By Daniel Tarade
On April 18, 2019, the Department of Laboratory of Medicine and Pathobiology held its annual graduate research conference. It is a day for Masters and PhD students to share their research with faculty and fellow trainees, fuelled by caffeine in the morning and a desire for free alcohol in the evening. Most trainees are tasked with making a poster and presenting to small crowds of passersby. This year, however, five students were selected to deliver oral talks to the entire congregation. Many of us in the audience were shocked when all five selected trainees were men. Is this another example of sexism in science or the fair result of meritocracy? Should we be angry at the administration? Most importantly, is there anything that we can do differently?
Before we discuss the present year, I would like to provide a context. The discipline of science has been exclusionary for many years. Science was the domain of rich white men, with women, people of colour, and the poor not thought to have the intelligence necessary for scientific work. Structural discrimination maintained the homogeneity of science. For example, Oxford University only began conferring degrees unto women in 1920 and eliminated a quota limiting the number of women students in 1957. Marie Curie had to attend a secret university, as women were explicitly banned from attending post-secondary school in her native Poland. The breeding ground of scientific breakthroughs, universities nonetheless had to be reformed in order to admit oppressed people. Some people are satisfied in thinking that, as long as discriminatory rules and laws have been overthrown, women and their allies have no reason to claim that sexism still exists within science. However, sexism does not have to be institutional. Women are more likely to be sexually harassed, mistreated on the basis of their sex, and isolated from their peers. These forms of sexism can fester for a long time. After all, the people who worked for so long under institutionalized sexism are still working, mentoring young people and influencing their career trajectories. One oft-discussed case is of James Watson, a co-discoverer of the double-helical DNA structure. In his own memoir, James Watson makes numerous sexist remarks about their colleague Rosalind Franklin (In my used copy, it was easy to find these examples as the previous owner had them underlined). James Watson is still alive and continues to promote racist ideas.
What is the situation on University campuses today? Do we live in a post-sexist world? If there were no systemic barriers in place that impeded women in their scientific career path, one might expect that there would be a roughly equal number of female faculty members. In the Faculty of Medicine, to which I belong, there were 95 male and 58 female faculty in September 2016. It is even worse in Applied Science & Engineering (181 vs. 44). There are several ways to interpret this data. Maybe women are not as interested in science. Perhaps women are not as good at science. I don’t buy these arguments. First, at the undergraduate level, female enrollment in the Faculty of Medicine was exactly 50% in 2017. This suggests that women are just as interested in medical science as men. Second, the enrollment of women at the graduate level in the Faculty of Medicine was even higher at 62% in 2017. Clearly, women are interested in and capable of succeeding at science. The alternative interpretation, that there are barriers in place, is one that we need to honestly engage with if we are to empower all people in society.
What might be the barriers that might prevent a woman from pursuing academia? One obvious place to look is the pressure to have a family. Science, as it is currently structured, is hyper-competitive with the number of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows vastly exceeding the number of new academic positions. The bench mark for being a competitive candidate keeps increasing. For women who want or feel an obligation to raise a family and would need to take maternity leave, an uphill battle becomes even more daunting. Nearly half of US women leave a full-time science position after their first child while only a quarter of men do so. I do not want to claim that women cannot be successful in both having children during their scientific training and later obtaining faculty positions, but that this is one barrier that does not affect both sexes equally.
Hiring committees. Where to even begin about hiring committees. It’s complicated. Remember that, historically, all faculty were men and that, even today, most of the senior faculty are men. Inevitably, a woman is more likely than not to face a group dominated by men. Are there explicit rules discriminating against hiring a woman? Most likely not. However, people are unconsciously drawn to people like themselves. I was once told by a senior faculty member that what they look for is someone they would enjoy spending time with. Obviously, someone you “would enjoy spending time with” can be influenced by gender, race, sexual orientation, and class. Thus, the hiring committee has been a battle ground in the fight against underrepresentation of women in science. Strange observations have been made. When researchers studied how the increased presence of women on hiring committees may affect outcomes, they actually found a bias against women in some cases. This somewhat paradoxical result has been thought to arise from the increased presence of women on the hiring committee strengthening male identity and lessening the commitment of men to gender equality. Similarly, a mandate requiring gender balance on hiring committees at publicly-funded French universities is estimated to have resulted in 38% fewer women being hired! The reason? It is suggested that the reduced hiring of women is backlash from men angry at the policy. Beware of simple solutions.
Let’s return to the University of Toronto. In a major research institution, I have heard stories of professors sleeping with female trainees, espousing Islamophobia, and inquiring into the sexual history of female trainees. Also emotional abuse. All implicated professors are still working with young trainees. This is not a case of a few bad apples but a system that does not prioritize a safe and respectful training environment. This is the backdrop for what occurred at our annual graduate research conference. Why were only men afforded the opportunity to present their research to the entire department? We were told that the submissions were blinded. That is important. It helps avoid conscious and unconscious biases on the bias of gender and race, like when an audit revealed that white males were more likely to hear a response from a potential PhD supervisor than white females or non-white individuals. However, there was a barrier in place. To be considered for an oral talk, the trainee had to opt-in. Tick off a box. A requirement so innocuous ultimately lead to 75% of men wanting to be considered and only 25% of women. This despite a 50/50 split of men and women in the department. Why?
Researchers, like Deborah Tannen, have extensively explored how conversational styles differ along lines of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. It has been repeatedly found that women participate less often in the classroom. An article[i] published by Deborah Tannen, Shari Kendall, and Carolyn Temple Adger, published 1997, is still remarkably relevant;
First, classroom discussions entail putting oneself forward in front of a large group of people and being judged based on verbal display. Second, students may have different ethics of participation. Many men who speak freely in class assume that it is their job to think of contributions and to try to get the floor to express them, whereas many women monitor their participation not only to get the floor but also to avoid getting it too often, so as not to appear aggressive or overbearing. Those who speak freely may assume that less talkative students have nothing to say, and those who rein themselves in may assume that the talkative students are taking more than their share of class time. Third, our educational system is based on the assumption that learning occurs best in a public debate format by which individuals express ideas in the most absolute form possible, followed by argument and challenge. [Researcher] Ong demonstrates that this ritual opposition is more reflective of male culture, experience, and training than of female.
In our departmental seminars, questions from the audience are most often asked by men. A female friend of mine described how judgemental the environment feels; they want to ask a question but lack the confidence. What becomes more frustrating, for them, is the realization that confidence has to be built. It seems, however, that society does a better job of building up the confidence of men and not women, on the whole and for the most part. This is not only on display at our tiny departmental research conference. Women apply for tenure-track positions at a far lower rate than men, despite performing equally well once hired.[ii] Women, more often than men, select against themselves. But the story does not stop there. Whether or not ‘confidence’ is biological or acquired, is it fair to select candidates on the basis of such a trait in the first place? Does a person need to be confident in order to be a good scientist? When I had a conversation with the graduate co-ordinator of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology, I offered my admittedly-male perspective on the lack of female speakers. Remove the opt-in criterion. If the lack of representation emerges from stochastic differences in confidence, simply evaluate all applications in a blinded manner and then offer a talk to those selected. Rather than asking someone if they are good enough, tell them they are good enough. Ask about giving a talk later.
Discrimination in the sciences exists. Here, I specifically discuss women but I could have just as easily written about race, disability, and class. Discrimination was institutionalized within research centres. Even today, biases exist and intersect with broader discrimination in society. The unequal burden placed on women to rear children. The different ways in which boys and girls are taught in schools. Arbitrary standards in hiring practices collide with these differences to precipitate fewer women being afforded the opportunity to live and work as scientists.
[i] Tannen, D., Kendall, S., & Adger, C. T. (1997). Conversational patterns across gender, class, and ethnicity: Implications for classroom discourse. In Oral discourse and education (pp. 75-85). Springer, Dordrecht.
[ii] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2: 1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(17), 5360-5365.