Monday, October 21, 2013

It's cold at the top

Today I printed this article about why there are so few women in science and even though I saw it coming out of the (communal for the whole floor of offices) printer on my way to get a cup of coffee, after I had replenished my cappuccino (from the high grade espresso maker that I lobbied for and convinced the higher powers at the university to buy), the article was gone from the printer. In fact it was completely gone from the printing area, even the shelves where we place unclaimed printouts for people who can't make it to the printer immediately. The only possibility was that someone had seen it and decided to snatch it for reading himself. I must say himself because the only other women on my floor is my close colleague* who would have known it was mine and simply asked me for a copy.

After getting past the annoyance of having to go print it again, I was actually very happy that someone took this interest to read this article. I had just had a meeting with my (now immediate) boss this morning where he informed me that he was aware that there was a pay gap between female and male employees in our department and that the government here in Sweden have procedures to try to minimize the gap, meaning when suggesting a raise, I was allowed to suggest a slightly higher raise for a woman with the reasoning that I was attempting to equalize this existing injustice. There were special funds for this particular goal.

But as much as there are official attempts to tackle discrimination, sexism is unfortunately still alive and ripe, however subtle, sometimes straight to my face, even here in Sweden. When we had our first kick-off meeting in my unit and I had bought macaroons, one elderly lecturer said jokingly that he had expected me to bake myself. I was speechless for a second or two as I tried to figure out a joking response but unlike American sit-coms where everyone always has a snappy reply, reality is different and I just continued our agenda. I realize it was a joke and he wasn't really serious, but would ever had said this to a man? Was it actually funny at all? I didn't take it personal and I'm not loosing sleep over it, however unfortunately other incidents and issues are more pervasive and more intrusive. Some are borderline harassment and behavior that I know, hundred percent, would never have been occurring if I were a man. A lot of it exist within the tone of voice in emails and talk, interrupting me, 'mansplaining' things to me and simply ignoring me in important communication.Without being specific it is safe to say that there is a long way to equality in a male dominated field and an even more male dominated department like mine. The majority of people are great, nice, funny and very respectful, but the odd sour grape can really get to me.

One of the interesting things is that sexism shows up slowly as you get older and rise the ranks. When I was a student, undergrad and masters student level, I rarely experienced anything other than the odd comment about women not being able to drive and that I had to pass this technical course that was apparently very difficult, to get my degree (not that I had every failed any technical courses, but the teacher just felt he needed to mention it to me personally. As the only girl in the class). I genuinely felt that my male peers treated me equally and that we worked together well, even as I did my PhD, I never experienced any treatment that could be construed as blunt sexism. In fact, I felt a lot of popular media writing was exaggerated and I truly believed that when they wrote "we are devoted to support women and majorities" in the academic job ads, they meant I had a better chance of getting the job than an equally qualified male candidate. I was dead wrong. Those words are as empty as the five Os in that sentence. Time after time I was passed over for male candidates because once, the head of the committee wanted his own PhD candidate to get the job, another time, they argued that my research was not serious enough and hired someone who was focusing on "politically correct" topics, rather than having a long publication record like mine. One of the jobs I would really have liked despite my life having looked very different now, but others I couldn't care less about; I probably didn't want to be in such department anyway. For a few I obviously just wasn't the right candidate and for others I wasn't able to sell myself right. But as I become more removed from the experiences and see how the candidates who got the jobs have done, I wonder how they did not see my potential. In relation to several old fellow candidates I now have many more publications, more funding accomplishments and am now a research director. And I can't help concluding that part of is was subtle, perhaps unwillingly, gender discrimination.

They say it is cold at the top and I believe they are right. But I was never worried about that when taking on this leadership role, because, for me, it is already pretty cold over here in my department. I get weird looks, ignoring eyes, disrespecting emails and simply get excluded from a lot of common socialization. Moving upwards is a way of formalizing this awkwardness towards me as the odd woman in an almost all-male departments. On the other hand, when people do get to know me, they tend to relax a bit more and we can talk like equals. They realize that I might be a woman but I'm not an alien. As much as I sometimes feel like one, just like many of the women in the article.

*This is not strictly true, we have a part time PhD student visiting 1-2 times per week from another department because her secondary advisor is in our department. However, she was not in today.

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