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A thousand tiny cuts

17 Mar 2016 Margaret Harris
Taken from the March 2016 issue of Physics World

Margaret Harris explores how small, subtle and sometimes subconscious actions can add up to create an environment that feels unwelcoming – or even hostile – to women and other under-represented groups in physics

A thousand tiny cuts

“What is the meaning of your shirt?”

The question came in the first year of my undergraduate degree. The speaker was one of my physics lecturers. At first, I was simply confused. My T-shirt was emblazoned with the bar-and-circle logo of the London Underground and the slogan “Mind the Gap” – an idiosyncratically British phrase that reminds passengers to watch their step when leaving the train. My professor was European; surely he’d ridden the Underground at some point? I explained it to him anyway, and he nodded, grinning broadly. “Ah, I see.” He paused, seemingly searching for words. “I thought it was…you know…‘two’s company’.” And as he said this, in a gesture I can’t un-see, he cupped his hands to his chest and gave a vigorous jiggle to an imaginary pair of breasts.

This was awkward and embarrassing to witness, and I’m still not entirely sure what he meant. However, it did not really put me off studying physics. Certainly, it was not as bad as the behaviour of Geoffrey Marcy, the exoplanet astronomer who resigned from the University of California, Berkeley, US, in October 2015 after an internal investigation found that he had sexually harassed multiple female students over a period of several years. Marcy’s alleged actions include grabbing the crotch of one woman and putting his hand up the shirt of another; my lecturer’s leering gesture was not in the same league. But even so, it was an unpleasant reminder that, as a woman in a male-dominated field, some of the people I encountered were going to treat me primarily as a possessor of breasts, not as an aspiring scholar. And in a small way, it may even have hurt me academically: from then on, I tried to avoid my lecturer’s office hours unless I knew someone else would also be there.

Within the community of researchers who study bias and diversity, actions like this – small things that make people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable because of who they are, rather than what they are doing – are known as “microaggressions”. It’s an imperfect term, because many such actions or words are not meant to harm. Some are intended as jokes, or even as compliments. “One of the most common microaggressions comes during introductions at a talk or conference. A man will be introduced as ‘This is so-and-so, who went to this university, who accomplished this research, who recently published this paper,’ but when they go to introduce a woman, they will often say ‘We are pleased to introduce the beautiful so-and-so’ – making a comment on appearance,” says Pamela Gay, an astronomer, podcaster and writer at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the US.

Such introductions, Gay continues, often mention the fact that a woman in science “managed to be a mother” while publishing research and describe her as “hard-working” instead of using adjectives such as “brilliant” or “talented” that are commonly used to describe men in the same circumstances. This mixture of faint praise and compliments that focus on appearance and motherhood rather than scholarly achievements “tells a woman that what matters is her looks and the fact that she’s capable of having a kid and not totally messing up at work”, Gay says. “That’s not what’s intended, but that’s what’s heard.”

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Some microaggressions are even less direct. Haley Gomez, an astronomer at Cardiff University, UK, says that members of the public often tell her she doesn’t look like a scientist, and fellow scientists sometimes express surprise that she holds a professorship. “They’re almost giving you a compliment, particularly with ‘you don’t look like a scientist’, but over time, these comments start to make you think, ‘Oh, why don’t I look like a scientist?’ ” Gomez says.

The words “over time” are important, because microaggressions are usually not isolated events. “If it happened once in your whole career, or maybe even a second time, you would probably brush it off, but they do add up,” says Laura McCullough, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, US, whose research interests include studies of gender and science. “And you may not realize it’s happening until it’s happened 10, 20 or 30 times, because it is very subtle.” Of the physicists and astronomers interviewed for this article, a few reported experiencing small actions that challenge their identity as scientists, denigrate their abilities or make them feel like outsiders on a weekly or even daily basis. For others, it’s something that happens a few times a year, or is currently rare but was very common at an earlier point in their career. Whatever the frequency, though, the message is clear: these seemingly little things are contributing to a “chilly climate” that drags down women and other under-represented groups in physics, making it harder for them to reach their full potential and convincing some that they would be better off in a different profession.

Battling against bias

Some types of microaggression, such as sexual harassment and gendered descriptions, are directed almost exclusively at women. Others, however, are also common experiences for members of other under-represented groups in physics. Louis-Gregory Strolger is an observatory scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, US, and he says that some of the microaggressions he’s experienced as a person of colour are similar to those encountered by women in physics. “There is this sense that you are not as capable as your white colleagues – as your white male colleagues, specifically,” Strolger says. “There is always a tendency for other people to ‘double check’ your work, or to give projects of higher standing or things that require a bit more intelligence or meticulousness to people who are not women or of colour.” He classes such actions as microaggressions, he says, “because I don’t think it’s terribly conscious”.

Unconscious bias linked to long-standing cultural stereotypes (see Surely you’re not biased) is certainly a factor behind some microaggressions. “With regards to disability, it comes up with things like the words ‘capable’ or ‘able’,” says Jesse Shanahan, an astronomy graduate student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, US, and a co-founder of the American Astronomical Society’s working group in accessibility and disability. “People presume that if you have a physical disability, then somehow you’re less intelligent or less intellectually capable.” Shanahan, who has a genetic disorder that affects her joints and impairs her mobility, says that at times she feels like she is “not only fighting against the environment of the field, but also against a Western culture that has sexism and racism and ableism written into it”.

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In other cases, though, it is hard to give perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. “I have a grant from the European Research Council, and I’ve had so many people come up and say to me ‘Oh yeah, I heard it’s really easy for women to get that grant, so that’s why you got it on your first go’,” Gomez says. “And I’m kind of like, ‘Okay, right, thanks for that, it’s nothing to do with my research or my capability or my CV, it’s just because they needed a woman!’ ” Gomez notes that statistics on the grant (which are public) do not support the hypothesis that women have it easier. Moreover, when she asked white male colleagues whether they, too, had had people tell them, to their face, that they had only won a grant due to a single factor, the response was an almost universal “no”. At that point, Gomez says, she decided that the people belittling her achievements were sexist, not merely jealous or bitter.

Strolger has had similar experiences. “At times too numerous to list completely, I’ve had colleagues off-handedly (and sometimes very directly) state the only reason I’ve received a specific award, or job offer, or other opportunity is that I am black, or simply say that if I weren’t black I wouldn’t be as successful,” he says. Such comments have been “wearing”, he says, adding that at times, they have also fed his case of “impostor syndrome” – the feeling of inadequacy some people experience despite having all the necessary skills, talent and qualifications for their jobs (see November 2011 p56).

Taking up bandwidth

Strolger’s brushes with impostor syndrome are one example of how small negative comments and actions can be harmful. Among people who experience frequent microaggressions, loss of confidence is common. Karen Masters, an astronomer at the University of Portsmouth, UK, suggests that academics may be especially prone to this. “When you work in academia, a majority of our feedback is quite negative,” she says. “You submit a paper, your peer reviewer tells you all the things that are wrong with it. Even for very successful academics, this is their experience.” When this “normal” negativity gets augmented with what Masters calls an “underlying sense of, ‘Do you really want to be here, as a woman?’ ” the result is, she says, “tiring”.

For John Asher Johnson, an astronomer at Harvard University, US, and an advocate for minorities in science, the effect of race-based microaggressions is like having a “nagging sub-process called WTF_was_that_racist” running in his brain. Writing on his personal blog in 2014, Johnson called this sub-process “a major drain on the central processing unit”, pointing out that it consumes energy that minority astronomers could otherwise devote to more important things – such as figuring out how the universe works.


Tim Atherton, a soft-matter theorist at Tufts University in the US, agrees that microaggressions can be a serious distraction in the workplace. Atherton is now openly gay (he is a co-organizer of the LGBT+Physicists website), but when he was a postdoc at Case Western Reserve University in the US, in the 1990s, only a few colleagues knew about his sexual orientation. Back then, he says, one of his fellow students regularly brought articles from a right-wing website into their shared office, and would frequently state his belief that gay people were going to hell. “It was very upsetting,” Atherton says. “It didn’t stop me from wanting to go into physics, but it certainly was pretty awful. I found myself pretty miserable at work because of it.”

In addition to being unpleasant and a drag on the confidence of those who experience them, microaggressions are sometimes part of a pattern that includes more serious misconduct. “My first husband was abusive, and I learned a whole lot about abusive behaviour from that,” says one physicist, a woman in her early 50s who prefers to remain anonymous. “It [an abusive relationship] starts with things that you wouldn’t feel comfortable calling people on. And then when that slips by, people can ramp it up. I think microaggressions fit in and contribute to larger problems because they kind of condition people to accept it.”

Both this anonymous physicist and Shanahan, who was harassed by an older male graduate student shortly after she began studying at Wesleyan, say that even moderate and unintentional slights can bring up traumatic memories. “It’s a little bit like an iceberg, where the microaggressions are this tiny tip of something you see, but all of the people who experience them are aware of this vast hidden message,” Shanahan says. “So somebody saying ‘Did you really do this research?’ reminds me of harassment that I experienced. It’s just this nagging reminder that you’re still in this place that doesn’t see you as an equal.”

Another, closely related problem is that when a community allows microaggressions to go unchecked, it becomes harder for the people affected to speak up about more serious cases of discrimination, harassment or bullying. It also creates an impression – justified or otherwise – that complaints will not be taken seriously. “There’s a stereotype of people complaining more if they’re a woman – whining more, can’t cope with the harsh realities of academia, they’re too emotional, all that kind of thing,” Gomez says. “I hear that a lot and that cannot help when the really serious cases do come out.”

Speaking out

If ignoring microaggressions isn’t an option – or, at least, not an option for anyone who wants physics to be a field where talented people of all backgrounds can thrive – the next question is what to do about them. For slights that are minor and clearly unintentional, a gentle correction may be the best way forward. Masters says that when she told a member of the public at an outreach event that she studied galaxies, the man assumed she was an undergraduate and asked what course she was on. When she replied, “Oh, actually, I’m one of the professors here, so let’s talk about galaxies now,” the man “looked a little bit taken aback” but didn’t say anything, and the conversation moved on. “I hope that was a learning experience for him,” Masters says, although she adds that it is “kind of tiring” to keep correcting people.

Atherton suggests that a good strategy is to try to get people to empathize with the person experiencing microaggressions. If you can do that, he says, “you can convince them that even if (for example) they don’t think gay people should get married, or they don’t think that gender is a more fluid construct than binary male/female, they might at least acknowledge that it’s not good to shove their opinions in people’s faces on a daily basis”.

Sometimes, though, appeals to people’s better natures fall flat. Gomez says that she has achieved little by confronting those who challenge her academic credentials. “In one case, I did actually say, ‘Have you looked at my CV? Did you look at my grant application?’ and suggested that they might want to formulate a judgement based on evidence. And they were very open and honest about it [not having looked], but they just couldn’t see the problem with telling me I didn’t deserve the grant or the promotion.”

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In cases where a personal, immediate correction seems unlikely to work – or where it might produce an overtly aggressive response – Atherton advises reporting the situation to an authority figure. Although he was initially reluctant to speak up about his officemate’s homophobic comments because he wasn’t “out” to his supervisor, when he finally did say something, it helped. “He [my supervisor] was very good,” Atherton says. “He had a word with the guy and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech, but I really think we should keep these sorts of conversations outside a professional environment.’ I think that was a good way of putting it, because ultimately when we’re professionals we should be thinking about moderating the way we interact with people.”

Another strategy that several people recommended is to speak up about microaggressions when they are directed at someone else, rather than at yourself or a group you belong to. Gay, who is white, says she has sometimes had good responses when she has pointed out microaggressions against other racial groups, while Gomez praises male colleagues who have stepped in to challenge claims that women get special treatment from grant committees. Shanahan, for her part, agrees that “bystander intervention is huge – specifically, bystander intervention by people who are in positions of power”. If two professors are talking to a student, and one of them says something iffy, she explains, “the other professor needs to step in, because it shouldn’t be the job of the person on the lower end of the power relationship to speak up”.

An even better outcome, though, would be for incidents like this to stop happening altogether. Strolger believes that changes in the demographics of physics and astronomy will help. “It really has a lot to do with building a critical mass of women and minorities in those fields, having role models to attract new people in the field, making sure that there is this inclusive environment,” he says. Shanahan, though, warns that numbers alone will not solve the problem. “There have been movements to increase this buzz-word ‘diversity’, which typically means numbers – the percentage of women or people of colour who are in a given field,” she says. “But the problem with that is you don’t address the environment, so all you end up doing is forcing more people to work in hostile work environments or experience even more prejudice and harassment. They often leave.”

McCullough, who is currently writing a book about the status of women in physics, agrees there are wider problems that need to be addressed. “I think really it’s all about the culture,” she says. “We have to first make everybody aware that this is a real issue. There are so many people who still don’t think there’s a problem with bias against women in science, but there is, and we need every talented person to stay in the field.”

Masters, though, is more optimistic. “Many physicists and astronomers are a delight to work with and it is an extremely positive thing that we as a community are facing up to this,” she says. “I trust the majority of my colleagues to look at this with a very evidence-based eye and think, ‘What can we do to make this better?’”

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