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Sex discrimination for women in academia

  1. Mar 10, 2012 #1
    I study biology, and I have observed that in undergraduate and postgraduate classes the majority of students are female. However, in senior positions from post-doc to professors, there is a strong bias towards males.

    What could be causing these patterns?

    How can a woman increase her chances of becoming successful in academia and becoming a professor?

    What should she look out for in terms of unfair practices?

    Any advice to help women succeed in science and academia is welcome.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 10, 2012 #2
    Much of the issue is the long period of career uncertainty between getting a phd and landing a permanent research position, during which you are unlikely to have decent (or any) benefits. These are also the years when you should probably start thinking about having children, if you want them. These two things don't play well together.

    Deciding to have children during this time can and will diminish your research output (if you are lucky enough to have a PI who doesn't force you out of the lab outright), and diminished research output for any reason means that you probably won't be continuing up the career ladder in science. Even if you have a supportive spouse, you are the one who will be carrying the baby around 9 months, and I'm sure pregnancy can make the long lab hours much harder.

    This isn't necessarily a hard and fast rule, but all of the female professors who mentored me in graduate school either waited until their late 30s early 40s to have kids, or never had them at all. Basically, having kids is a much bigger career penalty for women than men, and science is a really tight field, so any penalty at all can knock you clear out of the market.

    The best advice I can give is to seek out female professors for mentoring. Talk to them, ask them what they would do differently and what they think helped them.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2012
  4. Mar 10, 2012 #3

    eri

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    There are many factors at work, but the trend is the same in other science and technical fields. I'm a regular reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which often addresses things like this. Personally, I've put off having a 'real life' altogether until I start a tenure-track job (which will be later this year) simply because I move around so much, and I haven't found anyone willing to move with me to further my career at the expense of their own. Which is certainly understandable. Hopefully after I've settled down somewhere I can try to have it all, but I decided my career comes first.
     
  5. Mar 10, 2012 #4

    mathwonk

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    my wife did it in the opposite order. she had our kids at age 22 and 25, then went to med school at age 33. she still suffered some discrimination there from a few male professors who were apparently just chauvinist jerks. while preparing for mcats she also encountered a few dullard male students who openly resented that she, being smarter than they were and scoring higher, was making it harder for them to gain admission. it was unpleasant but not enough to stop her. hang in there, men also suffer unfairness. insecure people are threatened by and fear all more qualified people, not just women. i.e. everyone has to deal with it, but you don't have to put up with it.
     
  6. Mar 10, 2012 #5

    MathematicalPhysicist

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    I guess people don't like to play fair, I mean I hope that the one that gets the job or scholarship or whatever is indeed better than me (male or female). (obviously being naive here, cause this not always the case).
     
  7. Mar 10, 2012 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Also remember that when you look towards increasing levels of seniority you are also looking back in time: you can be seeing the outcome of a demographic balance that is several decades old.
     
  8. Mar 10, 2012 #7
    I know a few people who took time off to have their kids after a phd but before a postdoc. For most of them, it killed their career in its tracks. I've seen some grants aimed at women in this sort of situation, but they are rare and competitive.

    Its also worth remembering that medical school/medicine is a totally different beast than phd/academia. My sister is a medical doctor and for her first kid she had a few months paid maternity leave and could have taken a full year off from her hospital if she had chosen to.

    When I was the same age as my sister was when she had her first kid, I was interviewing for postdocs. One professor told me that if I were planning to have kids during the postdoc, I was just wasting his time and shouldn't bother taking the position.

    I'm not suggesting the fields are different because of misogyny- the medical job market is just much better, and you can recover from time off much easier.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2012
  9. Mar 10, 2012 #8

    mathwonk

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    "When I was the same age as my sister was when she had her first kid, I was interviewing for postdocs. One professor told me that if I were planning to have kids during the postdoc, I was just wasting his time and shouldn't bother taking the position. "

    This is the kind of cr** you should not put up with. You should remind any such creep that he needs to make his decision based on the stated qualifications or else you will report him to the relevant authorities and then sue him for gender discrimiantion, but first, to paraphrase how one of my male friends put it in a similar situation, you will kick him in the b***s.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2012
  10. Mar 11, 2012 #9
    My observations are almost opposite given the courses I've taken (both undergraduate and graduate). My biology and chemistry courses were comprised mostly of men (if I had to guess it would be around 70%). The physics and mathematics courses I've taken have been at least made up of 80% men. My medical school courses were about 55% men.

    These observations come from studying at a private university, an ivy league medical school, and auditing courses from a small liberal arts college where my fiancee goes.

    Her psych classes are nearly 95% female. I'm pretty sure there is only one male in her graduating class who is a psych major. Her art courses are about the same, with 90% women. While I was an undergrad, I took more than a minor in French literature, in all 6 upper level French lit courses, I was the only male in the class.

    As far as my observations are concerned (again, only sampling from 3 diverse institutions), the sex makeup of professors is exactly on par with the undergrad populations taking the courses, EXCEPT psychology, where there are many male professors but very few male students (at least at the undergraduate level). Given that many of my fiancee's friends are also psych majors, I know that a huge majority of them do not go to graduate school for PhDs, but rather go to law school, med school, or specialty fields like PsyD, I/O psych, HCI, HR MBAs, etc... maybe there is a predisposition for the men who study psych as undergrads to go on for PhDs at a much higher % than women, rather than doing something interdisciplinary.

    I guess I'm just saying that (at least in the "hard sciences") I've never noticed a huge difference in professor makeup vs student makeup, but I have noticed that in the social sciences and some areas of literature, there is a great difference in sex makeup between undergrad, graduate, and professor.

    I would imagine that you should just work hard like anybody else, regardless of sex and if you ever think you're being treated unfairly, take the situation to whoever has authority to remedy it.

    Edit: I have mixed feelings about this, but I have a friend who declined his admission to what was his top choice graduate school because: he had two potential advisers, one announced his retirement the spring my friend was accepted to their graduate program, the other possible adviser was a women who had taken 5 semesters leave over the past 7 years (for family/children). He made the decision to decline their offer because (in his words) he didn't want to be at that university and have his adviser take multiple semesters off while he was studying under her. I tried to reason with him a bit, saying that it was unfair and that even though there MAY be a possibility she would take more leave time, that it's unreasonable to think that she would be unable to perform her duties as an adviser ... that her absences before were more than likely just from on campus teaching and possibly administrative duties. Even if there is the off chance that his concerns were slightly valid, the professor who just retired (who he was hoping to study under) may be willing to take on a grad student at least in come capacity. But he didn't even talk to either of them about these issues, just went with his #2 choice ... whatever, haven't talked to him in a while, I hope he's happy with his #2. I can see where some of the sexism and ageism is coming from, even when the actions are done "innocently" or in the name of pragmatism.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2012
  11. Mar 11, 2012 #10
    Do you really think you can prove any kind of discrimination? Its a high energy postdoc, there are dozens (maybe more) of qualified applicants.

    Also to be completely fair, his essential point- a woman having children during a postdoc will most probably generate too little research to keep going in science- may well be true.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2012
  12. Mar 11, 2012 #11

    Ryan_m_b

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    In my experience there has been a healthy mix although obviously this may not be representative. In general though the reasons why seniority in most fields is a bit male orientated have already been said: senior figures are an artefact of the past when things were more overtly unequal (e.g. a 60 year old professor would have started their career in the 1970s) and unfortunately taking time out for maternity leave damages careers. In addition sexism does still exist in some fields with some being far worse than others.

    Regarding maternity leave things have got better in the UK at least in recent years but no far enough. Paternal leave is increasingly encouraged but it is unequal to maternity leave, on top of that a few years ago the government ruled out proposals for transferable parental leave which would simply give any couple X months that could be shared between them (with reasonable stipulations about notice time for switching, amount of times that can be switched etc).
     
  13. Mar 11, 2012 #12
    I am not saying that there is not gender bias or sexism in academia, but you need to consider how many women pursue a PhD and apply for faculty positions. Is there an equal number of female and male biologists applying for academic positions? If there is, your anecdote may be an indication of sexism. I'm not raising this as an objection - I honestly don't know the answer to this - I just think it's a point that needs to be sorted out before anyone can claim there is a gender bias.
     
  14. Mar 11, 2012 #13

    mathwonk

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    The discrimination I personally have knowledge of is not at all subtle. Some male professors in medicine stated that they do not believe women belong in the profession. This kind of statement seems to me sufficient evidence for a reasonable case against the person. It is certainly reason to seek someone else to work with. I just recommend that if you don't want to be discriminated against, then you have to refuse to go along with overt discriminatory behavior, or bullying. ("Don't waste my time" is certainly a form of bullying.)

    Men also experience bullying by academic advisors. Some academic advisors act as if
    they think their students are slaves. This sort of thing is unhealthy for all concerned. I was fortunate in that after my hiatus lugging beef and teaching, I was mature enough not to take that stuff. I also had advisors with integrity.

    If you think a high profile or high energy job is worth being treated like dirt, you are asking to be discriminated against. Your goal should be to be the kind of student who is being asked to take the position, not begging to be given it.

    This is just my opinion of course, and you have to willing to take any consequences of not currying favor.


    I thought that in math I had seen very little sex discrimination but one of my female friends said she felt very discriminated against. It so happens later I was in contact with a professor at a school where she had not been hired, although extremely well qualified. The professor told me they had not liked her response when asked what her spouse would do if they hired her. She had apparently offended their male chauvinism by responding that her spouse would follow her wherever she went.

    I suspect this sort of thing is diminishing, but I cannot be at all sure.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2012
  15. Mar 11, 2012 #14

    eri

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    Many studies have been done on the subject. What they consistently show is that women are either being excluded or dropping out at every point in the process - while you might have the same number of women as men as undergrads, there are more men going to grad school, more men again in postdocs, and more men being hired as tenure-track faculty. Once in the tenure track, men are more likely to earn tenure, make more money in the same position, and have more access to resources (lab equipment and space, funding, graduate students) then women in the same positions. Here's a recent articles with some statistics.

    http://chronicle.com/article/AAUP-Report-Blames-Colleges/8774/

    Of course, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration, many of which are controlled for in these studies, but they can never cover all of them. For example, I saw a recent study which suggested women are not as motivated by money as men are. Personally, I know that's true for myself. I turned down a shot at an industry job to take a job in academia I wanted more, even though it only paid half as much. Having the job I wanted where I wanted it was much more of a reward for me than the size of the paycheck.
     
  16. Mar 11, 2012 #15

    AlephZero

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    In the UK, interviewing job applicants in industry, simply asking the question would count as discrimination, whether or not it influenced the outcome.
     
  17. Mar 11, 2012 #16
    I believe it would also count as discrimination in Canada, as well. That interview question could have been asked 40 years ago, where such laws did not exist (possibly).
     
  18. Mar 11, 2012 #17
    Its also probably not an allowed question in the US, just like med school professors Mathwonk mentioned probably can't say 'women shouldn't be allowed in the profession.' It still happens.
     
  19. Mar 11, 2012 #18

    AlephZero

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    The legality of otherwise of the question is fairly irrelevant though, except as an elephant trap. If you are recruiting in industry (and presumably in academia as well), of course you consider the probability that the applicants are going to stay with you long enough to get some return on your investment.

    In reality, discrimination laws mainly control formal record-keeping.
     
  20. Mar 11, 2012 #19

    Choppy

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    I agree in principle, but it practice, fighting the good fight is very tough and has consequences.
    - Who wants to be the person who got the job after dragging the employer through court?
    - What fresh PhD graduate is in the financial position to take a potential employer to court?
    - Is it worth it to spend the time fighting?
    - What about personal social consequences among people who have nothing do to with the case? How hard is it to get a date with the label of "feminist crusader?"

    I'm not saying that people shouldn't fight sexism - just that there are reasons why people don't.
     
  21. Mar 11, 2012 #20

    mathwonk

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    I agree. My advice can cost you. I'm just saying that as I grew older I got more intolerant of inappropriate behavior and was more or less able to get away with not tolerating it. Indeed in some cases it made me seem more confident and independent and may have helped me get jobs. But I have not always fought the good fight by any means. You have to pick your battles.

    But one piece of advice i would offer young job candidates is this: when you get a position, or even an interview, the generosity is not all on the side of the professor. If you are in the running, he/she thinks highly of your talent, and expects to benefit from your creativity and hard work.

    You should know this, i.e. you do bring something to the table, and you are better off if you realize it. Some young people feel overly grateful to their advisor/mentor and find out too late that the advisor is poaching on the student's ideas and work.

    The proper relationship is one of mutual benefit and respect.

    My advice was also not quite to be taken literally. I never advocate going to court. But one should let people know you will stand up for yourself, preferably without overt threats, but by ones attitude and behavior.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2012
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