Is a group advocating for women leaders discriminatory?

After launching a NEW Leaders Facebook group, I was posed the following question by a concerned neuroscience graduate student.

He said:

“If the field is largely pioneered and led by women, does it need an advocacy group biased toward women? Are the aims of “cultivating professional networks and skills for women” addressing areas where women are, in fact, deficient? I remain highly skeptical of explicitly discriminatory organizations unless they are aimed at addressing issues unique to the specific group.”

I said this in response:

“Hi XXX. Thanks for your concern. While the field is largely pioneered by women, this doesn’t mean that careers in the field won’t have the same problems women and minorities have in any field (i.e. finding similar opportunities as men, being paid as well as men, being able to find social networks and resources for professional growth to name a few–please see my article discussing research about this here: Your argument resonates with those who say we don’t need affirmative action anymore too. While it’s true that women and minorities have made much progress, we have not overcome the historical narrative that still underlies the overall under-representation of women and minorities in (sustaining) positions of leadership worldwide in any field (including neuroethics). There are many cultural norms, even some that have been adopted and integrated into our own ideology and women, that we must overcome. The truth is women and men still aren’t on equal footing.And this is why we aim to address this challenge with an advocacy group. All fields deserve scholarship informed by a diverse set of world views and, unlike what you suggest, I would hardly think a field of exclusively women is any better than field that are almost exclusively white males. I encourage you to be open to learning more about advocacy groups for women and minorities, as you may have employees and students who will need advisors who are aware of the unique challenges that face us.”

This is just one of many examples of why we need NEW Leaders. I believe this is an important question that each of us should be able to address.

What do you think?

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  1. #1 by Anahita Hamidi on June 21, 2012 - 9:39 am

    Not to mention, it’s not all history yet!!! We’ve come a long way, yes – but discrimination against women has only changed its guise in our modern world.. Just because it doesn’t parade around as obviously as it did before, doesn’t mean it’s not a very real issue. Thus, I would tell him that while you, in principle, might agree with his view on non-discrimination, it is for this very reason that it’s essential to have an advocacy group aimed at empowering women in circles (i.e. academia, policy, etc) that are still largely dominated by male thinking and biases (read: one shouldn’t just look at the gender breakdown of ‘neuroethics field’ itself…but of all the fields that it interfaces with. Neuroethics cannot stand independent of those fields). It’s not “deficiencies” per se (I don’t think) that this org is aimed at addressing. Rather, my understanding was that this group is teaching women to embrace leadership qualities that are essential to professional development … because this isn’t something that we are necessarily explicitly taught otherwise! Also, while I admire his seemingly purist stance on keeping all orgs non-discriminatory … having a special-interests group aimed at addressing concerns unique to a group of people has never been discriminatory… just honest/smart! Let us never make the mistake that to be non-discrimnatory means to accept all people as the same. We are NOT. And that’s a beautiful thing. Women have a unique perspective, as do men. Equal rights does not equal sameness. It’s not like your mission statement reads: hey, women…let’s dominate this field of neuro ethics! Males, be damned. Although, that would be an interesting turn of events… 😉

  2. #2 by cydcipolla on June 21, 2012 - 11:51 am

    Yes- as I said on Facebook, I think your contact fundamentally misunderstands the reasons why caucuses such as this exist. They are not only beneficial to groups who are underrepresented, nor is the point necessarily to advocate for change based on an identity category which faces discrimination. However- many of the women who are involved in Neuroethics are, in fact, in other fields where they ARE part of a minority. This group takes advantage of the fact that many women in neuroscience and philosophy (for example) are becoming interested in Neuroethics, and uses that as a way to create a space for them different from the environment of their home disciplines.

    and a bonus: here is a 2011 study showing that women in the sciences tend to make different life choices than men, which impact their ability to get things like tenure or lab facilities (these are choices that aren’t necessarily linked to sex, such as caring for children or elderly parents):

    The point is, overt sexual discrimination in admissions and tenure committees doesn’t account for the gender gap. What is at play is a much larger cultural system where certain home roles are expected of women and not of men. Groups like this give women a place to discuss how to balance these choices, and think of new models for addressing a much more systemic form of gender bias.

  3. #3 by Kristina Gupta on June 21, 2012 - 2:03 pm

    I agree with both Anahita Hamidi and cydcipolla when they point out that while women currently may be doing well in the small inter-discipline of Neuroethics, many women face challenges within the larger domain of academia, which in turn may affect their ability to continue contributing productively to the field of Neuroethics. I do think there are a number of issues that may be particularly acute for women within the larger domain of academia (i.e. lack of mentors, sexual comments in student evaluations, lack of education prior to entering academia about things like salary negotiation, etc.). I also think there are a number of issues that continue to disproportionately impact women in the academy (i.e. lack of structures to support working people who are caring for dependents), but that everyone can benefit from working on together. I would invite you contact to join us in working on those issues!

  4. #4 by Jill Bordelon Glausier on June 21, 2012 - 9:02 pm

    If I understand correctly, your contact suggests that since women pioneered neuroethics and have strong leadership roles within the neuroethics community, there is not a need for a women-only advocacy group. Indeed, if neuroethics did not exist within a larger scientific and social community, then NEW might not need to exist. However, neuroethics is a small and new component to a larger system; a system that continues to discount women. For example, a recent study of physician-scientists that examined men and women at the same stage of their careers found that women make, on average, $12,000/year less than their male counterparts (PMID:22692173). Neuroethics exists within this larger structure that systematically devalues women. Thus, women are, in fact, deficient of advocates, professional networks and skills. NEW seeks to ameliorate this disparity by providing women with the information and support needed to be successful at a demanding career where your colleagues treat you differently due to your sex. For a stark example of this disparity, please read up on neuroscientist Ben Barres’s story.
    Moreover, an advocacy group doesn’t only exist to address areas where women are deficient, per se. For example, women have many unique career challenges, and NEW may provide resources to help women deal with these challenges in a manner that is fulfilling and efficient.
    In sum, the question is an interesting and valid one, and my answer is a resounding “yes” that NEW is a needed and important group.

  5. #5 by James Burkett on June 28, 2012 - 11:59 am

    I wrote the original comment to Karen, and after reading all the responses and doing some research, I thought I’d post my thoughts here.

    Recently, Karen wrote a fascinating and well-researched piece titled “Women in science, is pregnancy a ‘disability’?” This piece did an excellent job of reviewing the recent literature and making the case that women choose to exit the academic pipeline at the level of post-doc. She cited research showing that women face both real and perceived challenges that affect their career choices, including access to childcare and the ability to spend time raising children. She also points to research suggesting that women are more likely than men to make career concessions to achieve their mutual goals (although, as a scientist, I would caveat that this part of the original study does not meet the level of statistical rigor that would be expected of scientific research).

    In her original posting, Karen stated, “NEW Leaders aims to continue to … cultivate professional networks and skills for women currently in and entering into the field of neuroethics by way of a women in neuroethics network.” She goes on to say that “This site aims to act as a living document reflecting the scholarly work and progress in the field of neuroethics by its NEW Leaders and also serves as a resource for professional development and networking.” These statements clearly lay out the mission of NEW Leaders as one of skills training, professional networking, and promotion of the scholarly work of women.

    It is true that women face unique challenges and difficulties in the academic track, and they certainly need advocacy groups dedicated to facing these challenges. This point is strongly bolstered by the case Karen made in her previous article on women in science. However, the stated goal of the NeuroEthics Women Leaders group is not advocacy. NEW Leaders seeks to benefit women in neuroethics through skills training, networking, and promotion, *areas where women do not substantially differ from men*. Men do not receive secret training on leadership, salary negotiation, professional networking, and career advancement that are not offered to women. Neither, at least in modern times, does the scholarship of men receive disproportionate promotion over that of women. So I asked the question, what justifies providing these services only to women, when they do not appear to address any of the core issues separating men from women in the field of neuroethics or its related academic areas?

    I have the fortune of being close friends with Meera Modi, one of the founders of Emory Women in Neuroscience. EWIN has done a lot for the women in our program and others in terms of women’s advocacy. Yet, I often posed to her the same argument whenever EWIN’s resources were used for skills development or networking: is this an appropriate use of resources for an advocacy group? Or is this providing a general benefit that is explicitly for women only? When EWIN held an event where a panel of women in neuroscience research were giving career advice, I observed that I had never seen such an event being organized outside this context, for men or otherwise. When I attended the event, Meera informed me that I was “the first man ever to atend an EWIN meeting.” This, I felt, was a shame, as the advice I heard and the questions I had the opportunity to pose were extremely beneficial to me, and this was a highly valuable experience that could have been shared with the community at large.

    The original research piece on which Karen based her earlier article mentions another area where women differ from men: confidence. They cite a variety of measures indicating that women rate their skills as equal to men, yet express less confidence that their skills are adequate, and less confidence that they will be able to use their skills to succeed in their careers. The piece goes on to state that “Whether this lower confidence originates from foreseen future challenges that affect women more than men—such as childbearing, child care and/or a less favourable professional environment—or whether they indicate that women underestimate their professional ability, is an important question that requires further study.” Findings such as these point to the possibility that women do not lack in skills and ability, but rather underestimate themselves. I would suggest that this indicates that women’s advocacy groups should focus on confidence and mentorship rather than developing skills and professional networks that are already equal to men’s.

    Discrimination is a very powerful and dangerous tool in our society. It is used to good effect by advocacy groups that allow people with similar challenges and interests to come together and learn ways to eliminate differences and to address problems unique to a single group. Yet, it is very easy to unintentionally abuse this tool in a way that alienates others. There is no evidence that women differ from men in terms of skills training, networking, or the promotion of their work; rather, the evidence suggests that women *perceive* differences in some of these areas. Therefore, efforts to address disparities between men and women by offering benefits to women in these areas seem improperly targeted at best, and discriminatory at worst. Efforts to “close the gender gap” by non-specifically benefitting women over men may accomplish the goal, but will also promote the mindset that women are not equal to men.

  6. #6 by adrianagini on July 1, 2012 - 8:39 am

    Dear Karen, dear All, it sounds like a great initiative! Thank you for having conceived and shared it with me! Adriana Gini, Physician and Neuroethicist from Rome, Italy

  7. #7 by Karen Rommelfanger on July 2, 2012 - 6:40 pm

    Dear James, Thanks for your reply and for reading my post, “Is pregnancy a disability?” You, unlike many of the other authors here, have provided an emotional appeal rather than providing evidence, statistically rigorous or otherwise, for your rhetoric.

    To help encourage you to expand your intellectual horizons, I encourage you to do some research of your own. Entire fields of Sociology and Women are Studies alive and well with relevant evidence from “modern times” on the disparities (“perceived” and otherwise) outline how and why women experience the inequalities in their professionalization (both in the U.S. and abroad).

    You may begin (but should not end your search) here:

    United States Department of Labor: (references embedded within)

    U.S. Government accountability office:

    Sociology search engine you can access from Emory (like PubMed for scientists who study humans and behavior): A quick search with keywords here will give you hundreds of articles

    Works of Linda Babcock Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon (talks a lot about professionalization of women); Judith Butler Professor of Rhetoric, a gender theorist (talks about the performance of gender)

    Finally, because sometimes it is challenging for those who have not experienced discrimination to understand how deeply it runs, you might explore the work of Tim Wise (who discusses “reverse discrimination”, something you seem to allude to here):

    I hope by taking time to become educated to these issues that you may gain new insights and relief from your perspective.

  8. #8 by Karen Rommelfanger on July 2, 2012 - 6:41 pm

    Dear Adriana, Thanks for your support!

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