Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Grad school, exploitation, and gender: the discussion continues

Article first published in The California Tech on March 9, 2015


Grad school, exploitation, and gender: the discussion continues

Casey Handmer


After last week's article was published, more women came forward to relate their experiences. Like, Chloe, Cynthia-Rose, Lilly, and Patricia, Jessica* has experienced forms of sexism throughout her time in academia. Learning what is normal and what is acceptable doesn't happen overnight. Jessica relates, "At the first conference I ever went to, when I was a 21-year-old undergraduate, the head of the [experiment], who was engaged and had a newborn, was trying to buy me drinks all night and was saying inappropriate things, like 'Global warming is really the fault of women like you, because you're so hot men will fly anywhere to have sex with you.' It seems dumb now, but I was terrified. I thought it was my fault because I was wearing a dress and heels and as a [naive] undergrad, I didn't know what to do. One of the grad students saw what was going on and rescued me. He told the head of the collaboration, who pulled me aside to ask what had happened. He assured me, saying, 'This is not okay,' and the guy ended up being put into mandatory sexual harassment training. But at 21, I was completely mortified. I never told my [then] adviser because I thought if he knew, he'd think it was my fault and ban me from conferences."

In addition to contending with trouble at conferences and not trusting her adviser to back her up, Jessica's work environment was also compromised by a grad student who shared the same adviser and was peripherally related to her research. "[My soon-to-be-ex] boyfriend moved [permanently] to Massachusetts. Every single weekly pub trip after my ex had left, this grad student [in my lab] was coming onto me, and not gently: he was putting his hand on my leg. I brushed him off every week. [The morning after the yearly Christmas party, I received] an email from him. I must have told him to [go away in no uncertain terms], because it said 'You would be nowhere without me. Who do you think you are? You know nothing. You can't do research without other people.'" As though, even if that were true, Jessica would somehow owe them anything. Nevertheless, in the cold light of dawn, "I apologized, 'You know I'm sorry if I offended you in some way,' and he responded, 'I now have more respect for you.' I never told anyone about it, especially not our shared adviser, because I thought it would be my word against his. I was still super naive, and thought it was somehow my fault. Maybe I should have gone along with it? How messed up is it, that as a 21-year-old I'm debating sleeping with quasi-collaborators so they don't verbally harass me."


Jessica's experience with such blatantly coercive behavior has shaped the way she approached grad school where, like Cynthia-Rose, the sexism she experienced has predominantly taken the form of marginalization, mocking, and erasure. It is clear that experiences fall along a continuum from illegal to unethical to relatively banal, but all manifestations of gender discrimination cause harm and are indicative of serious structural issues in the workplace that negatively affect people of all genders.


It is important to note that these experiences are not universal, nor even particularly common, at Caltech. Two of the women with whom I spoke had never experienced sexism in the workplace and were highly complimentary of Caltech's relatively progressive culture. Beca, who left the Ph.D. program after two years, said, "Most of the issue for me personally was that academic research, especially in my field, wasn't a good fit for me from the beginning, and it took me a very long time to consciously realize it. My [technical] parents encouraged me to go into a technical field, and my mother in particular is extremely passionate about encouraging young women to go into math and physics [and] I think that's wonderful. At Caltech, my motivation just plummeted. I felt like I absolutely didn't belong there, and I started having severe anxiety just from being in classes. I felt like I was stuck in this competitive, workaholic environment. I wondered if it was related to the group I was in, so I changed groups. That didn't help. Long story short, I happily left grad school. I don't blame Caltech for my early departure at all. Academic research was not something I wanted to be doing, and I'm happy I realized that before spending more than two years there." Beca's disillusionment with academia was not related to a gendered experience, though imposter syndrome, a relentless anxiety derived from personal denial of admission legitimacy, generally seems to affect women more than men.


Stacie, who completed her studies and now has an excellent job in industry, said, "I had no problems with all the gender stuff at Caltech. I felt supported, non-discriminated, and honestly content about that stuff the whole time. [That said,] imposter syndrome is completely real. I think every single one of my friends at Caltech (minus a few) was seeing a psychologist while attending. I, too, felt like I constantly didn't belong and now I wonder if it is manifested into my current position in industry. [I'm] not quite sure if it will ever go away. I wouldn't have traded my experience at Caltech for the world. I truly enjoyed all the people, mentors, students, and professors who I interacted with. They are some of the kindest, most intelligent people I've ever met."


The majority of cases of adviser-student relationships hurting women come down to either sexist attitudes prevalent in older advisers, or well-intentioned people inadvertently pushing all the wrong buttons. For many advisers, their only model student-advisor relationships comes from their own, often highly dysfunctional, academic history. How can we clear the roadblocks to help advisers help their students? Chloe suggested, "It's hard [to adversarially confront professors] because they're indestructible. They cannot be threatened except with shame. I don't think it exists, but we could all benefit from lessons for faculty on management of groups and people. How [do you] make sure a working environment is a comfortable, happy and productive place? Advisers in academia get zero management training. Eventually, they learn, but being alone makes for plenty of mistakes [and] undue harm."


One final key roadblock that women face in STEM is perceptions regarding family, which becomes a bigger concern as students enter their late 20s. What surprised me during my conversations was not a recognition that family life and academia are broadly incompatible, but that that was just the way things were. The Nordic countries have highly progressive family-leave regulations, and have seen vastly improved gender equality in the workplace. Those laws are not present in California, and thus compliance at Caltech, even if it were a nice idea, is not required. I know of a case where a Caltech professor, expecting x units of labor per grad student stipend, stonewalled female students who had had children until they were forced to switch labs to make room for new, more productive students.


Beca, who left the Ph.D. program for non-family reasons, nonetheless recognized family as a major challenge to an academic career. "The experience of being in grad school and getting a peek into academia just reinforced my decision to leave. I originally thought I'd like to become a professor, and I realized over time how tough that path must be on relationships. You move every few years for postdocs and having to deal with a two-body problem sounded like a special kind of hell. Add to that the idea of trying to achieve enough to secure tenure when you're at the age where you might like to start a family. It's simply not the lifestyle I want. I highly prioritize work-life balance and relationships over career ambition, and I didn't see that as compatible with academia."


Lilly added, "Many marriages end at Caltech. I personally know two men whose wives left them. Families have been around for a while, but there's an official family policy now, as of 2012, in compliance with federal law on family leave."


In these instances, academia's male-centric, traditional inflexibility with regard to family life continues to harm people of all genders. As a small, well-funded and leading institution, Caltech has a golden opportunity to lead by example, to show how science should be done in the 21st century, without waiting for eventual but inevitable legal compulsion.


For the women I spoke with, academia seemed a fixed constant. You either adapt or you leave. Cynthia-Rose and Patricia agreed that women are socially conditioned to be polite and to not rock the boat. Cynthia-Rose said, "I knew I wasn't going to be a professor. I knew I didn't have the drive, didn't enjoy coming up with big scientific questions, figuring out ways to solve questions, writing grants. Sexism is extant in academia and it's not going away anytime soon. Grad students are seen as slave labor; they don't have a union. We'll be taken advantage of until there are no more grad students."


Patricia, whose office mate eventually became aware of these issues, said, "It's not my personality to be confrontational [but] people can tell I'm pissed off, even if I don't like talking about it. Since everyone's going to know, I need to say something. What people said or thought, or their intentions, doesn't matter; what matters is how I feel about it. Don't make it about them; it's about how it's experienced. Sexism is an experienced, felt thing [and] it's more constructive to talk about it. You can be careful about how you say it, but you're okay to feel that; no one can tell you that it's wrong or bad. If you feel bad, say something about it. It's part of participating in a shared workplace. You shouldn't have to grit your teeth and deal with it. Even if the gender ratio is 50-50, if women hate being there it doesn't solve the problem."


All my interlocutors were happy to recount their experiences, but most were more comfortable with blaming themselves than being assertive about blaming others, even when that blame was obviously warranted. Perhaps, given the lack of empowerment to do much about extrinsic gender-specific challenges, internalizing the struggle is a survival strategy. Chloe, who has flourished at Caltech in spite of enduring the most overt harassment of any of the women with whom I spoke, ended our conversation with "Maybe there's something wrong with me."


*All names have been changed.

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