success under our mentor's umbrella.

I just wanted some of the younger bloggers, many of whom agreed with Candid that they haven't experienced much in the way of obtrusive sexism, to realize that that doesn't mean the battle is over.

Isis the Scientist said...

May I add a hearty "yes?" I noticed I was treated differently when I was looking up to the white haired old dudes compared to now when I want to be one of the white haired old dudes.

Except not white haired and totally hot.

Ms.PhD said...

Great post.

I agree.

I wish it weren't so.

And I dread the thought of having to deal with students who try to demean or insult me with sexist comments, because I'm sure that sending them to the principal's office (or whatever the equivalent at the college level?) will just get you labeled "crazy hypersensitive insecure bitch."

Gotta think outside the box, I guess? But you gotta bet I'm not willing to ignore it...

@Anon 9:59 AM,

Thanks for pointing out that departments with very few women are the worst. ALL of mine (starting in college) have been that way, which explains why I've experienced so much sexism already, so "early" in my career.

Anonymous said...

I'm a female full prof at a large research univ and was left to sink or swim when I took my assistant professorship. Ignored, not given opportunities to teach key classes for which I was very prepared, etc., not mentored by anyone in my department (males) towards tenure, etc. I made my own way and the confidence I lost from their hostility and silence is hugely regained by my OWN success in building a solid, well-funded program . Having been through this, and having reviewed and written numerous promotion letters for males and females, here is what I think: all faculty are encouraged to recruit and train female Ph.D. students and postdocs. The faculty are praised for promoting diversity in doing this. This is a large motivation for faculty in recruiting smart young female grads: they get to take credit for mentoring women. But faculty never imagine women growing up to become professors. When they have a female prof in their midst, their inclination is to compete and to compartmentalize. They see the women as products of "diversity opportunities", or they see them as some form of their wife, mother, sister, daughter, etc. It's ok. I forgive my male colleagues for this. I have figured out how to get along by doing the best job I can do, being an excellent mentor to my research group, setting an exciting scientific agenda, teaching to the best of my ability, and sticking to my principles of honesty, integrity, and fairness in all my interactions. I'm not a buddy to my male faculty colleagues, but I think many of them like me. Some absolutely do not. Still, I sense I have their respect. Most importantly, they have never directly been able to hinder my research, and this is a precious thing.