Submitted by Chip Nataro / Lafayette College on Mon, 07/17/2017 - 11:05

Going to a Gordon Research Conference, I expected I would come back and write a BITEs post about some of the great chemistry I saw and how I was inspired to do a million different experiments. While that is partly true, the conference proved to be extremely educational in a way I did not expect. It started early in the conference when a tenured faculty member at a research university told a story of how older male colleagues would whistle at her on days she was a bit more fancily dressed. I was appalled to hear that something like this could still be occurring in 2017. Nearly as shocking was the fact that she felt as if there was nothing that could be done about it. It is terrible that even though tenured, this person still feels that she has to put up with this crap in order to be promoted in the future. 

Next up was a Monday afternoon 'power hour', an hour-long discussion in small groups on the challenges women continue to face in academia (specifically chemistry). It was an interesting hour, I was part of a good group, and we covered a lot of ground. I can't say we had many solutions, but it was very interesting to hear the perspectives of other people ranging from graduates students to tenured faculty at research universities. It would be difficult to give a detailed account of our discussion to you, our loyal BITEs readers, however some very useful resources were shared with us and now I share them with you.

First is the unconscious bias study at Harvard. There are numerous tests available on this site, but for this post I will focus on the Gender—Science IAT. The tests (or IATs as they are called on the site) are fairly quick and straightforward. I took the Gender—Science IAT and I am slightly disappointed in the results. I rated as having a slight automatic association for male with science and female with liberal arts. I could attempt to spin it positive and say that 52% of respondents have a moderate or strong association, but it has given me food for thought and indicates room for improvement.

Next is a list of resources from the University of British Columbia (click REPORTS AND DATA and then Unconscious Bias: Studies + Resources). This list was developed by a chemist, Jennifer Love, and is quite a thorough list of studies and resources.

Finally, comes the gender bias calculator, which reviews letters of recommendation for gender bias. Of course, I had to try it out and I decided to choose a letter I recently wrote for a student headed to graduate school. The site picks out words that are female-associated and male-associated, not including words like her/him or she/he. The letter I chose had a pretty good mix with 56% (I had to calculate this by hand) of the associated words being female-associated. As I delved deeper into the results, I think it would be challenging to have less seeing how words like student, class, work and presented are female-associated and those constituted the vast majority of the female-associated words in this letter. The list of male-associated words was much more diverse. While not a perfect resource, I think it is something good to check and I will do so with all of my future letters.

There were some additional conversations I had throughout the week that were equally enlightening. One in particular stands out in that a faculty member pointed out that she doesn’t like to be asked to meet with female perspective students just because she is a female faculty member. I am sure I am guilty of doing something similar if not exactly the same thing. I have talked with a few female colleagues about this and some agreed that it is an issue and others weren’t offended by it. This discussion did really get me thinking especially since we have a requirement for every search committee to have a female member. It’s really important that people know their opinions are valued, not because they are any particular gender, but because their opinions are valued.

So, what did I learn from all of this? Well, it’s tricky. Like most things, there is still room for improvement. There are some things that universally cross a line and they unfortunately still happen. And then there are some grey areas which really make things challenging. But what it is important is that your colleagues know that they can talk to you and that you will listen. I hope mine know that. And thus, my title, inspired by an old print ad that would no longer be deemed acceptable for a variety of reasons. There’s still a long way to go.