My passionate feelings towards the subject of gender bias and sexual harassment in academia have lead to intense conversations with colleagues and superiors, and I found myself becoming extremely self conscious as I realized how difficult it was to articulate my curiosities and intentions. In the real world, gender bias can often be suspected… but difficult to quantify. Discrimination can feel confusing or subjective. It can lead to self-doubt and skepticism. It’s hard to know when you are being harassed or marginalized, and what to do if you suspect you were.
I was recently invited to speak at a symposium entitled “Women in Forest Entomology” at our annual Forest Entomology conference this summer. I was both thrilled and terrified at this invitation. I would be discussing an already polarizing topic, and my audience would predominantly be the very men who inspired me to undertake this independent research study in the first place. My nerves turned out to be unfounded. My presentation was met with an overall positive response, and many personal accounts validating my frustrations. Best of all, I soon formed a professional bond with symposium organizer, Jessica Hartshorn (University of Arkansas). We both felt it was important to discuss gender issues openly, so we can work together to address common concerns through a unified strategy. We agreed to work together on a collaborative study, with the objective of conducting a series of interviews with a diverse collection of scientists.
Jessica and I designed the study to represent the perspective of the modern scientist, and approached individuals from all backgrounds to talk about the adversity they, or someone they know, have faced in their scientific careers, and discuss how they handled such obstacles. We aim aim to address the lack of diversity in today’s scientific careers with hard data, and use the power of storytelling to inspire others who may be struggling with similar issues. We hope to consolidate these interviews into reports on the current status of diversity in the sciences, and into a collection of anonymous personal stories from the perspective of today’s modern scientist. In this study, we asked individuals to complete a short interview with either Jessica or myself. It was important to us that our volunteers represented a variety of professional and academic backgrounds, ethnicities, and personal histories.
News of our collaboration spread quickly in our tight-niched professional sphere, and Jessica was soon contacted by Debi Sutton, director of the Entomology Society of America’s new diversity initiative committee. Debi graciously invited us to collaborate with ESA’s Diversity Initiative, and conduct interviews at their central location at the ESA national conference in November. We published an article advertising our interview-based research project was published on the Entomological Society of America website, and distributed to all national members via list serve. We received dozens of responses from a variety of professional scientists, and successfully conducted interviews with individuals with backgrounds as diverse as graduate students, tenured professors and industry professionals.
All of this happened very quickly, and was overall a successful endeavor that I’m excited to continue pursuing. Experimental design did not come without its doubts, however, and I have grown to appreciate the full complexity of responsibly collecting data on such sensitive subject matter. It was especially important to be mindful of our process because we were collecting data in an interview-based setting. We wanted to ask open-ended questions, and were careful not to use any leading dialogue. Early on, Dr. Sutton contacted us with criticism she had indirectly received, addressing our experimental conduct with recorded interviews. The public was wary of our subject matter, and understandably cautious of discussing such sensitive topics. Jessica and I took great care to design an ethically responsible experimental process, if you are interested in our project or receiving a list of the interview questions, click here.