Updated: Oct 4, 2020
I am luckily part of a department at the Graduate Institute which is fairly gender balanced. But there are other important struggles apart from representation. For me it has been mostly about making myself speak up or be recognized when I did so. There have been situations at work in which I felt overlooked or simply not regarded as a conversation participant that is likely to give valuable input. And this can be as subtle as not being looked at in a group discussion even when someone replied to a comment I gave. I don’t want to sound dramatic but these things do matter and they do something to the way I perceive myself adding value to a project. Such experiences interact with the self doubt that a lot of PhD students including me carry within them anyway. And it is so much harder to get over that wall of doubt when the environment negatively reinforces your efforts.
I would like to draw a geeky but I feel accurate analogy to what I think is an important issue in the gender debate in general. In economics we have the concept of multiple equilibria referring to situations in which the outcome of a dynamic process cannot be determined by model fundamentals but instead depends on the realization of a random variable. Dynamics in such models might be self-perpetuating in which case a slight “random” push in one direction or the other might lead to completely different outcomes even though the initial conditions were very similar – what we refer to as path dependence. For example, you might think of a balancing scale with a ball on it. If you put the ball only a millimetre to the right of the centre, the scale will tilt fully in that direction, and the opposite will happen if you put the ball only slightly to the left of the centre. Both the extreme right and the extreme left outcome are situations in which the scale stays put unless there is a large shock shooting the ball far enough to the other side so we have multiple equilibria.
I think there are numerous analogies of such setups in real life, one of them being the way our self-confidence over time is influenced by the positive or negative reinforcement of certain behaviours we obtain throughout our lives from the relevant parts of society we are confronted with. As women, most of us have grown up with a severe princess bias – we are taught that good girls must be sensitive and pretty and available and diplomatic and so desirable from a distance that they do not have to, even should not, work too hard for their goals. We are discouraged from taking risks, prioritizing the self over others and getting our hands dirty following our own paths. Such biases are extremely hard to let go of, especially when they are not only in our own head but also in everyone else's around us. Now back to the balancing scale example: depending on the individual personality and with how severe of a princess bias one grew up with, pursuing a career in a negatively reinforcing environment might feel like constantly climbing a hill or, more accurately, a scale tilted against you. I believe that this mechanism could be a good explanation of why relatively few women enter the field in the first place and why, even if they do, few stay on.
I, as many others, don't want to accept this as an outcome. I think that we can change this for everyone's benefit. Systemic problems require systemic solutions so starting to have a broad conversation about this, creating awareness and better understanding the underlying mechanisms seems like a logical starting point. Let's see where it brings us.