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September 9, 2012 / neurograce

The elephantress in the room

If I had to guess, I would say that most first-year graduate students feel insecure. We’re tossed into a completely new environment, with new peers, responsibilities and challenges. For most of us we’re also at a new university and a whole new city. In many ways, we’re each building up our reputation from scratch. No one wants to be the one to mess up. As a result, in many cases, we’re probably all watching ourselves more closely than anyone is watching us. However, I read an article recently that made me think perhaps one group may be acting even more cautiously: women.

Hold your eye-rolling, post-feminists. My focus here is not actually on sexism in the workplace, or preconceptions about women per se. Rather, I’m hoping to address the issues that anyone who is part of an underrepresented group in their field may face. And for women in the STEM fields, that is certainly the situation, as this (slightly-outdated) table  shows. With 41.3% of PhDs going to women (who were 50.9% of the population in 2000), neuroscience is actually doing comparatively well. However, this does not take in to account the notorious “pipeline problem” whereby women tend to leave academia at a significantly higher rate than men at each successive stage of their career. Also, the specific field that I’m interested in, theoretical neuroscience, is not specified on that chart but is notoriously male-dominated. To roughly quantify it I looked at the ratios in Columbia’s labs. Between the 6 groups doing theory here the percentages of women are: grad students, 12.5%; post-docs, 21.4%; and professors, 0%. I believe the scientific term for that is sausage fest.

So what are the issues that come with being a girl in the boy’s club? Well, in the particular fields of math and science there are a lot of traditional stereotypes that may need to be fought: women can’t do math, women don’t think analytically enough, we’re too emotional, or gossipy. Having to work against those is obviously an uphill battle. But even ignoring any specific preconceptions, I think what it comes down to is the problem of forced representation. As the only women in the room, you can become the de facto mouth of all womankind. What you say, think or do, the mistakes you make or opinions you express can be taken (whether consciously or not on the part of your colleagues) as the stances or shortcomings of women in general. Representing a large portion of the population is a heavy job, especially for someone who didn’t apply for it. That kind of pressure can affect your performance.

What’s worse, as the article points out, the problem is there even if your specific colleagues don’t actually hold any stereotypes:

XKCD knows all.

“When there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling.”[emphasis added]

I suspect the same is true of the forced representation problem alone. That is, even without your colleagues projecting your qualities on to all women (stereotypes aside), just the worry that they may is enough to affect your performance.

I know that, for both my failures and successes, I want to be judged individually. I did not volunteer to be the delegate from the great state of womanhood (I’ve been watching too much convention coverage…). If I mess up, then I messed up. There are no further conclusions to be drawn; my performance and my sex are unrelated.

It gets complicated, however, when we consider the numerous measures out there that are meant to draw more women into the STEM fields. There are special scholarships, awards, and societies dedicated to “women in science.” They put special emphasis on funding, educating, and promoting women. This seems to work against the notion that we should all be judged solely by the quality of our work. Furthermore, it can lead to women being pushed ahead in their career before they’re ready, solely for the purpose of battling the pipeline problem. But a woman in a position she is not adequately trained for does not make for a good role model. These kinds of initiatives can also increase doubt and self-consciousness: “Did I get this position just because I’m a woman? Does he think I got this position just because I’m a woman? “ But yet many proclaim that getting and keeping more women in the sciences is essential to battle the stereotypes and forced representation problem in the first place. And indeed, if I walked into a theoretical neuroscience meeting half-full of women, I wouldn’t feel that the burden of representation falls on me. But there are clearly problems with how we’re trying to balance the population. The whole thing is complicated, circular, and I have no solution.

All I know is that being a grad student is tough enough. No one should have to feel an extra burden based on their demographic information. Everyone has the right to speak for themselves, and only themselves. So let’s all do the mature thing and judge, disparage, and pigeonhole each other for our science, and not our sex.

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