ASEE Prism Magazine

Myths, Mentors, and Gender Bias

By Carol Kemelgor

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.

Multiple paradoxes 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 "special needs."

The dilemma 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.

Such individuals 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.

Policy alone 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.

Such relatively "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.

Until every 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.

Carol Kemelgor is co-author of Athena Unbound:
The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology.