Yesterday, the Brain Prize was awarded. No doubt that this year's winners have made a strong contribution to neuroscience, but it was quite painful to see that this was the sixth year in a row that the winners of this prize were men. So far, 2 out of 28 winners have been women.
What we can do to change this, is to nominate more women for this prize, as the Brain Prize twitter account immediately suggested.
What I would hope the Brain Prize and the Lundbeck foundation would do is to make their selection committee more diverse too. And perhaps the members of said selection committee could ask for (is that how you use this in a sentence?) an inclusion rider.
Last week I wrote that a news outlet reported that Hans Clevers had said that Dutch women don't want to work hard. According to Hans Clevers, who came to my blog to reply, he hadn't actually said that.
Seeing the article on a Dutch news website, writing my post here and the discussion that followed left me feeling drained. I feel so frustrated that while I and so many others with me point out how this attitude of saying "I have done some things and there is nothing we can do to further increase diversity" is unhelpful and harmful, it does not seem to change the speed at which diversity increases. Outside of this blog, the LNVH ("Landelijk Netwerk Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren"; the Dutch society for Women full professors) wrote a letter to a large Dutch newspaper. And Athena's Angels (an initiative of 4 female full professors) wrote a reply in the same news paper today. But otherwise nothing happened. What could have been an opportunity to start a discussion on how to improve diversity in (Dutch) academic science, and increase the retention of women and minorities in the academic pipeline, ended in silence, at least as far as I can see.
I want to look into scientific literature on methods to increase diversity in STEM (or elsewhere) to write a post with suggestions on what to do and what works, but haven't had the time to do so. If you have links/papers to share with me, please do so in the comments or on twitter.
And in the meantime, I want to acknowledge the energy it takes to address these issues and take a deep bow for those of us who do this on a daily basis. I realize the privilege of writing here under a pseudonym and being able to go to work at a place with great emphasis on diversity. As Sara Ahmed wrote in her blog post titled "Feeling Depleted : "I think of social privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required to pass through." So for those who still believe women aren't working hard: this is also where their energy goes: into the invisible void of challenging the status quo.
Yesterday was International Day of Women and Girls in Science and it was great to see all the different faces of women and girls in science on twitter and read their stories. I love the atmosphere of people lifting each other up and cheering each other on. Sadly, my day ended with reading this news article where prominent Dutch cancer researcher Hans Clevers responds to criticism on the newly opened virtual cancer research institute "Oncode". Part of the criticism he received was the gender disbalance in this institute to which he respondes [my translation]:
"The gender balance is indeed a problem. But that problem is caused by women. We see many young women with potential, but when push comes to shove they quit. That's not our (the men's) fault. Dutch women just don't want to work hard."
Later in the article, he nuances this statement a bit by adding that it is not only women who are to blame, but (Dutch) society: that societal pressure to spend time with children on weekdays falls much more on women than on men. And by creating opportunities to work part-time, society has created a pretty narrow mold for women to fit: daycare centers often don't offer 5 days a week of care or advise against taking 5 days and HR people often ask pregnant women how many days they are planning to come back to work to (thereby implying less than 5 days), which is not asked to men. According to Hans Clevers, this causes the leaky pipeline: the fact that men and women perform equally through graduate school and post-doc and then women drop off in dramatic numbers.
Now let's unpack what he is saying here:
- Part-time culture. It is true that The Netherlands are the country where most people work part-time and there is a huge gender disparity there (see figure). A likely explanation is that Dutch women were relatively late compared to other countries to join the workforce, and many people of my generation and older have grown up with their mom at home taking care of housework and the kids, which is different than in the US for example where women joined the workforce much earlier. It is important to note that the gender disparity in part-time work is not only due to child care obligations, because also women in their 20s without children work part-time in large numbers. There is no clear data showing why this is: is it the choice for different sectors of employment where part-time work is the norm and it is more difficult to get a permanent contract, are women more inclined to live to work rather than work to live or is it a matter of everyday sexism that favors men for full-time high profile positions? We need to understand this better before we can start pointing fingers. I do agree that the narrow mold for women to fit in terms of how to combine children and a career is problematic, and I hope that when men such as Hans Clevers see this, they do the work to help this, for example by providing high quality childcare at work. The ratio of children to daycare teachers is much higher here than it was for our (expensive!) daycare in the US, which for us was a reason to each work 4 days to only need 3 days of daycare.
- Women don't want to work hard? Let's go back to this first statement from Hans Clevers, even though he later goes back to add more nuance. I would love to see actual data showing that this is true, because I am aware of data showing that women actually have to work harder in order to get equal results, and the other way around: that with equal levels of productivity, women are less likely to get promoted/get grants/get papers in high IF journals. And that is on top of the fact that most of these women will be doing this hard work in a climate that is unsafe and unwelcoming. So we should ask ourselves (and this is somewhat of a rhetoric questions): are women not willing to work hard, or do women - after working equally hard with less recognition while taking on more of the childcare responsibilities - at some point think "f*ck this sh*t" and leave academia?
- What it means when someone like Hans Clevers says this. This is the part that really makes me sad: that someone in such a position of power as Hans Clevers makes statements like these that seem unsupported by the data that is out there on gender disparity and general inequality in academia. How many young students who are women, people of color and in particular women of color who have few or even no role models to look up to will read something like this and think "f*ck this sh*t" even sooner? Also, making such a statement suggests a lack of awareness of Hans Clevers' own bias against women and minorities. If he has the choice between hiring a man or a woman for a position, I'm pretty sure his bias against women ("women don't want to work hard") will likely drive him to choose the man, unless the woman is extraordinarily qualified. And for someone who is likely in numerous committees deciding the future of young scientists, this is highly problematic and demoralizing.
This morning I came to a realization that shocked me and that made me quite painfully aware of my own biases. Already a couple of times I had come across this headline on twitter: She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell. Every time I saw it I couldn't help but think: Oh man, another person who was oppressed/harrassed/assaulted in whatever way by some man who has the power to do so and still goes unpunished for way too long. But it didn't touch me enough to read the piece. Or to retweet it or say what I think about it. It just made me a little numb that this just keep happening over and over and over it seems.
And then someone tweeted the name of the victim in this case. And I recognized the name and realized that I had seen her present her work and I was so impressed with her. She was energetic and funny and a really good presenter who did very interesting work. All of a sudden I cared so much more about this case. And that is the part that shocked me.
Because someone shouldn't have to be energetic and funny and a good presenter for me to care. I should always care when someone is oppressed or assaulted or harrased, whether they are boring or funny to me and whether I like them or not. It made me think of whenever men say things like:"We should care about women because they are our daughters and wives and sisters" and I think to myself: no, we should care because they are people. Yet I do the exact same thing in my head: I care more about people that I know and/or like.
How can I change this attitude and make sure I don't stop caring about cases like this one? By reading the statistics about how often women are sexually harrassed in science that make me angry every time I look at them. By linking to all the pieces online that show how hard it is to file these complaints against established men when you are the victim, but also how there are kind people that stand by the victims. Although at the end of the day the question remains whether you can ever really win in a case like this.
There's having to take time off for parental leave. There's not always being able to stay for networking after work. There's having to stay home when your kid is sick. And the list goes on and on why becoming a parent means sometimes not being able to be at work or working. However, it is still the case that for mothers this compromises their career more than for fathers, resulting in less pay and an overall perception of being less competent: an issue called the motherhood penalty, which was also highlighted when Gina Baucom asked for examples of crappy things that are being said to women academics the other day.
The other day I got a bit more insight into why this could be on a level I hadn't considered yet. Someone I know had her second kid about a 1,5 year ago and the first time year had been quite a struggle: she was tired, also moved to a different house and at the same time was making a huge effort to perform at the same level she did previously. This nearly resulted in a burn out, except that she had a very kind and caring manager who sent her home at just the right time and told her to take it easier. At this point she was crying, tired and just not the strong person she was otherwise.
After this first year, she started to feel like her normal self again: more sleep, normal hormone levels, etc. However, at the same time she noticed that her manager still treated her like the more fragile person who needed help and protection. Her manager would not give her the more challenging projects even though she was very capable of taking those on again. And ultimately her male colleague who had been there shorter got a promotion and she didn't. Seemingly because her manager could not get rid of the notion they had of her being weak. She felt that not only did she have to fight to get back into all her projects, she had to fight double hard to erase her manager's notion of her being a weak person.
I'm not sure there is an answer here in how to navigate this path, but I'd be curious to hear what you would advice here, dear readers!
"Thank you for not taking a vacation but coming in to do extra work".
"Wow such impressive work that you submitted a fellowship application 3 weeks after giving birth" (even though I did not get this grant in the end).
"Thanks for checking your email continuously on the day in the week that you're not working (and hence are not being paid)".
"What dedication that even though you have quit your post-doc job and have 3 weeks of vacation days left, you're still coming in to finish these experiments that you're doing".
Just a selection of things that nobody has ever said to me, ever. And this is (finally) making me realize that whenever you go this extra mile for work, you should do it for you and not to get external validation or praise. Because people tend to not see this effort that you put in in these invisible moments, while at the same time this effort may seem very large to yourself.
This morning I tweeted this when I saw that there was a Nobel prize press briefing with a table full of men in front of paintings of men (or wait, maybe that one person painted in a light green jacket is a woman?).
Briefly after that, the ERC tweeted this very ironic tweet:
Yes, role models are key, but where are they??
This week I received feedback that I need to act more confident in my role as expert. I recognize myself in this feedback, because often when I'm in a discussion about something neuroscience with someone who is not a neuroscientist, I come with all these nuances and considerations and find it hard to make very concrete statements. However, that is something that is needed when decisions need to be made about how to measure something or how to interpret literature.
This lead me to think about the difference of what you consider an expert on a topic in academia vs in industry (at least in my line of work).
My interpretation of the difference between being an expert in academia vs in industry. Not drawn to scale. Also, the yellow is a drawing from Little Brother that I thought would not be visible but clearly is.
In academia, after having completed a PhD thesis and some time as a post-doc, you can consider yourself an expert in those topics (even if it feels like there are others who are even more expert). I definitely feel confident making statements about subjects in those incredibly tiny circles. However, now that I am in industry I am supposed to be an expert in much larger areas in a group of people who know even less about this topic (along the lines of: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"). I have always been more of a generalist, so I like reading and thinking about these bigger areas (with dotted lines in the drawing because the areas change every now and then).
But I guess what comes next in this transition from the left circle to the right is to stand up in a meeting and either say:"I know that this is such and such and that's why I recommend this" or "I need to analyze this further and will come back to it". I need to figure out how much knowledge and analysis is needed to fulfill this role, because it is impossible to take the time to reach the expertise level from the left circle in my current job. And in academia, I feel I've been trained to withhold from any firm conclusions until you've looked at a topic from different viewpoints.
And I guess for a part it comes back to the question of how you become visible and get your opinion heard if you don't look like the prototype expert...?
Yesterday I attended a seminar and I noticed that at least 75% of the audience were women. The speaker was a man, and so was the person who introduced the speaker*. After the talk, there was time for a couple questions and the three people who asked something were men.
Overall score: a room full of women and all the people who opened their mouth to speak were men.
I know what it is like to be in an audience, and wonder if the question you might have is one worth asking. The time to make this decision is short and before you know it someone else asks their questions or the time is up for anyone to ask a question. But my advisor encouraged us in a somewhat strange way to ask questions: after the speaker was finished, she would point at one of her grad students and say:"now you have to ask something.". The first time this happened to me I was obviously caught off guard and was barely able to utter something resembling a question. Yikes. But the next time, I knew this could happen to me and ever since, I've trained myself to just have some questions ready in my head to ask. This may seem ridiculous, because if you don't have something to ask, why try and come up with something. But to me, it's been good training in coming up with good (and sometimes not so good) questions. So that when a talk ends, I don't have to hesitate, but I can put my hand up and ask something. Sometimes because I actually want to know the answer, and sometimes to be visible to the speaker or others in the audience.
Do you see the same? That women are less likely to ask questions? And if so, what do you do encourage them to ask something?
*I had never before seen someone so good at highlighting his own achievements while introducing someone else by the way. A remarkable skill in itself.