Mike the Mad Biologist

Science, Gender, and ‘Cleaning Up the Mess’

There’s a very interesting Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences article, “Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science” that’s available to the public. Andrew Moseman summarizes it quite well:

…Ceci and Williams say, external and social factors–some matters of choice, some not–are the major ones hindering women in science today. Those factors include the much-discussed, such as the fact that a mother with young kids is still expected to stay on the fast tenure track, and the less-obvious, such as caring for aging parents or following a spouse who gets a job in a different city.

Overall, women scientists with the same resources — lab facilities and funding, for example — have careers equal to men. However women overall are more likely to step off the career track than male researchers, the study concludes, explaining a lot of the differences in their lives. [USA Today]

The scientists aren’t implying that efforts to stop overt discrimination haven’t been worth it. Quite the contrary–the study’s results would indicate that they’ve been effective. The question now is whether to shift more of the attention to fixing the career path problems Ceci and Williams point out, and which Nobel Prize-winning women have singled out as needing an adjustment.

I think there’s another factor, although it’s one that I can only attest to anecdotally: women scientists are often loaded with jobs that best could be described as “cleaning up the mess.” Things like god awful committee work and other ‘service’ commitments. Even as post-docs and graduate students, women, in my experience, disproportionately shoulder ‘teamwork’ burdens in labs that men do not.

In certain environments, such as research groups that involve large teams, this can actually be a good thing. But in academic science, this is a disastrous approach.

A cynic would argue that academic success requires narcissism and myopia, but, even if you’re not a cynic, there is something to that statement. You have to toot your own horn–that is, differentiate yourself from the group. You also have to be ‘selfish of your time.’ If an activity is not going to lead to the next step (e.g., a faculty position or tenure), then you really have to think about how you’re going to say no.

In my (perhaps atypical) experience, women are socialized to ‘fix things’ (and men are socialized to encourage them to do this). When you’re trying to succeed in academia–and being an academic is like being an independent contractor (even if you share letterhead and office supplies with a bunch of other people)–fixing other people’s problems doesn’t solve your problem (e.g., getting tenure).

Anyway, I’ll throw that out there for discussion.

Cited article: Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. 2011. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS: 1014871108v1-201014871.

Comments

  1. #1 Anna
    February 10, 2011

    Yes, I have seen this observation elsewhere; that women are under the expectation to do the work equivalent to home-making/housework in the office as well, such as dealing with group emotional management, group organizational tasks and day-to-day admin details that their male colleagues don’t get stuck with to the same degree.

    “No” is one of my very favorite words.

  2. #2 bananacat
    February 10, 2011

    Sometimes it’s not even a matter of saying no. The men that I work with will not clean anything up in the lab, which is dangerous and illegal. And if I don’t clean it, nobody will. I can only assume that they do this at home too, and they think their socks get magically cleaned and their food gets magically cooked. It has been so bad that I couldn’t do my own work because nobody would clean up properly. If it takes me half an hour to find a beaker that isn’t filthy and has some unknown chemical in it, that really screws up my work and efficiency. At this point, I no longer clean up after others, but mostly because I have stopped caring about this job and hope to leave it as soon as possible.

  3. #3 Luna_the_cat
    February 10, 2011

    ha! Yes; I’ve seen this too, although it was phrased as “needing the female members of staff to use their better interpersonal skills.”

    Because men shouldn’t be expected to deal with other people cooperatively and sympathetically, or something? 0_o

    Personally, I don’t get asked this any more, on the basis that (a)I have perfected my ability to say “no” when I really don’t think that something would be a good use of my time, and (b) when people try to use the “interpersonal skills” argument on me, I point out that my preferred interpersonal skill is the ability to hit what I aim at.

  4. #4 Luna_the_cat
    February 10, 2011

    @bananacat — whoever is actually in charge of that lab you are in needs a smack upside the head. ~NO lab should have that kind of situation, ever.

    Indeed, if the lab manager is unable or unwilling to address that situation effectively, then yes, get out as fast as you can. Don’t badmouth them in an interview for a new place, though, you just need to say that there were some operational issues, and you prefer to find a lab with a slightly different focus. ;)

  5. #5 william e emba
    February 10, 2011

    Robert Townsend’s megafamous 1970 Up The Organization has an appendix on women in business. His advice to the inevitable sole-woman-at-meeting-gets-to-be-steno situation was to accept with not the slightest hint of insult or outrage, and then to take less than a half page of notes. He mentions that he knew one woman who almost took over her company with that technique.