“Sexist behaviors in the workplace contribute to discourage women to pursue an academic career” – starts Alice Adenis and her six co-authors in the paper “Promoting gender equality in academia through comic strips” presented at the EPSC-DPS conference in Geneva last week. In didthisreallyhappen.net the authors turn their colleagues’ real-life stories about sexual discrimination into comic strips. The cartoons show situations with male and female scientists in which the female participant felt uncomfortable. Most of the stories came from women. We asked the scientists behind the project to tell us how they see sexism in the 21th century academia.
EPER97: People became aware of sexist microaggression only in the last couple of years. Blond women jokes were unnoticed a decade ago. How do you see this in the framework of politically correct speech etc.? Politically correct speech tries to change how people think by changing the words they say, but can people be changed on this? Do you think that the ideal situation would be that males would become “sex/gender blind” (similar to color-blind in US practice)?
Marie Bocher (ETH Zürich): We hope to be able to explain why such comments are problematic, and not prevent people from speaking just because it is not “politically correct”. The aim of the cartoons is to make people realize by themselves how uncomfortable some situations are and how they can act in a way that is more inclusive. I don’t think it is a reasonable goal to ask for people to be gender/color blind. Gender stereotypes are present everywhere in our daily life, and we are all assimilating them, whether we want it or not. However, we can learn more about situations where we are biased, or where we reinforce stereotypes, and implement practices to avoid unfair treatment.
Mélanie Gérault (MIT, Cambridge, USA): I would add that there can be a very fine line between freedom of speech, and impersonal, politically correct speech. The latter does not help people become more respectful of others, it only forces them to keep their opinions to themselves, which is nearly as detrimental. I think it is very important to let everyone talk, including those who are being treated unfairly. We are trying to provide a healthy ground for discussion, so that hopefully those who have biased and/or hurtful behaviors can realize it by themselves.
EPER97: Do you see any positive change recently that people are more aware of what they say in this issue?
Martina Ulvrova (ETH Zürich): The environment has definitely changed, and the society is more and more aware of for example gender bias and that gender equity is not reached yet. We see these changes on global and also on local scale. An example on a global scale is that more universities put in place gender/diversity related policies when opening new academic positions. Also, conveeners at big international conferences are reminded and encouraged to propose age and gender balanced program. On local scale I have noticed a big impact of our Did this really happen?! project. After discussing sexism with people they tend to be more aware of the problem, more open and are more cautious on that matter in a positive way in their everyday-life.
Mélanie: I have seen some very significant improvements. That said, we are very, very far from reaching a situation that would be fair to all genders, so we have to remain extremely vigilant.
EPER97: Some of your stories are about the physical attractiveness of female scientists. All the advertising industry is about the physical appearance that surround us. Do you think that a goal is that this be unnoticeable for males? Or just they should not talk about it verbally? How do you differentiate, if at all, between a scientific discussion and an informal chat in the corridor? Where are the limits in discussions between scientists and plain people, for example, during a conference like this one? So in your view, what the cartoons suggest, women scientist wear a sign “please do not notice I am a woman” — is that the goal?
Martina: Our goal is to raise awareness on gender imbalance, on microaggressions, on sexist behavior in working environment. I think that female researchers should be first acknowledged for their scientific work whatever they look like. Why would anyone talk about physical appearance with a colleague during discussion at a scientific conference? That sounds like very non-professional way of networking.
Marie: The problem with men making comments on the appearance of female colleagues is that they suppose that they are welcome, when most of the time they are not. A female scientist going to a conference is, like any scientist, interested in talking about science, not about their dress, or in finding a romantic partner. So the goal would be that we are all able to connect on a deeper level, and are all able to evolve scientifically. Yes, in this context, the fact that your colleague is a female should not really play a role on how you interact with her.
Melanie: I completely agree with Marie and Martina.
EPER97: Some of the stories are about young scientists. This was also asked as a question during the session that some of these stories are more about old vs. young, i.e. age discrimination. If you state that this cartoon is about gender, in all different situations it suggests that if a woman is involved in a discriminatory situation, all situations lead back to gender or sex. However, in many cases, even in the cartoons, it might only be secondary, and for example, young age or age discrimination might be the primary factor.
Martina: The point here is that female scientists are often considered as ECS (Early Career Scientists – ed.) although they are PIs (Principal Investigators – Ed.) or PhD advisors or professors leading their own groups. Generally, female scientists are downgraded in their competences. On the other hand, male scientists are generally considered as more experienced. People automatically assume that they are post-docs although they are PhD/master students. This is something that clearly stands out from the received testimonies.
Marie: Does it really matter whether it is gender or age discrimination? Shouldn’t we try to avoid ANY discrimination?
Melanie: We have had extensive discussions among ourselves regarding the very issue. Most situations are complex in the way that you describe. See for instance, why is young age a much greater problem for women than it is for men? The cartoons are meant to capture and expose those subtleties. They come without any interpretation, just the facts, in part for the issue that you bring up. It’s up to the reader to make up their own impression.
EPER97: Another question [after the talk at the conference] was about diversity. Your group took the task of communicating these situations through cartoons and people ask: once you did this great series, why don’t you also show age, race, language, clothing, nationality etc. discriminations? Since now you collect examples from others, not only from women, this could be made a service to the community about all types of harassments.
Martina: This is a great idea. However, in the beginning we started the project to deal with our own experiences. Since I am white, young, female scientist, I cannot transfer experience of other groups that encountered difficulties with different types of discriminations. True, the project got bigger and the platform developed into its present form. I cannot exclude that in the future we will also show other types of discriminations than that on gender related.
Marie: Sure, we would love to do that. However, it is also a question of being visible, being heard, and being clear. For now, our project only focus on one aspect of stereotypes and microaggressions: those linked to gender. Maybe later?
Melanie: I agree with Martina and Marie. All of the situations you describe deserve equal attention. But we are not the only one who are standing in the face of those issues. Our approach so far has been to focus on one thing and do it well, so that the project gains traction. Anyone can start doing what we do regarding other topics. In fact, some already do! One example comes to mind is about the LGBTQ community, but there are others.
EPER97: What kinds of comments did you receive from your colleagues on this work? Have you noticed that people are more aware of how they communicate with you or your colleagues?
Martina: So far, I have had really positive feedback. A big satisfaction for me comes when people realize that some situations they create might be uncomfortable for others. Because usually it is not that people want to be sexist intentionally. Showing cartoons raise discussions and make people reflect on the problematics of what is sexism and gender bias. They start asking questions such as “Am I sexist?”, “Do I use stereotypes?”, etc. Usually they become more attentive to these questions and more cautious about what they say.
EPER97: For a woman scientist, what makes them proud and what they feel empowering?
Martina: I can’t answer what holds for a woman scientist in general. I can only answer for myself: I am being proud when I do a great research that advance science in any way and when my work is acknowledged in the scientific community. The key is to be and feel respected as a scientist whatever gender and also to respect others.
Melanie: I would add that remaining a sane, friendly, balanced human being in the process of getting science done is also a source of satisfaction to me, as I see too many people compromise their mental health or that of those around them for the sake of getting papers out.
Read the comic strips at https://didthisreallyhappen.net/