An analytical approach to unconscious gender bias

No two graduate school experiences have ever been, nor ever will be the same from survivor to survivor. Looking past the fact that individuals have unique responses to any situation, lack of consistency across graduate school experiences is inherent to the research funding scheme at universities. Thus, grant obtaining PIs hold close to complete autonomy over the lives of their graduate students.

Recently, our campus’s Women in Science and Engineering group conducted a very thought-provoking discussion around “what the ideal student looked like” to science faculty based on our own experiences.  Collectively, we agreed that professors value: putting research above all else, self-motivation, a strong work ethic, a high tolerance for neglect (my favorite contribution from someone in the group), assertiveness, confidence, efficiency, self-serving/promotion, leadership skills, intimately familiar with the literature (all your meals are spent reading ASAPS, right?).

We then compiled a list of resources that our advisors possess and can offer to us: mentorship, projects, publications/authorship, undergrads (a blessing or a curse), awards and graduation. Logically, professors can then bestow these gifts on students as they please, likely on persons displaying these “ideal” qualities.

In terms of gender, we identified a couple of characteristics, assertiveness and self-promotion, which seemed to be traits acceptable in men, yet people felt uncomfortable when women displayed the same characteristics. Some even view this negatively. I thought this served as a brilliant exercise to identify potential subtle bias against women in science.  It allowed us to synthesize general cultural sentiments into very well-defined arguments with possible outcomes. My friend Debbie once told me that naming something is a powerful thing, and is especially helpful when engaging in the unconscious gender bias debate. In some situations, I have encountered varying amounts of resistance, either in 1) defensiveness (unfortunate because an accusation is not my goal) or 2) requests for concrete, detailed and reproducible proof of said bias (typical scientist’s reaction to any debate, well, perhaps not the latter given the state of supporting infos, am I right Blog-syn?)

I think being able to recognize and articulate issues that women face in a factual, logical manner is really critical to garner active support. The challenge is that some of the factors that contribute to a “chilly” atmosphere for women may be subtle social cues and perceptions (from either party, i.e., stereotype threat), which are tough to establish.*

Finally, I enjoyed that the session concluded not with cookie-cutter answers but with probing questions that I think would be valuable for any graduate student to ask themselves.  What resources do I need to be successful, am I getting these resources, and what can I do about it? Once you’ve pinpointed these things, you may be able to ask your PI what they want to see from you in order for you to receive these resources.


*[Notice I mention nothing about babies and women in science.  While certainly valid, that topic has been done to death so I’d rather discuss in the more nebulous reasons behind the gender gap.]


1 thought on “An analytical approach to unconscious gender bias

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