The invitation last year to spend a month as a visiting professor at a university in Tokyo seemed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was excited to expand and diversify my circle of colleagues, develop collaborations, learn new techniques in my field, and bring my own expertise to the department. I was particularly enthusiastic about teaching and mentoring graduate and professional students at the veterinary school.  And yes, my spouse, Dr. David Crews, also a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, was invited, something my host understood was necessary for me to agree to uproot my life for a month and move to Tokyo.

What I discovered while in Tokyo was that my husband is a Super Professor, and I am not.

The designation Super Professor –they really did use that term – first came up when we were eating at a local sushi restaurant. An academic-looking man came over and exclaimed over David’s being a Super Professor, while studiously ignoring me. (David tried his best to introduce me but to no avail). My non-Super Professor status was confirmed on a day when our host handed me two envelopes containing tax documents related to the small stipends we earned as employees of the university. I opened the first, which was David’s; all was in order. He asked me to open the second, and I responded: “That’s not necessary, because it will be exactly the same as yours.” He suggested opening it anyway. I did, and, to my horror, saw that my salary was 15 percent lower than his. I asked my host about it, who, after reading the document, told me that although it was I who had been the primary invitee of the university, only David had been categorized by the higher administration as a Super Professor.

In Japan and the U.S. as well as most of the world, women are under-represented in science, leading to gender bias and making them vulnerable to sexual harassment and misconduct. A recent example was highlighted in an article in the New York Times on the Salk Institute for Biological Research in southern California. The Salk is generally regarded as a pinnacle of scientific research and a “utopia” for discovery – as long as you are a man. A culture of harassment and discrimination over decades led to recent lawsuits and scrutiny of practices pertaining to diversity and inclusion. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the long term.

Inequity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields may, at least to some extent, be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If a woman launches her career with smaller, inferior-quality lab space, starts at a lower salary, and receives less start-up money to build her lab than a male colleague, the playing field is uneven from the get-go. It is difficult to find good statistics on gender differences in start-up funds that, in the biomedical sciences, allows the purchase of equipment and supplies and the hiring of personnel to do the work.  There is also some evidence that women are assigned smaller lab space than men, as evidenced by Nancy Hopkins at MIT, who measured her lab and found it to be much smaller than labs of her male colleagues.  I can certainly attest to my own experience of a time very early in my career when I walked into my lab only to interrupt an older male colleague with a tape measure who was checking out my (tiny) lab space in order to determine whether he might claim some of it for himself.

Thinking back, several events during our trip should have clued me in on my second-class citizenship. Whenever our host introduced a new colleague to us, they would invariably turn their bodies face-on to my husband, and shake his hand and bow. Even when I was introduced first, I would receive a cursory nod before the person turned away from me and towards David. It became a running joke between us to try to figure out a way to get these professors to even look at me. Despite our best efforts, it is an uphill battle to change such ingrained culture, and I continued to find myself invisible. No surprise that these professors were all men.

There were a few notable exceptions. Our host was generous with his time and expertise and valued both of us as scientists and guests. We also had the pleasure of spending time with several much more liberated men. We met only one full-time female faculty member: a wonderful woman scientist from another local university who warmly welcomed both of us enthusiastically discussed her students’ experiments, and was delighted to be able to spend time with me, another female scientist, as she had so few with whom to interact.

Women represent only 24 percent of full-time professors and 15 percent of researchers at universities in Japan.

Japan is culturally very different from the U.S., but sexism is universal. What is overt in Japan is often covert in America. In fact, subtle bias can be more insidious and destructive, as it does not acknowledge that a problem exists, let alone needs to be fixed. There can be a perception that academia is a meritocracy, where the best rises to the top. Active measures are needed such as catch-up pay adjustments, speaking up, and pushing back when we see inequity, including at the highest levels. After all, women are Super Professors too.

Andrea C. Gore, PhD, is Professor and Vacek Chair of Pharmacology at The University of Texas at Austin, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

Photo Credit: Leo-Seta

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