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losttime

Is my advisor sexist?

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I'm a female masters student with a fairly conservative (to my surprise) and very old-school advisor. I could be imagining it out of anxiety, but since the start of the current semester, I've noticed that he treats me a little differently from the way he treats his male graduate students. Like, when he's giving us active duties, he'll look at the men when he's talking and not at me, he'll look at them and engage them in discussion when there's a complex topic that's brought up in his seminar, or he'll tell me I shouldn't help with anything involving physical activity. And the other day he showed us all his acknowledgments, and I noticed I was left out even though I played a very big part in that project (my male colleagues were nice enough to stick up for me and he did apologize after that). He is a very nice man so I've been a little hesitant to call what he is doing sexism: I've wondered if it's just that he just doesn't take me seriously as a person. I've put in a lot of effort to do my duties and coursework very well, and I know my male colleagues consider me a really important intellectual partner, so I do have to admit that I'm kind of hurt by the way he has treated me. If it truly is the case that he doesn't take me seriously because I'm a woman, I'm wondering if this will harm me in any way, like if he doesn't write about my contributions in his recommendation letter for my PhD applications. 

He's a very conservative, pull up your boot straps kind of man, so I think approaching him about this would be a mistake. I kind of feel that there's nothing to do but to ignore it and move on. Does anyone have a similar experience to mine? If so, how did you deal with such a person? 

Edited by losttime

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You should read up on implicit bias. It sounds like a version of that may very well be going on. It's alarming because there is research to show that letters of recommendations for female candidates are weaker than for corresponding male candidates, even if the writer isn't aware (e.g. here, but you can google for lots more). They may also get fewer opportunities, like to do with research, as you describe. (There are lots of other consequences, small and large, but perhaps less relevant here.) It's hard to know what to do about it; the best answer I know is talk about it openly as a community and take training to combat it. It doesn't fix the problem, but it reduces it and makes it manageable. It's harder when someone denies what is plain to see, but they may still benefit from a collective conversation on the hazards of not paying attention. If done, it should be at least department-wide and not targeting any particular professor (it affects everyone, regardless of gender, unfortunately). You didn't mention your field, but some fields have become very active at raising awareness of this issue. You could seek help from your field's professional society or from a local university-run organization, if one exists. No quick solutions here, I'm afraid. 

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At my school, there are some support groups and resources on campus to help you navigate these conversations. For example, my PhD school's diversity center has lots of events to connect women to share experiences about these exact issues. Talking to others who have felt the same thing could help and you could learn other strategies too.

Another resource at my school is the Graduate Office. One of the Graduate Deans' main job is to advocate for graduate students to the faculty at my school. Going there can also help with some strategies to bring this up with faculty. If the Dean has a good relationship with the prof in question, they might have some backchannel way of bringing this up without naming you (although, in almost all cases, it will be very obvious who brought up the complaint). I think these channels are better at modifying the faculty as a whole, not individual cases.

One thing that my school's Title IX office started doing was to implement "implicit bias training" or "unconscious bias training" at the department or even the lab group level. We were trying to get people thinking about these topics just as much as they would think about other important lab issues, such as safety. So, just as most lab groups have a safety refresher every year, we try to start having unconscious bias training every year too. 

It's done in a discreet way. We try to get profs who are already allies on board first and get them to invite the TItle IX office to come and give a talk during a group meeting, which helps reduce the stigma that if the Title IX office is coming then you're in trouble. At least at my school, their goal is to educate as well as enforce/investigate. Then, if someone is in a group where something problematic is going on, someone can invite the Title IX office for a targeted "refresher" training. No mention of any specific instances within that group, just general training that hopefully makes people think. Many women reported that this greatly helped their work conditions and no one thought of them as the "complainer". Usually, the Title IX office is invited either by allies within (e.g. male grad students suggesting it), or the Title IX office might invite itself (good if the prof doesn't think of themselves as a problem but does some problematic actions) or from above: Dept Chair requiring all groups to do it.

Finally, one other strategy is to discuss these issues with your male colleagues, if you feel comfortable with it and feel that they would be helpful. It sounds like some of them already spoke up when they noticed you were left out of the acknowledgements. Maybe they don't notice all the other things. But once they do, they might help amplify your voice/contributions in other ways too. If you don't like this angle, you definitely don't have to do it. But I just wanted to provide an example of action where it's on everyone to ensure an equitable working environment, not just the person being discriminated against! 

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38 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

Finally, one other strategy is to discuss these issues with your male colleagues, if you feel comfortable with it and feel that they would be helpful. It sounds like some of them already spoke up when they noticed you were left out of the acknowledgements. Maybe they don't notice all the other things. But once they do, they might help amplify your voice/contributions in other ways too. If you don't like this angle, you definitely don't have to do it. But I just wanted to provide an example of action where it's on everyone to ensure an equitable working environment, not just the person being discriminated against! 

This is good advice. It's unfortunate that a lot of extra work falls to women, but the reality is that it does. It's incredibly helpful to train men to be allies. That is to say, those who say that they are but still don't see wrongdoing when it happens can be trained to see it by having it continuously pointed out to them, and they can be taught to speak up to correct the situation. I've done this with male colleagues and co-authors, and after a while it becomes second nature to them too. Did only men get invited to a panel? Does a syllabus only (/disproportionately) cite men? Do only men get named as examples of leading authors in X? Do men get more than their fair share of Q&As? And more from personal experience: a male co-author and I give a joint talk; all questions are addressed to him, including on things that are explicitly within my area of expertise; only he gets invited to present our joint work; only he gets emails with questions or asking for a copy of the work; people go up to him, sometimes going as far as to physically having their back to me, after the talk, to say "good job". It's easy for men not to notice a lot of this because some of it is subtle and some just doesn't happen when they're present, but when it's pointed out to them, it's clearly there. I've helped them draft replies to bring me back in to the conversation, phrase responses that point to me as the expert on X, etc. At this point, I don't even have to do it anymore. But it did take time and effort. This is harder to do with older men, but a lot of younger men are receptive to this issue. They can be incredibly helpful allies in this fight. 

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19 hours ago, losttime said:

I'm a female masters student with a fairly conservative (to my surprise) and very old-school advisor. I could be imagining it out of anxiety, but since the start of the current semester, I've noticed that he treats me a little differently from the way he treats his male graduate students. Like, when he's giving us active duties, he'll look at the men when he's talking and not at me, he'll look at them and engage them in discussion when there's a complex topic that's brought up in his seminar, or he'll tell me I shouldn't help with anything involving physical activity. And the other day he showed us all his acknowledgments, and I noticed I was left out even though I played a very big part in that project (my male colleagues were nice enough to stick up for me and he did apologize after that). He is a very nice man so I've been a little hesitant to call what he is doing sexism: I've wondered if it's just that he just doesn't take me seriously as a person. I've put in a lot of effort to do my duties and coursework very well, and I know my male colleagues consider me a really important intellectual partner, so I do have to admit that I'm kind of hurt by the way he has treated me. If it truly is the case that he doesn't take me seriously because I'm a woman, I'm wondering if this will harm me in any way, like if he doesn't write about my contributions in his recommendation letter for my PhD applications. 

He's a very conservative, pull up your boot straps kind of man, so I think approaching him about this would be a mistake. I kind of feel that there's nothing to do but to ignore it and move on. Does anyone have a similar experience to mine? If so, how did you deal with such a person? 

I recommend that in addition to considering the guidance provided above, you try to get a sense of the department's recent experiences with issues/dynamics centered around gendered relations. It may well be that your professor is behaving defensively in the wake of a recent event/controversy. That is, he or a colleague got into hot water for making eye contact with a woman or focusing on her too much in seminar discussions or how tasks were delegated. Stuff happens and sometimes over corrections get in the way of applying lessons learned.

I also recommend that you think long and hard about having a face to face conversation with him about your concerns. Yes, the disparity of power makes such a conversation risky for you and is (arguably) sufficient reason not to have that conversation. However, this is an opportunity for both of you to address an important issue.

As to his conservative views, I urge you to reflect upon why you're surprised.

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