One of the highlights of the Genomes to Biomes Conference was the 6th Symposium for Women Entering Ecology and Evolution Today (SWEEET-ness).
On a personal and professional level, I am all about encouraging anyone to pursue their dreams, to achieve their highest potential. I want to inspire others to be curious, to discover, and to encourage others to do the same. Perhaps it is because I am from Mexico, and grew up in the United States, that I am particularly keen on encouraging minorities in education and in science. Yet while women are not a minority in our society (in fact, human sex ratio allocation slightly favors women), they are a minority in science. In fact, while women are a majority in biological sciences at the undergraduate level, their representation in the field becomes a minority at the PhD level and continues to decline dramatically through increasing degrees of seniority in academia, from post-docs to associate and full professors. That's not right, and I hope to be a part of a cultural movement that changes things. For this reason, I attended to SWEEET symposium, as both a scientist, as a minority, and as a man.
It was not surprising to me that I, a man, was a minority as this symposium. To be honest, I was not sure if I should attend, not because I thought it would be awkward for me (anyone who knows me knows full well that I am not in the least discouraged by a room full of intelligent women), but because I did not want to affect the internal dynamic of a symposium for women in science, nor to take the place of a women interested in attending if there was limitations on the capacity of people that could register for this symposium. However, the moment I walked in the door, I was set at ease because of the women that I knew at that conference, both students and professors, friends and colleagues that I respect and admire.
The first part of the symposium was a talk given by a (male) researcher who studies why women are minorities in science, particularly in engineering, and why they are discouraged from careers in science. A major issue he addressed was the response to the "threat of stereotypes" where women who are in a work environment where they feel they are "dominated," consistently under-perform compared to control groups, groups of women that are not in a male "dominated" environment. This was tested by using male actors who were told to act "dominant' or "not dominant" when given an engineering problem they had to solve in collaboration with a woman test subject. After the exercise, these second year female engineering students were given a challenging test, which is actually the test to get a license in engineering. In this test, women who were in a "dominating" environment scored significantly less than women that were not in a dominating environment. An interesting point is that men also underperform in female dominated fields such as nursing. Thus, an important issue to first address is the intra-personal dynamics of "dominance" in the work environment, especially male dominated careers in academia.
In response to this talk, a critical point was brought up by McGill professor, Dr. Catherine Potvin (who also gave a lecture at the SWEEET) who said that part of the problem is how women interpret, or respond to, male behavior that they think is "dominating" or "sexist." This an important point, as the first lecture stressed how women that perceive being "dominated" in a sexist work environment underperform. Thus, she considers that part of the problem is that women often consider male behavior sexist, aggressive, or even harassing, when in fact, it is the meant to be the contrary, complimentary. She commented that she likes being complimented, and that women should not take compliments on their looks as something negative, but as something positive. She said that in her many years working as a scientist in Latin America, which is known to have a very sexist "macho" dominated society, she never felt that men were "dominating," nor did she ever feel belittled or harassed. In fact, she said that she had felt much more negatively about her interactions with males in academia in English-speaking universities than anywhere else. However, she also stressed that she has had wonderful allies in her career at McGill, men that have encouraged her to fight for professional equality and that have done even more than she said she could do for herself in promoting her and her excellence in science, for recognition of her achievements.
So what are potential solutions to this disparity in the demographic representation of women in science and inequalities in salary? One of the main points was that women need to "self-promote." Women need to be more confident that they are capable and qualified for positions that they apply for. This, in turn, would allow them to be more aggressive or assertive when they are in the process of negotiating for an academic position. This, would in turn, help to close the wage gap between men and women in science and other professional careers.
I also consider that a major issue that discourages women in science is the belief that for women need to act more like men to succeed in academia, or any other career where males are the majority. While I think that women need to be treated fairly and with respect on a personal and professional level, they should not be expected to think, or act like their male counterparts. Instead, they should be encouraged to think and act like women, especially in "male-dominated" careers because of what they can bring to the table, something new, a new perspective, a new way of doing things, an alternative to the way things are.
This may seem obvious, but in my own experience, I have met fellow graduate students in both the humanities and in natural science that are told by female advisors to act more like men, to be less feminine, to wear less makeup, to focus less on their looks, on wearing makeup and shopping, and focus more on their work. I have heard of advisors telling female students that they would be taken more seriously if they were less feminine. Thus, I think that the culture in academia needs to change. Men need to be more conscientious of how their behavior in the work-place can affect women, but women need to also realize that what makes then different to men should not be hidden or suppressed, but should be both celebrated and respected, both inside and outside of the academic environment.
"So what can men do?" I asked?
"Men can be powerful allies," said Dr. Alison Derry at the social mixer later that night. She stressed how grateful she is to have had great men in her life, from her father, to her husband, to her male colleagues that have encouraged her and supported her throughout her career. She also said she has had great men who have chaired the department and have been understanding of her and her responsibilities as a mother. This feeling was also shared by Dr. Potvin. Men that are not sexist, said Dr. Potvin at the symposium's question-and-answer panel discussion, need to take the place of sexist men, especially in positions where they can and do dominate the social environment and where they can actively discourage or suppress women in a professional environment.
My little sister, Julia, just graduated high school today and will be attending the University of California, Santa Cruz, to study biology. For Julia, and for all women in science, I wish you the very best, and I hope you know that you can count on me to be your ally. And if I pay you a compliment, please don't take it the wrong way. You rock!