Professor Inger Mewburn is Director of Research Training at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on student experiences, which are used to inform University practices. We asked her about gender differences in the way men and women PhD students negotiate their relationships with their supervisors. Dr. Mewburn began by acknowledging that there is a dearth of female role models in academia and those that are there have tended to assume the dominant culture that is heavily masculinized. She then made a really interesting observation: during informal academic gatherings, women students find themselves in the kitchen!
The Kitchen Phenomenon
“You don’t know how you got there with the other women, but somehow you’ve been marginalized”, Inger said. In those informal socialization moments that are really important to building your scientific career, women are not at the center of power. This “kitchen phenomenon” has been noted in all sorts of scenarios: from archaeological digs to coffee meetings. This is also true for all minority groups in science: people of color, ethnic minorities, people with children and even those who don’t fit the age profile of a particular discipline. For example, they may get shut out of evening social events because of family or other commitments.
Many men are uncomfortable, as “cultural eunuchs” with the dominant masculine roles presented to them as well! So it’s not just women who are faced with these negative gender stereotypes.
The dominant sex of any department often determines which gender is more prone to drop out. For example, more men drop out of nursing and more women drop out of science. Women seem to be good at organizing a support network around themselves, Dr. Mewburn observed, but they are not as good at using that network for advancement.
So how did the women end up in the kitchen anyway? Is it that the men don’t get in there to do the dishes? [Laughter]
How do we get men as our allies? Keep reading…we returned to this topic later in our discussion.
Backdoor to Academic Progress
Next, we asked Dr. Mewburn about her research addressing gender difference in the way students perceive progress reports. Dr. Mewburn cautions that the mundane, everyday administrative processes are often where these gender differences lurk. Women preparing progress reports tended to think they were performing for an audience; like being on stage. Men thought of the report as an archaeological effort: the report was about digging through, recording things and making sure that operational processes had a place. Women looked at a report as potentially damaging whereas men treated them as depersonalized process that were about fixing things…perhaps, because things were indeed fixed for them through backdoor channels, pulling strings, and so on. Women found these backchannels inaccessible, and were surprised they existed since this had never been modeled for them.
The moral of the story is that we assume that administrative paperwork smooths out differences and render gender invisible. It doesn’t happen that way.
Men and women also framed their problems differently. Men who have a supervisor who ignored them interpreted this as benign neglect and permission to go off to explore and do whatever they liked. Women interpreted this neglect as likely to do them harm. This is a result not necessarily from personal experience, but more from social learning, from talking to other women “in the kitchen”. Dr. Mewburn compared this to women being more aware of dangers walking in the dark, even if they themselves have not been personally attacked. Whereas men have been walking around in a “bubble of privilege” don’t see things the same way.
When presented with these scenarios, men are often astonished by how women see things differently. Dr. Mewburn thinks there is just not enough done in addressing male perceptions of these issues. Unfortunately, women take to formal channels when a problem escalates, and then get labeled as trouble makers. They’ve never been shown another way, so it’s hardly surprising that they take this route.
What can women learn about navigating murky waters to make progress with their careers?
The first thing Dr. Mewburn says is, don’t do the dishes!
She notes that Virginia Valian has a great book on the advancement of women titled, “Why So Slow?” which makes the point that women who break gender stereotypes often get punished for their roles. It’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Dr. Mewburn has a solution: make the men do the dishes with you! Include a man into women’s spaces and make them your allies. Just as you try to enter men’s spaces, don’t retreat into women’s spaces for comfort.
Another book that Dr. Mewburn recommends for both men and women is Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, a sort of “Miss Manners” for academics. She suggests using all sorts of ways, sneaky or otherwise, to get to the next level, within your ethical boundaries, and then don’t perpetuate the problem you just overcame. That’s when you make the change: when you become a role model.
Dr Mewburn has lots of reasons to hope. She sees women in central positions of power and expects this slow non-linear growth will suddenly explode with equality for women.
Using Blogging as a Career Door-Opener
We talked at length about Inger’s wonderful blog, which she describes as a labor of love, The Thesis Whisperer. It’s being indexed by the Australian National Library so it can be a resource for everyone. Her blog has done more for her career than anything else. Dr Inger had been blogging for awhile when she was headhunted for her current role; the University was looking to make changes and Dr Mewburn’s blog showed she had the expertise they were seeking! They wrote a position description based on what she was doing. She still had to apply for the position of course, but using social media to share her professional expertise got her foot in the door.
Dr. Mewburn has advice for maintaining an academic blog: be regular (because that shows you are a professional), be brief (because people have limited time) and, above all, be useful.
The Merry-Go-Round Effect
We talked about the burden and responsibilities of having children, which can be substantial. When childbearing is documented in one’s grant proposal it is looked upon as an excuse or as a deficit, even though one can benefit from rearing children and bring that wealth of life experience into their work. We touched upon Inger’s own career path, which began in architecture, which was fascinating! She also talked about how being a mother has helped her own leadership as an academic. She noted a woman colleague who’s been an academic on casual contracts and “soft money” for 30 years. She’s just quit academia because she’s tired of the “merry-go-round effect.” Dr Mewburn describes this as the tendency for some scientists to get lost on insecure career tract, going from postdoc to postdoc, and getting penalised for taking time off for having children. She notes:
One of the key problems is that it’s terrible for everybody – but it’s particularly terrible for women. So if we actually make it better for everyone, women will be lifted up… which I think men would appreciate as well, because they want to pay mortgages as well as women do. They want to have children as much as women, often. So what can we do? We can put more Government money into science, for instance. We can offer longer postdocs with that Government money. Offer postdocs up to eight years long.
Dr Inger wrapped up the discussion by suggesting ways in which we can make the system friendlier to women, and to be more family friendly. For more of our discussion on careers for PhD students, the future of science and the choices that we make, be sure to watch our HOA!