Queered Science: Gender Bias OPEN THREAD

Queered Science is a series of profiles meant to highlight queer science and tell you what you need to know about it, for your intellectual edification and so you don’t feel excluded from a major and predominantly heterosexist subset of academia and industry.

Header by Rory Midhani

Queered Science(2)_Rory Midhani_640px


feature image from genengnews.com

After the last Queered Science post, about Dr. Ben Barres and how his transgender status gave him new insights into gender bias inherent in the sciences, we had a number of comments about gender bias, how to recognize it, and how to deal with it. Gender bias, especially in professional settings, is rarely an overt statement or action that you can name, report, write down, yell about or feel angry about. No, it’s much more subtle. Instead of leaving you righteously angry and ready to take down the whole department if need be in the face of your brave and downright meritorious cause, brushes with gender bias will often leave you with nothing but a rank pool of suspicion and self-doubt lurking in the pit of your stomach. Ew.

Caption: We are taught so young, y’all, so so young. via http://thecollaboratory.wikidot.com/calliham-social-inequality

We are taught so young, y’all, so so young. (via thecollaboratory.wikidot.com)

So how do you handle this? How do you work for equality in your workplace (or school or neighborhood or life) while still surviving and trying to be seen as a successful human in your field of choice at the same time? This is what one gender bias expert, a law professor at UC Berkeley, suggests: smile a lot, make yourself less threatening, and soften your message so it’s easier for other people to accept.

Mary Ann Mason: “smile a lot. Smiling, just evolutionarily, means we’re friends. We’re not going to do you harm.” (via genderbiasbingo.com)

Or how about this one, from Joan Williams, law professor at UC Hastings.

Joan Williams: “you need softeners…to send femme-y signals, signals that you aren’t deficiently feminine…” (via genderbiasbingo.com)

This sounds like just trying to fit even further into the gender role stereotypes that are so constricting and problematic in the first place. Soften my message? Smile more – but definitely don’t flirt, that’s a line we have to walk, too? Ok so maybe people will like me as a person, because I’m being non-threatening and friendly, but those tactics don’t effect any real change. And, more than that, I’m leaving the exact same walls and barriers still standing in the way of everyone else who comes behind me.

Now, Williams does preface her statement with the fact that you really want to change the workplace expectations first and foremost. And I like her last phrase: “It’s better to be a bitch than a doormat.” But it’s frustrating that we even need to prove that we are ‘sufficiently feminine’ (and what does that even mean anyway?) to get further ahead. The idea that being stereotypically femme-y is a prerequisite to getting any good feminist work done is short-sighted, counter-effective, and just plain backwards. Like our awesome reader Becky said, this kind of advice is like handing us the psychological equivalent of an apron and frying pan.

But in thinking about other potential strategies, here is the problem I keep coming up with: fixing gender bias is not our responsibility. The burden should be on those who are biased, and if a coworker really thinks I’m less deserving /intelligent /reliable /creative /whateverthehellelse just because I’m a woman then there’s not a lot I can do anyway.

At the same time, if we don’t do it, who will, right? And if we want to succeed in a male-dominated profession, we are going to come up against this sooner or later.

So I’m asking you, dear readers — magical alchemists who take the cruddy drudgery of working in the world of misogyny and other assorted problems and turn it into nuggets of social-justice learning-moment gold — what do you do? What strategies do you or people you know (or could you, or could others) employ to combat gender bias or any other kind of latent discrimination? Let’s talk about it.

And here’s a little gold nugget of a video, just to end on a happy note.

Shauna Marshall, Academic Dean at UC Hastings: “It’s ok not to be liked. It’s better to be respected. So go with that.” (via genderbiasbingo.com

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Vivian has written 15 articles for us.


  1. Contrary perhaps to popular opinion, I don’t feel like smiling and friendliness are gendered as specifically femme-y? I guess they make already pretty feminine presenting women / people seem more appropriately feminine but if you read as non-feminine / non-femme to begin with smiling won’t *really* make you seem feminine, you know? and I don’t feel like we should encourage the idea that non-feminine presentation should be associated with frowning or being angry or “bitchiness”? Although obviously it’s clear that a woman who doesn’t look feminine will be read as angry (and threatening?) a lot more easily (due to misogyny, homophobia etc), I don’t think there is any real connection between how friendly a woman is and her gender presentation?

    Basically please don’t make me feel like I’m not living up to this standard of “authentic” (gender non-conforming) womanhood just because I like to be friendly?? I didn’t know I had to frown all to time if I want to not be feminine?????

    • I think the problem with the “smile” advice is that the point of the smiling is to make yourself non-threatening. I also automatically smile, and I like being friendly as part of my daily interactions with people, but I do it because that feels authentic to me – not so that I fit better into the “nonthreatening female” stereotype. I agree, there is no real connection between how friendly a woman is and her gender presentation, like you said. People of all genders smile, and people of all genders frown, some are more to one side than the other, and that’s the way it should be. It’s when we put on some inauthentic emotion just to fit in to a work environment that something is wrong.

      • I get that we’re meant to smile to seem non-threatening, but I think gendering smiling – and / or non-threateningness is a bit more complicated and, for lack of a better and clearer word, problematic than simply equating smiling / being non-threatening with submissive femininity. If being non-threatening is being feminine, doesn’t that imply you can’t be non-threatening when you’re not feminine? It’s like ??? there’s this unspoken assumption that all women have equal access to submissive femininity and can just appear submissively feminine whenever it suits them and get away with it, which isn’t the case. This goes hand in hand with the assumption that by refusing to be feminine you are by default a threat, or angry – an assumption that accepts unchallenged some misogynist and homophobic judgements about non-feminine women. The alternatives that people are suggesting to being submissively feminine are still gendered as feminine – they’re being a “bitch” or an “ice queen” – not, erm, an angry (ugly hairy etc) lesbian which, I think, suggests are higher degree of gender norms transgression?

        I feel like it’s common for feminism to congratulate feminine women for refusing to engage in a few specfically gendered acts like smiling (because femininity is generally equated with weakness etc), while also continuing to regard non-feminine women as Scary and Horrible when they reject femininity in a much more systematic way. It’s part of making femininity seem invisible and natural? Which is why I kept replying to this with comments full of question marks?

  2. “Hey baby, smile!” is the voice going off in my head during that Mary Ann Mason video *cringe*

    I do get there are circumstances where smiling can work to our advantage, and actually it is kind of in my nature to smile, but then there are also times when I feel stressed out under a deadline and that sort of thing, and those times, I really do need to be able to back off a bit and keep to myself while I’m working out in my head how to solve whatever problem I’m looking at or whatever.

    Also there are guys in my work environment (especially at conferences and that sort of thing) who obviously interpret my smiling as flirting, so there’s that too.

    • I agree. I happen to be in a department with a rather large number of socially awkward folks (shout-out to honors math kids!), and smiling = flirting, apparently.

      I also don’t know why I should smile to appear less threatening. The PROBLEM is that men don’t see women as competition. Are we supposed to pretend they’re right? How does that help anything?

  3. The most important thing I’ve come up with so far is that our job is to remember gender bias exists, in all its varied forms, and to not assume our own incompetence if we don’t get a raise/promotion/grant etc. And, if at all possible, to talk openly about all kinds of bias, not just gender bias, in our workplaces. I know that’s not much but it’s what I have come up with for a start.

  4. The gender bias that I’ve experienced is a little outside the box, but I just realized that it is just as significant as the overt bias we usually think about. I tutor high school students in chemistry, math, and physics and I have a mix of boys and girls that I work with. Recently, my supervisor made a comment about why she didn’t have me work with a specific client explaining, “He just needs to work with a man who won’t let him get away with anything.” At first I let it go, figuring that my life would be a lot less stressful without this kid to worry about. But now I am realizing that this is gender bias in its nascent form – this boy is going to grow up to be a man who has no respect for women because no one ever put him in a situation where a strong woman could establish some boundaries for him. Plus, my supervisor was working under the assumption that the kid was too tough for *any* woman because women are all pushovers.

    It seems like there is a line between acting too challenging to men and being typically feminine and gentle – a fine line that we as women are expected to walk in high heels. I hate high heels, and I’ll be walking that line in my Adidas, thankyouverymuch. And come to think of it, I don’t even want to exist in that middle ground anyway. I think the way I can personally address this gender bias is to advocate for myself if my supervisor ever thinks I am too gentle to handle a tough case. Trust me when I tell you I am not a pushover and I could have taught this kid a lesson or two.

  5. Sometimes, I think being seen as non-threatening can make you seem like a pushover, and some people try to take advantage of you – therefore I’m not sure about that advice. Of course, I pretty much am a pushover in many situations, so maybe I’ve just taught them that they can get away with it. When I’ve come across people who seem to have a gender bias (and I say ‘seem’, as they don’t tend to run around shouting things that make it obvious, so it is just my perception), I prefer to just try to show in subtle ways that in fact I am every part their equal in the quality of my work or ability to complete a task etc. If I were more assertive perhaps I would consider making it more obvious.

  6. I feel like it’s hard to find a balance between being professional, being “nice,” and being true to who you are and how you want to authentically act in the moment. It feels like a lose-lose situation sometimes. When I’m being more smiley and friendly, I’m hyperconscious that I may unintentionally be playing into gendered ways of interacting with colleagues (“Do they think I’m a flake?” “Are they taking me less seriously because I’m acting ‘girly’?”). When I’m not being smiley and perky, I’m paranoid that I’m being perceived as a bitchy ice queen, representing the stereotype of the hard lady in science you don’t wanna work with.

    It’s hard, ya’ll. Ulimately, I just act however I’m gonna act and what feels authentic most of the time, but these thoughts are still in my head, and it sometimes makes me second-guess how I’m acting or adjust my behaviors a bit. Ugh, it’s not the best.

  7. I think one of the most important and effective things you could do is to educate people. For example, in almost all cases where I have observed misogyny in the workplace, neither party, seems to realize that what they are doing is misogynistic and/or gender biased, and that includes the majority of your average women.

    I would also like to note that the first picture in this article, the one with two babies, while I must admit it is quite cute and adorable, it seems to suggest that it is your genitalia which determines if you are affected by misogyny, and speaking as a trans woman, that’s not really the case…

    • You’re right, I think the most important thing is to educate people, and keep it in mind for yourself, so if you’re ever involved, you can be aware that what’s going on IS misogyny/gender bias. I’m reminded of a woman in a class of mine who raised her hand and said something sexist, and then finished her comment with, “and, I mean, I’m a woman, so that’s not, like, sexist or anything…” Except, duh, it totally was.

      And thanks for the note about the cute babies image, I see your point there.

  8. “deficiently feminine” ugh

    When I think about the times that I’ve tried correcting people all matter-of-fact-ly, (not even just at work)I realize that it doesn’t usually go over well. It almost feels like I’m being further marginalized for bringing it up. However, those are gut reactions and I just couldn’t help myself.

    If I stay calm and respectful and put it out there like, “hey, you just said this and it makes me feel like this”, that person generally listens to what I have to say and considers it.

  9. Honestly, the way I’ve always chosen to combat gender (and anti-LGBT) bias in my job is to make sure I’m exceptionally good at it, and essentially over-achieve so that no-one can find any quibble with my performance that they can ascribe to any part of my gender/gender expression/sexual orientation they feel like blaming. Effective? Yes. Exhausting? Totally. Worth it? Dunno – jury is still out. Ask me in 5 years :)

    As for smiling and softening the message, I don’t really know what to say about that. I’m super polite and friendly to people at work, not because I want to appear non-threatening, but because I want to foster a happy work environment, and I’ve found that asking nicely tends to get you what you want in a quick and cheerful manner. Doesn’t mean I can’t put on my hard-ass hat if I need to, but I find it’s rarely necessary. The advantage of the over-achieving and generally-nice part is that my colleagues do respect me, and when I have to get Very Stern, I get what I need without getting caught up in that misogynistic crap where men just think I’m a bitch when actually, I’m just asking for what I need to do my job.

    Mind you, I also strongly suspect that my very English attempts at Very Stern often just get translated by everyone else as asking for something with 10% less politeness, even if I internally feel like I just ripped someone a new one……

    Did you all see this HBR article about second generation gender bias? Really interesting reading. http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/08/educate-everyone-about-second/

    • Some of my favorite quotes from the article you posted:
      “Most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination and deny it even when it is objectively true and they see that women in general experience it.”

      “Second-generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context — akin to “something in the water” — in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.”

      “Without an understanding of second-generation bias, people are left with stereotypes to explain why women as a group have failed to achieve parity with men: If they can’t reach the top, it is because they “don’t ask,” are “too nice,” or simply “opt out.” These messages tell women who have managed to succeed that they are exceptions and women who have experienced setbacks that it is their own fault for failing to be sufficiently aggressive or committed to the job.”

      “We find that when women recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects.”

      • The first of the quotes you pulled out really resonated with me too. I work at a small, majority male university, and it’s horrifying to me to see the misogyny coming from the female undergrads who have successfully assimilated into the male environment, and then turn around and pour scorn on those who have not conformed. They deny that there is any gender discrimination taking place because they have been successful, and blame the women who don’t fit in, rather than the environment for its misogyny. Their view is that “well, if they don’t fit in here, maybe they shouldn’t be here.”

        The worst part is that I know I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking in the past. It took a while (and coming out and getting past some of my internalised homophobia) for me to grow up and realise that a system that fails to support some of us is failing to support all of us (the guys included), and becoming more like one of the boys may help me personally, but sure as hell doesn’t help solve the problem. It’s frustrating dealing with undergrads who don’t yet “get it” :)

  10. I don’t work in the science community–that didn’t work out for me, partly (but not all) because of the enormous gender bias…BUT…As far as the smiling thing goes, I had an interesting experience.

    I work in the service industry now. For the most part this suits me quite well; I really enjoy interacting with people and I am generally in a great mood while I’m at work. However, since I am human, I do have moments where I am feeling anxious/upset/frustrated with something that is/has happened, and because I’m not a service robot, that sometimes shows for a second before I’m able to turn the ‘charm’ back on and ‘fake it til [I] make it’. One day I was at work and everything was fine, but something happened that upset me momentarily. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I remember frowning for approximately 2 minutes before I fully recovered. Which resulted in a review of my workplace on Google reviews reading “I like this place, and everyone who works there, except for the short female barista with the bitter look on her face”. Which resulted in a reprimand for me. At the time I wanted to communicate to my manager that it was clearly gender bias on the customer’s part-it’s not like anyone else smiled at them either–but out of the inability to articulate my frustration in the moment I didn’t. Here I think the bias is twofold: yes, I work in service and I need to be reasonably friendly. But I am more friendly and outgoing with customers than any of my male counterparts, and there has never been a single complaint about them being ‘bitter’ or unfriendly, etc. This isn’t the only example; other females at my workplace have dealt with similar complaints; clearly there’s a double standard.
    So, basically what I’m saying is…FUCK THE PATRIARCHY.

    • Sorry, to clarify, that was supposed to be: the bias is twofold–once against women, and once against people who work in the service industry in general.

  11. I used to share a studio with a quite inspiring (and queer) lady who worked in the very male-dominated industry of construction and property development. She told me a story about how on one job she had a bad team of carpenters who were doing a crap job. She walked in one day while they were all working and very politely, nicely but firmly, asked them to put down their tools and leave. However she purposefully did this in front of the rest of the crew of builders etc (who were doing an okay job). The fired carpenters had to sheepishly leave, whilst everybody else on the job saw. It was awkward, but fine.

    Afterwards however the rest of the remaining crew did an amazing job. They had seen that she was polite and friendly but not afraid to call people out on their bullshit. After that her team worked extra hard, always sought her approval, and totally respected her.

    I thought it was quite a good lesson. You don’t have to be a bitch to demand respect. Getting the balance right is tricky but pays off huge dividends. dfsddd

Comments are closed.