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In yesterday’s women in science lunch, we ended with this question: Why do so many women remain silent about all the day-to-day micro-inequities and minor discriminations and injustices they deal with. Ignoring the obvious (it’s really hard to report someone for a million small things that can be blamed on “Oh, he was just in a bad mood), there are also many other reasons to remain silent.

I long ago recognized that institutional bias against women – a bias that is often unconscious and unintentional – is something that is almost universal. Some institutions, when they recognize there is a problem, respond by working to positively change the institution. This occurred at MIT when it was realized that women were systematically given less workspace and were less often given matching offers when other universities tried to recruit them. In other instances, the recognition that there are too few women in science leads to university officials essentially saying women aren’t meant for science. This happened at Harvard, where former university president Larry Sumners blamed the scarcity of women in the sciences in part on innate differences in women. Problems are everywhere, and in a land of broken toys sometimes the best you can ask for is something that doesn’t have too many sharp edges. If you’ve found someplace that doesn’t hurt too much… well, that’s sometimes good enough.

A woman enters a basically no-win situation when she reports issues that are detrimental either to her ability to do her job or to her emotional well being. Within the tenure system, a woman who is silent about what she deals with has the option of entering a shared lie of pretending there are no problems, and hoping that over time things might get better as departmental and administrative constituencies change. By admitting there are issues, she has to spend the rest of her time at that institution sitting in meetings, sharing hallways, and otherwise having to confront the people who have made her miserable, knowing the entire time that because they have tenure they aren’t going anywhere, and knowing it is public that she has been hurt.

In giving my talk at TAM 2012, what I wanted to do was articulate that if you are a woman in science and you find yourself dealing with things that hurt your self esteem, you aren’t alone. I wanted to say that when this happens you need to be strong and keep trying to make the world better, even when you get punished for it. I know from the outpouring of messages that I’ve received that my message has been received. My talk, because it touched so many people, is something I am glad I found the courage to give. That day is one I can be proud of.

And I also needed to say, you must have power to stop harassment, and those of us living in it, can’t necessarily stop it.

If I could change anything about the workplace environment of women, I would change the reality of academia (and industry) such that no woman is ever again cautioned, “don’t waste your time with so-and-so, he’s biased against women,” and make it such that no woman ever again is told, “It’s not your fault – it’s the fact that you’re a woman.” I have to recognize, however, that all the people who I have been cautioned about at every institution I’ve been at have had tenure and aren’t going anywhere for a long time. This means that all the things I was warned of are things that women will continue to be warned of over time. One of the side-effects of tenure is that it becomes exceedingly difficult to fire people for anything short of a felony crime.

I support tenure as a way to free people to do research that is risky, but it is also used as a tool to create an old boys club that continues to maintain an environment with so many sharp-edges that many women are prevented from finding a truly comfortable place to work. But often, we settle for comfortable enough, and we get our work done.

And, we coat our wounds in silence, maintaining the shared lie that prevents others from knowing we hurt. It may not be right, but it’s survival in an environment where change may not be possible.

You must have power to stop harassment. Can those of you with power change what we can’t by paying attention and noticing, and working to change all the small things (and sometimes large things) that create a workplace where women struggle to thrive? Will you be like Bryan Gaensler?

I’m going to try and close the door on talking about gender issues for a while and hope that nothing triggers me into needing to say something more. It’s time to just focus on science.