Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Diversification in STEM Fields

One of the reasons I started blogging was to share my tenure track experiences with others. And like all other bloggers, you start reading other blogs and get a lot (well, sometimes) of useful information for what other tenure track faculty did in certain situation. Underneath all of that info though, there is an undercurrent always discussing the topic of diversification within STEM fields. This isn't just limited to blogs but in real press as well.

In February's OPN (pay link), Professor Ursula Keller at ETH Zurich tackles the topic by proposing that senior faculty (both male and female) need to be the main advocates for diversification. Professor Keller also states that we need to change the present working culture, something which I think is nicely summarized by GMP's post on Work-Life Balance. The thing is, I'm just a n00b at all of this (no seniority) and I have no real insights into how to effect change because I am a stereotypical, white male engineer.

This same exact question was asked by Hermitage: "What would you like to see from tenure-track and not-yet-tenure-track menfolk? How can they pitch in?". [For details see] However, the respondents didn't really come up with any profound ideas (not trying to offend...), but rather stuck to basically saying stop being an asshat. There were other items mentioned like try to disassociate the sex of the author when reviewing/judging/commenting and to speak up when you see an obvious case of sexism.

But what else can someone in my situation (young, male tenure track engineer) do to not perpetuate the norm?

In a professional world, I don't think someone should be characterized as a humorless bitch, nor is asking is it that time of the month. On one hand, I'm actually shocked that faculty members would ask that but on the other, I can't say I'm surprised - we can be asshats for no reason. But is that essentially the list of things a male faculty member can do to help?
  1. Treat female faculty members (and other minorities for that matter) as just "normal faculty". Their record should speak for themselves, not their outward appearance.
  2. Maintain professional courtesy even when women/minorities aren't around.
  3. Just work based on the work, not the authors.
  4. Try to more vocal about your work-life balance.
The first three to me seem like they should be a no-brainer. I'm married to a female engineer with a PhD so I don't need any other justification for woman's competency in engineering (and all STEM). But I think the 4th item on the list can really go a long way to making a difference. That's especially the case for my situation because I'm in academia (flexible working environment) whereas my wife works in industry (structured working environment). I expect I'll be doing my fair share of dr's visits (like today!) and staying home with a sick child, and so on.

But that brings me to a grand question that I can hopefully get some answers from the blog'o'sphere.

Are male faculty members that have female partners in STEM fields better allies for diversification than those whose partners are not and does that make for a better work-life balance?


  1. In my (admittedly non-academic) opinion: people (men and women) need to make sure they are going above and beyond. The "treat people fairly" and "don't be an ass" I feel don't dig deep enough. People have a lot of unrecognized privilege whether for economics, race, gender etc. Past bosses of mine who have kicked particular ass on this topic have:
    a) made a greater effort to recruit underrepresented minorities and be good mentors to these people
    b) made an effort to speak positively about these minority employees to the higher ups.

    I guess there's plenty to argue that this is somehow "reverse racism" or some sh@# that hurts people in a zero sum game, but I think these particular bosses recognized the deck is stacked against certain people and that in order to make up for it they had to go above and beyond in recruiting, encouraging and promoting minorities.

    When you are hiring or looking for speakers or collaborators it's probably really easy to get a group of potentials for this list and choose qualified people. More often than not you probably have too many qualified people. That's why I think it's important to make sure you're not just looking at the usual suspects because you can't be certain who's filtering this list for you or your own unconscious biases. We tend to associate with and pick out people who are like us so it's important to make sure it's a conscious effort NOT to always do that.

    As for whether STEM spouses make better allies...maybe yes maybe no. There's a highish level superior here who's wife "was" an engineer as he puts it. Because she's home now taking care of babies it's clear he doesn't respect her as much or consider her an engineer anymore. I'm also sure this means he sees young women as being naturally driven to go home and raise a litter of children, and it preserves his ideas of home and work spheres and natural roles for women even though she's clearly intelligent and educated. I think though if your wife is working in the field you gradually become a better ally. My husband would not have believed half the sh@# that has happened to me if it didn't actually happen to me.

  2. As a female trainee, I would give a +1 to everything FrauTech said.

    But for your question, I'd echo that last sentence: "My husband would not have believed half the sh@# that has happened to me if it didn't actually happen to me." I've seen more than one white, straight, healthy male get into a relationship with a fellow professional who hasn't won the privilege lottery; invariably, they are gobsmacked at the kind of sh@# their partner has to put up with, and no they aren't making it up or asking for it. This has a way of raising awareness. (Yes, the hopeless cases wouldn't pair up with a fellow professional, so there's some self-selection - but there's definitely an effect.)

    I would agree with your list of things to do. For #1 - personally, I hate it when people make a big deal over my female-ness. (OMG, we've never had a woman do this before! How cool! Isn't this a unique experience?) I know they usually mean well, but argh.

    For #2 - I sincerely hope that by "professional courtesy" you don't mean "watching my language for the delicate females". Because that sh@# don't fly in this century.

    And for #4 - this may be a generational thing, but men need that too. I don't want to work for a monomaniac who barely knows his kids; the majority of men in my cohort feel the same, as far as I can tell. I'm single and I could, but I just don't want to live like that. Science is great, but it's not worth destroying yourself for; no matter how much you love your job, it doesn't love you back.

    And there's one other thing you didn't mention - even if you're the most privileged bastard to ever roam a university corridor, you still have the ability to call it when you see something that isn't right. Having someone say "I saw that, and that dude was way out of line" can be really reassuring. And of course, if you do choose to call something out in public, it will sound less like self-interest.

    A couple of years ago, an assistant professor I know (white, straight, male, etc) impressed the hell out of me by doing that. I was working in a subfield that is actually quite balanced - there are women, minorities and gays at all levels, including the top. It was also a trendy field, and so Science did an article on it. At the end, they had a list of "researchers in the field". Now, this would have been fine, except the list was really "every white male who has so much as sneezed in the field's direction, plus that chick from Harvard".

    Somebody sent the article to the field's mailing list. I composed an email noting my displeasure, then saved the draft and went to do something else, because one should always read snarky emails with a fresh eye before one sends them to one's entire subfield. I returned to my computer and found that this assistant professor had called it first. Not only that, he forwarded the email to the editors at Science. I wouldn't have had the nerve. So yes, there are things you can do.

  3. Anon, I didn't mean "watching my language in front of delicate women". Rather, what I mean is more complimentary to #1. When you're around other guys (and only guys) there's usually a certain shift in the conversation style (yes, vulgar language in one thing) where derogatory phrases are used more commonly than when women are around.

    For instance:
    MaleA: I don't know, MaleB, maybe we shouldn't do this...
    MaleB: Put your skirt away MaleA, we're not going to get caught.

    That sort of dialog is very common when just guys are talking (and fairly common when women are around). But refraining from using phrases like that in all cases is something we should strive for.

    For the record though, DrWife curses at least as much as I do, if not more :)

    You're totally right about your last comment. I had that the other day when DrWife and I were at a meeting. A fellow prof introduced me to some people and mentioned that "well DrWife won't be here because she's at home with the kids" which was pretty ridiculous because DrWife was 5 ft away at the time. Maybe I could have been more forceful but I said "Actually, DrWife is right over there working for CompanyCorpInc and NanoGEARS is at daycare like any normal workday".