Friday, October 12, 2018

Statistics, we still have a problem and we need your help

One year ago, the #MeToo movement to increase awareness about sexual harassment and sexual assault began. The field of Statistics was no exception. Eleven months ago, the American Statistical Association board of directors approved the formation of a Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Assault. Ten months ago, Kristian Lum published a blog post titled Statistics, we have a problem where she called for our community to stop tolerating a culture of harassment with the hope that her story will help other women come forward who have been affected by sexual harassment or assault (and she’s not the only one). The day after I read Kristian’s blog post, I decided to organize a panel session at the largest statistics meeting (annual) in North America (Joint Statistical Meetings) on Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Statistics, which took place in Vancouver, Canada in August 2018.

A common theme that was echoed by both the panelists and audience was that it would be great if we could identify effective strategies to promote an inclusive, equitable culture, free of gender bias and sexual harassment. While we, as a community up until now, have primarily focused on the negative, downstream effects of what happens in a culture that does not value women, I would argue that what we should be focused on is how to identify, discuss, and encourage strategies that promote a positive culture. 

Why this is extremely important? 

Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article titled Men’s Fear of Mentoring in the #MeToo Era — What’s at Stake for Academic Medicine? The article stated: 
“In response [to the #MeToo movement], some men in positions of power now say they are afraid to participate in mentoring relationships with women. In a study focused on engaging men in gender-equity initiatives, 74% of male senior business managers cited fear as a barrier to men’s support for gender equity. A 2018 survey of nearly 3000 employed U.S. adults found that some men have stopped meeting alone with women, and others will not meet with women they do not know well or who are considered to be their subordinates. Men say they fear false allegations of sexual misconduct that could compromise their reputations and end their careers, even if they were found to be innocent.
This has serious repercussions and consequences for women who are looking to advance their careers:
Being denied mentorship relationships deprives young women of career-enhancing experiences during critical periods of their professional development… In medicine, where female leaders are few — women represent nearly half of medical school graduates yet only 16% of deans — denying women access to mentoring relationships will perpetuate this gender gap.”
The field of academic statistics is similar. I have heard first-hand from many of my male peers that they too worry about false allegations of sexual misconduct, to the point that they have now altered the way they interact with their female students (e.g. no longer taking meetings outside of the office, such as meeting for coffee), but continue to provide these opportunities to their male students. My concern is not with the idea of meeting outside the office (that is a healthy discussion to have and by no means a straightforward discussion, for example, it can vary across cultural and religious norms), but rather the concern is with the discrepancy in mentorship between female and male students. 

This is extremely distressing to me because I wholly understand the loss of mentorship to women in the statistics community that will now happen if we don’t start discussing effective strategies to promote a positive culture and training on how implement those strategies. As a student and trainee, I was fortunate enough to have wonderful mentors (both male and female). I saw first hand that many, insightful conversations about career development often happens outside of the office (e.g. meeting a coffee shop or a conference). Had my mentors thought similarly to the 74% male managers above, I’m not sure I would have made it through the 14 years of post-high school education and training to get where I am today. We need young, female students and trainees to have access to good mentors (male or female) and male mentors to feel like they can successfully mentor women without feeling threatened of false accusations. While my male peers are sympathetic and would like to encourage further progress, I frequently hear it can be difficult to figure out where to start. 

What can you do to help? 

My call to action is that we need to identify effective strategies for promoting an inclusive and equitable culture for women and provide education and training to both men and women on how to successfully implement those strategies. This includes senior leadership in our community dedicating protected time for these discussions and training in our own work environments and at professional events.

This August, I submitted an invited panel session proposal to JSM for 2019 to “highlight innovative efforts by statisticians who have actively sought to positively change culture in their work environment and through local, national, and international platforms in the fields of statistics and data science. The panelists’ major objective is to discuss specific strategies on how to make a positive culture in our community. The ultimate goal for this session is that audience members will be able to implement strategies described by the panelists in their own work environment to change the culture in a tangible way.” The panelists stemmed from academia, government, non-profit and industry:
  • Wendy Martinez -- ASA President-Elect in 2019 and Director of the Mathematical Statistics Research Center at the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Emma Benn -- Assistant Professor of Biostatistics and Director of Academic Programs at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a member of the ASA Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault.
  • Debashis Ghosh -- Professor and Chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Informatics at the Colorado School of Public Health
  • Karthik Ram -- Senior Scientist at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at UC Berkeley and co-founder of rOpenSci, a non-profit initiative to make scientific data retrieval reproducible
  • Jennifer Hecht -- Vice-President People Operations at RStudio with extensive experience in human resources in industry 
  • Gabriela de Queiroz -- Sr. Developer Advocate at IBM and Founder of R-Ladies, a non-profit, international organization to increase the gender diversity in the R community
While the proposal was not selected, I plan to submit it as a topic-contributed session. In the meantime, I decided it was important to start discussing this now (hence this blog post). 

Yes, Statistics, we still have a problem, but we will soon have an even bigger problem if we lose young, incredibly talented, female students and trainees because of discrepancies in training or completely insufficient mentorship. 

Questions, comments? Feel free to reach out to me by email or twitter.

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