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Women Working in Statistics What Has Changed Over the Last Decade?

1 September 2015 2,736 views 4 Comments

Dalene StanglDalene Stangl has been on the faculty at Duke University since 1992. She has held editor positions for JASA, Bayesian Analysis, and CHANCE and served as chair of the Committee on Women in Statistics. Last year, she orchestrated the first Celebrating Women in Statistics conference.

For this article, I was asked to assess what has changed over the last decade for women working in statistics. My first thought was how much could have changed, really, in just a decade? As this review will suggest, such skepticism is misplaced. Since 2005, there have been big changes for women in statistics, paralleling those in the workforce generally.

One of the biggest changes has come from the younger generations, both men and women, who are demanding better work/family/life balance. They take vacations, take maternity/paternity leave, go home for children’s events, and are less wedded/handcuffed to their work. The young are teaching us older folk to live a better balance, too.

We have learned two other things, as well. We have learned we can’t place women into a male-aligned culture and expect them to rise to the top by emulating the men. We have learned it is preferable to put less focus on demanding/expecting that men and the male-aligned culture change and more focus on thinking about what women need that is different from what the current culture provides, and then provide it to help women empower themselves.

Throwing women into a male-aligned work culture—a culture that evolved when those working outside the home were predominately men—and expecting them to rise to the top by emulating the men might work for a few women, but generally it does not. Women emulating men works only if the same actions are perceived and reacted to in the same way for both genders. Power in women is viewed differently than power in men. A woman self-promoting is viewed differently than a man self-promoting. A woman’s service to others is viewed differently than a man’s service to others. A woman’s work is evaluated differently than a man’s work, even if it is performed at the same level of competence. The list goes on and on. The research is abundant. The differences play out in graduate admissions and evaluations, hiring and promotion at every level. While we see 40% or more of the PhDs in statistics/biostatistics going to women, fewer than 20% of the distinguished chairs, editorships, research awards, citations, and keynote and invited talks are going to women. Sexism has declined, with fewer conscious overt intentional acts of harassment and discrimination. However, more subtle biases, which we all have, continue to shape how we perceive and act in professional settings.

Ten years ago, when I chaired the statistics group at Duke University, my leadership was challenged both inside and outside the department. Just before I started the position, a prospective faculty member started his recruitment interview by saying, “I don’t know why we were scheduled for an hour. What do we possibly have to talk about?” After I set up our first faculty retreat, one faculty member’s response was, “If there is any touchy-feely stuff, I won’t participate.” Early on, I was asked by a prominent senior male with a quizzical look on his face, “Do you realize you are heading up a world-class statistics department?” Their comments were not isolated ones. Many others also reflected puzzlement over a woman being chosen to head the statistics group at Duke. At the same time, these responses were not universal. Responses from other men ran the gamut from passive-aggressive non-support to full active support, although the scale felt far from balanced.

During this same time, I was working with Keith Crank to turn the Caucus of Academic Representatives into a formal ASA group. Then, I was one of only a handful of women who had headed academic statistics groups. I could name a few others who had traversed that path. Lynne Billard and Mary Ellen Bock pop to mind. It was easier to think of women who had headed biostatistics programs—Donna Brogan, Nan Laird, Louis Ryan, to name a few. But now in 2015, there are many more. There are also many more highly visible women in leadership outside academia, such as Nancy Geller, Christie Chung-Stein, Jing Shyr, Janet Wittes, Bonnie Ray, Sally Keller, Maura Stokes, Stacy Lindborg, Telba Irony, Diane Lambert, and Susan Paddock. We have become more accepting of women in leadership positions, and more accepting of the differences in how they lead.

As noted above, another important lesson is that we are figuring out what women need that is different from what the current culture provides and now providing it in a way that enables women to empower themselves. In May 2014, we held our first Celebrating Women in Statistics conference. The following October, a New York Times article discussed how conferences designed for women were becoming mainstream. “Conferences promoting women’s empowerment are on the rise and haven’t had this kind of cachet since the feminist movement encouraged consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s,” the Times reported. “This time, however, the booster sessions are not being run by friends in their living rooms, but by media companies looking to align themselves with a generation of working women—and corporate sponsors—eager to celebrate their achievements and push for new career heights.” The aims of Celebrating Women in Statistics aligned with those in the Times article, but there were no media companies—just a group of statisticians supported by the ASA, Duke and other universities, the National Institutes of Health, and corporate sponsors trying to push the culture, trying to create a space in which women could find their voices, trying to provide a space in which we could internalize the notion that what we have to say and do is important. It is about inspiring change from within the individual.

Celebrating Women in Statistics was met with some skepticism and outright hostility. There was criticism by some women for not including men on the board, few as speakers, or, until late, as targeted attendees. It was argued that if we didn’t include the male decisionmakers, our efforts would be futile. There were some who judged our conference as being just as sexist as the many conferences in our field in which the list of invited speakers has a token woman or two. Some women expressed nervousness about attending. Would it be productive for them? Would they be viewed negatively by men and even other women? Not until these women got to the event did they experience the “Ah-ha” moment when they recognized the emotional comfort of being in a female-aligned culture. The tensions women experience in a male-aligned culture were removed. The women were there to share ideas, to cooperate, to take in the scene and participate more fully than they currently do in male-aligned environments. Many women described using their voice and being heard and acknowledged in a way they had not previously experienced—ever.

Beyond these lessons learned, I have four brief pieces of advice to women and men advancing through their careers.

1. Assess your values honestly, regardless of whether they mesh with male-aligned culture, and then walk the walk.

Women succeeding without emulating men works only if we value what women do as much as what men do—and we stay authentic. We give a lot of lip service to appreciating and nourishing diversity, but not as much as is needed to walk the walk. Ask members of almost any selection committee and they will tell you they have been trying to promote more women and increase diversity. The intent and the social need are there, but why is the change so slow?

When my dean started discussing unconscious biases at a department chairs’ meeting in 2002, several of the men commented, “Didn’t we solve these issues in the ’70s?” Well, the term “glass ceiling” was coined in the ’70s, so indeed we have been talking the talk for many years, but if these issues were truly solved in the ’70s, we would see the percentage of women earning PhDs matching the percentage of women giving invited talks, garnering the research awards, sitting in distinguished chairs, and being promoted to leadership positions in government and industry.

Overcoming sexism requires action, not just words. The next time a position needs to be filled or a promotion made, instead of recruiting from places that are familiar and similar to your own (i.e., replicating non-diversity), think carefully about what skill set is needed. There are highly qualified women with all these skills. Acknowledge the benefits their diversity brings to the group. Hire them. And women: Apply! Not just for those jobs for which you are unequivocally qualified, but also for those that seem like a stretch! Walk the walk, and insist others join you.

2. Actively fight sexist comments.

Each time after I was offered chair positions of academic programs, male colleagues insinuated the reason I made it to the shortlist was because I was female. What’s equally problematic is that I typically kept silent. Instead of letting them know their statements undervalued the skills I brought to those positions, I let them slide. I regret that. The first time, shame on them; the second, shame on me. I should have been ready the second time. Be prepared. Find your voice and use it.

3. Strengthen your armor.

People will without conscious intent make demeaning comments about women and question their skills. If we are to move to a culture that truly values diversity, all must come to grow more accepting of women and how we do our jobs and lead. But in the mean time, have your armor strong and polished.

4. Seek out those with whom you identify and who inspire you.

For me, inspiration came through Gertrude Cox. She was elected ASA president the year I was born. Both of us were born in Iowa and ended up in North Carolina—she via education at Berkeley, me via education at Carnegie Mellon. She took a circuitous route into statistics, after a start in social sciences, as did I. Just these seemingly tangential commonalities allowed me to visualize success for myself, see how similar obstacles could be overcome, and imagine someone up ahead rooting for me.

Cultural change can be fast or slow, but without action, it is neither.

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  • Melissa Kovacs said:

    I love this post – thanks for writing this and for your honesty!

  • Ronald Guenther said:

    I found this to be an excellent article and “right on target”. I only wish that it had been written years ago. I hope now that it has a wide readership.
    I was part of the AWM mentor program for a number of years. Most of the questions that I got had nothing to do with mathematics, but instead about how to make their own desires mesh with the reality as they perceived it and as alluded to here. My daughter, fortunately, is a mathematician, and she could often advise me on my responses. These are difficult issues and I liked the approach to dealing with them.
    Thank you for your thoughtful article.

  • Snehalata Huzurbazar said:

    Thank you! Honest, thoughtful and helpful article. I can relate to all that you wrote about.

    Ironically, it was only recently that it finally hit me that diversity implicitly means ‘very different’, and it is
    exactly this that makes us all nervous. As human beings we tend to become uncomfortable when faced with ‘different’; our comfort zone is in what is familiar. It takes a lot of maturity and commitment to truthfully embrace diversity, and value what diversity brings.

  • annuaircredit said:


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