Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

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I’ve Moved!

Posted by Athene Donald on December 12, 2010

I’ve been happy here for the past few months, but have now moved to join Occam’s Typewriter.   Please visit me at my new site



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Discussing Science and Gender

Posted by Athene Donald on October 29, 2010

I am currently at a meeting in a very attractive location (including snow) in Austria on Science and Gender, organised by the Österreichischen Forschungsgemeinschaft.  The meeting overall intends to discuss the topic in a very broad sense, with the participants coming from across the academic spectrum.  This obviously includes the full range of sciences as well as gender studies, but also less obvious disciplines including economics, languages and linguistics. I don’t think I had anticipated this when preparing my own talk.  Unfortunately my language skills are not advanced enough to appreciate some of the talks and topics – 40 year old O Level German just isn’t enough to appreciate the nuances of this field – but the first talk was rather easier: Londa Schiebinger from Stanford, giving an international perspective on the issues.  Her talk immediately preceded mine, and we covered some of the same topics, though with a rather different emphasis.

Londa’s background is in English and History, but for many years she has looked at both the historical and the current situation of women in science. Her talk identified three levels of analysis:

1.       Participation: ‘fix the (number of) women’;

2.       Gender in the Culture: ‘fix the institution’;

3.       Gender in Knowledge: ‘fix the knowledge’.

She discussed point 1 by discussing what happens when you, for instance, teach women how to negotiate for better salaries – a particular issue in the US where it seems all salaries are done by negotiation. When such training was carried out at her own institution, it transpired the administrators with whom the negotiations were done simply didn’t respond to the women in the same way as they would to men coming into their offices asking for a pay rise. Consequently the effect was less than had been hoped, and probably just added to a sense of alienation for the women faculty concerned.  My own thoughts on ‘fixing the women’ were discussed here.  The implied deficit model assumes it is the woman who are lacking something, rather than that it is the culture that is at fault. In the case of the salary negotiations, therefore, giving the women the confidence and skills to negotiate failed because the culture – in this case within the management – was not adapted to deal with this change.

Her discussion of ‘fixing the institution’ was where there was the greatest overlap with my own talk, and I’ll discuss this further below. But it was the third topic I found most interesting, because I was least familiar with it. Her point here was that much of knowledge –most, though not all of her examples derived from the field of biomedical research – is done in a gendered way, producing results which may not be equally applicable to both sexes. (Perhaps I should try to spell out the differences between sex and gender as I understood it from the discussion: sex is about biology, whereas gender relates to sociocultural attributes.)

To take a specific example, in fact from engineering practice, that of crash dummies i.e. those objects used to test the consequences of crash impacts on the body. The first such dummies used were in studies in the US (ca 1949) by the military to study the effect of ejection from ejector seats from planes on the human body. The model built was that of a rather tall male.  These studies were subsequently adapted to study the optimisation of seat belts in high speed car crashes. There have been modifications to the dummies, but it is only very recently that Volvo, if I recall correctly (in other words, in Scandinavia, which I think is telling in itself) have started to study the effect of seatbelt design on pregnant women, using computer simulations.  This despite the fact that foetuses are known to be damaged by the pressure induced by the standard 3 point seatbelt.  This is a clear example of a case where the standard ‘male’ model is assumed to cover all situations (although I presume there have been separate studies on children of different ages and sizes; this wasn’t mentioned), and that simply isn’t adequate.  Despite the obvious shortcomings, US law isn’t requiring any changes until 2011 to ensure the safety of pregnant women is factored in to safety design.  Another obvious example, that is probably more familiar to readers, is the case of symptoms associated with incipient heart attacks in men and women. These present differently. Since doctors are not always trained to recognize these differences, and alert to the variety in symptoms and the location of where pain is felt, many people are not given the appropriate treatment in time.  Response to drugs may also be different, which has significant implications for drug trial design.  All these sorts of effects Londa referred to as requiring ‘gendered innovation’ and this has become a major theme of her team at Stanford,

For my own talk I was originally given a title of  ‘Science and Gender in Academia – a Reflection of Society’, but I felt completely ill-qualified to discuss this and chose to concentrate not on the social or sociological but on the practical and pragmatic steps I am familiar with both locally, through WiSETI, and nationally through the Athena Forum.  However I began with setting this work in the context of the so-called leaky pipeline, and this was where there was most overlap with Londa’s talk.  Issues such as unconscious bias and stereotyping – as manifest in how people (male and female) evaluate CV’s, write reference letters, or judge people at interview –  are so prevalent within our culture we are going to have to work incredibly hard to overcome this. I said that I would like to see senior managers to take some of Project Implicit’s tests – I have mentioned this Project before here – so that they are at least aware of the baggage they, and all of us, carry into the selection of candidates for instance.  We also need to consider the obstacles female scientists may face due to their low numbers, such as isolation, lack of mentors and lack of role models.  However, rather than rehearse the whole of my talk I attach as a separate page a first draft of the paper that will be submitted to the proceedings of this meeting (and the accompanying powerpoint presentation).  This manuscript will be updated in the light of the discussions over the next 24 hours, so should not be considered as the finished article.

I am particularly looking forward to the panel discussion tonight, which will feature Evelyn Fox Keller in (I presume) her role as author of Reflections on Gender and Science, rather than as the mathematical biologist and author of Making Sense of Life I discussed in my last post.  The Discussion is entitled ‘Will Science become Feminine?’. Should be interesting!

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

‘Every Other Thursday’ – Do Support Groups Support?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 21, 2010

Every Other Thursday is a book about a woman’s self help group in California, which has attempted to address the problem of where academic women might find support. Founded on the precepts of radical psychiatry, the group gathers every other week with a structured format: time is set aside for each member to discuss issues in her life, and in a supportive environment she is encouraged to express her emotions.  I personally did not find the book, which I read a while back, described a solution to the issue of support that I thought would work for me; it was too structured and required a time commitment I could not imagine making.  Nevertheless I am reminded about this book, by two very different blogposts: one from Sylvia McLain which expresses some scepticism and ambivalence about women’s groups; and one from YoungFemaleScientist which expresses frustration at the general uselessness of any advice she got, from women or men, to specific problems she faced.  This post is, if you like, a downbeat counterpart to my upbeat assessment in the wake of the Athena Swan awards .

That particular post is about how institutions are changing their internal procedures and cultures, seeming to head in the right direction even if perhaps too slowly. Nevertheless there is a big gap between policies being decreed from on high, the sort of actions that underpin an Athena Swan award, and what it actually feels like for the individual scientist struggling with research not going to plan and being unsupported by those around – or worse, being actively denigrated in the subtle drip-drip way that such denigration usually manifests itself as.  I would not like it thought that I don’t recognize such problems exist. Far from it. Indeed, one of my motivations for starting this blog came from a younger (female) colleague in Cambridge saying to me in surprise at some point in our discussions  ‘You mean this happened to you too!’. No one should believe people who have made their way up through the hierarchy successfully have done so without hassle, misery and/or setbacks. That remark I suspect applies equally to men and women, although the form the knocks may have taken probably differ.   I would hazard a guess that relatively few men have been sexually propositioned at conferences.  I would also suspect that at least half,  and possibly nearer 100% of women have been. I should hasten to add this is an unscientific comment, as I have no statistics to back up either of those statements.  I merely know that leery drunken males can often be found at the conference bar.

YoungFemaleScientist clearly feels she rarely receives useful advice or even apparent empathy from those she turns to. She translates this as a lack of caring, and that probably isn’t true. As a professor I find it hard to strike the right balance between empathy and self-disclosure. With friends there is an ongoing bond of trust, between work colleagues – particularly of different seniority – this is unlikely to be the case. If a student comes along complaining of sexual harassment, would it be reasonable, helpful or even wise for a professor to say ‘this happened to me too’. It could come across as trivializing the incident (ie this happens to everyone so put up and shut up), or irrelevant (it happened 10 years ago and times change), or even find its way round the department at the speed of light. But if the professor stays detached then it may look like the uncaring response that is being complained about by YoungFemaleScientist. Of course, if there are simple solutions people probably will help: a word in the ear of the relevant offender might solve the problem without a formal complaint, but I fear rarely so. (Lest it be thought that I am trying to sweep things under the carpet, let me say that any clear case of harassment should always be reported.  The trouble is so many – the unwanted compliments on dress or appearance, the frequent touch on the arm, regular innuendo – are ambiguous enough not to be easily dealt with.)

And this is where I differ from Sylvia McLain.  Asking for help from senior colleagues is always likely to introduce discomfort of this sort. Practical tips of course should be sought: how do I write a grant? Should I submit a poster abstract to this conference? What funding is available in my field? How can I improve my CV? Would it be wise for me to take this position? Or accept this new responsibility? All these sorts of questions can and should be asked of anyone and everyone who might be able to help. But support groups of essentially one’s peers, formal or informal, or simply a supportive group of individual friends, are more likely to be a better resource for the vexed question of how to cope with everyday fraught situations: there will be no black and white answers and discussion should be the name of the game to tease out strategies that work for a given situation. In my experience these helpful friends and colleagues most certainly don’t need to be in my field (sadly lacking in women in any case, though these supporters don’t need to be female), since so often the problems are basically generic though nuanced by the local environment.

Let me describe a generic problem which bugs most women above a certain rank: how to make your voice ‘heard’ on committees for which the women are in a minority. The scenario runs like this. You rise through the system until you are asked to sit on some committee with teeth. First you have to gain enough confidence to open your mouth at all, and when you (finally) do offer some wise words, maybe after attending several meetings, no one appears to take your contribution on board. Shortly afterwards an (almost invariably) male colleague says very much the same thing and everyone gets very enthusiastic, indicates how insightful this is, what a splendid idea, just what’s needed etc. Nearly every woman I know has had this happen to them, and often not just at the start of their ‘committee career’ but time and time again. I would be interested to know if men feel this happens to them too; no male has ever mentioned it to me, but then why should they?

So what is the solution? I have to say I wish I knew. Someone once suggested I should have voice-coaching to train myself to lower my voice, because then I would sound more like the majority males. I did not follow up on this and, as I have argued before here, that implies that I, the woman, am the problem rather than those listening. Another possibility would be to join the school of thought that thinks they will be heard if they get red in the face and thump the table; also not an attractive proposition to many. Saying ‘excuse me, I just said that’ may be justified but I doubt if it would be productive and on the contrary would tend to make one look merely petty.  I suspect, as with the narrative about pulling a committee chair up when behaving inappropriately described here, having allies (probably male) on the committee who can say ‘but Athene just said that’ might be helpful, but is certainly not always viable or indeed probable.  It is a frustrating problem but, as I say, may not be the sole province of women.

At the end of the day problems ranging from coping with sexual harassment to managing to get listened to at committees are all about us as individuals. What works for me may not work for you. Likewise, what support works for me may also be very different from what others need. We each come to any situation with our own previous baggage, coloured by our upbringing, education and whatever good or bad experiences we have encountered en route. But support groups and individual friends are a vital resource to help one survive, progress and (one hopes) ultimately thrive.

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

First, tentative steps

Posted by Athene Donald on August 22, 2010

Welcome! I aim to use this site to post thoughts on work at the outer reaches of physics where it meets biology, and the challenges of working at that interface; some of my ideas and experiences as a senior woman physicist plus my reactions to discussions around this topic, and general initiatives in this area; and reactions to science policy, funding etc.  So it will be a miscellaneous collection.  I should stress that anything I post here is written in a private capacity, and does not necessarily reflect the views of any of the bodies/committees I am involved with, though those experiences may inform or provoke my comments.  This site is currently very much work in progress. But I want to get my first thoughts out there while I continue to refine the appearance of this site. Expect glitches.

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