Monday, July 3, 2017

Moving the needle

[Note, this post is not about phylogenies]

I’ve sensed some ‘what’s-the-big-deal’-ness in response to recent discussion about inappropriate behavior at the recent Evolution meetings, so I want to explain why I take this so seriously. I think you should care too, assuming you are interested in making science more diverse and inclusive.  I’ll speak from my own experience here, making this a perhaps uncommonly personal post.  First, I should say that I have been lucky throughout my career to have exceptional mentors (both men and women) who strongly encouraged my interest in science and always made me feel supported.  But early on, it became apparent to me (and my female peers) that being a woman in science was going to present extra challenges. None of my experiences are unique and I have colleagues who had a much harder time*. One thing it seems like we all discovered was the amount of caution that was needed in interacting with male scientists, especially senior ones.  Being friendly was sometimes taken as openness to flirtation, which could escalate to unwanted touching or worse. So as young woman in science, I learned how to tread carefully and how to be friendly but divert conversations when there were red flags. I learned what the flags are (“looks like you’ve been working out!” or “why is someone like you single?”**). I learned to avoid places and situations where inappropriate behavior is likely to happen, even if it meant sometimes missing out on networking***, and I found friends with whom I could safely discuss these issues. Friends who understood that it’s not as simple as ‘not putting up’ with bad behavior, especially from senior scientists in a community that is so tightly woven through letters of recommendation, reviews, grant panels, and committees.

For me, these social acrobatics became part of the fabric of interacting with other scientists. Another skill like presenting posters, or making aesthetically appealing slides.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how much mental and emotional energy I wasted on these acrobatics as a younger scientist. Energy that I could have devoted to science or something else! Energy that some of my peers never had to spend****. Now that I am a faculty member, inappropriate behavior towards me has become less common, but I worry for my students and other young scientists. I wish I could prevent unprofessional behavior from clouding their experiences. I wish I could save them from the wasted energy of handling those who behave inappropriately. I wish I could keep them from ever having to become social acrobats themselves. They shouldn’t have to. But it doesn’t seem like things have changed that much in the 16 years I’ve been in this field. For my mentees, I try to prepare them, let them know that I know it happens, welcome them to come talk with me about their concerns, and ask them to brainstorm with me on how to make things better.  With regard to the Evolution meetings, the Society for Systematic Biology has called for suggestions. I’m hoping that together we’ll come up with ideas that could actually move the needle.

*To get a sense, peruse the nearly 900 responses to Gina Baucom’s post about crappy things said to or about women in academia.

**I know that these may seem incredibly obvious but when it’s someone senior, someone you respect, and someone that you would never imagine would hit on you, it takes a while (at least for me) to realize what it is.  I have learned now to look past rank and listen to my gut.

***If we want access to science for everyone, no one should have to make these choices.

****These are my experiences but I imagine the same goes for other underrepresented groups in STEM.


  1. As an male advisor of female students it can be hard to provide direct guidance on the social acrobatics. But clearly the answer is not that male professors should only advise male students! So, the question arises, on how best to support female and minority students. Is it good enough to advise female student to also seek out informal female mentors, or at least (as I have advised all my female students), to include at least one female professor on their committees? (and maybe, likewise, for minority students?) Or should we also try and actively discuss sexual harassment as part of the routine mentor-mentee dialog?

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment and question! The short answer is yes, the latter! We need male advisors to get involved! And here comes a longer answer, because I bet there are many others with the same question.

    I think suggesting that students from underrepresented groups seek additional mentors from the same group is not necessarily the best option for several reasons. Taking the case of female students:

    >In most departments, female faculty are in the minority and most are probably still working towards becoming full professors. Thus, we wouldn’t want to burden them with additional mentoring (although it happens anyway, and probably contributes to the higher service load often carried by women, google 'academic housekeeping')

    >Women can be sexist, too, so there is no guarantee that a woman will provide good mentorship.

    >One more simple reason is that your mentee chose you. Support and guidance will mean the most coming from you. Sure, you can help connect your student with others (on lots of fronts, and that’s a central role of an advisor), but fundamentally the student looks to you first for leadership.

    So what can a male advisor do? Lots of things! Here are some ideas:

    >As you suggest, when a new mentee (of any background or gender) joins the lab, discuss expectations for being a lab member and make professional behavior a part of this discussion. I wrote up an expectations doc to help me jumpstart these discussions with new students (

    >Find a time to talk about professional behavior as a lab. After this year, I’ve decided to roll this in to the lab practice talk session. I plan to make this as interactive as possible by providing some examples (e.g. present a scenario and discuss whether this would be unprofessional, would constitute harassment or discrimination) and solicit other examples from the group. I will stress that even if a situation isn’t harassment, it may still be unprofessional and/or create an unwelcoming climate. We all have to work on this, and it only gets better by open discussion. We (as advisors) don’t have to have all the answers, but collectively, with people at all stages, we can all work on figuring out the best approaches.

    >I think the other huge thing that male advisors can do is to stick up for their mentees. When inappropriate or 'othering' comments are made towards a student, say something. There are two challenges here. The first is recognizing these comments as they may not stand out to you. Recently on twitter, Gina Baucom ( and Aradhna Tripati ( have solicited examples, and there are common themes ( The second challenge is having something to say. Gina has made some suggestions in her follow-up post, and even if you miss the moment, you can always ask later if the comment made the student feel uncomfortable and go from there.

    1. One other thing that may be informative. When I was a student/postdoc, I didn’t discuss these issues with anyone other than friends and other students/postdocs for so many reasons, e.g.:

      >Although I certainly heard plenty of inappropriate comments, I couldn’t have said what constituted harassment.

      >I didn’t want to ‘waste’ the time of anyone senior if I could ‘handle’ it myself.

      >I didn’t want to draw attention to aspects of my experience relating to being a woman. I wanted to keep the focus on the science.

      >There was some part of me that thought I might not be believed or that it might seem like I was ‘blowing something out of proportion’.

      >I didn’t want senior people to be disappointed in their colleagues who engage in inappropriate behavior or lose respect for them.

      >I wasn’t sure where the discussion would go if ever brought up. Either nothing would happen or it might come back to bite me.

      >Overall, I accepted that inappropriate behavior was common and that not much could be done about it.

      Note that little of this would be different if my advisor had been a woman. I would still have had the same notions, and I'm not sure that an informal female mentor would have had the time or level of connection to dissuade me of them. So knowing some of the barriers for students, I think it’s much easier to think about how to set the stage for making a difference. You could allay the concerns laid out above by providing a space for discussion; letting your mentees know that your door is open, you want to hear their conerns, and you will believe them; explaining how reporting works on campus and that you are a mandatory reporter but that what action takes place is their choice; and perhaps most of all, showing that you are clued in by stepping when you hear or see things that are out of line, even when it feels uncomfortable or awkward. It’s a long road but I think stasis will continue unless all PIs chip in to make science more equitable and welcoming, starting with their own labs, departments, and communities.

    2. And speaking of always learning more, here is a nice article defining sexism, sexual harassment, sexual discrimination:
      Lots of things in there that I didn't know.

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