Thursday, May 29, 2014

"This is a man's world"... Reflections of the Symposium for Women Entering Ecology and Evolution Today

One of the highlights of the Genomes to Biomes Conference was the 6th Symposium for Women Entering Ecology and Evolution Today (SWEEET-ness).

On a personal and professional level, I am all about encouraging anyone to pursue their dreams, to achieve their highest potential. I want to inspire others to be curious, to discover, and to encourage others to do the same. Perhaps it is because I am from Mexico, and grew up in the United States, that I am particularly keen on encouraging minorities in education and in science. Yet while women are not a minority in our society (in fact, human sex ratio allocation slightly favors women), they are a minority in science. In fact, while women are a majority in biological sciences at the undergraduate level, their representation in the field becomes a minority at the PhD level and continues to decline dramatically through increasing degrees of seniority in academia, from post-docs to associate and full professors. That's not right, and I hope to be a part of a cultural movement that changes things. For this reason, I attended to SWEEET symposium, as both a scientist, as a minority, and as a man.

It was not surprising to me that I, a man, was a minority as this symposium. To be honest, I was not sure if I should attend, not because I thought it would be awkward for me (anyone who knows me knows full well that I am not in the least discouraged by a room full of intelligent women), but because I did not want to affect the internal dynamic of a symposium for women in science, nor to take the place of a women interested in attending if there was limitations on the capacity of people that could register for this symposium. However, the moment I walked in the door, I was set at ease because of the women that I knew at that conference, both students and professors, friends and colleagues that I respect and admire.

The first part of the symposium was a talk given by a (male) researcher who studies why women are minorities in science, particularly in engineering, and why they are discouraged from careers in science. A major issue he addressed was the response to the "threat of stereotypes" where women who are in a work environment where they feel they are "dominated," consistently under-perform compared to control groups, groups of women that are not in a male "dominated" environment. This was tested by using male actors who were told to act "dominant' or "not dominant" when given an engineering problem they had to solve in collaboration with a woman test subject. After the exercise, these second year female engineering students were given a challenging test, which is actually the test to get a license in engineering. In this test, women who were in a "dominating" environment scored significantly less than women that were not in a dominating environment. An interesting point is that men also underperform in female dominated fields such as nursing. Thus, an important issue to first address is the intra-personal dynamics of "dominance" in the work environment, especially male dominated careers in academia.

In response to this talk, a critical point was brought up by McGill professor, Dr. Catherine Potvin (who also gave a lecture at the SWEEET) who said that part of the problem is how women interpret, or respond to, male behavior that they think is "dominating" or "sexist." This an important point, as the first lecture stressed how women that perceive being "dominated" in a sexist work environment underperform. Thus, she considers that part of the problem is that women often consider male behavior sexist, aggressive, or even harassing, when in fact, it is the meant to be the contrary, complimentary. She commented that she likes being complimented, and that women should not take compliments on their looks as something negative, but as something positive. She said that in her many years working as a scientist in Latin America, which is known to have a very sexist "macho" dominated society, she never felt that men were "dominating," nor did she ever feel belittled or harassed. In fact, she said that she had felt much more negatively about her interactions with males in academia in English-speaking universities than anywhere else. However, she also stressed that she has had wonderful allies in her career at McGill, men that have encouraged her to fight for professional equality and that have done even more than she said she could do for herself in promoting her and her excellence in science, for recognition of her achievements.

So what are potential solutions to this disparity in the demographic representation of women in science and inequalities in salary? One of the main points was that women need to "self-promote." Women need to be more confident that they are capable and qualified for positions that they apply for. This, in turn, would allow them to be more aggressive or assertive when they are in the process of negotiating for an academic position. This, would in turn, help to close the wage gap between men and women in science and other professional careers.

I also consider that a major issue that discourages women in science is the belief that for women need to act more like men to succeed in academia, or any other career where males are the majority. While I think that women need to be treated fairly and with respect on a personal and professional level, they should not be expected to think, or act like their male counterparts. Instead, they should be encouraged to think and act like women, especially in "male-dominated" careers because of what they can bring to the table, something new, a new perspective, a new way of doing things, an alternative to the way things are. 

This may seem obvious, but in my own experience, I have met fellow graduate students in both the humanities and in natural science that are told by female advisors to act more like men, to be less feminine, to wear less makeup, to focus less on their looks, on wearing makeup and shopping, and focus more on their work. I have heard of advisors telling female students that they would be taken more seriously if they were less feminine. Thus, I think that the culture in academia needs to change. Men need to be more conscientious of how their behavior in the work-place can affect women, but women need to also realize that what makes then different to men should not be hidden or suppressed, but should be both celebrated and respected, both inside and outside of the academic environment.

"So what can men do?" I asked?

"Men can be powerful allies," said Dr. Alison Derry at the social mixer later that night. She stressed how grateful she is to have had great men in her life, from her father, to her husband, to her male colleagues that have encouraged her and supported her throughout her career. She also said she has had great men who have chaired the department and have been understanding of her and her responsibilities as a mother. This feeling was also shared by Dr. Potvin. Men that are not sexist, said Dr. Potvin at the symposium's question-and-answer panel discussion, need to take the place of sexist men, especially in positions where they can and do dominate the social environment and where they can actively discourage or suppress women in a professional environment.

My little sister, Julia, just graduated high school today and will be attending the University of California, Santa Cruz, to study biology. For Julia, and for all women in science, I wish you the very best, and I hope you know that you can count on me to be your ally. And if I pay you a compliment, please don't take it the wrong way. You rock!


  1. With all my respects, I think this article suffers from the same problem as society: we think sexism is little but over and has a minor role on the problem, we flip the blame on women who simply are perceiving things wrong, and we keep justifying the stereotype of masculine vs feminine ways of thinking... not to mention that the discussion on the benefits of physical compliments is completely out of place in an intellectual field. Perhaps instead of looking at what problems women have with science, we should be more self-critical and ask what problems a male-dominated field has with women. Sorry, but this article just seemed like an evasion of male responsibility.

  2. Kudos to you for attending the SWEEET symposium! I think Andres correctly assessed your piece however. You’ve sidestepped some of the larger issues of why women’s achievements are diminished when compared to that of their male counterparts. Or maybe you’ve even provided insight by way of demonstration: the distraction with issues of our appearances nudges perpetually to the forefront. I do think it's great that you asked what men can do and promoting your female cohort counts you among the allies. Future goals can be to compliment their achievements over their cuteness. For instance, you can make your colleagues aware that there is bias in publication acceptance rates of male and female authors ( This will inevitably lead to females, on average, having less fodder to self-promote and advocating for double-blind review may be one thing males can do towards addressing these biases.

  3. At the recent #ClimateChange #AdaptationFutures conference in Brazil, which was highly international & interdisciplinary, a Colombian hydrology engineer commented in a session discussing the Science Policy interface that "scientists are arrogant and policy makers are ignorant" are attitudes often found at the heart of the barriers in this space.
    Bottom line is that we now have a lot of recent peer-reviewed lit on the complex social dynamics underlying misogyny & sexist attitudes not only in STEM but in Political Sci & Philosophy, fir example. The post author & commenters shld do some extra-curricular reading of this lit.
    As well, while it's well to remember that we all have our personal stories, that we need to focus on the we, not the me, here: the we being, for me, the younger gen of women in STEM, especially those from vis. minorities.

  4. As one of the organizers of SWEEET, I am very glad to hear that Victor Frankel found it to be a welcoming environment and a worthwhile symposium. That said, I hope readers won’t assume Victor’s conclusions should be read in anyway as the take-home message of SWEEET 2014. His comment that ‘there were some real cuties there...’, to echo earlier commenters, highlights one of the major problems that was actually raised by our first speaker, Steve Spencer, that being that, focusing on women’s appearances and sex appeal undermines their ability to feel welcome and (according to Dr. Spencer's research) can impede their ability to achieve their full potential in a working environment. Although it is true that Dr. Potvin raised the important point that not all women feel undermined by such remarks/behaviours, the research suggests that on the whole, it can lead to women under performing at key scientific/academic tasks, such as exams. The conservative approach for a concerned citizen would be to assume that such remarks and behaviours are not helping us achieve equality in science. Furthermore, the suggestion that one of the main points of the symposium is that women need to ‘self-promote’, also seems to be taken out of context. While one of our speakers (Dr. Yolanda Morbey) did mention that she felt self-promotion could be an important way to be a self-advocate, both her and Dr. Potvin expressed being uncomfortable and avoiding self-promotion themselves. I do not remember anyone suggesting or presenting any research to support Mr. Frankel’s conjecture that self-promotion would " help to close the wage gap between men and women in science and other professional careers”. I applaud Mr. Frankel for asking what men can do, and for stating that men need to be more conscientious of how their behavior in the work-place can affect women. As a final point, SWEEET recognizes that the women in science landscape is complex and that there are no easy solutions. Each year we address a different theme in our attempt to help women navigate the various issues they may encounter. Ultimately, we hope that our symposium will not just give women tools but will also help 'change the maze'. -Risa Sargent

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  6. Thank you for your comments and opinions on my latest blog entry. I would first like to humbly apologize for some of my comments on the previous blog post that were clearly inappropriate and unprofessional. I explicitly deleted a comment where I commented that women at the symposia were "cute." I realize now that it was unprofessional and actually reflected a sexist attitude that I deeply regret.

    I would now like to address some of the comments that have been made regarding my blogpost on the SWEET symposium.

    An important point that was discussed at length is the need to recognize personal and institutional factors that reinforce academia as being a “male-dominated” environment. As I wrote in the blog, I believe that these patterns are reinforced both by men and women when double-standards are set regarding how men and women should act and present themselves in a professional setting. I agree that the blame should not be put on women for the disparity between men and women in both professional and social environments. However, I found it interesting, and worth discussing, that at the conference, women had different opinions on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior from their male counterparts. This difference of opinions demonstrates that the reactions that we have to the actions and perceived attitudes of those around us is inherently subjective. This, in no way, was meant to push the blame on women for discrimination and inequality in and outside of academia. I think that this dynamic, however, underscores the need for effective communication and the establishment of clear boundaries regarding was is acceptable and unacceptable in a professional setting, and this should apply to interactions between and within genders, cultures and ethnicities. These “ground-rules” will likely vary in different settings and with different people, but the point I want to stress is that neither men nor women should be discouraged from communicating their views and should be encouraged to work with their colleagues to promote a working environment that is respectful of all parties. It is important to note, however, that those that feel discriminated against or disrespected professionally may not feel comfortable voicing their opinions for fear of being reprimanded or further antagonized for voicing these concerns. It is therefore critical for all of us to be aware that sexism and discrimination is pervasive in our society, and that we should not be silent when we know that it negatively affects us and those around us.

    Another important point is that we should actively try to recognize the personal and institutional biases that work against women and other minorities in and outside of academia. It is critical to recognize these biases in order to work toward solutions that address the disparities between men and women in representation in academia, in their salaries and in the acceptance rate of submissions in peer review. In the latter case, one commenter suggested a double-blind process of submission / review, which would eliminate biases against women in the process of peer-review for publication. This seems like a very direct and effective method to address potential biases in editorial decisions on publications, yet to really address the gender inequalities in academia, major changes need to occur in our ways of thinking, our ways of acting, and our ways of treating each other.

    I hope that we can continue to communicate and share ways in which we can all encourage under-represented minorities in science.

  7. As a last point, I would like to encourage others that attended this conference to comment on other points that I did not elaborate on in this blog post. It has been brought to my attention that some of the points that I discussed on the blog completely dismissed other important things that were discussed at the blog. I recognize this, and hoped to simply blog on personal reflections as one of the only men at this symposium. In doing so, I exhibited sexist behaviors, consciously or unconsciousexist behaviors, as I see the processes of attending this symposia, in talking to women about equality in academia, and even through the response to commentaries on this blog, as ways to reflect on my own attitude and behavior with the goal of addressing these behaviors to allow me to be a better person, and a better ally to underrepresented people in science. Thank you again for your insights ad for helping me to reflect and grow from this experience. Most sincerely, Victor M. Frankel.

  8. [Disclosure: Like Risa, I'm one of the organizers of SWEEET. Victor is also a good friend.]

    Hi everyone, thank you for the enriching commentary about such important subjects. Victor, I'm glad you participated in SWEEET and I thank you for blogging about your experience as well as your follow-up comments (the latter can be a difficult thing to do). As a friend, I know you try to be conscious of explicit bias against minorities of various kinds; I appreciate such allies, they are a tremendously important part of identifying and rectifying systemic prejudice. That being said, I caution against inadvertently "mansplaining" by describing what women experience w.r.t. to harassment or bias. I agree that no one should be discouraged from communicating the boundaries they feel are appropriate; but there's frequently a power dynamic that makes such communication difficult, be it formalized within an institutional hierarchy or socialized amongst peers.

    I encourage you and others to read about recent online movements like #YesAllWomen, which demonstrates that all - or a great majority - of women experience explicit and implicit harassment and bias throughout their lives. (The hashtag arose following recent mass shooting in California but has come to represent widespread misogyny.) A good article to read is Slate's "Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny": Another article is more about the hashtag#NotAllMen, where the article focuses on how people (mostly men) derail women discussing or sharing such stories: And finally, in my litany of resources, both Curt Rice and Jonathan Eisen blog about gender equality in academia and how men can be allies: and

    Thanks everyone for the open and collegial discussion about important topics that affect all of us, both inside and outside academia. If you're interested in reading more about diversity and women in STEM, please see the SWEEET website for peer-reviewed research: and agency reports:

  9. Look at the progress through communication! It's like a wee social media miracle! While I align wholly with the #yesallwomen directive and agree with the usefulness of everyone giving it a read, I feel compelled to add that we are lost if we don't find the commonality between genders. And one of those is mirth. Victor, your 'cuteness' comment made me laugh….after I face-palmed and thought "Oh! He didn't just write that! Oh my…he did." But chuckle I did. You live, you learn. Hearty convivialities to all!

  10. I would like to chime in to say that I have found this exchange to be an excellent way to clear the air and foster communication and discussion of the issues. I would also like to thank everyone for their congeniality and constructiveness. You rock!

  11. Interesting read.


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