How is a woman supposed to behave?

Two students meeting.

Two students meeting.

Should we women be retiring, or aggressive? How do we strike a balance between being modest, yet letting our brilliance shine? How many times have you heard stories of women who were viewed as too assertive, with career consequences? There are many examples of behavior that would be acceptable from a man that are not acceptable from a woman, but understanding the boundaries can be tricky.

We ignore this at our peril, for many reasons. One reason for concern is the predominance of males in receiving national awards, in particular those that only go to one person at a time, or that require self nomination. But I suppose even awards are not as important as seeing women scientists actually hired in faculty positions at rates that reflect the numbers of excellent women coming out of graduate schools and postdocs. For example, if the system requires that people put themselves forward, women will consistently be at a disadvantage. Of course, women should learn to put themselves forward, but the system should not require it, given the potential costs to assertive women.

Here is a very clear example of what I am talking about, from a minor interaction in a virtual context. I don’t know if you have been to a virtual meeting lately, but they are becoming more and more common. Often you can hear and see the people. Here at Wash U we have classrooms set up for just this sort of thing. The particular meeting I was once at had 12 attendants, seven men and five women. Online we were asked to jump in and introduce ourselves. This meant putting yourself forward in a group setting. A man introduced himself. He was followed by another, then another. In all, four men introduced themselves before a woman chimed in. Why is this? I suppose we women who have succeeded in a largely male academic environment have learned how to behave, mostly.

This particular example is of no importance as to outcome, for everyone was introduced. It is just an indication in a tiny way that women get that they should not jump in as the first to put themselves forward.

Am I too sensitive? No, just attentive as I look for examples that can be helpful to others who, like me, are hoping to change the system through insight and the thoughtful application of what we have figured out about these things. By now it is clear that the situation of gender bias is not going to just fix itself.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Genber bias, Scientific meetings, Social interactions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How is a woman supposed to behave?

  1. I am relatively new to the scientific community (in my last year of undergraduate study) and perhaps I am an anomaly but I have yet to feel any negative backlash from being an assertive woman. I am often the first to speak up in class and have no problem asking professors or others direct questions regardless of gender. This makes me wonder if the assertive/modest dichotomy is (for lack of a better word) outdated? While I certainly agree that a gender imbalance currently exists and it is important to draw attention to it, perhaps the ‘younger’ generation of women scientists are no longer fearful of the ‘potential costs’ that have historically accompanied female assertiveness.

    • When I was an undergraduate, I felt the same way. All the way through graduate school I felt supported. I did not feel that I was being passed over for guys. I did not get it because I did not experience it. Then I became a professor. I thought my opinions should still matter, but discovered departmental decisions were all made by men who had coffee together every morning. As I rose in the ranks and interacted in other ways, I increasingly discovered this issue. It isn’t everyone, but it is real and higher your rank the more often you encounter it. Do you read Female Science Professor, FSP? Check it out!

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