Gender Bias Post 3: I Understand She is a New Mother. #ImplicitBias #GenderBias #UnconsciousGenderBiasBlog

A lead researcher from one university and a PI (both male) from another were getting ready to conduct a sampling campaign. The lead researcher had left it to the last minute to order sampling supplies for the campaign, he therefore tasked his staff with getting the supplies needed saying he would pay for rushed shipment. When the staff member went to order the supplies, she found that they were all back ordered. She knew of a PhD student, whom they had collaborated with on a recent project, that used the same sampling supplies and called her to see if she had any on hand they could use. This researcher only had enough unused supplies for 20 samples, but had some used ones on hand that she offered to send to them stating that they would have to work out how to clean them, andpointed out that although this was not an ideal solution it may help if there was no other choice.

When the PI on the project heard about this he was not happy with using the old sampling supplies and sent out an email to voice his concerns to the PhD student's PI. In a chain of emails that followed the original email was forwarded to the PhD student, an excerpt of this email follows:

“Dear PI of female PhD student,

I know you are busy, but I need to get your attention about this.

<female PhD student’s name> is suggesting that we “reuse” [the sampling supplies] because of availability… any reviewer in a bad mood would likely slaughter us for this.

I understand that <female PhD student's name> is a new mother, in the middle of a PhD, and is likely very busy; but, we have to be really careful with this kind of stuff…

Tell <female PhD student’s name> not to bother sending the used ones.

Just a heads up is all…


What is wrong with this exchange may you ask?

Setting aside the fact the researcher who was supposed to get all the sampling supplies in, in time, did not and now the female PhD student is getting the blame for this mishap. This was not the problem… that was cleared up by a simple return email explaining she was not in charge of ordering supplies for the project and was just responding to a call for help.

The bias that exists here is: “I understand that <female PhD student's name> is a new mother”. Why is this a bias? Well, the PI in charge is a parent (not a new one, but a parent), the researcher who messed up the ordering timeline is a parent (he has a child the same age as the female PhD student), the female PhD student’s PI who was emailed about this is also a parent with a child a couple of years older that the female PhD student’s. What has this got to do with the mishap? NOTHING, NOTHING AT ALL!

The parental status of the males in the scenario was never brought up, and it is highly unlikely it ever would be, when it comes their work. But for some reason being a female and a parent is often thought upon as a negative in the STEM field. We are told to hide this fact at interviews, not draw attention to it at work etc. The PI that brought it up is a really nice guy and a well-respected researcher liked by all, but he clearly suffers (as we all do) from unconscious bias when it comes to gender.

Just food for thought!