I read a few blogs written by academics with great interest as they address issues related to research, student supervision, grant writing, publication, work-life balance and much more. One topic of particular interest is that of women in science, which is often discussed by FSP and GMP among others. As a women in the field of computer science, I have often been in a male-dominated evironment. However, either because I'm lucky or because it happens in too subltle ways to pinpoint, I do not feel that I have been treated differently from my male peers throughout my career, nor have I witnessed blatant gender-differenciated treatment.
That's why I want to report something that happened a few days ago as my lab was going through a round of external evaluation by peers. There was a specific meeting where our branch chief presented the branch research activities over the period and answered questions from the evaluation committee. One question was related to the time to graduation for PhD students. The expected time to graduation in France is 3 years and about 50% of the branch students graduated in 4 years or more, which was a concern to the committee. So they asked why students took so long to graduate. Our branch chief (a male colleague) clearly did not expect the question, and just told them the first thing that came through his mind: the female students tend to go on maternity leave which delays their graduation. In all fairness, the conversation was quickly back on a more professional and accurate track - the committee spokesperson noted that many of the students with the longer time to graduation seemed to have male first names and another colleague came to the rescue to explain that while our research topic is multidisciplinary, many graduate students come to the lab with training in only one of the relevant disciplines, so the first few months of their time at the lab is spent on complementing their training in the other discipline sometimes at the expense of immediate progress on their research. It should also be noted that the colleague who blurted out the unfortunate response is one of the most fair persons that I know, always trying to make everyone feel included and appreciated for their contribution.
Yet, when 25% of a "problem" student cohort (12% of the total student pool) fits a particular women profile, the knee-jerk reaction is to just blame it on the women! While I can understand why he would say that (he was taken by surprised, and he advised at least one of the students who did go on maternity leave so it would be natural to think about that person as a token student), the disastrous notion that "the lab average graduation time is delayed by female students" might be remembered more than the rationale discussion that ensued. So in addition to unfairly blaming former female students, this might also hurt the chances of female applicants to the PhD program.
The harm is done, and brushed off as a funny faux-pas that everyone can laugh about in the hallways for weeks to come.