Friday, March 22, 2013

Obstacles to Institutional Change

A thoughtful reader made this observation about my article in the 2013 January/February AAS Newsletter:

[T]here is one sentence in your piece that grabbed my attention, and I would argue brings up a point far more substantive than grammar and political correctness: "One grumpy, misogynistic tenured faculty member can cause many difficulties, but he cannot prevent change."

This reader's reaction to my provocative sentence was thoughtful and important.  The writer continued,

In my service as an academic administrator at multiple institutions over the years, I have, not frequently, but still on multiple occasions, encountered situations where the single largest impediment to a proposed action to improve the status of women in an astronomy department has been the views of a female faculty member who was vocally against the proposal.  I don't pretend to understand why, other than the facile "people are only human, and half of those are female."  Perhaps some women are so (often justifiably) bitter from past experiences that they subconsciously are feeling "I suffered to get here and so must all others." (Ouch! -- I hope this is wrong.)

Women who are overtly against proposals to improve the status of women swing a disproportionate and often unrecognized amount of power:  the dissent of only one women is quite enough to sway the votes of otherwise well-intended men, who correctly reason that on this subject, a woman has more experience.  Of course, we must not discount the possibility that the woman's reasoning and view, even if in the extreme minority,  is entirely correct in some or many cases, and the males just don't see this!  But no one of either gender has infallible judgement plus a crystal ball, and  in the admittedly limited number of situations I've personally experienced, hindsight of years later showed that the proposed action to improve the status of women, opposed by a woman, turned out to be correct.

So your quoted sentence can be taken by many as a none-too-subtle claim that only males are a problem in advancing the status of women in academia, and at some level I offer friendly disagreement.

My  colleague is right to challenge any implication that men are the only problem (although this was not the intent of my statement)Women can retard departmental efforts toward gender equity equally or moreso to men not only because their personal experience carries weight, but also because to oppose them could be viewed as an attack on women, which those seeking to advance the status of women are trying to avoid.

I have rarely seen this happen.  When it does, how should one - a senior colleague, a departmental leader, or a junior colleague - respond?

One might try to shift the focus away from gender and towards inclusion and respect for all.  How best to do so in such cases is a good question, for which I seek advice from readers of this column.


  1. I would venture that perhaps there could be misinterpretations of the "against it" woman's statement(s). If she argued, for example, that hiring on merit is the primary concern while also arguing that a woman candidate is meritorious, I can see men only remembering she argued 'against hiring the woman' when she really argued against hiring the woman ONLY because she was a woman. Or some variation on that theme. I feel I cannot bring up a person's gender in a hiring meeting because I am a woman and I believe my opinion on that score will be seen as so biased as to have the opposite effect I am after. So I don't. This might be interpreted as being 'against' a woman hire when I am not. This is very frustrating.

  2. Social scientist Denise Lewin Loyd has done research about this very situation, see her talk starting at 35:50 and in particular at 41:40. Like implicit bias, this reaction is very difficult to avoid, and I believe is best addressed by making both men and women conscious of it and equally responsible for assessing candidates fairly on their merits.

  3. Thanks, Ed! That was very interesting, and nice to see I'm not the only one wrestling with this.