Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wolves in the throne room: Sexism in the academy

"I was just curious about the image you used". I paused, unsure of how to respond. "Okay-em, what about it?" I asked. "Well, you are going to be presenting this to women in the department, you know, as equals..." The sentence was left hanging, allowing the others in the room to see the implied accusation of sexism.

I'm paraphrasing a bit-I don't remember the exact words exchanged. I had wanted to use an image that concisely summed up the idea of someone chewing gum-a simple idea, but quite difficult to capture in a still image, given most people chew gum with their mouths clothed. Hey presto-I found a clear image of someone chewing gum, stretching it out of their mouth-a nice, unambiguous pic of gum-chewing. I hadn't really thought of the image as sexualised, let alone sexist. What a fool I was. If you're in work, you'd better shut down your PC in case you get sued for the hardcore porn you're about to witness:

Okay, so in hindsight it IS quite a sexualised image, but it was only a small part of an overall slide with other images (hence I needed something that was obviously a mouth with chewing gum associated with it). Looking at it now with the benefit of hindsight (and blown up larger on this page than it was in the PowerPoint! I swear!) I can see how someone could see this as a bit wuh wuh wuh. I did it in a rush, not really taking account of how it might be perceived (I swear!).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I recall a female postgrad (obviously not the same person as the PowerPoint accuser) voicing an opinion that feminism had had its day. (Here I pause for effect). Okay......

What connects these contrasting stories is that I could imagine at least a handful of people who hear these stories thinking that BOTH the high sensitivity to perceived sexism AND the assumption that sexism no longer exists could stem from a common source: that academia has lower rates of sexism than many other workplaces, and this is perhaps particularly the case for certain departments, such as sociology or psychology. There are not-unreasonable reasons for thinking this. At Cardiff University, where I did my PhD, the School of Psych has won an Athena Swan award for advancing women in psychology. Unfortunately, sexism is everywhere, and it's usually worse than not thinking through a throwaway PowerPoint pic, or indeed worse than a poor choice of shirt.

Here's an example; a male PhD student within another department of psychology expressed resentment towards a female academic for not marrying her long-term partner, with whom she had a child. (I should add the PhD student expressed this resentment to me, not to this woman or her family's face). The couple were living together and both caring for the child. The resentment didn't seem to come from any religious sense or "think about the children" mentality, but rather a sense of insult that the male's desire to marry was not reciprocated by his partner. The fact that the man had decided to stay with his partner and child did not seem to soothe the nerves of the guy taking offence on another man's behalf. It seems marriage should be according to the man's will; not by mutual consent.

There are various factors that could explain sexism. Although it may not explain the above example, as a psychologist, I have to give a mention to the just world hypothesis. This does what it says on the tin-basically, it's the attitude that the world is essentially fair. This can have the unsavoury effect of victim-blaming. After all, if someone brought misfortune on themselves, then the world is still basically a fair (and therefore safer) place, right? Right? I would suggest this can have a related effect whereby when people see discrimination (which is pretty hard to deny) they can at least make it seem fairer by assuming that each side is as bad as the other. Yes, blacks have it hard, but look at all the abuse whites get! Yes, women are picked on for their gender, but this is true of men too! Just in the last week or two an email went around the Uni about a workshop for helping women progress their careers-a male academic replied that there should be a similar workshop for males. It was a particularly delicious irony that this gender warrior was a Professor-after all, there is no gender disparity at the top of academia, so it makes no sense to have such a workshop herpa derpa doo. Although it is prosaic to point out that sexism against men exists, the idea that this is somehow as damaging or dangerous as sexism against women may be an example of the just-world hypothesis (even if those who think this way may cry "injustice!").

The rules around gender are changing; some men in science are too starting to thinking about whether they can "have it all". The work culture in academia doesn't lend itself to very hands-on family life, and if more men want to be more involved with their families this has obvious implications. Even if times are changing, and it's harder to get away with sexism, sexism is not going to just go away any time soon, and having a lot of education is no guarantee of good behaviour. When our job calls us to hold our mirror up to humanity, we need to hold that mirror up close to our own faces. I probably should've just used a pack of Doublemint.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Conference review: ECNP congress 2014

I recently attended the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) congress 2014. I was doubly fortunate in that (a). I received a travel grant to this congress, which (b). was happening in Berlin, the home of an old friend. In so many words, the ECNP congress discusses the use of brain science to better understand and treat disorder of the brain.

It's very easy to get lost at a Congress (compared to a conference)-the scope of a large subject can leave one drowning in a sea of breadth, presenting at sessions where no one knows much about what any other speaker is talking about. What's neat about ECNP is they divide sessions into tracks-preclinical research, clinical research, clinical treatment etc. and within this the sessions have well-defined titles that still allow for multidisciplinary input. 

I was presenting a poster with colleagues at Dept of Psychiatry in UCC concerning the effects of ketamine on treatment resistant depression. We classified this as people with major depression who had failed to respond to two or more adequate trials of antidepressants. We also looked at brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF)-a substance involved in the production of brain cells. BDNF was reduced in people with treatment resistant depression compared to healthy controls, as has been shown before. What was interesting was that BDNF increased in depressed people, but it was delayed compared to a rapid improvement in feelings of depression. What was more, this effect did not seem to persist after multiple infusions, even though multiple infusions maintained a reduction in depressive symptoms.

The topic of depression and ketamine was pretty hot at the congress-there was a brainstorming session on this topic that was well attended despite a start time of 7.45 (in comparison, a session the previous day on getting ERC grants didn't seem so well attended{!!!!}). The ketamine session was more focussed on whether ketamine is really ready for clinical use; there was a lot of focus on the clear impact on symptoms in treatment-resistant depression, as well as possible risk factors-a problematic aspect being a dearth of evidence on the long-term effects of ketamine therapy. There was a lot of (too much) anecdotal evidence at the discussion-what would be great in the long run would be to develop some kind of decision tree clinicians could use to decide whether ketamine use can be recommended and when to cease its use, although in the absence of long-term evidence such work may be preliminary. Although ketamine may improve BDNF, I shouldn't make it sound as though other drugs can't impact on the development of brain cells-there was a poster from Portugal indicating that anti-psychotics can enhance the growth of brain cells in rodents-although this effect is present for some of these drugs but not others.

On the topic of depression, there was a nice psychology talk from Catherine Harmer suggesting that changes in processing of emotional stimuli may change following treatment with drugs such as NRI's (norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors-these increase the level of norepinephrine in the synapse by preventing reuptake back into the cell). Interestingly, these changes in information processing seem to occur prior to the improvement of symptoms, suggesting that this cognitive effect could underpin the subsequent emotional effect.

Other highlights included a keynote speech from Karl "Future Nobel Laureate" Deisseroth, having a chat about how he invented optigenetics and CLARITY. There was also an interesting session on the neurobiology of ADHD-there seems to be quite a lot of work going on across Europe looking at how genetics may explain changes in the structure of the brain associated with ADHD (as well as other disorders)-I asked one of the speakers at a later session if there had been much work along these lines using fMRI during sustained attention to look at the function of brain structures during performance of the types of tasks impaired by ADHD-apparently there may be a gap in the literature there...

You can download our posters from this congress and other posters from the Dept of Psychiatry here

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Being right wing and doing the right thing

From personal experience, although I have met a few psychologists with right-of-centre views, they tend to be more likely to get into arguments with colleagues than their leftie counterparts. There is good reason to believe that psychologists, and perhaps social psychologists in particular, tend not to be right-of-centre. But I've always found the terms "left-wing" and "right-wing" a little ambiguous. Can someone's political worldview be summed up with such a simplifying term? I think we all know the answer is "no", but what ways are there of further dividing "right wing" into sub-types? As it happens, a recent article looked at two different ways of being right wing:

Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA/"right-wingaz with attitude"?) describes a mindset that places a high value on authority. Rules are there not to be broken-and those who step over the line should be punished. "It's a good idea because it's the way people have always done things!" is more likely to appeal if you have a high level of RWA.

Social dominance orientation refers to have a preference for social groups to be hierarchical, so that some people or groups are higher on the food chain and others are less so.

The authors were interested in how these different traits could impact on prosocial behavior: specifically one's willingness to help a drug-addicted individual (a heroin addict referred to as "Nicole").

Survey results indicated that people higher on SDO indicated less approval for public spending on helping people with addiction, and were less willing to offer help personally. In contrast, people with higher RWA were more willing to help personally, although they too did not approve of forking out government funds. It seems that a right wing person with an authoritarian outlook rather than a desire for social hierarchy may nonetheless be willing to engage in prosocial behaviour at an individualistic level. (However, actual helping behaviour was not observed here-the skeptic in me wonders how many people are really going to reach in their pockets for a drug addiction charity).

Notwithstanding the problem of whether people on RWA would actually help or not, the researchers delved a bit deeper into why the RWA folk were reporting a greater willingness to personally help, developing a model in the process which seemed to explain at least some of the variability in desire to help. Funnily enough, they did build up an interesting chain of thought which indicates why some people with high RWA do NOT help. In terms of the items they measured, it seems as though RWA is associated with being more likely to attribute people's life circumstances to internal causes (e.g. thinking someone's an addict because they were personally drawn to taking drugs rather than due to peer pressure). This in turn led them to attribute greater responsibility to the addict, resulting in less sympathy and less willingness to help. So why did many of them still report wanting to help? The researchers suggested that the "direct" positive effect of RWA on willingness to help personally might be borne from a sense of moral duty.

The picture is thus complex, and right-wing authoritarianism may lead to conflicting motives within people. It is worth noting also that there was a positive correlation between RWA and SDO, so we should not think that for any individual you can only have one or the other but both.

As a friend said at the time of the London riots a few years back-it's funny how events can bring a right-winger in many people who would not consider themselves to be that way inclined (and no doubt other events can make people more "left wing", although again this term can be unpacked). The study discussed here just looked at what people's "stable personality traits" are. It would be interesting to try and manipulate how right wing people are to see how this impacts on their current level of pro-social behaviour; for example, terror management theory suggests that reminders of mortality make you more prone to place more importance on ingroup values (both SDO and RWA are associated with more negative regard for outgroup values). Perhaps reminding someone that they (and indeed their way of life) won't be around forever will make them less likely to help that drug addict.....unless of course, they start to see that person with addiction as part of a bigger ingroup.

Halkjelsvik, T., Rise, J. (2014). Social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism and willingness to help addicted individuals: The role of responsibility judgments. Europe's Journal of Psychology, 10(1), 27-40.