Being the first woman chairing the International Coastal Symposium – unconscious bias and microagressions.

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By Associate Professor Ana Vila Concejo

It was 2013 when A/Prof. Peter Cowell and I, both at the University of Sydney, decided that hosting the International Coastal Symposium in Sydney would be a good idea. I was pregnant at the time with my second son. Now my son can count to 10 in two languages, he has learnt many things and so have I.

 
It was 2015 when a small group of women working in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering joined forces, deciding that it was about time we got together to address the issue of gender equity in our discipline. Too many of our conferences are overwhelmingly male-dominated: male-dominated committees, male keynote speakers, male chairs in the sessions, and so on.

 
For ICS2016 I was determined to make some positive steps toward gender equity. I started with the very ambitious goal of having a majority of women in “everything” and I soon realised that there were just not enough senior women in our discipline. There were seldom and there were hard to find. On top of that, after contacting some of the senior women in our discipline, they told me that they had already committed to something else: another conference, teaching… I said to myself that I would start a silent revolution. I was so frustrated that I took the Harvard unconscious bias test and it came out that I was strongly biased towards women being much better at science and engineering than men. But, I wasn’t angry at men, I was frustrated with the world! Then I saw yet another coastal conference with an “all-white-men organizing committee” and, after discussing with some colleagues, we decided to create the international network for Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering (WICGE).
There are many issues that face women in coastal geosciences and engineering, and many other disciplines. There are microagressions, there are oversights, there is unconscious bias and there are conscious hurdles.

 
Over my career I discovered gender inequity. Early in my career, I never thought that it existed and I couldn’t understand why some of my female colleagues were trying to decide whether to include just the initial or the full name in their e-mail address. I was the second of three daughters and my parents had never told us that being a woman was different from being a man. [Sure there were a few ‘odd’ things but maybe I did not want to see them].
Over my career, I have had amazing mentors, people, men and women, supervisors, advisors, colleagues and friends, that have given me just the exact pieces of advice that I needed in that moment. People that consciously or unconsciously are now partially responsible for my academic career. Some of these fantastic mentors are the authors of some of the phrases below which, to me, clearly indicates of the lack of ill intention and the large influence that unconscious bias has.

Here are some examples of microagressions that I have had during my career, some of them worked in my favour, as they made me even more determined to prove what I can do.

  1. “Ana, this paper is good, really well written and discussed [it was the last paper of my PhD]. I can really tell that you are now living with your husband and he is giving you a hand” [for the record, my husband, who always read and edited my papers, had not had a chance to look at at this one]
  2. “Ana?! She is great; she is just one of the boys!” [thank you, and no offense taken but I’d rather stay like a girl]
  3. “Well done on your fellowship!! Congratulations! You tick all the boxes, you are young, you are female and you are a mother!” [I explained that my Future Fellowship was awarded as one out of two in Geology in all of Australia]… She continued: “Great! Maybe I will have to apply in Geology next time”
  4. “Congratulations on your last baby, he must be about 6 months now? Where is he? Do you know that I stayed home to take care of my children? As a man, it was hard… but I did what I had to do!” [My children are well thanks… ]
  5. “Are you XX? No way! You are way too pretty for a scientist!” [And you are drunk, and you should not say that]
  6. “Congratulations in your promotion! About time Sydney Uni stopped talking about helping women and started promoting them!” [Are you implying that I got a promotion because I am female and a mother?] “Well, getting these promotions on your first attempt is hard, you have to recognize that they are supporting you” [Dig deeper, the hole where you are in is not deep enough yet]
  7. I went to a conference when my son was 8 months old. My very good friend, a father to his son of 9 months, was also there. I got asked about 20 times per day “Where is your son?” [Come on mate, just think, I am here, and my son and husband are not here… can you imagine who is taking care of my son?… his father?!!? BINGO! BTW, he is perfectly capable… like most other fathers!]. The really appalling thing is that my friend was never, NOT ONCE, asked about the whereabouts of his son, not even once

I am sure that every woman reading this will have similar stories. I wonder how many people reading this, men and women, would have felt the unwelcome influence of unconscious bias coming out of their mouths? I also wonder how many men and women might recognize their own attitude here. These are just some examples, they meant no harm and they did no harm, I was sometimes just too outraged to answer. They just made me think about how to answer the next time. Because, I am not a fool and I know that, unfortunately, there will be a next time.

 
By the way, this is ICS’s 14th edition and the first time that it’s chaired by a woman. About time! I just hope that we do not have to wait that long for the next female chair. During ICS2016, on International Women’s Day, we launched WICGE, which we want to be a positive and constructive network providing women in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering with strategies for dealing with gender issues. By publishing posts like this one, it is our intention to raise awareness about microagressions and unconscious bias so we can all learn together.

P.S.: If you recognize yourself while reading this, no offense taken. In many cases I got stronger after the comments, in other cases I just got angry. But I have a fiery temper; I get angry and over almost simultaneously. I learnt and that’s what matters.