Monday, August 26, 2013

Say Cheese

Today's guest blogger is Nicholas McConnell. Nicholas is the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow at the Institute for Astronomy (University of Hawai'i). His research focuses on supermassive black holes and giant elliptical galaxies. 

A couple of years ago, in the midst of applying for postdoc jobs, I scanned a particular department's directory page for people who shared my research interests. As I scrolled through the names and photographs, two things quickly became apparent: there were very few women, and almost all the men looked somber or dour. Unfortunately, this department was hardly alone in exhibiting a gender imbalance among its researchers. The male mugshots left a stronger impression: "This does not seem like an enjoyable place to work."

The presence or absence of a smile often serves as a basic reading of a person's emotions or demeanor. However, psychology experiments have long shown that only a fraction of smiles are genuine "Duchenne" smiles: involuntary muscle actions at the eyes as well as the mouth. The rest are voluntary situational devices, used to ease tension, convey compliance, or appear attractive. In contrast, refusing to smile can telegraph high status, and in men even correlates with testosterone levels [1]. Many women have described facing social or professional pressure to present a smiling face, which is insidious when it reflects a double standard for people with equal status [2]. In a review of numerous studies, Yale professor Marianne LaFrance and collaborators found that women smile more often than men on average, and in tense or embarrassing situations. The gender difference is enhanced when individuals know they are being observed, suggesting that communal gender norms do influence facial expressions. However, it diminishes for individuals with the same power level, or in the same professional or social role [3].

In short, women are more likely than men to don a purposeful smile in certain kinds of interactions with colleagues. At times this may be a useful strategy, at others an unwanted burden. But what happens when men and women in the same field are directly prompted to put their best face forward? As a short experiment, I examined my own department's photo board and the directory webpages of five other astronomy departments, all at U.S. research universities. My sample comprised 360 men and 128 women, or 160 grad students, 95 postdocs, and 233 faculty and research staff. I divided facial expressions into three categories: no smile, closed-mouth smile, and open-mouthed smile. I used individuals' names and appearances to make gender assignments(*).

It turns out that astronomers' mugshots are loosely consistent with gender differences in everyday smiling. 74% of women but only 49% of men were photographed with a full open-mouthed smile, and 25% of men versus 10% of women did not smile at all. The statistics aren't surprising, but they raise a question: should your department photo be representative of your demeanor at work, or a welcoming first impression to the outside world? My own opinion is that every professional scientist is an informal ambassador of science -- in the elevator, on an airplane, and in his or her professional webpage or institutional profile. No one can or should be cheery all the time, but holding one smile for the duration of a shutter snap can go a long way (even if you've been ferreted from your office to pose in front of a random blank wall in your least favorite t-shirt). Using this standard I find that most female astronomers are literally supplying our profession with a friendly face, while at least a quarter of our male colleagues are falling short.

Perhaps it is a disservice to point out the apparent "friendliness" of colleagues who deserve to be judged on their competence and leadership. In an individual recommendation letter, I would not stray into the territory I have here. But since a simple photograph can make a strong impression, I think it's worth considering what our faces are saying on our behalf, and who is listening. After all, while collecting data I took mental notes on which departments seemed sunnier or grouchier. I might give some a little extra consideration when my next job search comes around.

Notes & References:

(*) My method for assigning gender is not 100% accurate, and it does not account for intersex or transgender individuals. However, I believe it is effective for a large majority of my sample.

[1] Dabbs, J. M. Jr. 1997, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, 45-55

[2] Deutsch, F., LeBaron, D., & Fryer, M. M. 1987, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 341-352

[3] LaFrance, M. & Hecht, M. A. 2003, Psychological Bulletin, 129, 305-344.
Further Reading:

Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions. Marianne LaFrance. 2013, W. W. Norton & Co. (paperback)

"The Psychological Study of Smiling." Eric Jaffe. Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science. December 2010 (cover).