Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Diversification: with Dr. Anna Garry and Professor Ursula Keller

When I posted on Diversification in STEM Fields, I mentioned Professor Ursula Keller's article in February's OPN. I reached out to Professor Keller with a few specific questions hoping to gather more insight on what a junior faculty member such as myself can do and what are the specific aspects of STEM academia that are keeping the door closed for women and minorities. Dr. Anna Garry, who works with Professor Keller on the issue of outreach and retaining talented women scientists, was kind enough to respond back with some very thought provoking responses.

If you haven't read Professor Keller's article, it can be found here (not pay link). I suggest you do so not only for the context of the questions but also for just general insights into the diversification problem in STEM fields. I've posted my questions so you can see the specific context with the shortened question and response below.


[Original Question: I completely agree that senior male and female scientists/engineers will carry the most weight in changing the culture in STEM fields. However, as a tenure track faculty member who fits the stereotypical profile (white, male, American), how can I be an ally even in my early career stage for eliminating sexism and discrimination? Are there particular steps to take for someone in their early career to buffer themselves from outside influences which may lead to a more discriminatory view in the future? (For example, you start out with good intentions but change over time to get into the good ‘ole boys club.) ]

1. How can a new male tenure track professor buffer themselves from outside influences that can lead to a more discriminatory view in the future?

[AG] I think that the key here is to keep an open mind always about attitudes and assumptions that you see and hear. In addition you can speak up when you see something uncomfortable. Often women are told to lighten up, or not to take things so seriously, or that a person didn't mean it. If a male colleague/member of staff says that what is happening/said is not right, or that it's discouraging - this is really reinforcing for women, they feel supported and respected. For women the environment they work in matters enormously, the old "take it as a joke" attitude is very wearing if the joke is always on you.

Specific examples: I am not a physicist, I am a political scientist, educationist and writer. I am used to being in a more balanced workplace, gender wise.

In the current environment I hear general statements like "I cried like a girl" and there is also a common attitude of competitiveness that is not a natural approach for a lot of women. You have to be very confident in this environment to be different, and not become isolated.

In addition, because I am a woman I have (for the first time in my life) experienced the initial assumption, from men and women here who don't know me, that I work in a secretarial, assistant capacity. This is an awful experience (I have a BSc, MA and PhD), and it hasn't happened to me before. Dealing with this in an angry way would not work, because you are dealing with unconscious thoughts, and who do you talk to about this, if it is an underlying assumption. What I did was set out on a campaign of clarifying the situation to the right people. It worked, all is clear. But I am an experienced, confident, person who could do it, even though it made my heart sink that I had to (and may have to deal with it again). What I was dealing with was subtle, unconscious assumptions, rather than open minds about what the range of roles a woman can take.

I am also hearing from young women scientists that they have to deal with the uncomfortable situations where male colleagues will not/cannot look them in the eye when they speak, and that some men talk only to the men in the group. For male scientists to include women all levels in these group situations is vital and, ultimately, very encouraging.

As you are aware, I think it may be very easy for a successful male academic to adopt the communal departmental mind, if all the colleagues in a department are male. A second thing that is necessary for male scientists to realize is that women (and the research has shown this) are often very self-questioning, unconfident and perfectionist in their work. They may think they are not good, even if their marks are excellent. If they are not discouraged at this stage of initial nervousness, they can produce great work. Positive reinforcement and encouragement really helps in the retention of women.


[Original Question: After reading your article, I agreed with the overall points you are attempting to make. Identifying borders, changing the work culture, and becoming an advocate of a new scientific culture all sound good but how do we go about initiating this change? Do you think there are individual differences and borders between STEM fields or are the obstacles to change largely uniform across all STEM fields?]

2. Are the obstacles similar across the STEM fields, or are their individual differences?

This is a huge question and I don't have the answer to this, but we will consider this question as we work. Certain areas of STEM have been studied more than others. I haven't, however, seen a great deal of work about the situation in Mechanical Engineering. One of my neighbours is a researcher in the ETH Mechanical Engineering department. There are two women there out of 40 researchers.

I think one answer is that the academic career has common issues across all of the science subjects in the sense of how a scientist deals with the obligations of scientific research, publications, conferences and dealing with family life.


[Original Question: Another point you make in the article states that women are opting out of academia as it is now defined. And from that, I presume that some men do not opt out of academia, either because they are OK with its current definition or are willing to work in a system that has some significant drawbacks (tenure and funding rat-race, perpetual postdocs [specifically science fields], pressures to publish, to name a few). What is it about an academic position that is driving women away but not driving men away? Is it simply a numbers game where there are still enough men within the system that there will be some pursuing academic careers regardless of the drawbacks?]

3. Do women and men opt out of academia in different numbers?

[AG] This, I think, is an important question and I am trying to address this in my work. I haven't seen any figures or studies on this. My aim is to interview all the scientists I can, across our network, on key decision moments in their careers and identify then the attitudes of men and women to idea of remaining in academia, and the situations that cause them to leave.

My sense is that a lot of men opt out of academia too, for many reasons. It may be that we are also losing the type of men that would make a real contribution to changing the scientific environment for the benefit of the retention of women and minority groups!


[Original Question: From your profile in the article and your current position, I see that you have lived and worked in multiple countries with different cultures. From my own experiences in the US and Europe, I have seen a dichotomy arise within STEM fields resulting from more cultures mixing. As the cultural diversity increases, the natural progression is to suggest discrimination over time will decrease due to the diversity. However, as more cultures are represented with differing views on societal roles for males and females, I find the progression has stagnated. From your experience, do you think this could be one (of many) reasons for why discrimination persists?]

4. The impact of cultural diversity on the stagnation of the situation for women scientists

[AG] This is an enormous question, and there hasn't been much investigation of this. There are certainly anecdotal stories on the problems that different cultural views of the role of women create. I don't think it is possible to answer this, but it is certainly something that we are alert to. It may be that someone who we commission for the OPN "Reflections on Diversity" column, from a minority scientist point of view will address this topic.


Ok, interview over, back to my normal GEARS voice. Dr. Garry has also mentioned to me that OPN will be launching a column in the near future called "Reflections on Diversity", discussing Women and Minorities in Science.

While there is a lot of information to digest in Dr. Garry's responses, there's two items which immediately jump out to me: the lack of eye contact (Q1) and that men which may make a real contribution to changing diversity might be the ones leaving academia (Q3).

I definitely have been in interviews and meetings where the speaker will not make eye contact, and from asking around, most people seem to say the same thing. I'm not sure why people don't make eye contact (without staring!) but when you're talking to someone and they're talking to the wall, it's very annoying.

More importantly, I think Dr. Garry brings up a hugely interesting suggestion in Q3. Because academic jobs are limited, there will always be people leaving academia after their PhD/Postdoc. But maybe the men that are leaving are the ones that would be the type of person to try and effect change. But since they leave for industry, the majority of men left in academia are of the type that perpetuate the current standard or focus on their research without thinking of things outside of it. I'd love to see some evidence of that but it is a very interesting proposition.

I would like to thank Dr. Anna Garry and Professor Ursula Keller at ETH Zurich for taking the time to respond and for giving some thought provoking insights. More information on Professor Keller's group can be found here.


  1. I'm really glad you got this interview on here, very interesting questions and answers. Just wanted to post some studies that talked about what you all talked about:

    Dr. Jennifer Hunt's "Why Do Women Leave Science and Engineering?"

    The AAUW's great "Why So Few?" Women in Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics

    And the more recent: "Stemming the Tide: Why do women leave engineering"

    I had to do too much digging through my blog archives to find when I talked about all these, so clearly I need a catch-up post that talks about all this *note to self*

  2. Thanks for the links Frau. When you've found your links, feel free to post them here.