Last year, I went to a talk on recognizing unconscious bias and its impact on advancement in academia. It was a very interesting talk since it talked about several different biases in the workplace – gender, physical appearance, etc. The speaker mentioned one study where they changed only the name on the resume to a male or female name for a job opening, and asked the committee to assess the candidates. They found that women candidates were judged more harshly, less likely to be offered an interview, and were offered lesser salaries as compared to male candidates. Talking about physical appearance, the speaker mentioned another study that found that 30% of CEOs of Fortune 5oo companies are men taller than 6’2” , while they constitute only 4% of the total male population. Other examples we discussed were how better looking people are more likely to get a job and get better pay. The take home message was that we all have inherent biases and it’s important to check yourself before you are judging or evaluating someone.
I was reminded of this seminar when I was talking to a senior member (L – female, postdoc) in the lab about our boss. So I have been in academia for almost 5 years now and I have not heard of sexism in the academic setup at the grad student/postdoc level. I was telling L about how I wish I had a better relationship with my boss since he’s my graduate thesis adviser and I’ve been working in the lab for almost 4 years now. Since my boss is also the chair of the department, he has many administrative responsibilities and is not very close to the people in the lab who have joined in the last 5 years.
L has been in the lab for 7-8 years and is the lab manager as well. Talking to her gave me a better perspective of the kind of pressures and commitments my boss has, and how he has changed since he’s become the departmental chair. But I was surprised to hear her say that the way he behaves with men in the lab is different from his interaction with women. So there are several senior members in the lab and she said that over the years, she has felt that he is more friendly and supportive of the men in the lab. For e.g., if a senior guy in the lab published a paper, they would go out for drinks but when she published, she would get a ‘good job’ compliment. She also mentioned that other women in the lab have felt and observed the same behavior.
However, L thinks that my boss is not sexist. She thinks he is just extra careful around women so that his behavior is not misconstrued as being interested in any lab member. Even though these things made her angry in the beginning, she accepts it because taking a female employee out for drinks may be misunderstood in several other settings. One example that she gave was that when she was pregnant, my boss never mentioned it when they talked which is his way of not encroaching on her personal life.
He is a great boss to work with otherwise, everyone in the lab can work flexible hours when required and he doesn’t put too much pressure on anyone. But this attitude still unnerves me because I think that this this behavior is sexist. Doesn’t this further promote the ‘boy’s club’ culture? Who is to say that if an opportunity comes up for which there are equally competent candidates, the male won’t get a preference just because he shares a better relationship with the boss? Or that this kind of attitude doesn’t lead to the better pay for men vs. women in the long run? Maybe I am reading too much into the situation. What do you think about all this?
I’m now reanalyzing several incidents that have happened in the last few years. For example, last year, when I couldn’t go to the conference and a graduate student (male) junior to me did, I attributed that to other possible reasons. But now, I wonder, if gender was also a part of the equation?
On a related but distinct note, I have noticed over the years that when domestic students or postdocs present at lab meetings, their presentations are not scrutinized as much. My classmate (male), who joined the same lab at the same time as me, gave a sloppy presentation for lab meeting that everyone was complaining about, but my boss was super-nice to him. However, when one of the international students present, we are scrutinized and we always have to make sure that we do a great job. I have just accepted this as a part of life and try to look at the positive aspect that I am getting better at presenting my work. But some days, this behavior can be very frustrating. And since the international students happen to be women, I wonder if that makes it a double bias? Again, all the international students in the lab have felt this, so it’s not just my experience.
So all this just makes me realize how biases are unfair to a majority of the population. I think the first step is to actually recognize and accept that these biases exist and that we are all prone to these. The next step is to then try to question our thoughts and judgements in our everyday life and to analyze if we are being objective in our actions. We should avoid stereotyping people into categories based on gender, appearance, race, or other factors. I have to admit here that it’s easier said than done. I’ve been trying to do this for a long time and it’s still a challenge because our first reaction is to somehow justify what we are seeing by putting that person into a category. But fighting against these prejudices will someday create a world not as influenced by these biases and hence, a more peaceful and accepting space!