and Gender Bias
Belief systems often serve as ideals, rationalizations, or both.
The scientific community's belief in universalism and inclusion
frequently masks and denies that inequities for women scientists
continue to exist. Scientists and their institutions are not immune
to the prejudices that are too often part of the human condition.
In contrast to 10 years ago, women scientists are increasingly more
able to recognize and willing to discuss their sometimes painful
and confusing experience as graduate students, post docs and faculty.
abound, potentially double binding women at every juncture within
the pipeline. It begins in graduate school with marginalization,
isolation and the demand for autonomous, independent functioning
in an activity which necessitates, perhaps demands community. The
myth of scientific individualism perpetuates an impossible standard
which does not exist for the majority of men but frequently is the
core experience for women at some point in their journey. Too frequently
the consequences of isolation have been attributed to inherent deficits
within the women themselves: they just don't have "the right
stuff." When adaptive attempts for affiliation and networking
are made through women's programs, they are labeled as indicating
is compounded when solitary women faculty, sometimes taken as secretaries
or lab technicians, are expected to be automatic role models for
all women students. In inhospitable departments, isolated, untenured
female faculty not only struggle with the conflict between the biological
and tenure clock, but just how much risk they can afford to take
on behalf of female students. Some male scientists now not only
acknowledge the presence of bias, but attempt to openly provide
women students and their female colleagues with strategies and support
for goal achievement. It is their attempts to mitigate marginalization
that confirm that real inequities actually do exist. As mentors,
these men have proven that they can supply the primary relationship
required by every young scientist to learn the craft and the unwritten
rules, as well as provide access into the social networks crucial
for professional growth.
appear to have been personally affected by discrimination against
someone in their own lives, whether a wife, daughter, or a particular
student. They are able to put themselves in the shoes of a 22-year-old
who stands silently while her lab director introduces all her male
peers to a visitor, and never mentions her name. Leaders such as
these surround themselves with others, support women's programs,
and recruit proactive women faculty.
cannot affect inherent attitudes and prejudices. Change emanates
from those in power within the department. They become the role
model for the role models. When a department recruits men and women
who embrace a collaborative, egalitarian ideology with the intent
of eradicating gender bias, women students experience the department
as safer, more congenial to learning, and personal and professional
life goals as more attainable. Without the anxiety of exclusion
and deprecated status, the energy of women faculty is not as depleted
by apprehension around childbirth and tenure and the burden of tokenism,
and they can develop collaborations within and outside of the department.
Moreover, they are not as inhibited in developing a significant
role on behalf of female students.
"gender-free" departments are rare, but do exist. The
word then gets out through informal networks and highly successful
women faculty from premier institutions join these departments because
of their hospitable culture. The research funding they bring in
attracts exceptional students and enhances the prestige of the department.
However, such transformations are vulnerable to power groups within
the structure who seek to maintain the status quo.
academic department transforms itself under this kind of leadership,
young women will have to understand the critical role of their advisor
before they even make the choice. When deciding on a graduate program,
they need to know the personal and professional characteristics
of this uniquely important individual who will either enhance or
diminish the possibility of goal attainment. In contrast to earlier
assumptions in which all women faculty were perceived and touted
as automatic role models based on sex, young students need to understand
and be able to identify the attributes necessary in a viable mentor
regardless of gender.
For women in
science and engineering, there is no "threshold effect,"
a high enough plateau that one reaches beyond which barriers disappear.
Accumulated experiences of denigration, rejection and dismissal
for women are sometimes so elusive that they are not even recognized
until years later. However, when a critical mass of like-minded
men and women faculty feel sufficiently free to wrestle with all
of the issues and obstacles around gender, the scientific endeavor
is only strengthened.
Kemelgor is co-author of Athena Unbound:
The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology.