“Glass Ceilings”

What #WomenRising means to me.

Let me introduce myself. I am Jim McCasland, PhD, neuroscientist and Emeritus Professor from SUNY Upstate Medical University in central New York, USA. I did neuroscience research and ran my own research lab for many years. I have published our findings in high-quality, peer reviewed journals, on topics including neuroplasticity, stroke recovery, development and adult function of cerebral cortex, and autism. I trained 5 PhD students in my lab, and taught a case-based neuroanatomy lab course to nearly 700 medical students.

In my long and rewarding career, I learned a great deal about the personal and professional qualities of medical and graduate students. All of them were very highly intelligent, motivated to do outstanding work, and to move on to high achievements in their careers. The academic ‘playing field’ in which I worked was relatively level for all participants, with attention paid to removing obstacles of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference and other factors that had no bearing on intellectual performance. It wasn’t perfect in those respects – but it was more carefully structured to reward high quality work, and disregard other, non-relevant factors that might be more influential in other settings, due to societal mores and traditions.

In this academic setting, surrounded by highly motivated and extremely talented students and faculty, I noticed early and often that women, as a group, were consistently more likely to do work of the highest quality than their male counterparts. To be sure, this was not universally so, and there were clear exceptions on both sides. But women, as a group, were consistently more organized, more diligent, more systematic in their work habits, and more productive – whether in the research lab, or in the neuroanatomy lab that I taught. Direct evidence for these trends was shown in the numbers and quality of publications from my lab, and from other labs whose students I served by sitting on their thesis committees. And it was very clearly shown, year after year, in the grades of medical students -on the rigorous neuroanatomy exam that followed our seven weeks of intensive instruction in the course.

The range of skills in which these trends were evident was also very striking and consistent. As both research mentor and lab instructor, I learned early on that supposed shortcomings in women were simply not evident in my own direct experience. This was very clearly true for skills such as scientific reasoning, statistical and other mathematical analysis, and sophisticated hypothesis testing and modeling in the research lab. In the teaching lab, the trends were clearly evident for mastery of difficult clinical and anatomical concepts, and the cross matching of complex principles that was required for diagnosing neurological cases from symptoms and case histories. All of these challenges were readily handled by women, with no obvious deficits of any kind. Indeed, women consistently mastered all of these skills, and if anything they did so more readily than men. Their obvious advantages in systematic note-taking, reading and absorbing the relevant research literature, and attending to the challenges and rigors of careful experimentation and analysis were clearly correlated with their success. In short, women were simply more productive, more successful and more accomplished as a group than men, in my long experience on the relatively level playing field of academic and medical training – and in their subsequent careers.

So it comes as a major shock to me to see, in the everyday world of male-dominated business and political life, the profound bias and underlying assumptions – that women are not only inferior to men in most career pursuits, but are actually incapable of high achievement in demanding careers that require rigorous technical or diagnostic reasoning. This is simply nonsense, in my rather extensive experience. And when women confront the fabled ‘glass ceiling’ in their chosen careers, and are consistently subject to double standards and degradation of their work, I am outraged and appalled.

With all of that said, I understand and appreciate that large numbers of women may not wish, or feel the need to pursue challenging careers. They may feel instead that their calling lies in more traditional roles for women, with family or in supporting roles of various sorts. I am not advocating here for any sort of rallying cry to women in general – that high technical or career achievement must be their highest calling, and a driving priority. All women, and all individuals, should be free to pursue their vision of the good life, one that is driven by purpose as they define it, and toward goals that they believe worthy.

My purpose in this initial post is to serve notice that women are not inferior in any way, in any area of intellectual demand or technical skill. If anything, they are better equipped than men for these challenges, and more likely than men to succeed – in situations where the traditional biases are removed, and achievement is rewarded in proportion to its magnitude. I will explore all of these ideas and their repercussions in subsequent posts. I encourage constructive comments by interested readers of both genders, of all racial, ethnic and sexual orientations. In future posts, I will respond directly to noteworthy examples of such constructive comments. How can we level the playing field so that all can succeed, based on the merits of their effort? This is my quest, and I hope to move the discussion forward along positive lines, here on these pages.image

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