careful, your bias is showing

Some time ago, a colleague sent me a link to this document, a “Minute to the Director, Trade Commissioner Service” that outlined opposition to the appointment of the first woman Trade Commissioner in Australia in 1963. It makes for some cringeworthy reading:

Even after some deliberation, it is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners“. Because whereas “A relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness, in a subordinate capacity…..A spinster lady can, and often does, turn into something of a battle-axe with the passing years“. (I wonder why that might happen?)

More than 50 years on, we don’t see official documents discriminating so blatantly on the basis of gender. There are laws against that. But vestiges of bias still remain. We do, after all, live in an historically patriarchal society where men were expected to lead, and were valued for what they did at work. Women were expected to have children and were valued for what they looked like and their relationship to men. It’s hard to shake those stereotypes.

The media certainly don’t help. Remember these recent facepalm moments? The opening paragraph of the obituary for Thorn Birds author and neuroscientist Colleen McCullough, “..plain of feature and certainly overweight..”, and the opening paragraph of the obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill “…she made a mean beef stroganoff…”. Not to mention “Rona Fairhead CBE, Cambridge and Harvard graduate, British business ambassador, former chair and chief executive of the Financial Times Group and non-executive director at HSBC and PepsiCo”. When it became clear that she was the preferred candidate to lead the BBC Trust in 2014, the sub-editor who wrote the headline ignored all those accomplishments and went with: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC.”

As I am writing this post, a new study has just come out supporting the notion that sexism in STEM academia is dead. The authors concluded that women are preferred over men by 2:1 as tenure track candidates in the US. Notwithstanding the apparent problems with the study design, or that the data do not support the conclusions, I proffer my own flawed anecdotal evidence that support a contrary conclusion – that sexism in academia is alive and well. This is not a designed study, and the data are not analysed scientifically. It’s a limited self-selected survey describing women’s recent experiences that made them stop and think about how they are treated differently in academia. Junior women and senior women.

How has this information been collected? I often speak at universities and research institutes about gender equity. After these talks, women academics and professional staff regularly share with me their experiences of bias, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Experiences that seem so minor they are not called out, flagged or reported. These often unconscious microaggressions feed into stereotype threat and impostor syndrome, marginalising and silencing women. Often there are no witnesses, and even when there are, the transgressions are usually trivialised as jokes. The immediate response of the women in these situations has usually been shock, paralysis. Here follows the experiences from those women who agreed to share their stories…..

On addressing gender balance and gender equity in academia…

Senior male professor “We can’t let it (addressing gender balance) affect the quality of our institution“. (Oh, but it will. It will also increase the Happiness Index and the Diversity Index).

Senior male professor “As long as the women are attractive” and then after a pause, realising this might not have been a very politic thing to say, “you know, like the men have to be sporty and athletic”.

Senior male professor to female group leader “I will lead this (ongoing venture), and I want you to be my deputy. I will set everything up the way it should be. Then you can take over as leader and just keep everything going the way I arranged it.”

A conference committee comprising middle-aged and older men decided they should address gender balance on their committee. They welcomed suggestions of new female appointees that were young, attractive and “acquiescent”, but rejected out of hand a more senior woman nominee because she was “too old“. She was younger than many of the committee members.

Lately, there has been talk of the pay gap in universities and how the sector might achieve gender pay equity. This appears to have caused confusion in some circles: “Yes, but HOW MUCH equity? Do you mean, like, 90% equity?“. (No please, tell me what you really think).

The Senior Man, Junior Woman Dynamic

A PhD student discussed her research with an invited international speaker at a conference dinner. He was not impressed with her project and said that she now had two choices. “Either make a career in research – and I can help you with this” (over another drink at the bar). “Or have babies and a family. That should be easy – you are reasonably good-looking“. Everything else, including any combination of those two, would be a waste of time. He then proceeded to hit on her.

An invited international speaker attended a celebration dinner with the organising committee after a conference. Soon after everyone was seated, the lucky young woman seated immediately opposite to the speaker was surprised to feel his shoeless foot between her legs.

A senior professor asked a freshly-minted PhD student at a conference dinner “You look so yummy, won’t you come and dance with me?”.

A mid-career female group leader talking research strategy with a senior professor. Mid-sentence, he interrupts her to pick up the necklace pendant from her cleavage and ask a question about it.

Advice from a senior professor to young women researchers considering applying for early career fellowships “Have a baby, it will increase your chances of success“.

It’s not just junior women. On a tour of a science facility, a senior professor slipped his hand under the lab coat of a senior woman on the tour, placing his hand on her bottom and saying “Don’t worry, I will look after you“. (I think I know who she needs to look out for).

When the only woman attending a meeting of senior staff entered the meeting room, a senior professor patted the seat beside him, saying “Come here, sit next to me“.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who hold entire conversations with women academics, their eyes focused all the while on the woman’s breasts.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who come up behind junior women and grab them around their waist.

A primer for those who are not sure:

Let’s be clear. Touching women without permission is not OK. Neither is condescension. Nor objectification. Yet as a woman, it’s really tricky to call out overt or even microaggressive or “casual” unintentional sexism in the workplace, especially when its coming from a supervisor or a senior academic. And when unintentional or unconscious bias is present in the people sitting on hiring, promotion, grant review and fellowship committees – well I submit that this has contributed in part to the current inequity. How do we address this? The first step is to acknowledge bias. Like accents, we all have biases, but no-one likes to admit it. Yes “good” people have biases too. Men and women. So take the Harvard implicit association test and find out what your biases are. Then address them. Establish unconscious bias management training for all supervisors and all decision makers.

People in decision-making positions, senior people (and let’s face it, that most often means men), have a critical role to play. Powerful people dictate how things operate “now” and set the example for what is acceptable leadership behaviour to the next generation. Powerful good people share leadership, and support women and men equally. How can you check if you support people equally? Ask yourself the Cate Blanchett question: “Do you do that to the guys?“. If you wouldn’t say or do something to a man in the workplace – and that means the office, the lab, social events, field trips and conferences – then don’t say or do it to a woman.

Finally, think about the impact of your actions and words using this 3-point test:

1. Is this appropriate? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

2. Is this inclusive? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

3. Will this reinforce gender stereotypes? If the answer is yes or not sure, don’t say or do it.

The 2015 paper by Williams and Ceci may have concluded that women now have advantages in STEM academic careers. Me, I think there is still a long way to go.

14 thoughts on “careful, your bias is showing

  1. Excellent piece, Jenny! I am reminded of the push back against Dr Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleague’s study in PNAS showing empirical evidence of gender bias in STEM ( Men dismissed the data using their own subjective experiences that 1) Gender inequality doesn’t exist as far as they’re concerned; 2) If gender inequality does exist, it’s in women’s favour. The same thing is happening now on the CNN article by Professors Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci. As their study argues that women are not disadvantaged in hiring, there are now men agreeing gleefully, sharing their anger about how they think they’ve been passed over for jobs by (what they perceive to be) lesser qualified women. What’s the difference here?

    The difference is that women’s lived experiences are dismissed outright, even though they match the overwhelming majority of the data. Men’s experiences are conversely held up as truth, even though it contradicts the evidence. This dynamic maintains the status quo, by continuing to de-value women’s lived experiences. It’s the “death by a thousand cuts” that women suffer day to day, such as the examples you’ve shared from other women, that contribute to women being pushed out of science (

    Thanks for sharing these women’s experiences. The stories we tell in science matter, and the stories we don’t tell equally matter, because they ensure that women feel alienated and silenced. Let’s all keep speaking up.

    • While I have highlighted specific examples that show sexism in academia, many men – many senior men – are very supportive of gender equity. It is also fair to say that some women discriminate against women. If we are to fix this endemic problem, we need to stand together to address this issue. It is robbing us – our country, our society – of half of our best talent.

  2. My experience (amongst many others): Senior, very well-regarded academic “So I’ve given the poster prize to your student, will you give me fellatio?”
    I was also slightly appalled by the wording of the University strategic plan: “Support the research career progression of women with programs and structures that enhance their research profile”.
    Why? What is wrong with the research profile of women? To me this is suggesting unconscious bias that somehow, the research performance of women is not up to scratch, or not as good as that of men, and needs to be fostered specifically. Same with approaches to “encourage women to ask for promotion” – Isn’t this teaching women to be more like men, rather than putting systems in place that help women advance without the shameless self-promotion that the male dominated academic hierarchy seems to demand.

  3. Jenny, thank you very much for writing this article. I agree with your conclusion. There is definitely a long way to go for both equity and equality in STEM. Something that stuck in my mind after reading this article was a point about “unconscious microaggressions feed[ing] into stereotype threat and impostor syndrome”, and resulted in one of my own recent experiences surfacing up in my mind. In a recent conversation with colleagues (male and female) to identify keynote speakers for a conference, I found myself repeating, throughout the conservation, that it was important that we ensure equal representation of female and male keynote speakers at the conference. After a few rounds in the discussion one conclusion from a male colleague was that ‘there just aren’t enough “key” women scientists to pick from’. After my highlighting a few more women for consideration, another male colleague interjected (under his breathe), “if you weren’t married I would think you’re a lesbian”. While muffled, a number of us heard what he said, and while a few people paused after his comment, no one except for myself commented on the inappropriateness of his statement. In fact the person leading the group responded by saying, “oh just ignore their disagreement and let’s move on”. This wasn’t the first time this type of comment had been made to me, so needless to say, I needed a minute (or ten) and excused myself from the table. The interaction resulted in my being excluded from the immediate conversation with my peers, the conversation about keynote speakers continued [and continues] without me. As Jenny states in her article, my example is a “self-selected recent experience that made me stop and think about how I have been treated differently in academia”, it is an example, at least in my mind, that sexism in academia is alive and well.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m so sorry it happened though. It’s stories like these that make me so cross. The aggressor remains in the room, effectively rewarded for bad behaviour. The victim misses out. Perhaps if this does happen regularly, be prepared to respond. Work out a few short, sharp responses. Some possible examples: Ask for an apology. Or an explanation. Pretend that you didn’t hear, and ask the person to repeat what he said so that everyone can hear. Ask to have it minuted. Ask what the harassment policy is where you work. Practise your response. Out loud. Many times. So when you need to use it, it comes out in measured tones, without tremor or fear. That’s what I’ve done in the past. Doesn’t always change anything, except it makes me feel stronger afterwards.

      Thank you too for advocating for more women speakers at conferences. That is so important.

      • Jenny, thank you for your thoughtful response and suggestions. I agree preparing a few short (and well-practiced) sharp responses is a great idea. I find that in situations like the one I described above that it is easy to become lost for words, and while I did tell the person to never say that again, I think that asking the person to repeat what they said to everyone and having it written in the minutes is a very good idea. Doing that takes strength, but if it happens to me again, I will be better prepared. The bingo card is amazing! I wish I would have had that with me! I can tell you that more than half of the statements on the bingo card were made in that discussion I mentioned above. Brilliant, I will have a few printed copies with me at all times! Thank you again for writing this article, and for your commitment to equality in STEM.

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  5. Good post Jenny. The stories are always helpful. I think we should expect men to do far more than they do at the moment. You mentioned in a comment that many men in academia support gender equity, but how many of them are prepared to call out sexism when they see it? Or to question their own unconscious bias? I’ve written about this in Research Fortnight here:

  6. Great blog. Thanks for raising all the microaggressions. My own favourite case was when I poured wine for people for quite some time at a networking event as my (male) colleagues were ignoring the fact that the wine needed opening for the guests who were milling around staring longingly at it after a looonng seminar. Not once did my colleagues offer to help or take over from me. The following day, my senior colleague (one of the ones who never once came over to take over) took me to one side and told me off for my behaviour. Apparently seeing the woman on the team pouring the wine would give a poor image of the team and it was entirely my fault…
    As you rightly say, I did what most women do when confronted. I froze and mumbled my apologies, rather than pointing out that a more pro-active approach to hosting the event from my male colleagues the evening before could have solved the problem.

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