Published November 01 2016

Re: “A good little girl” (October 2016)

October’s ASBMB Today featured an essay by the pseudonymous “Sydney Phlox” on academic institutional service. While the essay does raise valid concerns on the problem of balancing administrative workload in academia (a topic I also have written about), its message is diluted by a somewhat sexist narrative, a cynical view on the importance of service for career development and a proposed solution that amounts to “screw the system.” It bears remembering that such a complaint about the burden of being involved in decision-making roles in academia comes against a backdrop of decades of discussion regarding the lack of female representation in such roles.

Dr. Phlox begins with a series of personal anecdotes about male versus female student behavior, but the narrative quickly degenerates into sweeping statements in which various undesirable character traits are assigned exclusively to males. Hiding behind the universal disclaimer of “in my experience,” Dr. Phlox tells us that all obstinate students are male and that various atrocious study habits never are seen in females.

The problem with such statements — particularly the use of words such as “all” or “never” — is the thin line between assignment of an undesirable characteristic exclusively to a people versus the assignment of an entire people to a given characteristic. A parallel example from racist language would be the phrase “all good math students are Asian,” which is virtually indistinguishable from “all Asians are good at math.” Both phrases are offensive despite their very different meanings. In her essay, Dr. Phlox claims all disobedience is male, without perhaps realizing this may be interpreted as implying all males are disobedient.

The second part of the essay is a critique of the value of institutional service in general, in which we hear anecdotes about committees Dr. Phlox has sat on being a “waste of time.” While most academics can relate to at least some worthless administrative activity, there is a need for service to be looked at in ways other than “what’s in it for me?” There are clearly numerous indirect mechanisms by which service can enhance one’s career: Serving on a promotions committee can help with preparing your own packet. Serving on a National Institutes of Health study section undoubtedly improves your grant-writing skills. Exposure to the journal editing process results in crafting better responses to reviewers. Serving on an animal use committee may afford input on modifying regulations. Yes, committees are a time suck, but it is naïve to claim service is useless just because it does not lead to whatever direct personal gain one might anticipate.

The third problem with the essay is Dr. Phlox’s proposed solution to an overburden of institutional service. Having built a case that males are perhaps better at saying no, her proposed solution is for females to get better at saying no. It does not take much logic to realize the dire consequences of a world in which everyone says no!

Clearly, there are areas of academic life where certain groups (males, if Dr. Phlox is to be believed) are not pulling their weight. When we see other academics shirking their community responsibility, it may be tempting to emulate them. But the result is a selfish race-to-the-bottom culture. In particular, if women say no more often, what will that do for their already poor representation in the decision-making processes of academia? Instead we should be thinking about how to get everyone to contribute, incentivize service for those who do not see its value and share administrative burdens more fairly. If we all become refuseniks, everyone loses.

— Paul S. Brookes,
University of Rochester Medical Center

Re: A good little girl (October 2016)

OK, let’s follow this to logical conclusions: We all quit reviewing. No reviews happen, and nothing gets published in a timely fashion. Administration does a further takeover of responsibilities, as faculty has abdicated them. No one is tending to admissions tasks, so you have no new students. Is that what functional academia looks like?

Why not encourage men to step it up and do the service work that is required to make the profession go, to stand up to the man who called you a good little girl and say “That’s damned right, and you should be too?”

—Ann Taylor,
Wabash College