Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My privileged postdoc: A story about a cis, heterosexual, white man in STEM

Drawing to the end of my two years at MIT it is time to look back and regard my postdoc through the lens of structure. As a researcher I am used to think in terms of individual achievements - I made this study, I taught this class, I got this grant - and forget that I work in a larger context. It's a sad fact that people are treated differently. My time as a postdoc - indeed, my entire career - has been made possible not only because my academic merits or personal capability, but by the unfair advantages I get just by being me. The least I can do is to acknowledge that. Let's count the ways.

I'm a man. This has given me an advantage in how I'm perceived and the behavior I meet. The committee that granted me my postdoc grant, the editors and reviewers that accepted my papers, students and collaborators, all have tended to see me as more credible and competent than if I had had any other gender. The only reason I could go abroad at all and leave the support network back home was that my wife agreed to stay at home with children for two years and take a break in her own career, a decision heavily influence by the gender roles both of us has grown up with. I never had to hesitate to go on a field trip, join the conference bar or otherwise limit the scope of my social interactions for fear of sexual harassment.

I'm cis. My gender is in sync with what people assume when they look at me. I didn't have to worry about getting correct medical care or if my gender would complicate my medical insurance or official documents. I have not hesitated to travel during my time her for fear of complications at the passport control. I haven't had to worry about peers and colleges "finding out" my gender status and react negatively. I have never been worried about being the victim of hate crime.

I'm heterosexual. My spouse and children were automatically included in my VISA and insurance. Our marriage has never been challenged, no one questioned the parentage of the child who was born in the US. I have never been worried about negative reactions to my sexuality. I have never been worried about being the victim of hate crime.

Skin color
I'm white and doesn't belong to a culture or nationality commonly discriminated against. I lived in USA during the Ferguson shooting. My very first month in Boston was during the marathon bombings and the massive manhunt that followed, yet I never feared for my safety or that of my children. My postdoc grant was awarded to me by a committee who was well aware that my name coded me as a Swede and I never had reason to debate whether I should include my picture in my CV or not. I have never been suspected of not belonging in my own department, regardless of the time of the day. I have never been worried about being the victim of hate crime.

Whenever I was overlooked or dismissed I didn't have to worry about underlying structures and could focus directly at the matter at hand. My imposter syndrom was never fueled by real discriminatory structures. The fact that I don't have had to worry about any of these factors is in itself an advantage that has saved me lots of time and energy.

There is more of course. All these factors have given me more advantages than the ones listed, many that I'm not aware of, and there are other factors as well. My age for example, which put me in the expected bracket for my career stage and doesn't exclude me from applying from grants, or my nationality that made the VISA procedure easy and made it possible for friends and family to visit, or my socioeconomic class that made my PhD possible in the first case. In fact, just about the only structures I can think of that have hindered me rather than being of benefit are the facts that I'm not a native English speaker and that I have a family to lure me away from the lab at night. But I think I have made my point.

"Privilege" is a loaded term, surrounded by controversy, but at its core there is nothing mysterious about it. It's all those little differences in how people are treated and perceived, every day, every week, every year, every stage of your career that accumulate and make a real difference. It's tangible, it's unfair and it's real.

So where do I go from here? Acknowledging my privileges is a good start but it will be of little help those who don't share them. Keeping an eye on my own behavior and biases is a good way to continue. How much time and space do I take in meetings, and on who's expense? How do I treat peers and students of different backgrounds? What structures exist at my university that reduce the opportunities for people without my background and how can I use my privileged position to change them? What do I do to challenge my own assumptions?

My postdoc has been many things. It has been a fantastic opportunity, it has been an adventure, it's been hard work and challenges - and it has been a privilege.

Some further reading.

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