Looking back: Grad school lessons on how gender matters

This was the second in a pair of posts from early 2015, when I was a PhD student in Neuroscience. Now that I am working in a medical specialty that is quite balanced in terms of gender, the disparities that were so apparent in my graduate training are less present in my day-to-day clinical work. However, within academia, the same discrimination is present and relevant, to say nothing of even more pervasive and toxic structural injustices toward BIPOC individuals.

Lesson: Gender matters sometimes, even for grad students in a generally supportive environment.

A professor once gave my class some excellent advice on scientific presentation.  He said that every time one gets up to speak in front of colleagues, even in a casual setting like a lab meeting or small seminar, one should be as well-prepared and professional as would be expected for a job talk.  His point was that each presentation reflects on the speaker’s reputation as a scientist and scholar, and I try to keep this in mind.

Some months after hearing this advice, it also occurred to me that if a woman happens to be working in a field that is skewed toward men, her gender might already be a more salient factor as soon as she steps to the front of a room to speak.  A scientist’s presentation skills, confidence level, and quality of work are obviously important regardless of gender, but these metrics might be evaluated more stringently for a female scientist giving a talk (even on a subconscious level, because I believe that most scientists are not consciously sexist).  Furthermore, what is assumed about her overall competence as a result of these metrics might have a greater impact on her career than if she were a man.  In a male-dominated field, a female speaker’s public presentation could even impact what others assume more generally about Women In This Field.

I don’t intend for this post to be a manifesto, but I do think what I just said deserves some consideration of the broader context.  There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that perceptions of competence can differ based solely on gender.  To cite some primary sources, one study in which subjects performed a contrast sensitivity test showed that men and women are held to different standards of competence (Foschi, Social Psychology Quarterly, Sep 1996).  There was also that memorable 2012 PNAS paper highlighting how, when faced with two hypothetical applicants with identical profiles except for name (Jennifer or John), science faculty members of both genders were more likely to offer John a laboratory manager position, and with a higher salary than would be offered to Jennifer (Moss-Racusin et al., PNAS, Aug 2012).

In 2014, another PNAS paper confirmed and enhanced the 2012 findings by showing that in choosing a candidate for an “arithmetic task” based solely on the candidates’ physical appearances, employers of both genders were twice as likely to choose a male candidate (Reuben et al., PNAS, Jan 2014).  The degree of individual bias correlated with the Implicit Association Test (IAT) score, which in this study measured the degree to which the subject associated an individual’s sex with his/her science-related ability.  Even after receiving objective information about the candidates’ actual performance on the task, “suboptimal hiring decisions” (i.e. hiring the candidate with lower performance) tended to favor a lower-performing man over a higher-performing woman.

A meta-analysis published earlier this month concluded that overall “women may be more likely to face discrimination in male-dominated environments, whereas, on average, neither gender has an advantage in female-dominated or integrated environments” (Koch, D’Mello, and Sackett, Journal of Applied Psychology, Jan 2015).  Encouragingly, these authors also found that gender-role congruity bias (i.e. preferential selection of men for male-dominated jobs) is reduced when the applicants are shown to be highly competent, when the decision-makers are “motivated to make careful decisions,” or when the decision-makers are “experienced” with “organizational decision-making” and are not simply pulled from, say, the frequent psychology study population of undergraduates.

Now, I am fortunate to be in a gender-balanced lab and relatively gender-balanced training program on a campus that is enormously collegial.  I have mentors and instructors of both genders who actively promote the advancement of women in science.  I also emphasize that I have not, as far as I am aware, experienced any instances of overt gender-based discrimination that have affected my educational opportunities.  That said, I am also a trainee in a subfield of neuroscience – imaging and analysis of cortical network activity – that is male-dominated, which probably has some association with the topic’s heavy emphasis on technology development, hardware, and computational techniques.  I love and believe in my project, and there is no other scientific topic in which I’d rather train. However, my intellectual excitement for my research doesn’t blind me to the reality that my field is still gendered.  I certainly have experienced, witnessed, and heard about episodes of subtle or inadvertent sexism, which can still be impactful.

As part of this reality, I’ve had to learn that men and women often assert themselves and/or respond to negative interactions in very different ways.  At one point, I sought out the advice of a female mentor because I was having difficulty navigating a particular research-related situation.  The situation involved some interpersonal dynamics that I thought might have something to do with gender, but didn’t necessarily want to label as such.  The mentor practically read my mind and told me that in this circumstance I should in fact “act more like a man,” i.e. be more aggressive in advocating for my point of view.  It was slightly jarring to hear a female faculty member so matter-of-factly confirm the gender differences I had suspected, but her attitude was also reassuring, and her advice certainly proved effective.

About three months later, another faculty member and I unexpectedly started discussing the issue of gender differences in science, and in particular how men and women respond to negative interactions in the workplace.  This faculty member pointed out that many men tend to “call B.S.” readily and then promptly move on, without giving it much more thought, whereas women – irrespective of competence, confidence, or ability to be aggressive – sometimes tend to ruminate about what happened.  This struck me as being an uncanny reflection of how I responded to unexpectedly negative interactions or inappropriate comments: briefly freezing with surprise, trying to exit the interaction in an uneventful and often non-confrontational way, and then obsessing afterward about all the things I should have said in the moment.

Goals: To be a more assertive or aggressive self-advocate, when constructive; to recognize when a situation is “B.S.” and point out when it is problematic or inappropriate; and to let go of negative interactions afterward instead of ruminating about them.

The aforementioned conversations echo other discussions I’ve heard on “The Broad Experience” by Ashley Milne-Tyte, a podcast I highly recommend.  One particular episodefocused on gender differences in workplace communication and quoted Barbara Annis, an expert on gender intelligence: “So women tend to worry more.  And as I mentioned, ruminate more, that internal dialogue that goes on. And I always say to women, think about this, is there any cheese down that tunnel [i.e. a real problem], first of all, to worry about this?  Or is it time to, you know, say OK, I’ve handled it to the degree that I can, and now I’m going to let it go. [….] Now there are some things that it’s really important to worry about, so I’m not saying dismiss on things that are really vital.  But the small things, if they are on your worry list I would strike them off and create a clean slate.”

Having some lactose intolerance myself, I find the cheese analogy particularly resonant.

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