What's Good For Women Graduate Students?

This is the second of three discussion posts for Week 2 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the archives and clicking on Joy of Science under in the Category section.

This post deals with the reading by Fox.

What do women need to succeed in science? Does what they need differ from what men need? If so, why? What constitutes a good environment for women in science? What constitutes success? Will having more women in science affect the way that science is done?

The reading by Fox addresses most of these questions for the case of women in graduate school in the U.S. Recall from the summary that Fox studied departments of chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, and computer science that were either low, improved, or high in percentage of doctorates awarded to women. Fox tells us a great deal about what factors can help make a department's environment good for women in graduate study. The department chair and director of graduate studies are critically important leaders in creating the climate for women graduate students, because of the decentralization of graduate study.

It seems worth repeating here that in her study, Fox found that incidents of harassment and discrimination were reported in all types of departments, whether they were low, improved, or high in representation of women in doctoral degrees awarded. What differed between the low departments and others was whether or not there was a history of leadership on gender issues, taking these reports seriously and making it clear that harassment and discrimination would not be tolerated. Dismissive comments were reported in the low departments such as "things get blown out of proportion", "there are two sides to every story", women know how to handle it themselves, and it is more effective if they handle it themselves". I think these kinds of remarks come out of a defensive posture as much as or more so than out of ignorance. It's a form of denial that such things could go on here, where we are all nice people. If I believe you that something bad like that happened, then I have to believe that these nice people aren't nice. People can't separate the actions from a judgment of character, and they are unwilling to make the judgment of character.

In contrast, in one of the improved/high departments, a department chair who scheduled sexual harassment workshops for the whole department announced that he was doing so not because it was required, but because sexual harassment "was not going to go on in this department". He also responded promptly and took action when an incident of harassment was reported, even though the harasser was someone who was "well-liked". Here the department chair was focused on dealing with actions, and not with judging character; the main thing was to get a particular action to stop - which he did.

Faculty in high and improved departments were also more likely to have thought about what constitutes a good environment for graduate students beyond just having access to equipment and funding. Here an interesting difference emerged between departments. Chemistry, computer science, and electrical engineering departments that were improved or high thought a good environment for women was likely to just have "more or heightened elements of what they thought to be good for men, that is, strong faculty-student and advisor-advisee interaction." They didn't think women were different - they just needed more of a good thing that was good for men, too. In physics, low, improved, and high departments saw the discipline as masculine and intimidating. Low departments, however, thought that women were "anomalies" who needed to learn how to adapt. Improved and high departments though maybe there were some ways in which the normal, but not necessarily good, culture of physics could be slightly modified for women's needs, perhaps by adding a mentoring network. In other words, they were more likely to think that women needed something extra or different in order to cope with physics-as-it-is, which they felt men students could already cope with.

Fox found that chemistry and computer science departments, which have higher percentages of women, were more likely to have written guidelines for graduate study than were electrical engineering or physics departments. None of the physics departments had written guidelines. (I'm guessing this information on physics departments is not going to surprise Absinthe.) Fox notes that

when standards for performance and evaluation are ambiguous, white men are more likely to be perceived as superior candidates and bias by sex and race is more likely to operate.

So if you have any influence on your department's graduate studies, maybe you can push them to have more formal, written guidelines for what is expected of graduate students. It will help everyone who is from an underrepresented minority group. When I was a graduate student, my director of graduate studies was on a campaign for awhile to get me to drop out. He just didn't want any women at all in the department - he'd actually announced publicly that he didn't think women belonged in engineering. (This was in the mid 1980s.) At one point he told me I was taking too long to graduate, not making sufficient progress toward my degree, and that they might just have to kick me out of the department. It was the director of women's studies who helped me find out how to gather information on average time to PhD for graduate students who entered the department with a master's degree in hand, so that I could show I was right in line with the norm. If things are written down, then no one professor who takes a dislike to a particular student - or a particular class of student - can terrorize someone like that.

But in the end, as Fox says, it comes down to the advisor-advisee relationship. This is the ultimate decentralization, the ultimate privatization of graduate study. It's part of what makes the climate so difficult for women. There may be several women in a department, but if they are scattered across different labs, they may rarely or never interact with each other. Each woman may be the only woman in her lab environment (this is particularly true in engineering). The advisor has a particular responsibility to set the tone for the lab. He or she also bears the responsibility for the outcomes of his or her female graduate students. Do they finish on time? Do they get to go to conferences and publish in good journals? Are they tapped into a good network for job searches? What kind of letters of recommendation are they getting for job and fellowship applications?

For the past several years I have served on the review panel for a particular fellowship awarded to women in engineering and science. I have read numerous letters of application from professors and thesis advisors. I cannot tell you how many times I have read the phrases "She has a very pleasant personality", "She is a very nice person", "She is very pleasant to be around". What is with the pleasant and nice? These phrases are invariably in the letters written by men, never in the letters written by women. I often wonder if these men describe their male students in the same way: "He has a very pleasant personality" "He is very nice to be around". As a reviewer, I want to know if the applicant is good at their work and if they will finish the project in time, not if I'd like to have tea with them. There's also an awful lot of the "she's a very hard worker" sort of stuff in these letters.

I think the whole issue of letters of recommendation is huge - especially since women almost never get to see what is being written about them, and thus don't know how often they are being damned with faint praise and talk of how nice they are. In the fellowship applications I review, the women are all competing against other women, so the niceness cancels out. But what happens when they are competing for something else, like an NSF fellowship? Joe's letter praises his scientific qualities, and Sally's letter talks about how sweet her personality is; who is going to get the fellowship? Arrrrrrghhhhhh.

The advisor has so much control over a graduate student's future. Fox tells us that if we want to analyze the environment for women graduate students - or any organizational environment - we must attend to the stakes in maintaining the current system of relationships. The privatization of the advisor-advisee relationship is not going to go away anytime soon, because the whole system of funding research in the U.S. is not going to radically change in the foreseeable future. What possibilities exist within that system for making advisors more accountable for the outcomes of their women students?


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Interesting that you mention the "nice personality" and "hard worker" comments from the letters of recommendation, since there was a discussion over on Cosmic Variance about the cult of genius in physics. Being called "hard-working" is most definitely faint praise.

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This is interesting because I recently came across an article profiling a female graduate student I used to mentor, along with her husband. The article profiled a few married physicist couples, and was entitle "living in physics bliss forever after"

My former student was top-notch, and in my opinion is a better physicist than her husband. If you read the March 14th posting on my blog http://radio.weblogs.com/0151290/ you'll see that separately they have been treated far differently by the establishment at their university and their experiment. What *he* gets is good for graduate students who want to advance on the fast-track in their career...what *she* gets is pathetic in comparison.

Two people, the same age, from the same institution, who started on the their degrees and on the experiment at the same time, yet they are treated so differently.