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I have been supervising a female PhD student for a couple of months. She is the first female PhD student I am supervising and got the position on merit.

My view is that her gender does not/should not change anything in how I supervise her or what I expect from her, the rationale being that doing so might ultimately hurt her in her post-PhD career. For this reason, I have not brought up her gender in any of our discussions. I briefly contemplated telling her that I will treat her the same way as her male peers, but did not do so because it seemed wrong (as in "of course, why is he telling me this?").

Lately I have been wondering, however, whether there are things I should do that I might not even be thinking of. Perhaps my own experience and the male-dominated environment blind me so that I do not perceive my own sexist/reverse-sexist attitudes and ultimately do not do things that I should be doing (and vice versa)? So I am interested in reading advice/views on supervising female PhD students (in male-dominated academic environments).

A few notes to address anticipated follow-up questions: Yes, I am male. I did not specify where my institution is located because I am interested in a range of opinions/comments. The agency that finances her project offers a special stipend to attend workshops/meetings for female students; I have encouraged her to attend.

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"...and got the position on merit" - Would you feel it necessary to clarify that a male student got in on merit? – whrrgarbl Dec 29 '15 at 17:04
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I'm don't think this is worth an answer, but by the time I got to grad school I was both keenly aware of being a minority and used to it -- chances are she is too. I only wanted to be treated as a student, not as some special "female student". – whrrgarbl Dec 29 '15 at 17:10
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@whrrgarbl: I'm glad you bring this up. The only reason I mentioned it is that I wanted to make clear that (a) she is a capable student and (b) was not hired as part of any kind of affirmative action drive. I've witnessed cases in the past where female students were accepted as graduate students although more qualified male candidates were available. That's not the case here. – G. L. Dec 29 '15 at 17:27
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I think this is a lovely and considerate question. The fact that you are already reflecting over your treatment of the girl and the current environment, says a lot already, not everyone would do this. I think you probably have nothing to worry about, and she is lucky to have you as a supervisor. – Kelly Dec 29 '15 at 22:51
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"Lately I have been wondering, however, whether there are things I should do that I might not even be thinking of." I'd recommend you take an implicit association test. There are decent ones at Harvard's Project Implicit. This can help you know about your implicit biases. – 2rs2ts Dec 30 '15 at 21:53

11 Answers 11

up vote 141 down vote accepted

My view is that her gender does not/should not change anything in how I supervise her or what I expect from her, the rationale being that doing so might ultimately hurt her in her post-PhD career. For this reason, I have not brought up her gender in any of our discussions. I briefly contemplated telling her that I will treat her the same way as her male peers, but did not do so because it seemed wrong (as in "of course, why is he telling me this?").

That is exactly the advice I would give in this situation, so congrats, you've already figured it out.

The agency that finances her project offers a special stipend to attend workshops/meetings for female students; I have encouraged her to attend.

Try not to overdo the encouragement. I get so much spam inviting me to assorted "women in engineering" events.

On a related note, you might want to watch out for the possibility that you (or your department) might have a tendency to overuse the students who are "visible" minorities (race, gender) in publicity materials and outreach events. Some people don't mind (some even appreciate this), but some dislike being used as "poster children" to show how diverse the department is. (There's a joke in this TV episode, where the African-American doctor calls out his college for overusing him in their brochure by photoshopping him into the same picture twice.)

I'm sure people must have published studies about how female PhD students are statistically more likely to have families and be concerned about work-life balance issues, and how you have to be more supportive, etc. But all that really just comes down to being communicative and supportive of your students, whatever their individual needs might be. For large numbers I'm sure there's a gender dimension there, but at the individual level it's just about being a good supervisor to an individual student.

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+1 for the last sentence. – Simon W Dec 29 '15 at 10:52
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+1 for the second-to-last paragraph. At my institution---and in particular in my (becoming-less-)male-dominated department, it is common for the women to be asked to serve on various diversity-related committees. They are basically being asked to do more work just because of their gender. It's important for more privileged folks to perform these activities as well. – march Dec 29 '15 at 19:07
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@march There is plenty of committees also for male staff to serve in. Do you believe that women get diversity-related committees in addition to, or instead of other committees that a man in the same position would get? – Federico Poloni Dec 30 '15 at 11:03
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@FedericoPoloni Based on my experience it's almost certainly in addition. – xLeitix Dec 30 '15 at 12:02
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I would also add that having a poster child mentality can also grow a large amount of resentment in your other grad students as they find themselves not sent anywhere while one colleague because of their race/sex/etc goes to everything. This hampers their own professional development, which you have agreed to oversee as advisor, and so it does everybody involved a disservice. Resentment like that can grow and cause those students to some day dismiss the poster child character for only getting what she got through favoritism rather than merit, which is a stigma which never washes off. – Broklynite Dec 31 '15 at 8:19

Although the question has arisen with increasing frequency "how do I handle said female in x (male dominated) environment?", your approach to it is not common - and it fills me with hope for the future to read how you've handled it. You're doing what so few can figure out how to do - you're not treating her differently. You're holding your concerns about what that may or may not mean at bay.

Most people do one of two things: over or under compensate, and it's my experience that in this time of growing awareness about gender imbalances in certain fields, that most people lean towards overcompensating. As a woman, I find that almost worse. When people bend over backwards to tell me how impressed they are that I'm breaking the status quo and enthusiastically express that we need to fix the gender imbalance, then do everything in their power to support me with so much emphasis on this issue, I start to wonder if I was ever really qualified in the first place. I start to question if I succeed because of my hard work and determination or because of my anatomy. It takes the joy out of all the wins, and I frequently feel like a fraud.

One of the best examples I can provide is that I'm often approached at conferences by recruiters, and one of the first words out of their mouths are "we're looking to hire more women". Quite frankly, it's offensive. They're not looking to hire "more qualified professionals", or "persons with my particular skill set". They're looking to meet a quota, and not knowing anything about me, they still want to hire me because they can tell from a glance what my gender is.

Now I understand there are good intentions there - they want to give me the opportunity to interview. An opportunity that women haven't been given as often in the past. But at this point, I know the opportunity is out there. I know many companies will hire you even if you're less qualified BECAUSE you're a woman and they're trying to prove just how progressive and PC they are to the world to improve their image, while others are simply motivated to fix the problem, but unaware of the best way to help.

Ranting aside, this is what I would hope for, and what has always made me happy when encountered in past interactions:

Be just as tough on her as you would be with your male students. She'll come out better for it. If she's good at her job because she truly earned her education, she'll blaze a path in the field that will change the minds of those dwindling number of sexist individuals she'll encounter in the workplace by the quality of her work. She'll inspire other women to pursue their passions because her intelligence and work ethic will speak for itself.

If you cut her slack because she's a woman, you're simply raising false idols. Other men will dislike her because she's not as competent or qualified when she graduates and you'll reinforce existing sexist views, and women who wind up working with her that did climb over obstacles to get there won't respect her, and will consider her an embarrassment to the movement.

Do your part by doing nothing.

But if you see her stress, trip or begin to falter, do what you would for any other male student - check in. Mention your office hours, suggest peer study groups, and "catch up" alternate class times if you have other open spots.

If she's worthy of her degree, she'll do what it takes to succeed.

We'll catch up eventually both in numbers in the STEM community, and in raising our glass ceiling. All we ask is to have the same opportunities. Not a leg up to reach them.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; a conversation on this answer has been moved to chat. For those who want to read only, here's a transcript. Feel free to continue the discussion in that chat room. (I've moved the existing comments there, but I don't have the ability to do that more than once, so additional comments from that discussion that are posted on this answer will just be deleted, not moved.) – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 11:28
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Your second paragraph reminds me of a time when a fellow student in my undergrad cohort, who happened to be a disabled war veteran, pulled me aside and told me how impressed he was that I was studying engineering and at the top of our class, despite being a woman! In my head I was thinking "Gee, and I'm really impressed with you for going back to college and doing ok, being disabled and all! Bravo! (Do you feel condescended to yet?)" But I try to be a nice person, so I just smiled weakly. – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 11:51
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+1 for "Do your part by doing nothing." It is too bad when the majority of people on the planet (females) should be seen as handicapped. When you look at the idea of "women and minorities", they make up the vast majority of people, so they really should act like it. Ignore the arrogant people, stop supporting them, withdraw, and create a better world. If they complain at being ignored, smile weakly. – no comprende Dec 30 '15 at 13:52
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This is exactly why I get fed up with all these people who say 'your staff should contain x number of females'. People should be let in on merit, not because of some discriminatory 'equal oportunities' system. If there aren't enough females of high merit then that's a failing elsewhere in the system. – Pharap Jan 1 at 3:20

In addition to @ff524's excellent answer, I would recommend one other important step to take: start following the blogs and/or other social media writings of some outspoken female academics.

Despite best intentions, your perspective is likely to be limited in many ways simply because you are male and not female, and our media tends to provide us with a lot more male perspectives on science than female ones (Quick: name 10 people who write about science. How many of the people who popped into your head were male?)

Explicitly adding more female voices to your media consumption is a good way to broaden your perspective and to decrease the likelihood that you will unintentionally do something problematic in advising your student. For a starting point, let me recommend a few semi-arbitrarily selected blogs that I find interesting:

Happy reading---and note that you can apply a similar method to broadening your perspective on other sorts of under-represented perspectives as well.

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Just as a curiosity, would specifically attempting to add female sources be the best choice? Presuming you limit the number of sources you read from, (for time, cost, etc) I don't think I would be comfortable giving up what I consider high merit sources purely because of this. Although I am certain it is correct in the scope of this answer, I just wonder about the overall effect. – Sh4d0wsPlyr Dec 29 '15 at 19:35
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@Sh4d0wsPlyr Personally, I don't treat my media consumption as a zero-sum game, nor do I attempt to rank all media onto a single scale. – jakebeal Dec 29 '15 at 20:14
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For those looking for more choices of reading material in this vein, see answers here, here, and here. – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 12:35
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"The study found that male and female science faculty ranked job applicants as more hirable if their applications featured male names". No, it didn't find any such general conclusion. It only addressed a laboratory manager position. " Many of the men she passed the paper to “started picking apart the study design and the flaws they saw with the paper.”" So when a much larger and more comprehensive study which showed a hiring bias in several fields for academic tenure in favor of women by about a 2 to 1 ratio, women didn't question it? pnas.org/content/112/17/5360.abstract – Doug Spoonwood Jan 2 at 3:48
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@DougSpoonwood The prosecution rests. – jakebeal Jan 2 at 4:03

One thing to watch is meeting dynamics. A level of assertiveness that would be seen as a good thing in a man may be regarded shrill or angry coming from a woman. Some of us don't care, but younger, less experienced women may try to get along by softening and suppressing their opinions. That may risk getting their opinions and ideas ignored.

Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting illustrates what women do when trying to express opinions safely.

All I can suggest is to watch the dynamics of e.g. group research meetings, and make sure that all of your students, including the woman, get a proper hearing when they try to say something.

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Yes, I have noticed that she was too deferential in our discussions and have told her that I expect her to speak up when she disagrees with me. It has become a little better already and I am keeping an eye on it. – G. L. Dec 30 '15 at 5:19
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That article you linked to seems obnoxious and mildly offensive to me. I realize it's meant to be humorous, but it's an exaggerated stereotype that sounds like no woman I know. The actual research shows that men use assertive speech more than women to a statistically significant but negligible degree. Per this meta-analysis "Assertive speech was hypothesized to be more likely among men than women. There was a statistically significant but negligible mean effect size of d = .09 (95% CI = .02 / .15)." – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 11:23
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@G.L. I think it is common for many new students to be a little bit scared to disagree with their supervisor at first - see e.g. How do I stop feeling intimidated by my advisor? – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 11:36
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The point of that article isn't how women of the exact same standing would have said them. It's how they would have to say those things to not be seen negatively by listeners, when the men who actually said them were seen positively. "I have [translated them] into the phrases a woman would have to use to say them during a meeting not to be perceived as angry, threatening or (gasp!) bitchy." – Novelocrat Dec 30 '15 at 17:30
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@ff524 - that's an awsome find! I'm mildly curious (and this is getting offtopic), did that research correct for general personality? I'm quite assertive (some people would call worse), but that's because I developed an assertive personality, in part consciously. First half of my life I was extremely timid and NON-assertive, both due to innate geek personality, specific upbringing, and being the youngest, smallest kid in my grade in a rather rough school. BOTH levels of assertiveness was the same me, simply shaping my personality and mindset. – DVK Jan 3 at 15:35

I agree that you should not treat her any differently than your male students, nor should you point this out to her. However, remember that her gender may affect how she is treated by others in your field (students or colleagues). If she raises concerns about sexism or harassment, above all, listen to her. Then find out how you can support her. As you probably know, Title IX applies to grad students and faculty, as well as undergrads.

You may also want to pay a little extra attention to how others interact with her in seminars, research group meetings, and other professional settings. If you see things that concern you, be an active bystander, and let her know you've got her back.

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Thanks for making this important point, with which I agree completely. – G. L. Dec 30 '15 at 5:16
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Indeed, your advice is consistent with this post. I might go so far as to suggest that all people should really pay attention to the way people around them treat one another, and be actively supportive by calling out inappropriate treatment when they see it. (Not only advisors looking out for their students!) – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 11:41
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Excellent. "Let her know you've got her back". That is good advice for any advisor, with any student. Because advisors are both teacher, and supporter. They criticize, and they praise. But in the end, they should have their student's best interest at heart - and that means being in their corner if the going gets tough. – Floris Dec 30 '15 at 16:01

Keep an eye out for signs of impostor syndrome and be prepared to counter it*. Given that you're supervising PhD students, I'll note that this really applies to all of your advisees. However, it's more prevalent among members of underrepresented groups in any given field or community.

*I'll let others provide further advice on that latter part - I don't have any special knowledge or experience there. I'm happy to accept edits on that point, upvote comments, etc.

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Some advice on countering imposter syndrome in students you are supervising: have them read this :) – ff524 Dec 30 '15 at 11:42
    
The fact this answer both subverts mentioning gender by referring to underrepresented groups and also provides general advice is impressive. – Pharap Jan 1 at 3:04

For me as a female grad student in a male-dominated field it was and is very important to meet female role models. And I started to be that for younger students. So my 5 cents are to introduce her to successful (and nice ;-)) women in your field if you happen to know some and if you can do so in a natural way. I also tend to have very empathetic (male) collaborators, while this seems to be less of a criterion for my male colleagues when choosing their collaborators.

My experience is also that female students in such a field tend to need more encouragement (given the same potential/talent). For example I myself would never have started a PhD without the direct encouragement of my now supervisor (and now I LOVE research). The solution to this does not have to be gender-specific, I totally agree with "But all that really just comes down to being communicative and supportive of your students, whatever their individual needs might be."

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This gets at something you can be doing pretty generally, too, if you're not already - make a point of introducing your students to relevant people in the field, at any opportunity. Especially when they're applying for jobs later, that warm introduction from someone they know and presumably trust as a colleague might be the edge that gets them hired. – Novelocrat Dec 30 '15 at 17:32

In addition to all of the excellent advice given in the other answers, you need to take extra care to not allow any hints of a non-professional relationship with her.

For example, as a male, if I had a female student visiting my office, I would never close my door, even if she asked. We never speak about our romantic lives, even though we can certainly chat about hobbies or the news. If I'm accompanying her to a conference, I never go to meals with her alone, even though I would do so with a single male student.

It doesn't even matter if I'm even heterosexual or not. But I'm in the position of power, and there needs to be no opportunities for even accusations of improper conduct. The stories of vulnerable women being taken advantage of by their professors, or flirtatious women winning favour the wrong way - society simply doesn't expect men to behave the same way.

Being over-cautious now can head off career-ending complaints later.

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The fact such things are necessary just go to show what tragic times we live in. – Pharap Jan 1 at 3:00
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I sharply disagree. The PhD student-advisor relationship inherently means that a whole lot of time is going to be spent together. Life and pursuit of a PhD have a strong likelihood of getting entangled somewhere in the years spent working on it. The advisor should establish a clear environment of appropriate boundaries and mutual trust. Students of any gender should (if they desire) be able to turn to their advisor as a mentor who knows them well that they can rely on. The suggested path of excluding certain kinds of interactions based on genders means missing opportunities to help students. – Novelocrat Jan 5 at 18:56
    
@Novelocrat Oh I know, and it's a crying shame - I certainly gained a lot from the relationship with my own supervisor. But it's part of the legal/social minefield at most institutions these days, particularly western academic ones. Unless you're so significantly tenured that you can handle the fallout, you really have to play it safe. – Widjet Jan 7 at 7:24

There are lots of good points made in the other answers. I have read them all, but didn't see this idea. I did see "don't tell her", but I would suggest you do tell her.

The reason is that you want to learn and being male having worked exclusively with male students, you don't know what mistakes you may be making. That is your point, and your female student could help.

If you tell your first female student she is your first, your intentions center on fairness and merit, and that she would be helping you improve by gently pointing out gender bias, she might be glad to help. Otherwise, if she does see bias (which you missed), she could easily assume that's just how it is, as though you already know.

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This is generally good, but your wording could use a fair bit of work. 2 comments to follow. – Novelocrat Jan 5 at 18:58
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'Meritocracy' has become a very loaded term, usually with implications that claims of discrimination aren't credible. I would phrase that part along the lines of having admitted her because of an excellent track record to date, and an expectation that she'll continue to do good work. – Novelocrat Jan 5 at 19:00
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@Novelocrat Good point. I replaced the loaded term, but need not take credit for your additional wording and idea. – donjuedo Jan 5 at 19:06
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Asking her to 'gently' point out gender bias is burdening her with making a complaint she felt necessary emotionally palatable to you. Turn that around. Make it clear to her that if she brings something up, you trust that she has a good reason. If it centers on something you do or have done, or someone you're inclined to stick up for, be prepared to process any tendency toward a defensive response on your own, or with someone else you can trust for advice. If you feel a need to ask for clarification on those events' practical or emotional impact, you should be trying to do that gently. – Novelocrat Jan 5 at 19:08
    
Thanks for editing :-). Fell free to directly incorporate suggestions as you see fit. I'm fine with sharing credit - after all, edit history is visible, and my comments are still here. I'd rather readers see the good stuff up front, rather than have to dig through the comments to piece it together. Upvotes on the comments wouldn't hurt, of course. – Novelocrat Jan 5 at 19:09

In anti-racism thinking, white folks have "white privilege." In this (by now somewhat dated) piece scholar Peggy McIntosh reflected on that privilege and what it means. http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

There are similar reflections on what it means to enjoy male privilege. For example: http://amptoons.com/blog/the-male-privilege-checklist/

Setting aside racism and sexism can be quite difficult, especially for white guys. What's easier: becoming more aware of how race and sex can affect your own outlook.

I've asked people, alone or in groups, to read this kind of stuff. It helps get people ready for the kind of "first woman student" or "first black boss" change you are experiencing.

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I understand I might have lost people wit the following answer. In short: the dream supervisor has many skills, a specific role, yet one goal: elevate the skills of a PhD student to the level where she/he can fly away by herself/himself, despite three types of stereotypes: his/hers, yours, those from your (her/his+you) environment.

Warning: the following answer contains strong allegorical content. One can replace the two bird species by other animals, male/female, as well as other broad categories like majority/minority. This was partly inspired by:

It helped me to step aside the question, as done in some science-fiction or utopian texts.

First, to limit the standard gender biases and stereotypes, try to view the situation from an other perspective: you are a duck, the field is 95% duckish, and you are supervising your first seagull student. Both are quite similar: they are birds, they fly and dive, they are webbed-toed. But one common trait, though less visible at first glance, is more important to scholars: they can travel thousands of miles (out of merit). The allegory is about focusing on the most important traits in academia, not the obvious ones that matter most in society.

Yet, in this allegory, some birds are more familiar than others in everyday life. And the others are more prone to songs or poems.

So I am a duck, supervising a seagull student. The work place is 99% duckish. Ducks shake wings to other ducks, but they like to cheek kiss seagulls. There are other such "habits", that distinguish seagulls and ducks in workplaces.

So I told my seagull student: "I do not really like to shake wings with birds, cause wings get dirty (and you can get bird flu), but this is a habit. So I now ask people if they want to shake wings or else. With those who dislike that, we can agree on a different sign. What do you prefer?".

My intent is to show that seagulls can make their own rules in a duck world, slowly but firmly.

When I have changed some of my unconscious duck manners, I can observe other ducks behavior: do they behaved duckish? do I feel this may affect the seagull's feelings?

Then, observing a specific behavior (daily comments in public about the seagull's feathers), I can tell the seagull (face to face, afterward): "I have seen this behavior, it seems duckish and misplaced to me. If you feel like this too as a bird (or a seagull in first place), may I suggest you to talk to the duck face to face, and tell it what happened, how you feel, and what you would like in the future (tools from emotional intelligence). If you do not want that here, or cannot handle it right now, here is some help you can use: myself, or another trusty person (if possible, a senior seagull you know in HR department. Just tell it. You should also know that even 'talking about how duckish ducks can be' can help".

On my own, I did tell a follow duck how duckish it was with the seagull, from my point of view, not involving the seagull, and told the duck to think about it. I even had to make public comments about its feathers on a regular basis to ring the bell. It worked.

Finally, I confess a little tern bias when I present scholar birds to the seagull (at meeting, conferences). Showing how other senior seagulls perform in the field can be important for identification and future positions. But warning: you can learn that maybe your seagull student self-identifies as an eagle. You should adapt.

That is your duty as a bird advisor: help the bird students find their way. And for yourself: do the same with any other bird students, even ducks.

Talking to a duck, Gar Larson, The far side

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This reminds me of Douglas Hofstadter's "modest proposal" (A person paper on purity in language.) I got entirely lost in what duck, seagull etc was intended to mean. Maybe that was your intention? Monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles, and die and are reborn several times along the way. Perhaps we should all remember that. – no comprende Dec 30 '15 at 13:48
    
Duck and seagull carry very few stereotypes to me. Those are fictional characters, an allegory. The inspiration I had in mind was a Gary Larson's Far side cartoon, and Wattoo Wattoo, using birds to depict human traits. You can replace the duck/seagull pair with majority/minority, male/female..., do you believe I should mention that? – Laurent Duval Dec 30 '15 at 14:02
    
And I strongly believe it is important to take a shift on the different points of view – Laurent Duval Dec 30 '15 at 14:10
    
I thought you were referring to the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but there are no ducks in that. Funny how men are actually the minority of human beings. Only their egos think otherwise. Why did we allow such crippled beings to get in charge of things? Don't know what "take a shift" means. "Truth is singular" -- Sanmi 451 – no comprende Dec 30 '15 at 14:18
    
I meant something akin to "trading shifts", with the acception of shift as "a slight change in position", a technique used in science-fiction stories or utopian texts, to describe or criticize a given situation without refering to the actual characters involved – Laurent Duval Dec 30 '15 at 14:28

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