By: Michael Habib, PhD
We have a guest post from Dr. Michael Habib as part of our series on How Men Can Help. Michael is an Assistant Professor in Neurobiology at the University of Southern California where he teaches Clinical Human Anatomy and researches paleontology, biomechanics, robotics and comparative anatomy.
Sexism is rampant in many professions, and academia is no different. In the setting of universities, much of the ongoing sexism is not loud or obvious. Instead, there are persistent, subtle asymmetries in how men and women are treated on a daily basis. Academics, like myself, are often reticent to acknowledge and face the lingering sexism that exists in our workplaces, often under the illusion that our ivory tower is less susceptible. While it is true that some forms of harassment common in other work environments are rare in academics, plenty of problems remain. In many cases, problems arise because of a lack of perspective – comments that might seem perfectly innocent and complimentary to the speaker can have a negative impact in the wrong context. The negative repercussions are not limited to those on the receiving end of subtle sexism. In academia, those of us in the privileged classes can end up in trouble quite rapidly if we are too naive.
One of the most important lessons for faculty at a university is to remember that your environment already has these pernicious undertones of gender-based inequality, whether you have anything to do it with or not.
Here I want to share some of my thoughts on how to avoid adding fuel to the flames.
1. Don’t be a spectator. Students, particularly female students, have been insulted by “throw away jokes” in my presence, and I find it interesting how quickly the aggressor party backed down when I suggested it was inappropriate. My experience here is far from unique. When a member of a privileged class speaks up (usually a white male), aggressors back down. When a student shows offense, the student is labeled as being “too sensitive”. Be aware that your students may be nervous to speak up against those they consider to be of superior rank. In medical school, for example, challenges to an attending physician from a student can (and does) regularly lead to additional harassment, grade reductions, and “disciplinary” action (i.e. sanctioned harassment). Be ready to step up and challenge your colleagues when they show sexism in the work place.
2. Remember the asymmetries. I often get feedback that my confident and fast presentation style sometimes makes me seem a bit arrogant, but that this is expected and understandable. A media representative said to me straight out last fall that “you’re a little arrogant, but you have to be in this field.” This is a common response to confident, intellectually ambitious males. But not everyone gets the same warm reception to thinking highly of their own work. Women are more likely to be told that they are too aggressive or overstepping their bounds when they speak confidently, when compared to men. Ironically, when women listen rather than speak up (particularly students), they are often labeled as “shy” rather than “attentive”. I know from experience that this is an enormous problem in medical schools, where this sort of inequality is neither rare nor subtle.
3. Practice basic awareness. I used to be someone that didn’t realize how toxic appearance-related compliments can be in a workplace. I wised up in graduate school when I saw how much emotional stress my female counterparts were under, especially in the medical program. It is important to remember that some of your female students may have been habituated through years and years of social pressure that their appearance is critical to their job success. This might lead them to question if their intellectual talents are being valued. Even if you think a comment about how someone looks is innocuous, it could be taken the wrong way. These days, I just avoid making any comment related to physical appearance at all with students or colleagues, even when they mention my appearance, such as a kind comment about what I’m wearing (which does happen with some frequency). I’ve tried to train the habit of responding with something positive that is unrelated to appearance (for example, perhaps they recently submitted a good bit of writing or performed well on a qualifying exam). If you do not have a compliment to return in kind, then just be gracious and move on. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not trained this habit merely because I am worried about the effects on my comments on students (though that is certainly a huge component). There is also the issue that every time I have a female student that I mentor, some male colleague will make a joke about how the student probably has a crush on me, or how I could hook up with them when the project is over. There are a few ways to deal with this sort of commentary, but personally, I politely request that my colleague(s) stop insulting my student. I only mentor talented students that I observe to be passionate about their scientific study. Sexualizing their training insults their talent. Experiences obviously vary, but in my personal experience, this is more effective than simply telling a colleague that their comments are “over the line” or “not okay”. The concept of reputation is well entrained in academia and may carry more weight in conversation. It’s been my experience that if you are a male mentor of a female student, some people will think she got the position because you think she is attractive. Your student will likely be aware of this stereotype – consider how much additional pressure that places on her shoulders.
Keeping good professional conduct in the lab and removing gender inequalities from your behavior can alleviate some of the stress. This is not only the ethical thing to do, it will also build a better lab. Academic sexism implies that women are constantly sexually available and also implies that men are constantly sexually motivated.
This essay is in large part a message to men reminding them that combating sexism is good for everyone. Remember that improving the social environment in STEM fields (or any workplace) will improve the effectiveness of STEM fields as a whole.